Saturday, May 5, 2012

Malta 2002

Malta 2002

I landed in Malta from Tunis with a group of swarthy types that included Tunisiennes, 
Maltese and other whiteys. I had to laugh as the cheeky Tunisiennes bristled by in the hopes of butting in ahead of me in the customs queue. Okay, ever the good Canadian, I let the vulgar 
lot by me. I soon found I was in the wrong line-up as they were giving these Mahgrebis a hard time. I went into another line-up and was trumpeted past Maltese customs without so much 
as a look-see—just a stamp which was good for 3 months.

I looked back and the Maltese officials were still grilling the poor Tunisienne family and asking another guy 
Harbour, Valletta
to provide credit cards and all manner of money for his intended stay. Bear in mind, this was before the great exodus from Libya and North Africa by Africans after the Arab Spring and fall of Gadhafi. One Tunisienne chap who didn't have enough money was sent over to see the Maltese police. That seemed rather strict, but I guess Malta gets a lot of freeloaders from the continent that come here in search of 
work and the hard currency. The Tunisian dinar isn't worth 'jack shit' once you are out of the country despite its inflated worth inside Tunisia. This trip had been very fortunate for me, as I never needed a visa for UAE, Cyprus, Tunisia or Malta. 

Road rage

First of all, a very persuasive entrepreneur talked me into renting a car at the Malta International Airport. Not a bad deal either: $150 US/ week driving all-inclusive. So I went 
for it not knowing a bloody thing about Valletta or even where I'd be staying for the night. Okay, so it's a smallish Peugeot, but it had lots of get up and go. Yes, there was a stick shift 
that I would have to deal with.  So, I started out and soon realised (to my horror) that I can't tell the difference between clutch and accelerator or more correctly—my big feet can't. Now I have the potential problem of shifting gears plus I'm on the wrong side and this car is a standard—crikey!

I head off to somewhere as the roads aren't that clearly marked and I'm driving all over hell's half acres. Barging into roundabouts because I haven't shifted down properly as I have my huge shoe on both the accelerator and clutch at the same time (problem that).  What I didn't understand is why the locals don't recognise that when I have the windshield wipers on that I am indicating that I am going to make a 'left turn'? Seems perfectly obvious to me, as that is where the left-hand indicators should be-especially when I have the wipers on and it isn't raining! Is it a wonder that the Maltese drivers give me a warm welcome with one finger (Well, Trudeau offered the same greeting to Canadians a few years back!)

After a few near misses, I finally got out of the 'car rental parking lot' at the airport and careened off into the flow of traffic. Next, after driving around a couple of roundabouts 3 or 4 times I finally figured out where Valletta was and headed off that way.
Okay, where am I going again—ah yes, the Hotel British (wherever that is?).  I finally got into what I believed was the city of Valletta and stopped at to the top of a street, but it's more like an abyss. More to the point—where's the bloody bottom to this street? The streets are dark and forbidding, never mind that they are lined with parked cars and you can barely nudge your way past them. I was reminded of the scene from Planes, Trains and AutomobilesYou’re going the wrong way!

I jerked forward towards the edge and I likened myself as Steve McQueen in the movie Bullit except I have a peppy Peugeot and not the snazzy Mustang. I point the beast downhill and 
roar off in first gear. The street goes straight down with a flat bottom, plus the streets are all one way.

I try looking at the map but realise I haven't the foggiest of where I am or where I am going.
 I realise that I may have bitten off more than I can chew. What was that I read about the bus system being pretty good in Malta? Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea after all. After driving around for the umpteenth time I finally stopped a woman and asked her where the Blickish Hotel was, but she pointed back whence I had descended into Grand Canyon and my heart sunk. I did roar around everywhere, be it in first gear, and somehow managed to arrive back
 to the same place every time.

I figured that maybe the car rental wasn't such a good idea after all. Great! Now I have to get the car back to the airport and to the shyster who talked me into renting it in the first place. The only problem was—WHERE THE HELL IS THE BLOODY AIRPORT!

