April 2, 2008

Malta’s highlights by minivan

Posted in Exploring, Travel, Visitors tagged , , , , , , , , , at 12:37 pm by Lauren

On Friday, March 7, we fell out of bed and just kept tumbling, all the way downstairs to the lobby to meet the minivan that would take us through a guided tour of Malta. For something like 28 euros a person, we’d be hitting several of the top sites on the island (according, of course, to Top Ten Malta). Without the minivan tour, it would have taken us several days to accomplish the same itinerary, as most buses go to Valletta and require a second bus out to the site (and vice versa on the way back).

The first stop was Ta’Qali (the q is silent), the craft village. Guaranteed tourist trap, or chance to buy some local crafts? Maybe a little of both. We had a short introduction to glass-blowing at Valletta Glass Company. There were some beautiful pieces in the shop, but we weren’t really in the market to transport glass in suitcases. A few minutes more in the bus, and the guide set us down in the craft village in front of a jewelry store that was going to give us a demonstration. (The pattern of favoring particular vendors for the tour was emerging already.) The demonstration of Maltese filigree jewelry was very cool, but this particular store didn’t have any jewelry that interested me. Fortunately, a store two doors down did, and I picked up earrings and a bracelet. (Back in Paris, Adrienne is fascinated with my earrings, calls them my “princess earrings,” and insists I put them on at every English lesson.)

At Ta’Qali, we also browsed a shop that was more of a mishmash (read: tourist trap), but I bought a pair of much-needed sunglasses there for under 3 euros. Unheard of. Never would have happened in Paris.

After Ta’Qali, we drove up the hill to Mdina and Rabat. Mdina was first, and we entered the Silent City on foot. We only had a couple of hours, so we first went to the cathedral.

Inside was an amazing sunburst that I couldn’t take a proper picture of. The floors had the same inlaid marble tombstones as Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. Most were brightly colored, but I liked this one that seemed more like a sketch. (You know, a sketch in marble. Impressive.)

Across the square from the cathedral in Mdina was the cathedral museum. Allen and Dad went in later while Mom and I explored some shops, but I did manage to snap a picture of this sculpture from the facade. It may be my favorite sculpture ever in the category of “sculpted bodies on the front of buildings holding up other elements of the facade.” Actually, with a category that precise, I’m going to go ahead and say it IS my favorite.

We wandered the streets of Mdina a little more, enjoying the view from the walls of the city and spotting saints on the corners of the buildings.

After Mdina, our itinerary promised a visit to Saint Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat, but what we got was Saint Paul’s Grotto (also in Rabat). But there’s a fair difference between a cave where Saint Paul holed up and the entire system of catacombs. I felt a little cheated. We took a short “tour” of the cave, in the tour company’s tradition of giving kickbacks to those they know; after warmly greeting our guide, the man from Saint Paul’s Church brought us down into the grotto, said a few words, and then passed a collection basket. Then he gave my parents an incredibly dirty look when they didn’t support God with their coin.

After Saint Paul’s Grotto, we weren’t sure what turn the tour would take next. The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra were closed for renovations (major disappointment, if you ask me – Megolithic disappointment even), so we assumed time would just be allocated a bit differently so we’d have longer stops everywhere else. However, the fierce wind that day meant that boats weren’t running into the Blue Grotto either. I suppose this meant even more free time the tour needed to fill. So we ended up at the Limestone Heritage museum, a former quarry repurposed to tell the story of limestone mining over the years.

What can I say about the Limestone Heritage site? It was exactly as fascinating as it sounds. (This is a fun game I like to play: saying something that sounds really positive at first take, but then when you examine it, you find it could mean various things, but you’ll also find I wasn’t lying or exaggerating if it means the opposite of what you first thought. Hours of entertainment to be had from this game, especially in an office setting.) Actually, I should give it more credit. The Limestone Heritage site was slightly more fascinating than it sounds. But again, we were disappointed to be dropped off somewhere where the only available entertainment was what was prescribed. (How do you say kickback in Maltese?)

Here were the highlights of the Limestone Heritage museum: 1) Being in a quarry, 2) Seeing the slashes in the wall from the limestone mining, 3) seeing the ancient cat door made out of limestone (I am so not mad at the Maltese for loving cats like they do), and 4) the orange and lemon orchard with peacocks, goats, and other little animals.

Here is a cool picture showing the cuts in the limestone walls of the quarry.

And the peacocks were very impressive. I’m sure everyone is drawn to these birds the way I am. However, in one of my earliest memories (perhaps my very earliest – we still lived in Tampa, so I wasn’t more than 3 years old) I was in Busch Gardens with a box of Cheerios. I think I tried to feed the cheerios to a peacock, but the peacock got greedy. It came after me and emitted the most ungodly scream.

So I approach with caution.

Still, who can resist? I think the camera makes me bolder. (That statement makes me sound like I’m photographing lions in the wild.)

After braving peacocks at the Limestone Heritage site, we had the opportunity to eat at exactly which restaurant our guide wanted us to eat at, and no other. As he pulled into the parking lot, he assured us we’d enjoy the food here. Uh huh. It was okay. We just rolled our eyes when the guide went behind the bar to pour himself a drink and when he actually served the table of tourists beside us.

Just because the boats weren’t running at the Blue Grotto didn’t mean we’d miss it altogether. Our tour guide stopped at a scenic overlook so we could get out and take a few pictures. It was pretty, but the sea was so choppy I shuddered to even think about taking a boat around there. No thank you. (My stomach seconds that. And my esophagus thirds it.)

Next – finally – we were off to Marsaxlokk. As I’ve mentioned before, Marsaxlokk is on the cover of every guidebook for Malta. In fact, I have proof:

And no wonder! This quaint harbor brimmed with traditional fishing boats. I took at least one hundred boat pictures. 

We learned so much from our guide, such as, “If you want traditional Maltese pastries go see that woman’s booth right there,” (ahem, kickback), and also, “Do you know why all the boats are those colors? Because they are the traditional colors of Maltese fishing boats.”

Marsaxlokk was not only the highlight of our tour, but one of the most beautiful sights in all of Malta. We’d put it on the cover of our guidebook too.


1 Comment »

  1. Dad said,

    LOL. And more L. Speaking of birds (peacocks or chickens, can’t remember), one of those types of birds scared the “limestone” out of you in Tampa…or was it Waco? As I remember, you jumped and were running as you hit the ground. More L.

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