Making travel compulsory

I travel. A lot. And I love it. I like finding new places, seeing new things, meeting different people. And when I go back again and again to the same place, be it for work or pleasure, there’s an extra satisfaction in showing my special places to those who travel with me.

IMG_0365 (800x600)The Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa)  in Gozo is one of those places. If you take an early-morning ferry from Malta across to Mgarr, then you can get there before the hordes descend and make it  too busy for comfort. I managed this one month with one friend and failed miserably with another some time later. The difference was inconsolable. The place was packed. First-time visitors were parroting the usual reaction – how amazing, spectacular, the blue – oh my what a blue…  Old-timers were looking disgruntled at the number of people there. Me? I was so sorry that the experience wasn’t what it could have been.

IMG_0370 (800x592)But the inland sea was relatively deserted because the water was too choppy to take out the boats. I was glad of this, in a way. To be fully appreciated, it needs quiet. Last month, we took a small fishing boat and travelled through the rock wall to the outer sea. It was the first time in I don’t know how many visits that I’d felt the need to do this and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve long since learned the value of realising that I can always come back – there’s no need for me to pack everything in to the time I have available. No where is going anywhere (except perhaps for the Maldives and the like, should sea levels continue to rise).

IMG_0371 (800x600)IMG_0385 (600x800)There’s a particular type of coral that only grows here – it’s purple and as eye-catching as a coral can be. With one hand on the side of the boat and the other on my camera, the choice between being tossed overboard and capturing the essence of what I was seeing made me long fleetingly for the days when cameras needed plugs, bulbs, and tripods. Days when a choice wouldn’t be a problem as it wouldn’t have existed.

I was torn between enjoying what I was seeing and my compulsion to share what I’d seen. I was reminded of a Venetian writer whose name I can’t remember telling me to leave my camera at home and enjoy the moment. But what about those who will never get to Gozo, and boat through the wall, and get to the other side – shouldn’t they be able to come too?

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I’ve never been much of an artist. My rather dark wardrobe will testify to my lack of imagination when it comes to colour. Yet there was something quite surreal about this purple coral as it mediated between the gray walls and the blue sea. Had it been a colour spectrum, the purple would have been out of place. And yet there it was, in all its glory, mediating between two shades of similarity – a foot in both worlds. And it reminded me a little of me…

IMG_0407 (593x800)On the journey back inside, what looked like an impossibly narrow opening gradually opened up. Crossing this gradual revelation was like travelling through time, in slow motion. And although I’d seen the inland sea many times before, this was the first time I’d looked at it from a different direction. There was a lesson in perspective there… should I choose to learn it.

Malta is one of the few places I visit repeatedly  – and each time, there’s something new or something old seen in a new light. And more often than not, that new light comes from seeing it from someone else’s perspective, experiencing second-hand the pleasure they get from places I’ve shown them. What’s not to like about travel, I wonder? Were I queen for the day, I’d make it compulsory.

IMG_0413 (600x800)Travel to Malta with Air Malta.







Grateful 3

Back in the days when I first started travelling, I had this urgent need to see everything. I’d visit cities having done my homework and armed with a checklist, I’d get up before the milkman and hit the streets. I was a woman on a mission. In Amsterdam one year, I finally realised that there was no rush. I could always go back. And go back again and again until I had seen all I wanted to see.

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When I’d come back from somewhere without having seen THE sight, it no longer bothered me. I was happy enough to have a reason to return. For me, in Malta, the thing to see was the Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa) on the island of Gozo. I’d seen postcards and photographs. I knew what to expect. It wasn’t going to be a surprise. And yet it was – on so many levels. Photographs and postcards might capture the reality but they miss the essence: the smells, the sounds, the feel of a place.

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This natural beauty spot has starred in the  Clash of the Titans (1981)  and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), in the television miniseries The Odyssey (1997), and HBO’s TV series Game of Thrones. The sad thing is though, is that it’s slowly wearing away. Large pieces of rock are falling from it and despite the signs, irresponsible idiots keep walking on top of it. Earlier this year, a sizable chunk fell, widening the window even more.

