So how exactly does one decide to go to Malta with less than a week to prepare? Well, It’s not just a “Hmm.. I feel like going to Malta” sorta-thing, it’s a complicated, stepwise process: Step 1: The discovery that Iceland Air is having a sale. For the low, low price of $399, two people may go from Baltimore to any of a half dozen or so European destinations. Step 2: Call your sister, who always has as much free travel time as you do and ask her if she wants to go to Copenhagen for a few days (or Paris, or London, or Amsterdam, etc.). Step 3: Have your sister explain that there are numerous last-minute and discount travel companies based in the UK that can fly you all around the world for ridiculous low prices if you can afford a little spontaneity (Why yes, yes I can!).

Browsing the available packages online, Malta immediately stuck out as the front-runner. Majorca was another island destination that appealed to me, but Lisa had already been there somewhat recently, so that became first alternate. With minor rearrangements to our IcelandAir departure date, I was able to find a week in Malta, with airfare and accommodations (including breakfast!) for £149 – Yeah, baby!

Monday, 1/15

We departed Baltimore for Reykjavik and found the island still shrouded in complete darkness by mid-morning. You have to admire the Icelanders: I don’t know if my circadian rhythms could handle living at such a latitude that you don’t see the sun until after noon (or not at all) for months at a time. I toyed with the idea of leaving the airport for a half-hour to get my passport stamped and say that I walked around in Iceland, but it just wasn’t worth it. I expect I’ll get back there someday when I have time to explore (in the summer, where you can frolic in the sun for 20+ hours a day, perhaps?).

In stark contrast to Iceland, our arrival in Heathrow was full of happy beams of sunlight. This is not the normal January meteorological experience for England, and I was pleased that we would be able to explore London with nice, clear blue skies for photography. First things first, though – a place to stay. Lisa is a semi-regular visitor of London and she knew a bed & breakfast close to Victoria station for our night’s stay, and convenient early morning train ride to Gatwick.

Stuff stashed, we went exploring for the afternoon, snapping obligatory shots of Big Ben & Parliament. The London Eye (the huge Ferris wheel / observatory) was closed for repairs. We found out on BBC that night that it closed that day for 10 weeks of repairs.. well, shit. But all the shops were open, so we engaged in British power-shopping for the rest of the day. That evening, we met up with a London-based friend of Lisa’s for drinks & a nice Italian dinner. I decided that it’s a cool thing to know people in different parts of the world.

Tuesday, 1/16

>Yawn< Bleah. We woke up at 3:30 to catch the train to the airport. I resisted trying to figure out what time my body thought it was, as I’ve found the best way to get over jet lag is to not think about what time you think it is.

The flight from Gatwick to Malta is about 3 hours. We arrived to beautiful sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s. During our entire week , the temperatures stayed in the mid to upper 60s, allowing us the best possible conditions for exploration (well, Lisa thought it was a bit cool, but she’s one of those weird people who don’t thermoregulate very well – to which I just say “Oh, just evolve”).

Regardless of what time our respective bodies thought it was, Lisa and I both needed a Maltese nap. And upon checking into our hotel, that was the first thing we did. Why do we resist such things when we are kids? That is one of the first realizations that you are becoming older and wiser – when you can appreciate a good nap.

Rested and ready for adventure, we explored the area around our hotel. We were staying in a city called Qawra, which is pronounced with a silent ‘Q’, which strikes me as odd, but hey, I didn’t invent the language and as long as I can borrow from their vocabulary for Scrabble, I’m happy. Anyway, sticking to the coast, we walked to the touristy area of St. Paul’s Bay. Here they have rows of crap-tastic souvenir shops and lots of restaurants. Lisa just loves the crap-tastic souvenir shops.. She has friends who collect snow-globes and various bourgeois trinkets (plus let’s not forget her own glow-in-the dark religious figurine collection!)

For dinner, we ate at one of the omnipresent pizza establishments, though I tried to sample something Local-ish and indulged in pizza with Maltese goat cheese and something called “caponata”, which Lisa informed me was some kind of spiced or pickled Mediterranean vegetable-thing. For the record: Mmm.. yummy and/or tasty.

After coffee and dessert back at the hotel, We started the great Maltese Scrabble tournament, and I drew first blood (If you didn’t know, dem Pedersens are pretty competitive with the ol’ Scrabble brand crossword game).

