Farewell to Malta

Malta

We have departed Malta and are now on our way to London sipping our final Kinnies.

Before we left, Marisa and her sister Marianne took us out for a great dinner by the marina in Ta’ Xbiex. Marisa brought some really old photos that Grandfather had sent to his sisters over the years. There was Grandfather in his military uniform aged 19 and photos of Dad and Lorraine as babies, plus photos from Charles and Emily’s last trip to Malta. Also a good one of Grandfather taking a call from his sisters on his 70th birthday, which bought back memories of that night 21 years ago.

Marisa has been so good to us during our stay and we are hopeful that she will one day make the journey to NZ so that we can reciprocate.

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Yesterday we had a coffee with Doreen Mangion who has also been very good to us. It was a shame that we didn’t get a chance to see Mary and some of the other Mangions, but they are all quite busy with a wedding next week and Mary’s birthday today.

The Maltese are now officially calling the last two weeks a heat wave, though the temperature yesterday had dropped by three or four degrees, which was far more pleasant. Heading to 14 in the UK will be a bit of a shock.

It was only right that we returned to our St Julian’s restaurant Gululus for our last night in Malta. Em had the traditional rabbit pie and my pasta was the best pasta yet. Traditional date fritters and ice cream turned out to be incredibly good.

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My highlights from Malta = diving in Gozo with Mike the Maltese, seeing the family, eating lamb Ftira and drinking lots of Cisk.

Em’s highlights = swimming in the Med, finding great Maltese food and the first time we saw Valletta at twilight (awwww).

We definitely think St Julian’s was the best place to stay – it had the best feel about it as an area, plenty of great restaurants and easy access to anywhere you’d want to go.

Black Friday in an ancient tomb

Malta

It probably wasn’t coincidence that the only tickets we could get to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum were on Friday the 13th. After all, it is estimated that 7000 people were buried at this site.

The Hypogeum is an ancient temple or tomb which dates back to 6000 years ago. It was discovered in 1902 when a new cistern was being installed for new houses to be built above. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and has been the subject of much archaeological study.

One of the things we found so bizarre was that the Hypogeum sits in the middle of residential Paola and, at street level, the building which has now been constructed above it blends in with the rest of the suburb. There used to be four houses above the Hypogeum which have now been removed and replaced with a more modern structure protecting the tomb below.

The tomb is climate controlled in terms of temperature, CO2 and light to minimise the degradation of the ancient stone. Only 80 people per day are allowed (to keep CO2 to a controlled level) – eight groups of 10 people every hour.

The tour begins with a short background film before you move down to the top level of the tomb. There is an audio guide which is synchronised with the dim lighting as you move through.

The top level is what would have been ground level (or slightly below ground level) all those years ago. Large boulders are scattered around the entrance to make it look more inconspicuous. There are some small compartmental spaces where it is thought that the dead were first put to decompose before the corpses were buried.

You then descend gradually through another three levels, stopping to observe the entrances to the smaller tombs where the dead were buried. Many ancient artifacts were recovered from inside the Hypogeum such as sacrificial sculptures, weapons and other everyday objects. There are also original paintings in red ochre (resembling blood) on some of the walls and ceilings. The red pigment and some of the materials of the sacrificial sculptures are from neighboring islands and Sicily, so it is fairly certain that these people were seafaring.

The most remarkable thing about the structure is that it was built entirely by the use of bone picks and chisels. The entire Hypogeum is one big sculpture and it would have been built progressively over hundreds of years. Small holes were bored into the rock to make the rock easier to chip away. Even more incredible is the fact that some of the larger domed rooms were sculpted to look like they had been built by placing large boulders on top of each other. The main chamber was designed with outward sloped pillars and doors to make the room seem larger than it actually was.

Little is known of the people that built this tomb and you inevitably end up with more questions than can be answered. Using the research into the Hypogeum and the other ancient temples and other sites scattered around Malta and Gozo, archeologists have been able to make some assumptions about how they lived. In the Hypogeum itself, it seems that people were buried on a hierarchical basis and there is evidence of human and animal sacrifice.

Our concerns of being buried alive were probably unfounded given the number of earthquakes the structure has survived undamaged. We were surprised at how moisty it was down there, with water droplets pooling on the ceiling and dripping heard echoing throughout (Em wrote this bit). The Hypogeum was fascinating and well worth the €20 ticket price. For anyone heading to Malta, this is a must see, and is booked out months in advance.

