A week in Malta - Day #2
We woke up to a beautiful sunrise the next day. So transformed was the landscape that it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that we had been transported to another place while we were asleep.
Malta is comprised of three major islands. The largest one, Malta, the smaller Gozo to its north-west and the tiny Comino in between. Given the day’s mostly sunny forecast, we figured that it’d be a good day to be on the ferry to Gozo.
We walked past St. Paul’s harbour after breakfast in search of the bus stop from where we could take a bus to the ferry terminal. The harbour too had been completely transformed by the change in weather. It looked nothing like the grey, dour place it had seemed just yesterday.
Mansi was keeping an eye on the timetable of the infrequent ferries to Gozo and wasn’t sure if the bus was going to get us to the terminal in time for the next one. So she called a cab instead. Our driver was a young man in his twenties with a penchant for flashy clothes, loud hip-hop with trashy lyrics and aggressive driving. By the time Lil Pump’s Mosh Pit came on the car stereo, I was ready to throw up1. Fortunately, the ferry terminal’s timely arrival gave me a reprieve.
It wasn’t peak tourist season in Malta yet but at least one enterprising soul caught us at the ferry terminal entrance, handed us a brochure and tried to sell us a package tour in Gozo. We politely declined and began to look for a place to buy the tickets for the ferry. Turns out the ticketing system here was somewhat unique. We didn’t need to buy a ticket for the ride from Malta to Gozo but would need to procure one for the return journey.
Our ferry was a cavernous ship that sailed under a Greek flag.
The pedestrians boarded first followed by several cars. A narrow metal staircase led us to the upper deck that was missing many chairs. We sat in the first complete ‘row’ with a decent view but as soon as the ship started moving, we found ourselves welled in by people wanting to take pictures and make videos.
Mansi got up to join them and I turned my camera to the sooty exhaust pipes of the ship and watched them bob up and down meditatively against the backdrop of the blue sky and a large cumulonimbus cloud. My mind wandered back to the last time I was on a ferry in the Mediterranean. Travelling after those two years of pandemic imposed moratorium still feels very special.
As we approached Gozo, I couldn’t resist standing by the railings and taking pictures.
There was a harbour at the other side of the ferry terminal where many smaller boats were docked. Several private boat tours leave from here. The harbour’s water looked like an impressionist painting of the sky above. We could see the church of the Madonna of Lourdes on a hill nearby. And that’s where we decided head first.
The view from the top was stunning.
The staff at our hotel in Malta had told us that the water at the hotel was not potable. We were trying to make the bottled water provided at the hotel last and hadn’t filled up our travel bottles. Before embarking on a longer hike, we decided to get some drinking water from a store nearby. From there, we called another cab to Ramla bay.
It was a perfect day to be there. Hardly anyone was around. The pebble and sand beach was immaculate. The sky was blue but dotted with fast moving clouds that seemed within our arms’ reach.
Waves were gently crashing on the shore. We sat at a bench on the beach and soaked it all in.
A few minutes later we decided to hike a little in the hills nearby. The hiking track looked a little soggy from the rain yesterday. We plodded on nonetheless.
The soil here was very clayey and started sticking to our shoes. We must’ve walked barely a hundred metres when our shoes started to feel really heavy with the thick layers of soil they had accumulated. Despite the stunning views, we weren’t enjoying our little hike any more. The paw prints we had encountered at the start of the trail should’ve been our warning.
It was also past our lunch time and we were both regretting not having bought some snacks when we had stopped to get water earlier. A couple of shacks at the beach that might’ve supplied us with sustenance were closed - one small downside of visiting places in the off season.
We turned back, got hold of a couple of twigs, sat at a picnic bench under a tree and used them to work the stubborn soil out from the soles of our shoes. All under the watchful gaze of a feral cat.
We then called a cab to take us to the centre of Gozo’s main town - Victoria. Our shoes were clean by now but not quite pristine and we were feeling a little guilty about getting inside a cab with them on. Our driver however had come prepared2. The beach is a big tourist attraction in Gozo. He told us that he picks people from the beach regularly and was ready for the eventuality of sandy/muddy shoes.
After lunch at a small roadside café in Victoria we visited the small fortified town of Cittadella.
A small shop there sold miniature replicas of Malta’s colourful, boxy balconies.
We walked leisurely among the mediaeval ruins soaking in the views.
Since Cittadella is situated atop a promontory, there were several high points that offered sweeping views of the town below and the distant sea.
The wind was whipping the clouds into frightful shapes.
An incipient rainbow was attempting to grow whole amidst them.
It was almost three in the afternoon and the cathedral at the citadel’s entrance was counterpointed by shadow and light.
We stopped for a short coffee break in Victoria and then walked to a bus terminal to take a bus to Gozo’s ferry terminal. At the harbour outside the terminal, someone was hawking seats in their boat to Malta with a detour past Comino and the Blue Lagoon. I don’t recall what the ticket price was but it had felt reasonable and we both hopped onto a small but speedy boat. It was a very enjoyable ride with the evening sun shining on our faces and the boat tearing through the water.