I followed some cars around and got beeped at for being in neutral or trying to merge into 
the left lane with my window wiper left hand indicator signals. After some consternation, 
both on my part and fellow Maltese drivers—I pulled into a gas station. I was still in neutral with the accelerator down as I drifted by the gas attendant asking him a question ‘on the run’.
Where’s the airport?
Just out of earshot, I heard something about “follow the cars over there” as he pointed far away. So I followed a car and saw a sign saying ‘Port’ and then I thought that the stupid sod mistakenly heard me say ‘Port’ when I really wanted “Airport”. I cursed and went along and sure enough there was another sign announcing the way to the "Airport". Between neutral, clutch and gas—I scratched my way back to the airport. I drove around it a few times just to make sure I was at the right one (there's only one!) and to find the “Rental car area”.

Road Rage redux

Unfortunately, in my excitement, I had overshot the rental area turnoff and I had to unceremoniously reverse (after much grinding of gears) back up the free parking lane to the parking area for rental cars. I then roared the beast into reverse and parked where I had picked up the beast an hour earlier—PHEW!

I stormed into the airport but everyone had left. I went to drop off my keys but the nearby 
taxi vultures told me I would be better off leaving my keys at my hotel's reception. I hastened a cabbie and finally set off for the elusive Hotel British in Valletta. I got there much quicker than it had taken me as the cabbie wanted to get home and drove at Mach 1. I walked in the door and explained my plight to the sympathetic receptionist—David Montebello. It was sorted out and the chap who rented me the car showed up a little while later to retrieve the keys for the car. I would have to pay some fees for taxes and whatnot but was relieved of not having to drive in Malta for this time.
Malta- 1st day

Door knocker, Valletta.
I've never been in a place where there are so many geriatric travellers like there are here in Valletta. Right now, I'm in the Malta Labour Party restaurant/bar, which is a bit much. There are all sorts of old coots here including myself! What's really a bit much is having to endure the voice of Jim Reeve's singing Christmas songs ad nauseum—the nauseum being on my part. I can't believe the wanker really truly believes in what he is singing—“…the carpet I kneel on was made by his own hand…”come on, cut the crap buddy boy “...because God made my cathedral for me...

Nevertheless, it's quite Christmassy here at the commie club restaurant cum stand up bar 
with twinkling lights decorating the bar to give a festive mood to this sleepy joint. The only thing that breaks up this monotony is when the young Malteaser girl switches on some reggae and I hear Rudeboy's favourite—“Please Mister Talyban, hand over bin Laden.

Last night, you could have fired a cannon down the main street and in fact, someone was 
firing off some kind of explosives across the way, which provided excellent background music for my reading of the erudite Robert Fisk’s blow-by-blow description of the bombing of 
Beirut in 1982 in his Pity the Nation book.

Later my perfect little world here atop the Hotel British in my parapet (so to speak) has just come tumbling down. My brief world of Tuscan colours over the ancient city of burnt umber, ambers, shades of rusty sandstone, silver copulas and bleached rock has been abruptly changed. Mother Nature's has unleashed her anger in the snap and crackle of an offshore thunderstorm that came out of nowhere. I fear for the ship that was anchored just off the last bit of headland of Vittoiosa.

The light transformed from warm muted tones of golden shafts of sunshine to rather bleak shades of a greyscale card. It's about 18% grey light right now with no hint of anything warm just cool tones. All the wonderful soft fortresses of St. Angelo of Vittorisa and the walled balustrades and crenellated machicolations of the Safe Haven Gardens of Senglea have disappeared into the grey fastness. It's so bad that I have had to enlist the help of my Maglite to assist me in writing—which is how poor the lighting has become in just the past 15 minutes. 
The light here reminds me of Venice or Florence and so do the women here, but that is a different matter for more experienced voices than my ‘virginal’ one.

I am now sipping Cabernet-Sauvignon 1999 on my petite balcony at the Hotel British[1] watching the world, wind, ships and tourists go by below my parapet. I get a bird's eye view 
of the protected harbour that lies stretched out before me called the Grand Harbour.