Cameras weren’t allowed, but here are some Google photos.

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Torri Mamo

Malta

Standing in St Thomas’ Bay on the far east side of the island is the Mamo Tower.

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Red pin = St Thomas’ Bay. Purple pin = Mamo Tower

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Although referred to as a tower, the building was actually a fortified country residence built by the Mamo family in 1657 as protection against invading Ottomans from nearby St Thomas Bay.

The tower sits on a busy road near the town of Marsascala and opposite a small dairy farm. Inside we found a dejected-looking bearded volunteer who opens the tower for the “public” every Thursday. He does not exactly get overwhelmed with visitors (and normally sees no one during his shift). Needless to say he was thrilled that some people had turned up, and especially a Mamo.

He begins his tour by pointing us to the family crest and a family tree picture. Apparently the name Mamo was derived from the French Saint Mammes, later changed to Mamon, then to Mamo in Malta, after some early ancestors emigrated there. In Malta, records of the name date back to the 16th century, when Salvatore Mamo appeared on “The list of Non-Titled Maltese families”. Sorry to say that Grandfather’s claims that he is a direct descendant of the Knights don’t have much truth to them…

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On entering one finds a beautiful round domical-roofed room leading to four smaller rooms forming the four arms of the cross. The room is really quite incredible when you think it was built in 1657.

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No one really knows how the rooms were set up. It is assumed that one was a kitchen (although there is no chimney and chimneys were around at that time) and others were bedrooms. Our guide took us up to an upstairs bedroom with a very low ceiling – the Maltese were very small people back then. The place would have been super hot in summer and freezing in winter.

On the left-hand side a staircase leads to the roof with wide views over the bay and surrounding countryside.

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It’s certainly a long way down to the ditch at the base of the tower making any assault on the building pretty tricky. In 1940 the Tower was taken over by the British military as a regional headquarters, and a pill box was constructed on the roof. I wonder what older weaponry would have been used to fend off the Turks?

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A two-metre ditch surrounds the Tower and there was formerly a draw-bridge. In the ditch there is a 4th-century Roman tomb which was probably originally from the Phoenician period.

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Over the years the Tower has had many owners. It was inherited by Lord Strickland, Prime Minister of Malta from 1927-33 and was then sold. It was subsequently rented to a family from Zejtun but due to severe deterioration they gave up the lease in 1987. It was then handed over to Din l-Art (the National Trust) by the Ministry for Culture, and the required repairs were made to the external walls in 1988.

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A chapel dedicated to St Gaetane lies fifty meters from the Tower, also built by the Mamo family.

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Sorry for the rather factual post today. You can take a virtual tour of the Tower by clicking this link to YouTube – click here. Probably best without the Scottish Highland music playing in the background.

Land of the Gozitans

Malta

On the 11th, we braved the heat and day tripped to Gozo, Malta’s smaller second island (carrying 6 litres of water). We bused to Cirkewwa (about an hour) then caught the excellent Gozo Channel Ferry to Mgarr Harbour (25 minutes).

Once in Gozo, we splashed out €30 to hire a car for the day (slowest car ever – it was a Chevron and there were plenty of these hired to tourists) as we didn’t want to waste any time waiting for buses. (Arriva also operates buses on Gozo but for some bizarre reason your Malta ticket isn’t valid in Gozo.)

Driving was fun. Most of the roads had been dug up for road works so there were many diversions in place. There is only one road rule in Gozo – tourists must give way to local Gozitans (and because most tourists drive brightly coloured Chevron hatchbacks, this rule works ok).

We decided to drive straight to the far side of Gozo (15 minutes) to the Azure Window in Dwejra.

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The Azure Window is one of those freaks of geology that features on all the post cards. I came here nine years ago with Mum, Dad and Nicky, but it was worth the second visit.

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Since we were last here, some huge pieces of rock have fallen off the Azure Window (this only happened this year) and it is now pretty certain that it will one day topple into the ocean. Here is the before and after shot published in the Malta Times:

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Inland from the Azure Window is the Inland Sea which is a cliff bound lagoon connected to the open sea by a tunnel that runs for 100m through the headland of Dwejra Point. Local fisherman take tourists through the tunnel for about €7. We did this last time, but today opted to spend our change on ice cream.