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Experts say that it’s only a matter of a few years before it crumbles altogether. This week, as I finally unpack my suitcase from that trip in preparation for my next one, I am grateful that I got to see it, in all its majesty, on a perfect November day in the company of three wonderful women. It is on days like this that I am reminded of how blessed I truly am.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Carnival in Malta

Shrove Tuesday – the last chance for you to use up your eggs, empty your jam jars, use up the syrup and pig out before embarking on 40 days of fasting… or, as in the old days, one main meal and two coalations! This day is traditionally marked around the world with a knees-up that raises the bar on partying to a new level. In Malta, it sees the last day of a three-day festival on the main island and THE day of a rather alternative five-day festival on the island of Gozo.

In Valetta, you have the somewhat sanitised version that is a blaze of colour. From early morning, people on the streets are dressed in cute  costumes. The kids are off school and the bus terminus turns into a staging ground for an array of colourful floats. The perlini (a local delicacy: multicoloured, sugar-coated almonds) are out in full force and available everywhere. Back in the day, these would be tossed from the floats to the crowds. I missed that this year but that’s not to say it didn’t happen! Those who want to go for broke can gorge themselves on prinjolata – a heap of sponge, biscuits, almonds, fruit topped with cream and pine nuts.

Across the water, on Gozo, in the little town of Nadur (pop: 5000), a carnival of a different sort takes place. Depending on who you talk to, you can hear adjectives from grotesque to unusual, from macabre to peculiar. While parts of the five-day celebrations are organised, it’s the Spontaneous Carnival that attracts thousands by its weirdness. It’s not officially organised by anyone apparently, but at sunset, the masses take to the streets, dressed up anywhich way, masks hiding true identities as they everything they can to get the crowds going. This one sounds just odd enough to be worth a visit and is on my list of things to do in Malta next year!

New life in old art

Back home in Ireland, in Carrickmacross, they’re famous for their lace. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1820s apparently and from what I know of it, the lace is made with a tiny hook, a little like a crochet needle. On Gozo, the Gozitons use an imhadda (pillow) or what the Maltese call a tribu (from the Maltese word tarbija for baby) complete with bobbins and pins. But it wasn’t always so. As far back as the sixteenth century, they, too, used needles. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the bobbins arrived from Genoa. To watch someone at work is fascinating. The pattern is traced and stuck to the pillow, the thread held in place by pins. Depending on the intricacy of the pattern, the lacemaker could be dealing with 30, or 40 or even 100 bobbins. Just thinking about how they keep track of what goes where boggles the mind. The finished piece has no seams and the work itself take patience.It’s used in prisons and mental institutions for therapy and I can well imagine how hours and hours of bobbin work would either kill you or cure you.

I had the good fortune to meet Consiglia Azzopardi who teaches lacemaking at the University of Malta on Gozo. Author of a couple of books on the subject and now working on her thesis, she is determined to revive the craft on the island. When the factories came, and women went out to work, they no longer had time for lace. But such is their commitment to reviving the art, lacemaking is now a compulsory subject at the Government trade schools, and has even attained Diploma status at the university.

Because it takes so much time, it can’t be billed out at usual commercial rates –  who would pay for it? But when you think of it as an original work of art, that puts it in a different light. Apparently there’s been a surge of late for black silk stoles and shawls. Tempting? Pieces can be commissioned from the cooperative – but you shouldn’t be in a hurry as they can take up to a year to make. But there’s nothing like planning ahead. I have to admit to being sorely tempted. I quite like the idea of an heirloom, but then dread to think what uses my creative nephews would find for my Goziton shawl.

Who’s to blame?

