The Maltese Factor

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Stepping into the Past, Days 16-18:  Cyprus to Malta.  Hey, Malta! You didn't have to try so hard to encourage us to move on. Really. You could have stopped after your Hertz agents asked us to put a $9,650 hold on our credit card because we declined to buy the insurance they tried to sell us. You must have been disappointed when we walked eight feet to the right and rented a car from Avis at a cheaper rate without the absurd hold requirement. (They really are trying harder!)

After that original plan was foiled, you still tried to get to us before we left the airport. Did you really think we wouldn't recognize your intentions when you had not one but two locals yell rude things at us because we took a wrong turn searching for the unsigned airport exit? And still we persisted.

We can't deny our grudging respect for your amazing powers of dissuasion once we reached the Hilton Hotel. Though we weren't daunted by your airport tests, we can't deny that they wore us down a bit. Otherwise, we would never have stepped into that trap at the hotel, where the “special welcome service” for diamond members stretched out our check-in procedure to an hour of employees repeating nonsense "information" about the hotel's amenities, all the while peddling lies to justify denying us the room upgrade to which we were entitled.

This might have worked in the day when only hotel employees could see the inventory of available rooms, but with the Hilton app, we have access to that information, too.  Their attempt to put us in a "relaxation suite,” which numerous Trip Advisor reviews warned are located over a public access beach where young people party all night, was laughable. Only after pointing out to the duty manager the extreme contrast between our excruciating experience at Hilton Malta and the welcoming and efficient Hilton Nicosia did not one but two rooms of the desired type suddenly become available. Smiling unctuously, he offered us the opportunity to select which we preferred.
Too many cars!
On our first full day, we drove through your frenzied Malta traffic to the old capital of Mdina.  How can you possibly need 385,000 cars for your 425,000 people?  After all, you're only 8 miles wide and 28 miles long.
Maltese roundabout
And what's up with painting a flat red circle in a wide place where three or four or more streets intersect and calling it a roundabout with no signs to even indicate it's supposed to be a traffic circle?  Have you noticed that most vehicles simply drive across the red circle instead of around it?
Should we or shouldn't we take this narrow road located near a quarry sending out big trucks?
And, while we're on the subject of traffic, why are massive buses and large dump trucks routed on narrow roads?

But back to Mdina.  When we arrived, you offered up a small car park that was full to bursting, supervised by a couple of guys who were surreptitiously soliciting a bit of baksheesh to allow the dozen drivers trolling around the lot a chance at the spots that vacated.  When we took an empty without paying the bribe, you gave the parking attendant a chance for revenge.  "It's raining!" he smirked as we pulled into a space we thought we were due after 25 minutes of circling.  And at that moment, the sky opened up with a deluge.  Devious.  And effective.  We called it a day and gave up on Mdina.  Clearly you were wearing us down.

That evening, with the rest of the world, we watched on TV the horrifying sight of Notre Dame burning in Paris.  Somberly, the following day we had an urge to visit some medieval churches, and you for once didn't bite us in the butt.
Our Lady of Victory Church, Valletta
The Church of Our Lady of Victory was the first building erected in Valletta, Malta's capital, located where the first stone of the city was laid in 1566.  Dedicated to commemorate the victory of the Knights of Malta, also known as the Order of St. John, over an Ottoman siege of Malta the previous year.  The church was subsequently remodeled and enlarged in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Ceiling frescoes from 1716 depict events from the life of Virgin.  We were the only visitors in this stunning sanctuary.
St. John's Co-Cathedral
In contrast, the elaborately decorated cathedral nearby was flush with admirers.  Considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe, St. John's Co-Cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and scenes from his life are featured.  Virtually all the wall and ceiling surfaces are embellished with a wealth of carvings, gold leaf and frescoes.  Competed in 1577 after five years of construction, the church's interior matched its austere exterior until the 1660s when the grand master of the Knights ordered the redecoration of the cathedral to rival elaborately ornamented churches of Rome.  Quite obviously, he got what he asked for.
Valletta, the Maltese capital city
Even though a whopping 359 churches were available in Malta to help us assuage our grief over Notre Dame, our only other ecclesiastical stop was at the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose massive oval dome dominates the Valletta skyline.
Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Though its decor is simplistic compared with Victory and the Co-Cathedral, the sanctuary is adorned with striking red marble columns and elaborately sculpted white walls, a project completed over the course of 19 years by a single artist.  The original basilica, completed in 1570, was heavily damaged during World War II and had to be rebuilt in the latter 20th century.

