June 16, 2007: To Valletta!
Tomorrow is Father's Day, but by the time I get this entry posted, it will be the day after Father's Day, so belated greetings and salutations to all you dads out there!
This morning, with the addition of several more mosquito bites, I had company for breakfast: two French college students from Lyon who are spending about a week and a half in Malta for what sounds like a week's crash course in English. They came to Gozo for the weekend since their classes don't start till Monday. They had been already been to some of the natural, as opposed to historic, sites of Gozo yesterday--the Azure Window and Ramla Bay--and asked me about what else I recommended they see. Today they were already planning to take the other ferry to Comino. They too had a really sweltering room and a problem with mosquitoes. That said, the folks who run the hostel were really nice and as accommodating as they could be, but I reckon I was just too Americanized to stay there.
I caught the 9:45 ferry back to Cirkewwa and had the pleasure of visiting with two ladies I ran into briefly on Thursday afternoon, who are staying with family on Gozo. They are good friends, both from Canada, who like to travel together: one single, one with a husband willing to let her take trips without him. It is the second one whose aunt (I think) lives on Gozo. Her mother was also along for the trip. Here are the four of them, snapped right outside the gates of Valletta, with a bit of the fortifications in the background:
The traveling buddies are the one on the right and the second one from the left; the other two are the aunt and mother, both in their 90s! Their trip into Valletta today was an outing for the older two ladies. We visited on the ferry, and then on the bus into Valletta. The entire trip, from Gozo to Valletta, including time waiting for the bus to begin its run, was two hours, owing to the Saturday traffic. The total distance covered, as the crow flies, is probably not more than 10 miles!
After bidding them farewell, I walked on, heavy backpack on back, to the Asti Guesthouse where I'll be staying until I leave for London on Thursday morning. Fortunately, the Asti isn't too far from the Valletta gates, where the buses finish their runs, so it wasn't a long walk for this burdened one. The Asti is on St Ursula Street, on a somewhat steep pedestrian block. Here, after you step through the front doors into the lobby, is the sight which greets you:
Nice, eh? I checked in with the proprietor, Mrs. Galea, and then went up to my room. The Asti is a relatively narrow, four-story building not far from St Catherine Church where I have gone to hear music several times. Because of its height it has several staircases and halls. For the first two nights I'll be in a double room, because that was the only one open on such short notice as I gave her. Then on Monday she'll move me to another room that will be open then. Mrs. Galea discounted the rate on the double room, since I am alone, even though I'm still taking up a larger room than I need. Very nice indeed.
This shot shows the Asti dining room, where breakfast is served from 8 to 9 each morning.
Mrs. Galea will bring me a pot of hot water big enough for me to make my oatmeal and have tea with. When I told her I had to be to the airport fairly early on Thursday, she recommended I leave a little earlier and catch the bus for 20 cents, instead of waiting thirty minutes or so and paying a taxi 5 or 6 lira. So she will give me a wake-up call on Thursday morning, to make sure I don't oversleep.
The Asti is a nice place, yes? It doesn't have A/C and guests share bathrooms in the hall, but because the building is flanked on both side by other buildings, providing insulation, and because the street is relatively narrow, allowing less direct sunlight, the room is not nearly as hot as the room on Gozo was. And the fan, mounted up near the ceiling, provides a nice breeze. Mrs. Galea did say, however, that it's best not to sleep with the balcony door open because there are mosquitoes in Valletta too. I suppose I didn't have a problem with them in Sliema because of the stiffer breeze right near the water.
Anyway, now I'm settled into my last of three accommodations in the nation of Malta; my ticket for London is ready; and I have to wait till Monday morning to find out if Air Malta did or did not secure me a reservation in Ealing, a London suburb. I called the number the staff in Gozo gave me, and the woman who answered the phone there gave me another number, but warned me that she didn't think anyone would be there on the weekend. That was indeed the case. So it will be Monday before I can plan my stay for June 21-27. Knock on wood for me.
After I got checked in, I headed off to Caffé Café, not far from St John's Co-Cathedral. Caffé Café is an Internet cafe more in the US sense--that is, it's a cafe (a real cafe with food, not just coffee, tea and snacks) that has wifi for customers to use. (Most Internet cafes here are banks of computers you can pay to use. No coffee. No tea.) I will try to get a photo of them for you next Monday or Tuesday. The owner/cook is a Maltese man, and the waitress is a Swedish woman, and it's pretty funny to listen to them tease each other. I give them high marks for being a classy operation. While there, I made the Travel Log posting for yesterday, and got a few emails answered, but I was working against the clock because they close at 1:30 on Saturday afternoon and it was 12:30 before I got there. So if you have an email off to me that didn't get answered yet, don't worry, though it will probably be Monday before I get connected again. (Caffé Café is closed on Sundays.)
After tea, Internet and a chocolate muffin, I went next door to the Hollywood Grocery. Hollywood, as regular readers might remember, has been one of my "homes away from home," a constant source of picnic lunch items (especially turkey!) for me on the days I've been in Valletta. Here is the grocery, with one of the proprietors. Her husband was up the street when I took the photo, so he missed out on his Internet fame. They're nice nice people:
Most of the rest of today I just roamed around Valletta, looking here and there, stopping to snack, looking at the shops or the buildings. I had a nice talk, while I was having my Hollywood lunch, with two women from South Africa, who had bought themselves a more standard "take-away" lunch than I had. We shared a plaza bench and talked about South Africa and their trip and my trip. They were interested to hear about how a cruise functioned, though one of them wasn't at all sure she would like being at open sea. I told her there are also Mediterranean cruises that stop at a different city every day for day-trips, and she said that sounded more to her liking. Later stopping for another snack and drink (remember, I only eat a little at a time, but I eat a bunch of different times a day), I had a conversation with an elderly Maltese man who wasn't particularly excited about Malta's being in the EU. He felt that the EU was getting a better deal than the Maltese were.