We wanted to take a bus to Popeye Village3 to catch the sunset but the buses in Malta hadn’t proven to be the most punctual means of transport so far. When ours didn’t show up well past its due time, we decided to spend the last few minutes of the evening walking around the terminal’s waterfront. We were drawn to what looked like an ancient lighthouse4. We went to take a closer look, hoping to climb the stairs in front. Sadly, we were met with a locked gate and abandoned the project.
Minutes later, as if in compensation for this minor disappointment, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset.
Figuratively at the music I had been served and literally from the pacing of this drive.↩︎
I don’t quite recall the exact mechanics of his readiness - it was most likely towels on the cab’s floor to catch the dirt.↩︎
A movie set village that got turned into a tourist attraction.↩︎
You can even see it in the satellite photos of this region but strangely, it seems to have no name on Google maps.↩︎
A week in Malta - Day #1
For the first half of our weeklong vacation in Malta, we stayed in a hotel in St. Paul’s Bay whose balcony offered a gorgeous view of the open sky and the Mediterranean. When we woke up on the first morning of our stay, both the sky and the sea were a moody grey. Just the kind of weather we were hoping to escape, but thanks to living in Amsterdam, also just the kind of weather we were prepared for - or so we thought.
It was drizzling when we stepped out. In the distant horizon, you could spot cargo ships of various kinds lingering for their turn to berth at Malta’s port. A small island like Malta must need a lot of imports to keep going.
Walking in Malta on a rainy day was not a lot of fun. The stone they use for footpaths gets slippery pretty quickly and you have to tread gingerly1. Given the hilly geography of Malta, many streets are at a steep incline. When it rains, the water gushes downhill. This makes trying to cross streets without getting water into your shoes extremely difficult. After a few minutes of being utterly miserable, we got into a bus towards the Rotunda of Mosta. We kept an eye on the weather outside and the moment it looked like the rain would relent and the sun would come out, we got down.
We found ourselves in a street where the outsides of houses were adorned with tiny, delicate, plaques and colourful figurines with religious Christian iconography.
When we reached the Rotunda of Mosta, a rainbow had appeared in a street adjacent to it.
After a short coffee break we checked if we could enter the Rotunda but weren’t allowed in because of a private service. So instead, we walked around the neighbourhood where we were struck by colourful, boxy, wooden balconies of the houses there.
The rain resumed shortly thereafter. I had lost all will to walk because my socks and shoes were completely drenched by now. We decided to take another bus, this time to Mdina Old City Fortress. Malta was clearly proving to be a place where, like many other cities of the world, cars have a priority over pedestrians and cyclists. Mdina bills itself as a car-free zone. I was expecting to see no cars at all inside the fort walls. The reality turned out to be different. People living within the fortress are allowed to bring their cars inside. In effect, plenty of cars were parked inside with a few even moving about slowly through the narrow, winding streets.
We were going to stay in Valletta - Malta’s capital and a UNESCO world heritage site - for the second half of our trip. But given the inclement weather and abundance of buses to Valletta from Mdina, we decided to go pay a visit right away2.
We got another break from the rain that allowed us to walk around Valletta for some time. The city with its narrow, cobbled streets, lighthouses, many historic buildings going back hundreds of years and sweeping views of the water reminded me of Tolkein’s Númenor.
The typical boxy balconies were here as well. I was fascinated with them throughout the trip so these are hardly the last pictures on this subject that you’ll see on this blog.
And we spotted some contemporary street art too:
I find fewer things in life more unpleasant than having to walk in wet socks and shoes. Before heading back to the hotel for the night, we decided to do something about my now squelchy shoes. It was a pair of hiking shoes (and the only pair I had with me for this trip) I had bought in late 2019 in anticipation of many hikes through the alps. Given that pandemic hit us soon after, they hardly saw any action. So I was a little surprised to see that their soles were completely worn and might even have had cracks in places. Must’ve been all that walking we did in Amsterdam during and after the lockdowns. No wonder that despite having been waterproof, water kept getting into them all the time. We found a Decathlon store and I procured a new, identical pair along with some fresh socks. Getting into them was such a big relief3.
When we reached our hotel the rain had started falling again. Our hotel was in an ordinary building but paired with its pointillist reflection in the slick road outside, it looked somewhat regal.
I slipped once and fell flat on my back. Almost. My backpack cushioned the fall and I incurred nothing more than a slight adrenalin rush.↩︎
An Indian restaurant there that came highly recommended from my sister-in-law from her visit last year, was another reason that drew us there. Both I and Mansi were craving something hot and comforting after nearly a day of walking in the rain.↩︎
And I almost jumped deliberately into the first puddle I encountered outside to test if the pair was back to being waterproof. Better sense prevailed.↩︎
Rijksmuseum’s very special Vermeer exhibition
In Oct last year, I had written about having procured tickets for a very special Vermeer exhibition being organised by Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Mansi1 and I visited 3 weeks ago.
A few weeks before the start of the exhibition, the museum had posted a wonderful guide to the works for Vermeer2 with English audio by Stephen Fry. It really helped me appreciate the works more. I would highly recommended a visit to the online guide even if you don’t plan to attend the exhibition.