In the rocks between the Azure Window and where I am standing in the photo above is the Blue Hole. It’s very cool. It is a natural vertical chimney in the limestone about 10m in diameter and 25m deep that connects with the open sea through an underwater arch about 8m down. From the surface the Blue Hole is completely enclosed by the rock. Here is a bird’s eye view from Google followed by one of Em’s photos.

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There was a group of divers in the Blue Hole when I went for a dip and I was wishing that I had organised a dive while we were out here – this is one of the top dive sites in Malta.

As the photo above was taken, this local guy (wearing speedos and smoking) sat down next to Em and started chatting.

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It turned out that Mike the Maltese was a dive instructor (although we were a little wary of this to start with). The Dutch people that Mike was to have taken diving that day were apparently sick, so he offered to take me diving for €40. Being so desperate to go diving, I couldn’t say no. He went home to get the gear and we arranged to meet in the car park in 45 minutes.

With the dive shop in Sliema who took me to the HMS Maori on Monday there was 4 pages of waivers of liability and signatures everywhere. Mike didn’t seem to need any of that. He did have a laminated business card though, so seemed legit enough.

After the agony of putting on a wetsuit in the car park in 38 degrees, we made our way to the water to get started.

The first part of the dive involved following Mike down this incredible vertical chimney that is just wide enough for a diver. I found a link of some divers doing the chimney on YouTube (although it doesn’t do it justice) – click here

We then go off this big ledge and descend to 27m. There are lots of cool fish and some are feeding by swimming vertically up the ledge towards the surface. Mike the Maltese (who was evidently very experienced and an excellent underwater guide) was joking around and I was spitting air laughing at his hilarity. Earlier he had told me: “I had a wife, and now I have a girlfriend, but I get in trouble often as I meet lots of people and many of them are French and Italian and wear bikinis”. Maltese accent required.

We make our way back to the chimney and this time ascend through it before heading under the Azure Window. You could see all the huge pieces of rock that had fallen off recently. The change doesn’t look significant in the photos above, but close up there is one piece as big as a bus (which Mike takes us under). We can see the outline of the arch above the surface from 15m down. The visibility is much better than at home.

The next interesting bit is a massive underwater cave which we swam into until it was pitch black. Then we swim back out a bit and Mike points out a rock formation that resembles a face.

We go under the arch into the Blue Hole to start our ascent, but need to do a safety stop for a few minutes at 5 meters. Mike has me spewing air as I laugh at him pointing out the large French mammals treading water above us.

Dive time = 55 minutes and I enjoyed every minute of it.

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Mike the Maltese smokes two packs a day but his air still lasted longer than mine!

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We farewelled Mike and headed off around the coast in search of a sandy beach, stopping for photos along the way.

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Finally it was time to get out of the water, eat some more ice cream, and head back to the ferry terminal to drop off the car. We decided to have dinner at a restaurant adjacent to the wharf before catching the return ferry back to Malta at 8.15. The only hiccup was the Arriva bus at the other end (I think I was too generous towards Arriva in my last blog) which left us waiting at the stop until 10pm. Other than that, the trip to Gozo was awesome (and we drank all of our water).

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Crazy Malta buses

Malta

The Maltese buses and the bus system deserve their own blog post. And today we are having a slow day sitting in Cafe Bocconcino and drinking coffee, so why not. Besides it’s too hot to do anything. Planned trip to Gozo tomorrow might be cancelled due to forecast 38 degrees.

We bought a seven day bus pass when we arrived which gives you unlimited use of the buses anywhere in Malta. At €12 each, they are good value if you’re using the buses everyday like we are. And of course it saves the hassle of finding €0.49 every time you get on.

But this is the new Maltese bus system. The “changeover” only occurred on 3 July last year. I can remember so vividly the old yellow buses, decorated inside and out, each one having a personality of their own. The drivers were so unnecessarily grumpy, but somehow that added to their charm.

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The “central bus terminal” is just a gigantic roundabout outside the city gates in Valletta. When we came to Malta in 2003 the old buses simply parked in reasonably random order around the roundabout. If it was 35 degrees in Malta, it would be 45 at the bus terminal due to the fact there were 30 or so vintage buses (some of which were 60 years old) idling in that confined area. Not to mention the fumes. Cousin Adam reckons the old buses were probably single handedly responsible for global warming.

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The old buses at the crazy roundabout

I’ve done some reading on the old buses. They were run on a unique owner-operator system, much like taxis in Britain. The drivers bought – and in many cases, built, or inherited from their fathers – their own buses. They alone were responsible for running and maintaining them. At night, they parked them outside their houses and, in some cases, actually inside them.