About an hour before sunset, after getting cleaned up and cooled off, I gathered up my can of tuna, the remainder of a bottled tea, and the remainder of the potato sticks, took my Agatha Christie book and a little skinny book by William Boyd called Protobiography, and went back out to find a spot to sit in the shade for my supper picnic. I sat on one of the fortification walls (maybe not the smartest idea for a guy whose allergies sometimes make him light-headed), had my little supper, read a bit, and looked off toward one of the towns south of here where they were setting off fireworks, even though it wasn't dark yet, for their festa (the celebration of the parish's patron saint). Then I walked around a bit more, then sat a while in one of the gardens and read some more, then walked some more and stumbled upon an orchestral concert at the Grand Master's Palace. The concert was inside the courtyard to the Palace, and was definitely a dress-up affair, but the Palace gates were open and the music was spilling out into the street, so I stood there a while with other people and just listened. I got into a conversation with two Maltese ladies about the concert, and one of them almost immediately asked if I was American. So we talked about the depth of Maltese history, and the things I had seen and enjoyed, and the things they were really proud of in Malta. A nice visit. And then it was time to get back to the Asti and start working on the Travel Log before the mosquitoes came out in numbers!
June 17, 2007: Alarme!
On Sunday mornings, Fort St Elmo, which once guarded the entrance to the Grand Harbour, is open to visitors: the rest of the week it's the police academy. A historical association provides re-enactments during at least part of the year, so that was my morning destination. I kind of hated to miss an unexpected last chance to hear music at St Catherine's, but I decided to go for the "new experience."
Fort St Elmo itself is not fully restored. Lack of funds, I suppose. You can see broken windowpanes and other signs of neglect. Perhaps as Malta's membership in the EU deepens, they will find money to refurbish it.
The re-enactment this morning, Alarme!, covered the brief period from 1798 to 1800 when Malta passed from the hands of the Order of St John, by then generally acknowledged by historians to be a corrupt order, into the hands of the revolutionary French army under the command on Napoleon Bonaparte, and then into British control. In 1798, Napoleon was not yet 30 and was not yet emperor. France was still a republic and was, I believe, at war with much of Europe. It had already taken over properties of the Order in territories under its control (I think that's what I heard the voice-over to say), leaving the Order in a weakened state. When France invaded Malta (on its way to Egypt), it was victorious fairly quickly, although just a few months after their conquest there was an unsuccessful Maltese rebellion. In this photo, the invading "French" advance through a haze of smoke, although I can't remember now if the smoke came from their own rifle fire or from the defenders' cannon.
In this shot, the French make an assault against resistors hiding out inside the building (which may have been supposed to represent a church):
For the life of me, I also can't remember if this scene was supposed to be during the original invasion or during the later rebellion. Nor did I ever get it completely clear (Was I just goofy this morning?) how much the Knights of the Order were involved in fighting against the French and how much it was the Maltese themselves who resisted, perhaps under knightly "officers" (which sort of was, I believe, how the Great Siege in 1565 went--there were far more Maltese fighting the Turks than actual knights).
During the brief rule of the French, education was opened to all children; titles of nobility were negated; and the power of the Church was lessened. But the French rule was brief. In 1800, the island was surrendered to the British, as re-enacted in this scene:
What's sort of amazing about something like this is to compare the timem-frame to the US. In 1800, John Adams was in his fourth year as president, and George Washington had only been dead a year. And for those of us with Texas backgrounds, it's even more unusual: Texas still belonged to Spain in 1800, and it would be more than 20 years before Moses and Stephen F. Austin got permission to enter Texas with English-speaking colonists.
The re-enactment was fun, if occasionally quite loud, and definitely worth the time and the 2 lira one contributes. Alarme! is only performed once a month; on the other Sundays a show called In Guardia takes place. So when you're next in Malta, plan to stop by Fort St Elmo on Sunday morning.
After lunch and a bit of reading back in my room at the Asti, I headed down to the ferry and went back over to Sliema. I wanted to drop off some books at the Europa for Arnaud and also to stop by the phone center to call my mom and use up the remaining time on the phone card I bought there. Mom told me it's been raining over and over again in Dallas, so I'm glad I'm not there to get the blame for it. She said it has rained every Sunday morning since they canceled the early service at her church for the summer! That might be a sign.
I bought an English Sunday newspaper later this afternoon--The Mail. I haven't looked at much of it yet, but I did read the article about Rod Stewart's third marriage and learned that he now has seven children, the oldest of whom is 41 or 42! After my supper on the wall again--tuna accompanied by McDonald's fries and tea (McDonald's tea is better than Burger King's, by the by)--I went into the Upper Barakka Gardens and sat down where I could look out across the Harbour to the "Three Cities". I browsed the magazine a while, and then asked the older couple sitting next to me on the bench which saint was being celebrated across the way where we could hear and see some fireworks. (St Catherine!) The woman immediately asked if I was an American, and the three of us talked for the next 30 minutes or so about the differences between Malta and the US, and what I liked about Malta, and so on. They were not happy about the state of the roads in Malta, a sentiment I think many tourists would agree with. After a bit, fireworks began going off in one or two other towns, to the west instead of the south, and the woman said that from now till the end of summer, there would be multiple festas in various towns every weekend. And apparently they had hoped to have a cup of tea, because she mentioned, with disappointment, that the kiosk in the Gardens closed. It was a very pleasant chat to end the day with: except of course that I was coming back to the Asti to get cleaned up and then sift through the day's photographs and work on the Travel Log, so my day wasn't quite ended yet!