A couple of days before our visit we received an email with a link to a short video that clearly explained how to reach the exhibition.
Since this is a special exhibition not open to regular visitors of Rijksmuseum, after our tickets were scanned, we were issued wrist bands so we could move freely through the exhibition area without having to show our tickets again. The exhibition was quite busy. It took a few minutes longer than it usually takes at museums for a turn to get closer to each painting.
No amount of seeing Vermeer’s works on a computer screen prepares you for how lively the paintings look in real life. You can only truly appreciate Vermeer’s renown for capturing light once you’ve seen his works in person.
We also noticed details that we had somehow glossed over when looking at Vermeer’s works digitally. For example, the reflection of the girl in the window pane in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window:
In my last post had I expressed misgivings about having booked tickets to the exhibition months in advance. I am now glad I booked when I did. The exhibition has been quite popular and it’s been very difficult for people to get tickets:
The exhibition hasn’t entirely been without controversy. There was some kerfuffle in the media here about Rijksmuseum not having been entirely forthcoming about the fact that not all paintings would be around for the entire duration of the exhibition. People visiting the exhibition after March 30 would miss out on The Girl with the Pearl Earring as it goes back to The Mauritshuis
I was personally a little disappointed that Vermeer’s Art of Painting wasn’t part of the exhibition. I had wrongly assumed that it would be because Rijksmuseum had featured it in their guide to works of Vermeer on the museum web site. Well, at least this one is not in the private collection of some royal family - so I now have an excuse to visit Vienna’s Kusthistorisches Museum.
A week in Malta - Day #0
The dark, grey and wet Dutch winter that followed an unusually warm start to the year had began to get under our skin. We decided to head for a short trip to sunny1 Malta.
Fewer things about modern air travel are more annoying than being stuck in the seat of a plane well past its designated take off time. Our flight to Malta was held up for an hour because of some confusion with the flight’s manifest. A head count was taken but that didn’t resolve the matters to the authorities’ satisfaction. Eventually, the ground crew and the flight crew went from seat to seat checking our boarding pass and seat numbers. The identity of the person who had checked in but not boarded the plane was thus established and we were cleared for take off. Fortunately, their baggage had not been checked in or we would’ve been held up even longer.
We landed in Malta around 4 PM after a flying time of about three hours. A long bus ride took us from the airplane to the airport terminal. The latter was plastered with advertisements for ride sharing apps. Bolt is huge in Malta but we also saw Uber billboards vying for our attention. The sun was still out but it was nippy and also colder than we were expecting. Our baggage arrived within a few minutes but due to a mix of this being our first ever visit to Malta and poor signage, it took us another 30 minutes to locate our Bolt cab to the hotel.
The traffic in Malta reminded me of Athens - not quite as bad as say Delhi or Bangalore but not quite smooth either. The rocky, arid terrain was redolent of Athens too. For an small island-country, Malta definitely felt geologically more diverse than the tedium of flat land and water that is the Netherlands. There were parts during our ride where the cramped roads and construction of houses reminded me of Delhi2.
The weather forecast for our stay was mixed. Showers were expected with a high probability the next day. When our cab pulled in to the hotel’s kerbside parking, the sun had just set. We could see a curtain of rain move in from the sea.
Anonymity and loneliness
Big cities afford you anonymity. But big cities can also be lonely at times. Some pictures from a trip to London in Oct 2022 that explore these themes:
The design of bus time tables: Amsterdam vs Malta
You can tell how much attention a city or a country pays to its public transport from the design of its bus time tables. A recent trip to Malta and a brush with public transport there made me appreciate ones in Amsterdam even more.
Let’s take a closer look.
The header clearly shows you the name of the stop, the mode (since some stops service bus and trams), the route and the end destination. A mini line map shows all the stops current stop onwards and their accessibility by wheelchair. There is even a QR code that you can scan to get live timings for buses departing from that stop.
The main body is divided into three sections - one for regular working days, one for Saturdays and one for Sundays and public holidays. The sections share a common header with 24 columns - one for each hour. The minutes are listed under the respective hours. Not only is this easy to scan, it also acts like a histogram that shows which hours have the most frequent service at a glance.
We use 24h time (aka ‘military time’) in the Netherlands so it does keep the design compact by not having to designate each hour as AM or PM.
The footer has miscellaneous information including costs.
Contrast this with the time tables in Malta.
While the header clearly tells you the bus route, the destination and the current stop, it doesn’t show you other stops along the route.
The body is about as easy to scan as a busy spreadsheet. Sure, you have three columns for weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays/public holidays but the use of alternating grey and white color for each column is about the only concession they make for readability. Each of these columns are further divided into two columns listing the arrival times of the bus from earliest to latest. You have to scan this list carefully to locate the hour you are interested in. You don’t get a sense of which hours have the most frequent service and which ones have none. You can however look at time tables for two separate routes side by side and easily tell which is serviced more frequently by looking at the length of the tables.
Bus stops in Amsterdam increasingly have a display that shows live timings of buses running on that route. That and the ubiquity of internet-connected smartphones makes me wonder if these printed timetables would soon become relics that you’d only find in a museum.