Saturday, December 31, 2011

Gozo, Malta

Gozo is Malta's second largest island, about 1/3rd the size of the big island, and home to 31,000 people. It's about a 30-minute ferry ride from Malta to the Gozo port city of Mġarr. Gozo is a great place to drive around and check out all of the sites.

The Ġgantija Temples are considered to be the oldest free-standing structures in the world. They are more than 5,500 years old and are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I liked the temples on Malta better. Here it just looks like a big pile of rocks.

Calypso Cave is where, according to legend, the nymph Calypso held the Greek hero Ulysses as her prisoner of love for seven years.

You can't enter the cave but from here there's a nice view of the beach at Ramla Bay.

We drove to Xagħra to visit the Ta' Kola windmill. It was built in 1725 and is the only one of the 12 windmills built by the Maltese Knights that is still in good working condition. Or at least what's what we thought but it's currently under renovation.

Victoria, with around 6,400 people, is the largest town on Gozo. The British renamed the town in 1897 in honor of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. However, the locals still refer to it by its original name - Rabat.

In the center of Victoria is the Citadel. The Knights built the defensive stone walls between 1599 and 1603. It is one of the highest points on the island so there are some great views.

There's a 17th century Baroque cathedral. The ceiling is painted to look like the interior of a dome. I guess it's way cheaper than actually building a dome.

Three kilometers away is the village of Għarb.

Nearby is the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu. It's a Neo-romantic Roman Catholic church and a minor basilica. It was consecrated in August 1932.

The Ta' Ċenċ Cliffs are quite lovely. And well worth the crazy left-sided driving required to get there.

Dwejra Bay was my favorite part of Gozo because of the Azure Window, the Inland Sea and the Fungus Rock.

The Azure Window is a 50 m (150 ft) high rock arch where the sea has worn a hole through the rock forming the window. The window is disintegrating because large pieces of rock keep falling from the arch and within a few years the Azure Window will become known as the Azure Pinnacle.

The Inland Sea is a small sea lake connected to the Mediterranean Sea by a narrow tunnel through the cliffs. Around the small lake are a few boat houses.

Fungus Rock
is known locally as the General's Rock. It is a massive chunk of limestone off the coast of Gozo. The Maltese Knights used the plant growing on top of the rock to dress wounds and as a cure for dysentery. Today Fungus Rock s a nature reserve.


Malta is the largest of the five islands that make up the Republic of Malta. Much the same way the big island of Hawaii is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. The islands are small but there is quite a lot to see. It's not like there is a bit to see over here and something else over there. There's really a bunch to see over here and then a bunch more to see over there.

Valletta is the capital city and it is filled with Baroque architecture, historical palaces, churches, museums, gardens, and lots of cafes.

Valletta was the first planned city in Europe. It was planned by the Knights of St. John as a refuge for the care of injured soldiers during the 16th century Crusades. The city is only 900 meters long and 630 meters wide but there is a whole lot to see. The entire capital city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Upper Barrakka Gardens are over Valletta's bastions. They were built in 1661 for the knights' private use. After 1824, the gardens became public. It's a great place to view the Grand Harbor.

St. John's Co-Cathedral is Malta's most impressive church. It is one of Valletta's oldest churches and was built between 1573 and 1578.

Sliema is the main tourist resort and where we're staying. The coastline promenade runs for several kilometers and there is a great view of Valletta. It's really nice and probably where we'll spend New Year's Eve.

Golden Bay
is on the northwest coast and is probably Malta's best beach.

is a very nice little fishing village with a population of 3,000 people. There is a daily market on the waterfront selling various souvenirs and people working on their boats.

Ħaġar Qim
is the best preserved of Malta's prehistoric sites. These are among the best preserved of Malta's temples which are the world's oldest freestanding stone structures.

Since 2007, the temples have been covered with a temporary tent structure to prevent erosion.

It is right across from Filfla, the smallest of the Maltese islands. Some prehistoric pottery has been found there. In the 20th century the Royal Navy used the islet for target practice. Today it is protected for ecological value.

Mdina is the former capital city. It is small with a population of 385 people. It is also known as the Silent City. It is a medieval walled city and no cars are allowed inside the city walls.

is a town south of Mdina. It has a population around 11,500. The city is home to the St. Agatha Catacombs. The catacombs were used to bury the dead during Roman times because it was unclean to bury the dead in the city. There is also St. Paul's Church in the area where, in 60 A.D., St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and stayed for three months.

Dingli Cliffs
are nice but not quite what I expected. However, it was well worth the drive to the west side of the island to enjoy the view.