The Mediterranean Sea just lies beyond my far left past that sliver of last headland called Ricasoli Point. Whilst this bombast was going on, I went up to the roof to catch some setting sun shots across the harbour. I heard and then saw the encroaching storm roaring in from the open sea. A huge rainbow formed and it seemed to pass right in front of me then was obliterated by the heavy rain that followed.

Now nightfall has really set in and all the fluorescent and mercury oxide lights come on. I say bird's eye view because there are pair of cooing pigeons that are tucked in nicely on a ledge next to my balcony. The whole town will be shut down until panic sets in tomorrow when the hastily set up flea market roars into business. There's all sorts of brik-a-brat to buy including revolting Christmas tunes by immoral artists long since past, i.e. “Who needs another silly Xmas song.

Seen and passing

Well for a place that was supposed to be shut down for the Immaculate Conception holiday—
it sure is doing a roaring business, but it is before Xmas so what the heck! Doesn't look like Sept. 11th has affected anyone here.

Valleta is a bustling little city with all the trappings of a quaint tourist town. Must be a zoo here in the “high season” although I am told that this is a “shoulder season”. Lots of Brits here possibly long term as well as the former “Axis Nations”—Germany and Italy. (Not to be confused with Bush’s “Axis of Evil” nations of which Israel isn’t included?) Added to this is the newest tourist group to the island from another far off island—the Japanese.

Nevertheless, there is a preponderance of bra/panty lingerie shops with the latest sultry fashions from neighbouring Milano. I would say there are more lingerie shops here than anything else I have been. The women here have just as striking features as the Tunisienne femmes I saw in chic Tunis and just as wildly beautiful too. There is an abundance of Roman noses and aquiline promontories.

Despite being a small island nation so close to North Africa, blonde and curly black tresses proliferate here noting a clear influence of the Italians and Arab stock with the odd Crusader gene thrown into the Maltese pool.

Carmelite Church in Valletta.
The light here is often sombre and muted as the silver domes of various Christian denominations, in particular, the Carmelite sect, dominates the horizon. The bulbous Carmelite church domes dominate the skyline here in Valletta. There are walls and fortresses everywhere you walk and most of these are credited to the medieval Knights Hospitaller. These stout fellows controlled the area and repulsed numerous Turkish attacks over the centuries. Undoubtedly, they must have dallied with the local damsels in between defending the place back then.

The Maltese language is a polyglot: a combination of Arabic, interspersed with Italian and held together with odd bits of English. It is the only Semitic language that is written with Latinate characters--fancy that. Nevertheless, their flagrant use of X's and K's in the alphabet is a bit off-putting to native speakers of English.

There's this strange, but exotic woman who sometimes haunts the film reviews for TV Ontario. She was also in the movie Highway 41. I could never figure out where she was from even though she is Canadian. Her last name threw me—Buhagiar. Well, now I know she is from Malta because every second shop here is run by someone with her surname—Buhagiar.

Sunday 9th

A hell of a storm blew in here last night and the wind kept up all night. It made a proper old blustery evening that only mad dogs and Malteasers would go out in. The temperature plummeted and I was forced to put on my inversion pot heater to thwart the cold damp air that blew in under the porous outside balcony doors.

Despite the bombast, I did manage to somehow walk along Triq Pinto besides Lascias Bastions and Upper Baraka Gardens. As I fought my way along the open seafront I tried to scale the adjoining battlements and succeeded in finding an old beaten path that switch backed to a concrete path that led me through an industrial site. From there, I emerged out onto a piazza with a cathedral. This was the archway called “Portes des Bombes” which is an ornamental gateway dating to 1697-1720 built as part of the fortification for the city of Floriana.