Wednesday, 1/17

Mmm.. free breakfast. Well, kind-of Mmm, It’s a British breakfast, meaning that it features the infamous “beans and toast” with cooked tomato accompaniment. Eww. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. I’m really not sure about British culinary traditions. It just goes to show that if you put your resources into building an Empire and don’t ever think about interesting meals, it won’t ever get done (However, don’t put ALL your resources into good food – like France – and get your butt kicked by every upstart European empire while you are happily eating your croissants). Suffice to say, I will need to be creative at breakfast for the remainder of the week.

After breakfast, our tour company was having a Malta-orientation meeting. Lisa and I poked our head in, but it looked to us like a thinly-disguised “buy our extra packages” meeting. Not having any need for a Maltese time-share or any desire to be on a bus all day with a bunch of British senior citizens, we went off to explore on our own.

First on our agenda was the walled capitol city of Valetta. Valetta was given to the famous “Knights of Malta” as a thank-you gift for stopping the Turkish invasion of the mid-1500s. It was a pretty nice gift! The city was designed on a grid, and the narrow streets provided wonderful photography around every corner. Highlights of Valetta include St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is (by far) the most ornate church I’ve ever seen. It was truly marvelous, but they wouldn’t let you take any pictures. By my estimation, we walked roughly 340,000 miles (547,000 km) around Valetta and the surrounding towns. Lisa even walked herself into a heavy sugar crash and required a Maltese cheese-pie injection before we could continue. On the way down to the bay, and hopefully a bus stop, we discovered a botanical garden which was populated by a dozen or more stray cats. Also present in the garden was the self-proclaimed guardian of the felines: The Cat Lady of Malta. She would call them all by name as she fed them canned cat food (Or perhaps it was her food that she decided to share - eww). It was kind of sad, but CLoM didn’t seem unhappy, so why should I be?

After a bit of searching, we were able to find a bus stop that serviced Qawra – The Maltese bus system was quite good, allowing inexpensive transport to just about everywhere we wanted to go on Malta.

Upon reaching our hotel, we bought a bottle of wine and threw down for another go at Scrabble. Mark won again, extending his (capacious) vocabulary dominance.

Thursday, 1/18

Oh boy, Beans and toast! I cleverly constructed a make-shift breakfast sandwich out of flavorless scrambled eggs, a slice of tart cheese and a hard roll (McGuiver’s breakfast, I call it). I will not eat beans on toast for breakfast. Ever.

On the agenda for today was Mdina. Once the capital of Malta, Mdina is a beautiful, walled city near the island’s center. It sits atop one of the highest points in Malta and has been successfully repelling invaders for about 3,000 years.

Within the city’s walls, is the National History Museum. Coming from Washington DC, the land of the Smithsonian museums, it’s hard for me not to hold a smug, superior museum attitude wherever I go. But this museum experience was great because it sucked. They had pictures of interesting insects and diagrams on the wall that may have been pulled from a biology textbook. There were rooms with a few shells and rocks and another room with an impressive collection of creepy, stuffed birds (some wealthy, dead, Maltese person’s collection, I imagine). One final room (the Mammal room) had some surreal, aged taxidermy and a faded poster of whales from an old National Geographic. It was a laughable museum, but the giggles made it well worth the admission price of 1 Maltese Lira (about $2.40).

Jeez, you’d think we were all museum-ed out at this point, but we couldn’t pass up the “Mdina Dungeons”. This tourist-trap museum showcased over 2,000 years of torture and described in morbid detail anything that happened on Malta even remotely associated with human suffering. Each of the gruesome stories was recreated in life-sized, waxy detail – I loved it!

The rest of Mdina is pretty small, so we were able to explore its entirety, snapping panoramic pictures of Malta from atop the parapets. Outside Mdina’s walls is the neighboring city of Rabat. Rabat is also full of history, including a recently excavated Roman Villa. I’d love to tell you about the extensive Catacombs of St. Peter, but we forgot to do that. Instead, we caught a bus to Mosta to find some lunch.

In addition to excellent pasta, the restaurant we selected also had internet service. How nice to be so far from home but still have the ability to nyeah-nyeah our friends and family. That’s what the internet is all about (well, that and lots and lots of porn). Across from the restaurant was Mosta’s star attraction: The domed church, Santa Marija Assunta. While impressive (Apparently this is the 3rd largest dome in Europe), the most amazing part is a particular historical event. During World War II, a German bomb pierced the dome, didn’t explode, careened around the church a bit, and ultimately left the 300 or so congregation members in the church at the time, uninjured. It was hailed as a miracle and an striking example of God’s mercy (But it occurs to me that 55 million people died outside that church during that war – and that’s all I’m gunna say on that).

