Exploring Malta

Valletta Malta Skyline – orangeviaggi

Malta is an extraordinary country with many hidden treasures! Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese Archipelago is a world of its own – south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, east of the Strait of Gibraltar, and north of Alexandria Egypt! The three main islands are Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They’re rich in culture and nature with Neolithic archeological sites, Baroque architecture, historical museums, art galleries, ancient forts, forests, water sports, lighthouses, windmills, and beaches.

Xarolla Windmill – mymalata.com

Wednesday I took a ferry to Valletta. The weather was warm, hazy, and windy with piercing sun. After a long trip my photography skills are waning and processing photos with slow local WiFi is painful. To help communicate Malta’s beauty, I’ve used some media shots in this post.

Mediterranean Sea

Overlooking Malta Grand Harbor

Catamaran Ferry

Getting to Malta was more complicated than I imagined. Weather permitting, there are daily ferries from Pozzallo to Valletta and back. The huge catamaran has gambling – slot machines – shops, food, and is clean and comfortable. I booked my ticket online – the date changed several times due to heavy wind and stormy seas.

Garden Grand Master’s Palace

It’s amazing that it can be clear when boarding the ferry and 30 minutes into the 1.5-hour trip to Malta you run into Mediterranean squalls. Many passengers got sea-sick and no matter how sure-footed you were, walking around the boat was difficult – bumping off walls and seats. The captain asked everyone to remain seated.

Triton Fountain Valletta – Images George Rex

A few days before departure, I received notification that the return trip was departing Valletta two hours later. That was fine with me and would allow more time to explore. I asked if the Pozzallo departure was also changed and the reply was it would leave as scheduled – ha

Nativity of Our Lady Chapel Birkirkara – Trip-Suggest

I gave myself time to walk to the ferry – about 30 minutes along the coast. I could see the ferry approaching as I got near the port and quickened my pace thinking I might miss it – ha, ha, ha. The ferry departed almost two hours late!

Yacht Blue Lagoon Comino Island – Photo Malta Tourism

Auberge de Castille Valletta

The security check was quick but the boarding area packed. Upon arrival, trucks and autos exit the ferry first – before passengers are allowed to disembark. This doesn’t make sense but there must be logic behind it? The tedious process made everyone antsy and seemed to take forever.

I ran into familiar faces from Pozzallo and chatted with passengers. Easter is a major Italian holiday followed by Independence Day on April 25, when many families visit. Malta’s ferry was more chaotic than those for other archipelagos and isolated islands experienced – Azores, Seychelles, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Greek and Turkish Islands.

St John Cathedral Clock Tower

History and Geography

The History of the Maltese Islands dates back 7,000 years to 5200 B.C., when Stone Age farmers settled along the shores. Normans, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Phoenicians, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Castilians invaded the archipelago.

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – cagliariturismo

Malta gained independence in 1964, changed from a Commonwealth to a Republic in 1974, and joined the European Union in 2004. It’s the smallest country in the EU by area and population, but the most densely populated. The Maltese archipelago has seven Mediterranean islands – only three are inhabited.

Mosaic Domus Romana Ruin Gozo Island – heritagemalta.org

Valletta City Gate

Malta is the largest island. The capital is Valletta with Birkirkara the most populated city. Malta has a series of small towns forming one Larger Urban Zone (LUZ) with a total population of around 450,000. Maltese is the national language, but there are two official languages – Maltese and English.

Valletta Malta – LandLopers

Locals appear to think of their towns almost as separate countries. During the day I got disorientated when my offline maps didn’t work and no one could help me find the ferry departure point in Valletta. I had strayed into another town where they disavowed all knowledge of Valletta.

Ft. St. Angelo

It’s easy to see why the Maltese Archipelago is an important Mediterranean maritime hub. It has three large natural harbors – Marsamxett, Marsaxlokk, and Grand. The fourth harbor – Ċirkewwa – is manmade.

Church Our Lady of Mount Carmel – commons.wikimedia.org

Locals often assume you’re a cruise ship passenger – there were several massive ships in Grand Harbor… After circling the waterfront a few times, I finally found the right departure point. The stress of finding the ferry location on time was unnecessary since there was another departure delay.