When we entered the basilica, we found a toothless woman seated at a table with trinkets for sale and a metal tin with coins.  "Donation," she said when we walked in, opening the tin and rattling the coins.

We pointed to a nearby receptacle labeled in six languages, 'Donations for the Church.'  "Here," I said.  "No, here!" she exclaimed, rattling her tin.  We again indicated the official box and she again rattled her coins.

"For you?" I asked.  "No!" she cried, clearly shocked at my suggestion.  "For Jesus," she insisted, hand over her heart.  We finally relented and put a euro in her tin.  Shortly after, while exploring the nave, we saw her transferring money from Jesus's till to her purse.  We shrugged, figuring he would want to help her with her dental problems. On our way out, we deposited another euro in the official box.

The next day we were leaving but Malta had another surprise before we could board our flight to Barcelona.  The problems began in the gate area when an airline agent walked through the waiting queue tagging some passengers’ carryon bags to be checked on the tarmac. When asked why some people’s smaller bags were targeted for the hold when other larger bags were not, the agent claimed those people were in a tour and the plane was full and there was no more space for carryons.

After we challenged the unfairness and lack of logic in this reasoning, two young Spaniards behind us and an older British couple behind them did the same. Before crossing the tarmac to the remote stand, I removed the tag that was put on my bag (Ken had none). The young couple saw me and did the same. As it turned out when we boarded, there was plenty of bin space for our bags. The British couple, who did give up theirs despite fretting about their medications and tight schedule to catch a cruise from Barcelona, had an empty bin above them when they took their seats in the row behind us, grumbling about the Maltese and their surly treatment.
In the end, we had to conclude that this tiny chunk of limestone in the Mediterranean known as Malta just has way too many cars, an excess number of tourists, more than its share of boats, and a drastic dearth of elbow room.  Glad we went once but don't expect us back, Malta.

(Don't tell Malta, but we did wonder if our experiences could be chalked up to our expressed interest in finding out more about—shhh!—the Order.)

Chapter 5 Stats
    •  Started in:  Nicosia, Cyprus
    •  Ended in:  Valletta, Malta
    •  Air Miles:  1,082
    •  Road Miles: 68 (51 on rental car, 17 in taxis)
    •  Foot Miles:  17.48
    •  Weather:  48° to 64°, sunny, partly cloudy, rainy
    •  Flat roundabouts:  Too many
    •  Balconies:  8,362
    •  Boats:  3,709
    •  Tour buses:  Everywhere
    •  Exterior paint colors:  One - yellow, with variations

Loved:  (Hold on.  We'll come up with something!)

A limit on the number of cars.  Enthusiasm for using buses among locals and tourists.  A public rapid transit system.

Learned:  Too many people on a tiny island is a really bad idea.

The Maltese Balcony
A salient feature of urban architecture in Malta (and let's face it, the country is almost all urban) is what has become known as the Maltese balcony. Colorful, often wooden and pervasive, the balconies decorate virtually every residential building, especially in Valletta.  Apparently, the structures began to appear in Valletta in the mid-18th century, quickly gained favor and became the norm.  

The Math Done for You 
Our hobby of letterboxing has inspired a passionate interest in visiting cemeteries, not only for what is often exceptional sculpture and architecture, but also to see the variations of customs in how the dearly departed are memorialized.  At the small cemetery we checked out in Malta, we noticed that, as we had observed in Cyprus, the math is often done for you.  Rather than showing birth and death dates, as is customary in some places, headstones indicate the day of departure and the person's age.  Also in both places, we admired the tendency of using one grave plot for a family with all burials together and photos of the deceased often displayed.

Gorgeous decorations adorn crypts in Our Lady of Victory. 
Organ at Our Lady of Victory
Austere exterior of the Co-Cathedral.  Dials tell time, month and date.
Co-Cathedral's high altar.  If it ain't Baroque... 
Maltese balconies are usually individually decorated, but occasionally uniform. 
How long do you have to drive on the left before this sight isn't jarring? 
On our final day, we managed to locate an undeveloped spot at the Dingli Cliffs. 
We enjoyed some authentic Maltese pastizzi at Is-Serkin, a busy Mdina cafe.
Thinking of flying with Vueling, Spain's discount airline?  Don't!