A week's not long, but at least we managed to be away for the really cold snap. Last night's dinner at Tal Maltija turned out to be a triumph - finally a restaurant with good local food, efficient service and no cockroaches.
The journey home was a breeze, too. Leaving aside the inflight movie (Garfield) and the food (god knows), we arrived 30 minutes early and Heathrow was actually ready for us. We'd even collected our bags 10 minutes before the flight was scheduled to arrive. Consequently, we were home by 8, greeted by dinner cooked by Tash and Andy. I could get used to this.
Impressions of Malta ten years on - notwithstanding the appalling exchange rate (£1 = 1 Euro): I still love the colour of the traditional stone buildings, Mdina especially, and the fact that there is so much history crammed into such a tiny space. On the downside, though, the roads are truly awful - not just the surface but the fact that the only road signs are at the junctions, so you have to make snap decisions which invariably turn out to be wrong. Luckily the island is so small you can't go far out of your way. The restaurants are generally disappointing - mediocre food (too much pizza and pasta), haphazard service and inflated prices. And too many of the heritage sites are either neglected, closed indefinitely for refurbishment or undergoing "restoration" which will ultimately destroy their aesthetic appeal.
I read that somebody has created a happiness index for countries and that Malta tops the league. Maybe they're just too damn contented to pay attention to the things that drive foreigners mad. But to me Malta feels like a missed opportunity - it has massive potential but just doesn't work hard enough on refining and showcasing its assets.
Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Our last full day, so we told Alex he could choose what he wanted to do. He started with some TV before breakfast, then decided he wanted to try the outdoor pool. Admittedly the sun is back but it's hardly outdoor swimming weather. He did make it into the pool, then very swiftly back out again. A small TV break, then we went in search of our old villa.
Took me a while to find it, there has been a lot of new development including a two storey villa right next door which will dwarf Villa Lemart when it's finished. Old landmarks like the Bellevue bakery and the Arches restaurant are still there, though, and it was good to show Alex around Mellieha.
We spent a while messing around on the beach and harassing the crabs in the rock pools before driving as far as the Gozo ferry, so we've covered the whole length of the island. Then back to the hotel for a spot more TV and a dip in the indoor pool. More TV after our swim (spot a theme, anybody?), and we're going bowling before dinner.
Monday, 5 January 2009
Our luck with the weather finally ran out. Until now it has been dry, if a little cloudy. Last night there was a big electrical storm and high winds, and this morning it was still raining heavily. We set off for Rabat regardless, and visited St Agatha's Catacombs. It's a privately-run attraction, still managed by the archaelogist who excavated most of the catacombs back in the 50s. The current curator who guided our tour seemed most indignant that he's still alive - presumably his chance of promotion rests on the old guy's demise. The catacombs contain a chapel where St Agatha is reputed to have hidden to escape the attentions of the nobleman who eventually had her killed for rejecting his advances. But beyond that there is an extensive network of rock-hewn tombs, some of which still contain skeletons. There's also a museum; rather a random assortment of rocks and relics from around the world, but at least it was dry inside!
We stopped for lunch at the Grotto Tavern, right outside St Paul's grotto and then paid a brief visit to the Grotto, where Alex and I explored a winding staircase leading to another small burial chamber. From there we walked to the Roman Domus, just outside the walls of Mdina. The museum was informative and there are some well-preserved mosaics and remarkable statues. Unfortunately the rain had come back with a vengeance but we pressed on with our walking tour of Mdina like good Brits should.
I love Mdina, it has a great atmosphere and in the rain we almost had it to ourselves. We admired the honey-coloured stone buildings and dipped briefly into the National Archive and St Paul's Cathedral, mainly to get out of the rain. We also enjoyed a warm drink at the Xara Palace Hotel, which amused Alex. Then back to our hotel - good to be warm and dry again.
Sunday, 4 January 2009
An early start this morning to get to Fort St Elmo by 11am for a re-enactment of a medieval parade. It's held in the courtyard of what is now the police academy, and we're greeted by men in costume at the gate. It's a splendid show, with guns, mortars and cannons being fired, men fighting with swords and a marching band. Alex is enthralled.
From there we go to Ghar Dhalam cave, where hundreds of fossilised hippopotamus and elephant bones have been excavated. The museum is an exhibit in its own right, unchanged since Victorian times, with cases crammed full of bones, all sorted by type.
Lunch at The Corinthia's Cafe 24 is another example of traditional Maltese service, with Alex's baguette toasted to charcoal - so we send it back and they make him a new one.
This morning's hot sun has been replaced with cloud by now, so Alex has to settle for a swim in the indoor pool - he's longing to use the one outside but has to concede that it's too cold even for him. While he's away, the housekeeper arrives with our daily delivery of chocolates and to check that everything's OK. We're pretty sure that every hotel and restaurant in town now has a poster of us captioned "watch out, they complain" but I think daily chocolate deliveries are standard for residents in suites.
Just before we set off this morning, I had a call from the general manager who had just received my letter. He seemed genuinely concerned about Alex's injury and asked if he could come and see the damaged handle in our bathroom. And then he offered us an upgrade to a suite. So we packed before we went out this morning, and returned to our new room to find our luggage waiting. Alex is very impressed. Less so when we find our third cockroach (a baby by comparison) but we know the drill by now. When the man arrives with the spray we've already captured it.