Unknown Buildings Near Valletta Port

Accommodation, Transportation, and Tours

Malta accommodation is expensive. I wanted to stay there but opted for day trips from Pozzallo – before realizing the hassle of getting back and forth via ferry. I planned to book a tour in advance, but am glad I didn’t. With the delay in ferry departure it would have been impossible to join a tour group on time.

Swatar Birkirkara – Wikipedia

I did research to find points of interest and guide myself. It was slightly overwhelming. It’s impossible to explore Malta in one day – you need more time to see and understand even basic cultural and historic attractions. Captivated by Malta’s beauty and mystery, I plan a return visit and extended stay.

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Known as Europe’s “culture capital,” Malta is one of the most beautiful places in the world! A new art gallery – Muża – opened in 2018. The name stands for Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti. In Maltese it means “muse or inspiration”. Renovated 15th-century Auberge d’Italie combines the art collection of Malta’s former National Museum of Fine Arts and recent Muża acquisitions.

Grandmaster’s Palace Valletta

Automobiles and motorcycles run the perimeter of the island. In central Valletta old town, you can walk, take a horse-drawn carriage, or ride a small motorized vehicle for children and those less mobile. Exploring the island on foot is by far the best.

MUZA – Valletta 2018

Valletta Piazzas

Valletta has several main squares:

  • Republic Square – known for cafés
  • St. George’s Square – home of the Grandmaster
  • St. John’s Square – home of St. Johns Cathedral
  • Triton Square – near Valletta City Gate
  • Freedom Square – reminiscent of the 1970s Communist period
  • Castille Square – overlooking the Grand Harbour and Auberge de Castille
  • Independence Square – beautiful terraces and traditional Maltese houses

Malta has an extensive local bus system. Knowing I had limited time, I waited in line to learn about buses and buy a pass. The lines were long and included migrant refugees – mostly from Africa. I waited behind a young man who was very calm and patient. When he got to the front of the line, he was told that he had to provide a paper copy of his travel permit. After obtaining the copy, he had to come back and wait all over again. I felt sorry for him. He handled it gracefully.

Grand Harbor View from Upper Barrakka Gardens

The best advice was from a concierge at the Phoenician Hotel who recommended touring on foot and pointed out the most accessible attractions in Central Valletta. Every street was fascinating! Many look down on the harbor, and like in San Francisco, sea and Bay vistas from the hills are breathtaking. I stopped for lunch at an outdoor café and then continued to St. Johns Co-Cathedral.

Valletta Malta Festa Facade – Photo Juliet Rix

St. Johns Co-Cathedral

St. Johns Co-Cathedral is a “shrine and sacred place of worship” and “gem of Baroque art and architecture”. It was the church of the Knights of St. John who ruled Malta for over 250 years from 1530 to 1798. The Grand Masters and knights donated art and made contributions to embellish the church”.

Sacra Infermeria – Hektoen International

The noble Knights protected Malta. Their origins were of peace and caring for the sick. A tour of Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary) reveals their past.

Archaeological Sites

Malta has ten magnificent archaeological sites – three listed with UNESCO. Megalithic temples on Malta and Gozo are the oldest freestanding structures in the world.

Malta Map – CIMBA Italy

Archaeological areas include burial sites, temples, and catacombs:

The Sleeping Lady Neolithic Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum Temple – Jimdo

National Museum of Archaeology

Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology is an introduction to the pre and early history of the Maltese Islands. Upon entry a “figure of the Sleeping Lady flashes before you on a limestone screen”. The mysterious Sleeping Lady is 5,000 years old!

Malta – Daily Express

Her famous image from the Neolithic Period “honors one of the first cultures to leave a mark on Malta”. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum Temple, a “sanctuary and necropolis,” is one of the best-preserved examples of Maltese temple building culture. Archeologists have documented the remains of over 7,000 individuals.