The average Maltese bus was 35 years old. Many had been around for 50 or even 60 years.
After World War II, enterprising Maltese men purchased old British Army vehicles, stripped them to the chassis and welded hand-made bus bodies on top. They had hand painted slogans on the back. Some of the good ones: “Speed of Light”, “Reliance”, “You’re my own time lover” and “Living dreams”.

I found an article in the Malta Times published on the eve of the changeover. Ray Cassar was over 55 and had accepted voluntary retirement rather than taking up a job with Arriva, the new operator. Ray had been a bus driver practically since he was 5 years old as he used to accompany his father on the bus (where he was “sometimes allowed to drive which was fine as long as he didn’t crash”). He described his 1962 Bedford bus as “the story of his life”. He had just garaged his bus knowing that next time he drove it would be to its grave (although he quietly hoped he could have the exhaust cleaned so it could be used for the tourists). Ray was finishing his career as a bus driver and was going to open a snack bar where his income would be uncertain. He used to earn about €350 a week driving the bus and enjoyed the certainty of income.

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Ray Cassar

Cut to the present

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This photo is of an Arriva driver. He’s probably just run over a small child in his bendy bus. Maybe he is stuck on a tight bend. Either way the photo kind of sums it all up.

From what I’ve read, the changeover was a nightmare. On day one, 70 of the old drivers didn’t show up for work leaving the bus system in total chaos. 55 drivers from Britain had to be shipped in by Arriva to fill the empty driving seats. The British drivers were only supposed to be here temporarily, but it seems that many are still here.

There was no winning for Arriva. They had assumed that the drivers they had employed would turn up for work. Not so in Malta where the old drivers still wanted to save the old system where they had a monopoly. Arriva had rolled out 250 brand new buses with air conditioning. When the air conditioning didn’t work they were abused (everyone forgetting that the old buses had no air conditioning at all). They also completely changed the route system and the layout of the bus roundabout. All this in July – when temperatures soar and so do tempers.

Arriva accused the old drivers of trying to sabotage the new system so they could get the old system back. Even when the old drivers turned up for work, there were reports of them deviating substantially off course and either going home or parking their bendy buses by a kiosk for a break and leaving passengers stranded at the bus stops. The bus drivers didn’t know the new buses had GPS tracking their every move. The drivers said the GPS systems were faulty.

A spokesman for the drivers’ union said it wasn’t sabotage: “I don’t view this as organised sabotage. I see this as normal human behaviour in a situation where you have a complex system that is initially quite chaotic and if there are opportunities for people who can do less work than they’re supposed to, a few will do so,” the spokesman said, adding this behaviour was not unique to Maltese bus drivers.

Some students created a card game of the old Maltese bus drivers where you trade the cards depicting different drivers. The drivers are ranked on ferocity, speed, punctuality, loudness, courtesy and decoration.

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Our experience of the new system has been mostly good. On the cramped bus ride to Marsaxlokk, Joe the bus driver struck up a conversation with Em and enjoyed hearing about NZ and commenting on the temperature.

But we have also been on buses where the driver is intent on breaking the land-speed record for bendy buses on Malta’s potholed roads. The bus shudders and the noise would seem to suggest the bus is about to break in half. Remember that these buses are usually full – they can accommodate 150 passengers. The back breaking shuddering seems to further encourage the bus driver. Maybe if they can destroy the new buses they can get the old ones back?

Of course it was necessary that Malta refreshed its public transport system. But it is sad that there was no place for the old buses other than the museums. The old buses summed up (and added to) the quirkiness of Malta. Adored for their character, but highly impractical in this day and age. Either way, the change was an end of an era for Malta.

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Nom nom nom

Malta

We fricken love Maltese food!

Gululus in Spinola Bay has been frequented by us twice now: two nights ago and again tonight. We haven’t had any bad meals in Malta, but there is a lot of very standardised restaurant favourites on hand for the tourist masses. Gululus has a traditional Maltese menu, the service is great (the friendly waiter takes orders in many different languages) and so is the setting (at the water’s edge). See the menu here if you’re interested.

We had spoken to Grandfather Charles about some of the Maltese dishes, so it was great to actually see them on a menu and be able to try them. We will definitely be back again. It’s also very good value – given the large portions we split a main (more than enough) so we had a three course dinner and wine for €25 – no way you can do that in Auckland!