For dinner, we walked down to the bistro underneath the Corinthian Hotel next door. We're still waiting for our drinks when the food arrives, and there's a lot of confusion when the wine we choose is out of stock. Encouraged by the result with the room upgrade, we politely complain - and get a free wine upgrade. Maybe there's an upside to the poor service after all.
After the National Museum of Archaeology yesterday, it seemed appropriate to visit the temples where most of the exhibits were found. As usual, getting there was not simple - lost, again - and we didn't seem to be the only ones; each roundabout featured a stationary hire car with its occupants examining a map.
When we reached Hagar Qim I was disappointed to see that it was sporting a mini version of the Wembley arch, designed to support a roof that will protect it from the elements. A necessary precaution given the amount of damage suffered in the 150-or-so years since it was uncovered but almost totally masking its beauty. It's supposed to be temporary, while a less intrusive method is found, but knowing Malta it will still be there in 100 years.
We decided to lunch at Marsaxlokk and found our way there along the coast road; it was a lovely sunny afternoon and we sat by the harbourside to eat. My fish was delicious and the boys' pizzas enormous. They all took an hour to arrive but we're getting used to the service here, which is slow and chaotic.
Saturday, 3 January 2009
We'd noted yesterday that they fire a cannon from the Saluting Battery at noon so we returned to Valetta. When we arrived the Upper Barraka Gardens were already lined with people, but Simon found you could go down to the Battery for 5 Euros to see the firing close up. That was much more interesting. After the gun was fired, we were given an explanation of the cannon and the ammunition used for various purposes.
Next stop was the Grand Master's Palace. The State Rooms were closed, but the Armoury was our main goal anyway, as Simon wanted to show it to Alex. The collection of arms and armour is impressive and we enjoyed working our way round the rather eccentric numbering system for the audio tour.
After a brief stop for lunch, we visited the National Museum of Archaeology where they display items excavated from the various tombs and temples on the island, including the rather lovely fat ladies that are unique to Malta. Only the ground floor is open (refurbishment has been going on for at least two years) but that's all we need to see.
In the evening we walk into Paceville to find a place to eat. There are a lot of loud bars so we look for somewhere a little more traditional. Kandles seems to fit the bill - rustic interior, candlelight and an Italian/Maltese menu. The food was OK, but the service was perfunctory and the cockroaches scuttling round our feet put us off a bit!
Friday, 2 January 2009
Being New Year's Day, pretty much everything was closed so we decided to take the walking tour of Valetta, around the walls of the city. We pretty much had the city to ourselves - with all the shops and bar shut it was easier to imagine how it might have been in the time of the Knights Crusaders. We stumbled across the cafe in the theatre just as we were thinking about lunch, then completed the circuit.
When we got back, Alex fancied a swim. The hotel has several outdoor pools but it's too cold for that. The indoor pool has a jucuzzi, which turned out to be Alex's downfall. There's a raised grille in the centre with a sharp edge, and he cut his foot on it. Not too badly, but blood mixed with water always looks more than it is. A nice guest who didn't speak english insisted we take her plasters, which is more than the health club attendant did. By the time he returned with a bottle of water I'd cleaned the cut, put on the plaster and mopped the blood from the tiles. We limped back to the room and Alex watched TV while I wrote to the general manager to let him know how far short his hotel falls on the care, hospitality and courtesy promised in the welcome note that greeted us.
Alex didn't feel like walking to a restaurant, so we had dinner in the hotel, then watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before bed.
Thursday, 1 January 2009
I'd forgotten how tricky the roads are in Malta - potholed and with very few markings. Road signs usually appear at the last moment, if at all. But we made it to the hotel and checked in. Decent room, on the ground floor with a view of the sea and the pool, but with a broken handle in the bath which will cause a nasty injury if anybody grabs it without thinking. My record in hotel bathrooms being what it is, this is not ideal.
We'd taken the precaution of booking ahead for dinner, since New Year's Eve was bound to be busy. Bianco's turned out to be a good choice, and we enjoyed our meal and the 20 minute walk back (having been charged 15 euros for the taxi there).
We were just getting ready to go down to the bar to see the new year in when Alex spotted the cockroach - quite a large one, actually. We did the courageous thing and called housekeeping to deal with it. By the time the man arrived, it had gone behind the switch panel, my side of the bed. Terrific. The man sprayed the area and suggested we move to another room, found two available and went to check them for uninvited guests. Meanwhile, Simon flushed out the cockroach and stamped on it, then put a glass over it to make sure it didn't make a miraculous recovery and escape. The man returned and took it away; we decided to stay put.
We arrived in the bar just in time to order a bottle of cava and a lemonade for Al, to toast the new year. Happy 2009 everyone!
There we were, minding our own business in the boarding queue, when I noticed the cockpit door was open. So I pointed out to Alex that he could see the instruments through the door. The next thing I knew, he was being welcomed in by the pilot, given a signed postcard of the plane and having his picture taken in the driving seat. Made his day! Full marks to Air Malta.
Sadly, things went downhill from there, with truly awful inflight food and a dreadful movie (Alvin and the Chipmunks) - both of which seemed to go down very well with Alex but with nobody else. But we arrived safe and sound - and so did our luggage.