Interior St Johns Cathedral Valletta – Photo Juliet Rix

Artefacts date back to the Neolithic Period (5000 BC) up to the Phoenician Period (400 BC). Highlights include medieval palazzo doorways and bronze daggers from the Tarxien Temples.

Birkirkara St. Helena Basilica – maltaphotos

Grand Master’s Palace and Armoury

The Grand Master’s Palace and Armoury is the most “grandiose” palace in Malta. Today it’s the office of Malta’s President, George Vella. Some say the palace is haunted!

Sliema Malta – bayviewmaltacom

The armoury has the “world’s largest collections of knightly arms and armor”. Façade improvements were the efforts of Grand Master Pinto de Fonseca.

Hotels Birkirkara – Reserving.com

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Roman Catholic Parish Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a neo-gothic church in Balluta Bay, the town of St Julian’s Malta. The church is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site including Valletta. It’s a small but special church.

Triton Fountain

Built in 1580 and damaged during WWII, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was rebuilt in the 1950s in Pisan Romanesque style. The church has spectacular mosaics representing Carmel’s story.

Museum of Archaeology Grandmaster’s Palace – corinthia.com

The marble altar is magnificent as is the bell tower “surmounted by a bronze statue of the Madonna”. The central chapel dates back to the eleventh century and has a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. I took a break and sat inside admiring the art and dome.

Armor Grand Master’s Palace – Heritage Malta

I thoroughly enjoyed my limited time in Malta but hope to return and explore other islands, archaeological sites, and natural wonders like the blue grotto. “Malta” comes from a Greek word meaning “honey” – it’s an appropriate name.

Valletta City Gate

Arriverderci!

Valletta Waterfront at Dawn – Photograph Alamy

Dubrovnik Reflections

Stradun Old Town in Winter – Culture Trip

It’s an understatement that Dubrovnik is a vast change from Berlin! With the 90/180 visa rule, I had to exit EU Schengen countries and there weren’t many options. Croatia was the right choice.

Dubrovački Zimski Festival 2019 – tzdubrovnik.hr

Dubrovnik in Winter

Some say visiting Dubrovnik in winter is crazy, but I love the time here, even though it can get windy and cold. Locals clearly prefer warm Mediterranean weather and grumble when it gets below 50. Winter temperatures are steady in the 40s – 50s with chilly nights in the 30s. Most days are crisp and clear emphasizing a backdrop of sea and mountains! I met a tourist from Chicago who said Dubrovnik’s winter weather seemed almost like spring. It’s ideal for hiking and winter festivals are fun. 

Festival of St. Blaise Dubrovnik – Total Croatia News

Long-Term Travel

Long-term travel is a much different experience than short-term group or family trips. The goal is staying a while and being low-key, forgetting yourself, getting comfortable mingling, and learning to understand a country’s culture, people, and day-to-day life. I no longer try to explain the value of this to those who don’t understand and are even critical. However, as a solo traveler you must be self-reliant and cautious. I’ve made and survived many mistakes. Imperfection and the unknown are part of the adventure.

Stradun Old Town During Winter Festival

Getting Around

Getting around Dubrovnik requires effort but you grow accustomed to climbing and descending a series of steep stone steps. I started a morning yoga routine that seems to keep me limber. I enjoy daily walks, short hikes, and climbing the stairs on the way to and from my apartment – especially at dusk and sunset when the sky and sea are vivid and dramatic. With a car, good luck finding parking near Old Town.

Winter View of Old Town and Lokrum Island from Mt. Srd

Internet is fast and unlike Berlin, you don’t get slammed with excessive advertisements. Almost everything closes on Sunday which reminds me of South Africa years ago.

Dubrovnik’s Islands in Winter – Total Croatia News

People, Cats, Food

I’ve met some lovely locals and learned about Dubrovnik’s history. Most people speak English fairly well. During business hours they move quickly, but after hours it’s a different scene.

Winter Sunset Dubrovnik

People in Dubrovnik are down-to-earth and don’t make life complicated. Some men are flirtatious :o)… It’s fun to be noticed, but even at my age, flirting back isn’t always a good idea for solo women travelers.