Some favourites:

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Ftira Miftuha bil-Haruf: Minced lamb, cumin, feta cheese, hummus and mozzarella

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Kannoli tar-Rikotta: Deep fried sweet pastry tubes stuffed with sweet local ricotta, candied peel, chocolate and almonds

Vittoriosa
Two days ago we caught the bus to Vittoriosa for the afternoon. Vittoriosa is on the other side of the Grand Harbour from Valletta. It measures 800m x 600m and is home to around 2,500 people. It was the site of a great battle between the Knights and the Ottomans as part of the Great Siege in 1565.

There are a few tourist attractions in Vittoriosa. We didn’t do any of them and instead wandered each of the narrow lanes, stopping to take in the view of the Grand Harbour. Before 5pm the streets were literally deserted and we found ourselves whispering to each other. We saw four other tourists.

The residents take great pride in their city (there is no rubbish at all) and the streets are lined with potted plants. Several streets had plaques presented by the local council to the street for “embellishing their street with potted plants”.

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Marsaxlokk
Yesterday we went to the Sunday fish market at Marsaxlokk on the far eastern side of Malta. Marsaxlokk is a traditional fishing village and on Sunday the fisherman set up stalls to sell at the market. The bay is filled with traditional “Iuzzu” fishing boats decorated in bright colours.

Unfortunately the combination of the incredible heat and the fish stalls meant that we weren’t keen on spending too much time in the market. The market also had a number of other hawkers selling usual tourist tat.

Knowing how popular the market would be, we had made a reservation for lunch at one of the fish restaurants lining the bay. Ir Rizzu was popular for its excellent fish – the restaurant itself was very bland. Alex chose the swordfish which was recommended and was very nice despite the old fashioned presentation.

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Diving the HMS Maori
Alex booked a dive today for the wreck of the HMS Maori sunk during WWII in 1942. The dive was excellent – even though it is right in the harbour the visibility is still much better than we typically get in New Zealand. Inside the wreck you can see shells with the year 1941 inscribed on them.

Wikipedia provides the following information on the wreck:
Maori served with the Mediterranean Fleet, was involved in the pursuit and destruction of the enemy German battleship Bismarck in May 1941 and served with the 14th Destroyer Flotilla during the Battle of Cape Bon in December 1941. Maori, commanded by Commander R. E. Courage, RN, was attacked by enemy German aircraft and sank at her moorings in the Malta Grand Harbour on 12 February 1942 with the loss of one of her crew. She was raised and scuttled off Malta on 15 July 1945.

Located a few hundred metres from the shore from Valletta, HMS Maori is now a popular dive site. The bow section lies in white sand at a depth of 14m, the aft section of the ship having been abandoned in deep water during the tow from Grand Harbour to Marsamxett Harbour. Much of the forward superstructure is still extant, including the two front gun bases. Much marine life can be found on the wreck.

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Funky old Mdina

Malta

Not to be confused with this classic from the ’80s, we (also being products of the ’80s) ventured to Mdina yesterday.

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The trip took around an hour by bus (it would be much faster by car), but Mdina is well worth the journey. Originally settled by the Phoenicians around 700BC, the city was heavily fortified by the Normans in the 11th century and used by the Knights of St John when they first came to Malta. Mdina also goes by the name “the Silent City” as it became less important and emptied out once the Knights built Valletta. At that point some of Mdina’s buildings became homes for the wealthy aristocracy.

The city is very small, but has the advantage of being high up and at one of the furtherest points from the sea. We lunched at a popular restaurant atop of the great walls with a view of Mosta and Valletta in the distance. Apparently on a very clear day you can also see Mt Etna in Sicily.

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Sitting there and scanning the landscape you certainly could envisage armies marching from the beaches towards the fortified walls. We felt more protected from roving armies in Mdina than we did in Valletta. The only roving armies that day were the passengers off a cruise ship arranged by language following their sign-holding guides. We escaped just as the German party stormed the gates.

The best thing to do in Mdina is to wander through its narrow Medieval streets (and we are very good wanderers). We wandered into the glass blowing shop – Mdina is famous for glass blowing. We wandered past the Nunnery of St Benedict where the nuns live in strict seclusion and are not allowed to leave (we hoped they had air conditioning) and St Paul’s Cathedral with its magnificent clocks.

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All in all, a great day in the Silent City.