In a unanimous feminine vote, it was decided that we would return to St. Paul’s Bay and resume power-shopping for crap. What the hell, I needed coffee mugs anyway. Abuzz with the intense energy from shopping, Lisa rallied for her first Scrabble win of the trip.

Friday, 1/19

Breakfast breakthrough! Next to the horrible beans and toast was a bin containing the British equivalent of Sugar Smacks (The British probably called them “Smashing Frostelles” or something equally silly). Regardless, I should be able to coast all the way through the rest of the vacation with that slightly sweetened, puffed-rice goodness.

It was our first overcast day with possible rain, but we decided to make the trip to Gozo, the Northernmost of the 3 Maltese islands. The rain started as we boarded the ferry for the half-hour ride, and it really started pouring as soon as we stepped off in Gozo. Now, if the guide book was right, these kind of storms should blow over as quickly as they appear, and much to our surprise, the book was right! The rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out for the rest of the day, just like a Hollywood special effect.

From the ferry terminal, we caught a bus to Gozo’s major city, Victoria. There, a fantastic citadel is built on one of the island’s highest points offering splendid photography of the city and surrounding area. It’s hard to believe that the walls of the citadel were being built while our country was just getting discovered.

After lunch we discovered that a 400 year-old citadel wasn’t very old at all. The ruined megalithic temple at Ggantija was built in 3500 B.C.! There’s something about walking around 5,000 year old ruins that helps make one’s life problems seem smaller and less significant (ruin therapy, I call it – try it some time!).

Our 1 Lira ruin ticket also got us in the windmill museum in the neighboring town of Xaghra. The windmill was originally built in 1724, and was now apparently a museum AND private residence, because we toured it during what seemed like a Maltese family spat. Leaving that scene, we set out to explore greater Xaghra, and learned from a shopkeeper that today was a big day for the town. Later in the afternoon, there was to be a funeral for the (quite famous) conjoined twin from England. I remembered the scenario from CNN – A religious British couple went to court to keep from “murdering” one of the twins, even though it would save the life of the other. The courts ruled in favor of the doctors and they cut “Mary” loose (saving the larger, stronger “Jodie”). 

(For an account of the story, click here)

Lisa and I had no idea that the British couple was from Gozo, but we decided NOT to crash the funeral (that’s us, the sensitive ones). Instead, we decided to do some more shopping, and bought some “Gozo Glass”, which is gorgeous, hand-blown art - perfect for all gift occasions!

(For more about Gozo Glass, click here)

We took the ferry home, and found a restaurant specializing in Maltese food. Hailing myself as the “Indiana Jones of culinary exploration”, I ate the rabbit spaghetti! I had never tasted lagomorph before (as I never got around to eating the ones I worked with in my research science years), but found it rather tasty.

Digesting the rabbit, Mark chalked-up another Scrabble victory (For those of you keeping track at home, that’s now 3 to 1 in favor if the Indiana Jones of culinary exploration).

I could resist no more. The siren song of the casino a few blocks away drew me in like a hungry dog to a bowl of Smashing Frostelles (besides, what was I going to do with all my British pounds?) Despite the crowd (mostly British senior citizens from the various tour packages), I found that nobody was playing blackjack. I played alone and actually started winning some money. I noticed that my good fortune was starting to draw a crowd of spectators. I was feeling a bit like James Bond for a while (Jeez, would James Bond hit a soft-17 if the dealer was showing a 2? Shit, I don’t know.. I hope my onlookers didn’t’ either). I cashed out around 100 bucks up, which would nicely pay for my meals in Malta. Not bad at all.

Saturday, 1/20

After devouring a hearty bowl of “Brilliant Sweetened Bits”, we caught a bus to Malta’s East coast. There, we found the fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced “marsashlock”), and between us, I estimate we took 450,000 pictures of all the colorful boats. We got a few sprinkles as some gray clouds blew in, but like yesterday, they quickly blew out to sea. We caught a bus going toward Valetta and were stunned to see some impressive flash flooding.. The torrents were well over half way up the wheels of the parked cars we passed. I guess the heavy stuff had missed us!

Dodging puddles, we explored the towns to the west of Valetta (Sliema, Gzira, Pieta), and ultimately found a great harbor-side restaurant for some more yummy Maltese food.

On the way back to Qawra, we stopped again in Mosta to check our internet mail. How did we ever survive without the internet and e-mail? Truly a riddle of our age. Back at the hotel, Lisa rallied back-to-back Scrabble victories, evening the score. Unimpressed with the Hotel’s selection of DVD for that evening, we enjoyed “The Iron Giant” on my portable DVD player (How did I ever survive without a portable DVD player? – I’m kidding).