From there I headed up Triq Sant'Anna to a rather busy bus depot that had been turned into 
a very busy flea market. The market was selling the kind of useless items that no one in their right mind would ever want. On through the main gates of Valletta whence I found Cafe 
The backdrop is the Turkish prison from the Midnight Express.
Royale—for a latte and some cheesy comestibles. After that brief repast, I made for Hastings Gardens and walked around St. Johns bastion, then abandoned any further exploration as the wind had made walking impossible.

This morning I followed the road in the direction of Fort St. Elmo. I tried to walk along the water's edge but this became treacherous because of the crashing waves against the path. At St. Elmo, the Maltese suffered a great defeat after a long siege to the Turks in 1565. It had been built to protect the Sceberras Peninsula.

The Maltese did repulse an Italian attack during WW2. More importantly, the lower part of the fort was used as a set for the Turkish prison scenes in—Midnight Express. From the ramparts you could get an excellent view of the Carmelite Church, the NW corner of Valletta, as well as, Ta'xbiex, Manoel Island and Sliema. From here I walked to the church and then back to my favourite haunt--Cafe Royale on Triq Ordinanza where I ogled at beautiful Maltese women and slurped cappuccino noisily through a straw.

                                                          The silent city: Mdina

I went upcountry to Mdina/Rabat today, but that was like going to the North Pole, as the weather was quite nippy. However, it was an enjoyable yet cheap bus ride all for 15 cents—in spite of what the rental car guy had earlier said. There is nothing in this tiny island that is more than a half-hour away by bus. I got off with the rest of the tourists—mostly German folk who nattered away in their Teutonic tongue and another couple who got off in the middle of nowhere.

They call Mdina “the silent city” and it sure is—you could have heard a cat drop. Today there are only German and Chinese tourists, a few mangy cats and costumed Maltese. It's a bit 
hokey and reminds me of an exhibit at Disney World—well, it's off season so what can you expect. I trotted on though the main gate, past the outer wall of bastions and almost got 
blown over the battlements. I can't imagine a more miserable place to wage a war. You could still see the Mediterranean, but god knows where Valletta disappeared.

I could make out a huge brownish dome on the horizon, which may be the Carmelite Church near the Hotel British. There was, however, a huge dome across the way, which looked like an unfinished mausoleum. If I were anywhere else I would have thought it was a mosque. I headed off from this cursed place and came upon an artist putting a fresh face of whitewash on some huge sculptures of angels. After this ,I had the brainwave of going below the ramparts of Mdina for a better vantage point of the redoubt. This was a mistake. It soon became obvious that in order to get the photo I wanted would entail trucking into some farmer’s field.

I headed across some freshly ploughed field ever on the lookout for a farmer's dog and carried a sufficient rock to clock him with. It turned out that this brilliant idea was incredibly stupid, as I had forgotten about the previous evening’s deluge. My spiffy new Rockport shoes were now like 'Moonboots' as I had 2-inch platforms of mud on the soles. My legs felt like I was walking on the bottom of the ocean.

Nevertheless, the pruned fruit trees had delicate pink flowers, which contrasted against the dun coloured background. I crouched down to take a picture of a bit of sunshine that briefly 
Mdina, the Silent City.
lit the redoubt. After this, I stumbled down an embankment to a green terrace and the muddy field below. As I traversed to a metalled road, I was ever mindful that some pariah dogs would set upon me especially now being lead footed. I continued on skirting 
the ploughed field and I came upon an odd chicken coop/dog pen? It was an old wreck 
of a car or bread van that was ringed by sandstone bricks and bits of chicken wire. I don’t know what they are growing in these fields, but the soil is very clayey.

I then noticed the farmer tilling in his field and his brutish hundt making towards me, but luckily I was nearly off the fields. I came down over a scratchy barbwire fence and beetled along the tarmac in hopes of catching a bus back to Valletta. A young Italian couple in stylish black leathers walked towards me and then disappeared. I hailed a No. 80 bus and headed back to town and to Cafe Royale for another well-deserved nosh, as this exercise had made me quite peckish.

[1] The hotel’s facade and surrounding area was used during a number of movies: Munich and
   The Devil’s Double.

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