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Aunties, architecture & artworks

Malta

Grandfather Charles was one of 11, seven of whom lived into their eighties or are still alive. There was Joe, Adelina (Lina or Adele), Pauline (Lina), Alice, Mary and Stella. Alex met Joe, Stella and Alice on his first trip to Malta. Joe and Stella have since passed away and Alice lives in England.

We weren’t sure what to expect today, knowing little of the Aunties’ situation in the time that had passed since a kiwi Mamo had visited. Fortunately it went very smoothly thanks to Lina’s daughter Marisa, who was very helpful and hospitable. Lina is Grandfather Charles’ youngest sister. She lives with her other daughter, Marianne in Gzira, and is doing quite well. She was very sweet showing us photos of the family, and especially missed Alice. She was pleased to have the new photos of Charles and Emily.

Marisa was great driving us around and took us to the home on the Sliema waterfront where Mary and Adelina share a room. Marisa and family had difficulty encouraging them to move to a home – that generation of Mamo’s are very hard headed! We were really pleased that the home was pleasant enough and that we found Mary and Adelina well and sitting up to lunch. Adelina seemed to remember Alex’s last visit with the family and loved the photos of Charles and Emily very much. Mary was precious – she just laughed at everything with this breathy snicker, no teeth and big dark smiley eyes! So funny.

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Mary, Marisa, Adelina and Alex

Marisa gave us cards marking Stella Mamo and Joseph Mamo’s passing to bring back to NZ. Marisa spoke very fondly of Stella and of being with her when she passed. Marisa and Marianne have done well in looking out for all of the Malta family, and it is good that Charles and Emily can have a first-hand update now.

The locals always know the good spots, which proved true again when Marisa kindly offered to take us for lunch. The restaurant overlooked the three cities from Valletta and mussels seemed to be the order of the day – though she did give Em a dig for not being so adventurous in her order and not go for that or the sea urchin pasta.

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Restaurant for lunch

It was funny to learn when we mentioned seeing information on President Mamo the day prior that Adelina was his children’s nanny for a few years at that time. There really was a family connection there.

Let’s hope we can host some of the Maltese Mamo’s or Mangion’s in New Zealand some time.

Lunch was located just down the stairs from the St John’s Co-Cathedral, so we decided it was an opportune time to tick that off our must-see list – and a must-see it was. Our first experience of such ancient & lavishly decorated architecture was pretty remarkable. The marble floor was decorated with tombstone embellishments for the Knights of St John, and a number of tombs in the chapels off to the sides of the nave held actual remains of the Grand Masters. The symbolism, detail and historical reference from the floors to walls to ceiling was insane. It was actually fascinating to also see the refurbishment work in process – a progressive & painstaking project of repairing canvas frames and tears, sensitive paint touch ups and the like.

The Oratory held the prized Caravaggio artwork depicting the beheading of St John: I literally stopped in my tracks when I first walked in. There’s something about the sheer size, careful lighting, silence and air in rooms like that which creates presence. The work is over 5 meters by over 3 meters… It’s imposing and fairly striking in content. Cool to have seen – and we will look out for his other work housed in the Louvre. I have to say after 1 museum and 1 cathedral, I am already an activist against sneaky people who pretend they’re ‘too foreign’ or ‘too blind’ to read or adhere to the no photography signs or the custodian yelling at them! You won’t see a sneaky snap of the Caravaggio here!

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Wandering ancient Valletta

Malta

After day 1 in Valletta we knew that more time was needed to absorb the history of the capital.

Day 2 was a slightly slower start after the late night with the Mangions the night before. We have now settled on our morning coffee spot with excellent espressos and cappuccinos for €1.40 (i.e. the price good coffee is supposed to be – not $4.50 alla Auckland). Then on the bus to Valletta.

First stop was the National War Museum which was unfortunately closed due to a power cut. With that plan out the window more aimless wandering ensued. However if there is anywhere to wander aimlessly it would have to be Valletta where every street oozes history (of course the whole capital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Aimless wandering produced one of those great moments for inexperienced travellers – getting a bit lost and finding a narrow lane with a small cafe serving fresh local seafood with hardly a tourist in sight (several blocks over the main street was packed with them). Fresh bread and homemade tomato paste, cold beer, and the most tender and tasty baby calamari either of us have ever tried. €11 all up.