Sunday 1/21

Oh, sad day – the hotel is out of “Sugared Bumbly Puffs” – apparently the Brits were keen on them too, or perhaps they had a collective epiphany: “Good Lord, we’re eating beans on toast and cooked tomatoes for breakfast, how foul!” so I went to the backup plan: a hybrid bowl of rice crispies and special K.

According to the bus schedule, we could catch a bus in Valetta that would take us to the southern part of the Island, where more Neolithic temples await, so off we went. When we arrived in Valetta, Lisa had to forcibly keep herself from weeping tears of sublime joy, as there was a HUGE crap-tastic flea market along the entire length of Valetta’s city walls. Even I got a little excited when I found some bootleg DVDs, including the not-yet-released Star Wars Trilogy, but my DVD player couldn’t play them (I think they were made for Malta and Lesotho only). The experience was not a total loss though; Lisa bought some ugly porcelain dogs for her roommate’s ugly dog collection. Great.

We arrived mid-morning to the ruins of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. As we were walking to the ruins, we passed a man and his 2 young kids investigating something along the roadside. They had found a little chameleon, one of those cool kinds that looks like it’s wearing mittens and can swivel its eyes around. I had no idea that chameleons even existed in Malta, so now I would probably spend the rest of the trip searching the brush for the cool little fuckers.

The ruins were impressive. Like the ruins on Gozo, these structures are also dated to around 3500 B.C. That just messes with my head. Here was evidence of an imaginative civilization building monolithic temples over five thousand years ago! I have a hard time thinking of anything before about 1974.


Okay, you get the point. Done with the ruins (and the tasty pasta lunch from the Hagar Qim restaurant), we returned to Valetta where we busted out our black & white film. We re-explored the city, looking up and down the narrow streets looking for choice photographic opportunities (which weren’t hard to find at all). 

On the way out of town, we found the Museum of Archaeology, where they have all the cool artifacts discovered at the various ruins we had been exploring around Malta and Gozo for the past few days. Unlike the Natural History Museum, this one was actually quite impressive. It was well exhibited and quite informative about Maltese cultural history. We saw impressive carvings of fat ladies (they made a lot of those), but no falcons. I think Hollywood made that stuff up.

For dinner, we returned to the first place we ate at in Malta (the pizza place). The best thing about this place was the 70’s Euro-disco music. We heard the same ridiculous “boogie boogie” song from the first night, and had a little chuckle. Well, when they played it AGAIN, we laughed until pizza came out our noses (not pretty). Figuring this was fate (or maybe a lack of CDs in the cd-changer), I vowed to find this song on Napster. Well, I found it and now YOU TOO can listen to the infamous Maltese “boogie boogie” song:

In other news, Mark resumes his Scrabble dominance and chalks up another victory.

Monday 1/22

Bloody British breakfast.

Well, it’s our last full day in Malta, and it’s also partly rainy. A perfect opportunity to head underground.. In the early 1900s, residents of the city of Paola were digging cisterns and accidentally punched into a series of underground caves. Excavations revealed an elaborate, multi-leveled crypt, holding the remains of some 7000 people, and numerous artifact items like pottery, sculpture, and jewelry. Only recently reopened to the public, the Hypogeum is now climate controlled with a small theater and museum. They really have done a great job with the renovation.

The intro movie is presented in 6 languages simultaneously (I found myself switching to Italian and French just because it was fun) - it describes how the early Maltese started Carving the complex out of rock some 5800 years ago, and how the modern excavation efforts began. As we descended into the labyrinth, the guide pointed out original ochre cave paintings and described the possible significance of each of the hewn rooms. It was one of our favorite experiences of the trip.

With only a few hours left in Malta, what were we to do now? Shopping! Screamed Lisa. So we took care of some last-minute shopping needs back in St. Paul’s Bay.

Tuesday, 1/23 - Conclusion

I dynamited the breakfast buffet, blowing beans and bits of toast to the 4 corners of hell.

Sigh. Not really.. We actually jut got on a plane in the morning and flew back to England. I developed my 12 rolls of pictures there and have since posted a few of my favorites here. As you can tell from the account, it was a really good trip. A week seems perfect to see just about everything Malta has to offer. In the summer months the Maltese beaches are supposed to be among the best in Europe, but that kind of thing doesn’t really interest me. Unless of course we’re talking about topless beaches. Hubba hubba.

January, 2001

Hey, Lookie here! For a brief Malta essay by Lisa, click here