Old Town Cat

Winter Adriatic Sea

I don’t know but think locals are slightly overwhelmed by the ever-increasing hordes of tourists. Of course they’re a great source of income, but the summer invasion makes a huge impact. I imagine they must grow weary of the onslaught when Old Town is literally teeming with bodies.

Dubrovački Zimski Festival 2019 – tzdubrovnik.hr

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Winter is the time when locals “take back Dubrovnik”!

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Mt. Srd January 2019

I’ve noticed many stray cats – nothing like Istanbul. Most of them look healthy and like to be petted, but some are skittish and clearly feral. They’re clever and streetwise knowing when to run, which people to trust, and who in the crowd is likely to feed them at outdoor restaurants.

Statue of St Blaise Old Town Stari Grad Dubrovnik

Only a handful of restaurants are open during the winter – some better than others. Usually you can’t go wrong with seafood. So far, my favorite treat is olives! Green or black they’re absolutely divine – BIG smile. Croatian honey, dates, and oranges are also delicious. Markets around my apartment are small locally owned places with fantastic fresh produce and cheeses.

Mini Market Prima Dubrovnik

Winter Dusk before Sunset Dubrovnik

Politics, History, Money

Understanding politics in any country is a challenge, and I’m learning about Croatia through on-line newspapers and conversations with locals. What little I know about the complicated history of conflict between Dubrovnik and its Serbian neighbors is interesting, as is the Bosnian War from 20 years ago, and the Venetian, Napoleonic, and Ottoman invasions.

Church of St. Blaise and Orlando’s Column Old Town Dubrovnik

Croatia hasn’t adopted the Euro yet, but talks are in process for entering the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Some services quote rates in both Croatian Kuna and Euro – it’s confusing and there’s a big difference between the two! Taxi drivers give a price that sounds reasonable in Kuna and then when it’s time to pay, they say the price quoted was in Euro – usually an outrageous amount… My experiences with taxis in foreign countries haven’t been positive.

Portion of Steps Leading to Old Town

More Steps

Winter Limitations

It’s disappointing that during winter there are no swimming, kayaking, or boat excursions to Dubrovnik’s fabulous islands – that is unless you’re a polar bear swimmer. I’ve seen several brave souls venture out in the cold Adriatic Sea for brief early morning swims. It’s a daily ritual like with San Francisco’s Dolphin Club members who swim near Alcatraz in the cold Bay.

St. Blaise Holding Croatia in His Hand

In winter many Dubrovnik businesses close and locals take a break for a few months. It’s more difficult finding services like tours of Montenegro and Bosnia, but I’m considering the options. Of course you can rent a car and drive yourself. My last visit to Croatia was over five years ago in the summer, when I passed through Dubrovnik on the way to Split and Zagreb.

Festival of St. Blaise Dubrovnik

Festival of St. Blaise

The Festival of St. Blaise of Sebaste, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. It began as far back as 971 AD. This year, Dubrovnik celebrates St. Blaise from January 24 through February 3.  On Candlemas Day they release white doves (called The Blessing of the Throats) in front of the Church of St. Blaise and then raise St Blaise’s flag at Orlando’s Column. The ritual is dramatic and colorful. Activities include “concerts, exhibitions, and theater performances dedicated to the patron saint”.

Feast Day of Saint Blaise Dubrovnik – Dubrovnik Coast

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“Statues representing St. Blaise holding Dubrovnik in his hand are the most common sight alongside Dubrovnik’s City Walls.”

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Old Town Dubrovnik in Winter – Total Croatia News

Croatia & Surrounding Countries – infohost.nmt.edu

Next Stop?

I’m working my way south and considered Malta as the next stop, but it’s part of the Schengen visa block, so it won’t work. Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Albania are of interest with Cyprus being the warmest climate. Since my last stop will be Cape Town, traveling via Cyprus is a good route but I’m doing research… Hopping over to Montenegro and spending a few weeks is an option. I’m enjoying the quiet, peaceful environment and of course Croatia’s people and incredible natural beauty!

More later…