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D’Office calamari

One more day in Valletta

We needed yet more time to go back and cover some of the sites in Valletta so we made another trip today (about 20 minutes on the bus from St Julian’s – we have an unlimited bus pass).

This time the National War Museum (at Fort St Elmo) is open. We brush up on our knowledge of both World Wars with the overlay of Malta’s (very significant) involvement.

Conscription was enacted in Malta in 1941 and all males aged 18 to 41 were required for service in the armed forces. The young men were grouped by age and told to report to Birkirkara, Marsa and Sliema Government schools. Grandfather was 20 at that time and would soon be in North Africa.

Can anyone confirm whether Grandfather manned one of these anti-aircraft guns? It’s a Bofors 40mm used in North Africa by the British 1940 – 1943.

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The Bofors 40mm on display

There was also the George Cross awarded to the entire people of Malta “to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”.

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The George Cross

The highlight of the day (apart from our pastizzi lunch for €1.60) was undoubtedly the Palace State Rooms of the Grand Masters Palace built by the Knights of St John in the late 16th century before the Knights were kicked out by Napoleon in 1798. The detail throughout the Palace really is breathtaking. The ceiling, the elaborate portraits of each of the Grand Masters and even several tributes to Sir Anthony Mamo (his portrait sits next to the enormous portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the State Dining Hall). The pictures don’t do the Palace justice but here are a few.

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The Halls decorated to show the main episodes of the Order of the Knights between the 13th and 16th centuries

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The State Dining Hall

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Adjacent to the Palace State Rooms is the Palace Armoury which houses one of the finest collections of Medieval and Renaissance weapons in all of Europe. Some very interesting pieces in there.

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Armour worn by a Grand Master

There is still more to see in Valletta. In particular we haven’t yet been to St John’s Co-Cathedral which houses the only Caravaggio signed by the artist (which makes it very special says Lorraine!)

Seeing Grandfather’s sisters tomorrow (aka “The Aunties”).

Welcome to Malta

Malta

It’s a strange feeling arriving in a foreign country on the other side of the world, but where there is a familial link.

I certainly didn’t feel any connection with Malta standing in the immigration line with the other non-EU arrivals. But on the other side of the gate Paul Zammit is waiting with a sign bearing my name (for those that don’t know there was another Paul Zammit in New Zealand who was married to Grandma’s sister).

Mr Paul shakes my hand and welcomes us to Malta. He recognises the surname and asks about the connection. “Mamo was the first President of Malta” says Mr Paul. I seem to recall Joanna Mamo having dug up this fact in recent years and of course Grandfather’s middle name is Anthony. Here is a picture of the man himself.

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Sir Anthony Mamo

San Giljan

St Julian’s is a great spot. Although it’s popular for tourists, there is a great promenade and many restaurants scattered around the bay. Our duplex apartment is 2 minutes walk to the waterfront and is situated in some quaint little streets (very different to the big hotels frequented by most tourists!)

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The lane to our apartment

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St Julian’s on the map

Day 2

The following morning we walked to a small supermarket about 10 mins away today to get some supplies so we can cook for ourselves some meals – Stu you would have liked the packets of chunky pancetta and the like for your omelets. It had everything we needed and a lot of familiar products just different packaging.

Mid-arvo we caught the bus into the capital city, Valletta. It is fortified which is quite amazing, but pretty small – a km x 600m. We walked past Fort St Elmo at the end of the small peninsula which is now used for police training. We wandered around and saw a few historic sites/museums which we will go back to. It’s all super close together, so easy to make repeat trips now we have a bus pass.

Alex was disappointed as the hot and smokey old yellow ‘Malta buses’ are gone, replaced with dark green bendy buses. The bendy buses (being the largest buses produced by Mercedes) really are a strange choice for Malta with its small clogged streets. We can’t believe the driving here – they all drive so fast down tiny lanes with cars parked all over the place. Apparently the Maltese are impatient, according to Doreen, which fits as we certainly couldn’t work out why they were in such a hurry.

Tonight we were picked up by Doreen Mangion, her son Benji and his girlfriend Helena to go to dinner. Doreen was married to Allen’s cousin Alex on Emily Mamo’s side who passed away. They were great company and took us to a restaurant (The Chophouse) with the most incredible view of Valletta at twilight and then lit up as it got dark. We will see them again and meet more of that side of the family next week.

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View of Valletta from the Chophouse

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With Doreen, Helena and Benjie (slight difference in skin colour between the Kiwis and the Maltese!)