Mosta is in the center of the island and is best known for the Mosta Dome which is the Parish Church of Santa Maria. The church was built from 1833 to 1860 and it has the 3rd largest unsupported church dome in Europe. The interior of blue, white and gold is lovely. During WWII, three axis bombs hit the church while around 300 parishioners waited to hear mass. Two of the bombs bounced off and landed in the courtyard without exploding. The third bomb did fall through the dome.Miraculously this bomb also failed to detonate and no one was injured. Inside the church is a replica of the bomb.

The Blue Grotto is made up of a few sea caverns on the south coast. The view is amazing! Well worth the drive.

Popeye Village
is at Anchor Bay on the northwest part of the island. The film set was built for use as Sweethaven Village in the 1980 film Popeye. I bet more people come to see the village then actually saw the movie.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Munich, Germany

Our flight to Malta included a five hour layover in Munich. Since the city center is small and walkable we decided to ditch the airport, catch the S-Bahn, and spend a few hours in old town. With only a few hours to kill we stayed in the center and soaked up the local atmosphere. However, a return visit is definitely in order to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, Lake Starnberg and Dachau Concentration Camp. Of course, a visit to the Hofbräuhaus during Oktoberfest is almost mandatory.

München has been the capital of Bavaria since 1506 and is Germany's 3rd largest city after Berlin and Hamburg. Not far from the Bavarian Alps, the city is home to roughly 1.35 million people. During the war the city was heavily damaged by 71 air raids over a six year period. Today it's a big, modern city but it still has a bit of a small town feel to it.

Munich was originally surrounded by a wall with four gates, of which three remain. Isartor is the most eastern gate and dates back to the 14th century.

Marianplatz has been the main city square since 1158. There's a Virgin Mary column in the center that was erected in 1638 to commemorate the end of Swedish occupation during the Thirty Years' War.

The Rathaus is the new town hall. It was built from 1867 to 1909.

The Altes Rathaus was the old town hall until 1874.

Frauenkirche is the Church of Our Lady Cathedral and it dominates the city skyline. It dates back to the 15th century and apparently inside there is artwork that spans 500 years.

Peterskirche is the Church of St. Peter. It's the city's oldest parish church and is referred to as Alter Peter (Old Peter). It takes a bit of time to climb up the 306 steps to get to the top but you get a great view of the city.

For 500 years the Residenz used to be the royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs. Today it is the largest city palace in Germany and has 10 courtyards. A visit to the 130 rooms filled with furniture, oil paintings and tapestries, kind of an interior decor museum, will have to take place next time.

Olympiaturm is the Olympic tower that was built for the 1972 games. At 291 meters (951 feet) it is Germany's tallest television tower.

The Hofbräuhaus has been around since 1644. It's probably the most famous beer hall in the world.

A return visit is definitely in order. You just have to love a city where the police cars are BMWs and the taxi cabs are made by Mercedes.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Orphan's Christmas

Yesterday was the 25th, so Christmas Day for the expats and we celebrated our "orphan's Christmas" over at Sabine's and Natalie's place. Basically an orphan's Christmas is where you open up your home to everyone who otherwise doesn't have any family or holiday plans around. Nat had some Kiwi, English and South African friends visiting from London. So for me it turned out to be my first Commonwealth Christmas.

We had lots of really yummy food. I brought a ham and Nat picked up some lamb from the local halal shop. I got to try my very first Christmas pudding - a plum pudding. It's not something we have in the USA but it is a big part of any English Christmas celebration. It was soaked in brandy and set on fire. It was quite good but enough to get you tipsy. I was also introduced to pavlova. It's a dessert invented in New Zealand in honor of Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova's world tour in the 1920s. Pavlova is almost like a meringue. You beat egg whites until they are stiff and then fold in powdered sugar, white vinegar, vanilla and corn flour. The corn flour gives it a crunch outer shell and it was great topped with kiwi fruit.

Earlier this year, Nat's parents came for a visit all the way from New Zealand. I remember her mom, Robyn, looking at me as if I had three eyeballs when I mentioned that I had no idea of what a Christmas cracker was. It's definitely not an American thing. Well I guess her mom felt so sorry for my poor upbringing that she sent me a box of crackers. These are not the kind you eat.

A cracker is a cardboard tube wrapped in paper and twisted at the ends so that it looks like a giant sweet. Sort of like a wishbone, two people pull on each end until it snaps like a cap gun. Inside of each cracker is some candy, a paper hat, a joke or a riddle, and other various little prizes. Not all crackers are good ones; some contain dud prizes. Normally crackers are pulled at the table for Christmas dinner. They were fun but I think that it has to be something you grew up with in order to fully appreciate them. In many Commonwealth countries it's common for kids to make crackers from used toilet paper rolls. None the less it was incredibly thoughtful for Robyn to send me crackers all the way from New Zealand. Of course when she was here I thought it was a bit crazy that she had never heard of a seedless watermelon before. I wonder if and how I could get one over to her in Wellington?