Do I need to drag myself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, or can I stay in my self-enforced state of denial, at odds with planners everywhere? I’m all for progress but I’m also for preserving the past. I detest new developments and yet I have have enough sense to know that when my building was built in 1896 it was new to someone, just as the newly built apartment blocks behind me will be old to someone in 100 years (if they last that long). Would I rather see a historic city or town alive or dead? Alive, of course. Would I rather see buildings still in use than abandoned to rats and litter? Of course I would. So why then is the Fort Chambray development coming between me and my sleep?

That building you see in the background is the original barracks built in the mid-eighteenth century. The two on either side, the ‘tastefully’ designed new development. In its heyday, the original fort housed 250 soldiers and a small hospital. It grew in size during the Crimean War and in its latter years was both a civilian mental hospital and a leprosy unit. All a far cry from this recent development which oozes money; the views alone are worth a king’s ransom.

Outside the actual fort itself, remnants of the old cemetery can still be seen. The remains were removed in 1991 and reburied elsewhere. Yet in the base of the crumbling walls some of the original headstones shine brightly in the winter sun.  We climbed down and waded through thick bush and marshy ground for a closer look. A handful of stones marked each one of the four walls. The inscriptions dated from 1895 and 1898, each one more poignant than the last. Lance Corporals, their wives, and their children, immortalised in stone. Above these walls, inside the Fort, the development nears conclusion. Coffee-tabled balconies, curtained windows, and the occasional car testify that someone was home. But for all this progress, walls have been destroyed. The original entrance gate has been closed off and a new imitation built. One could argue that it has been designed sympathetically. The colours, the shapes, all blend in. But sitting as this new-build does on  history, with so much of the original barracks still standing, I have to wonder why there couldn’t have been a little more restoration and a little less renovation. 

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I simply need to get with the programme. Perhaps if I had a couple of million to spare, I’d be happy to spend my evenings looking out over the Maltese Archipelago, my view unobscured. Maybe I should start looking to the future instead of clinging to the past. Maybe…maybe not.

Out of the smallest kitchens…

It doesn’t look like much, does it? And its name, The Maxokk Bakery, apart from being unpronounceable, isn’t really an accurate description of what it offers. Buried in the back streets of Nadur, a little town on the island of Gozo, this bakery makes the best pizza I have ever had the joy to taste. Apart from the fact that the end-product is similar in shape to a pizza, the likeness to what’s served up the world over is minimal.

About four people can stand, cheek to jowl, inside the blue netting. The politicians in this world could learn a thing or two from these bakers! Everying is out in the open. Nothing hidden away. An original Maltese oven takes up most of the back wall and the prep work is done on a simple wooden bench centred on a mosaic tiled floor. If Mr EU, with all his regulations, ever caught wind of this place, it would be the death knell. And what a shame that would be.

We rang in our order to be collected at 1.45. We were warned to be on time. We were late. And no doubt we won’t be the last. The pizzas were still waiting to go into the oven as many people never make it through the maze of narrow side streets and they’re well used to this by now. I got the distinct impression that this place wouldn’t stand being ‘discovered’.

Different groups of people loitered outside; some sat on wooden benches up and down the street munching away and the smell from their food was orgasmic. When our turn came, we handed over €20.25 for four drinks and three pizzas, each one unceremoniously wrapped in greaseproof paper, differentiated with black marker, and lobbed into a cardboard veg box. The great unveiling was scheduled for San Blas Bay, about 10 minutes up the road. We drove quickly so that they’d still be hot but we needn’t have worried. Despite getting lost, the Maxokk magic was working. One tuna and anchovy. One closed ricotta. One bacon, potato, egg, onion and tomato washed down with local mineral water (and that in itself, is a true find!)

I play a game at dinner sometimes and ask people to name their three most memorable meals. Perhaps it wasn’t the food, but the company; or perhaps not the company, but the locale. Or maybe a combination of three or even more factors that contributed to the memory. I know one of my three stalwarts has been knocked off its perch. Sitting on a stone wall overlooking the red sand beach and blue water of San Blas Bay, on a balmy winter’s afternoon, surrounded by orange trees and bamboo-walled fields, in the company of the Aquilana family…this was as close to heaven as I’ve gotten to in a while.