After a long sojourn in Italy, we headed to Malta to meet up with the Sherlock clan and dear friend Glenda. I’m glad we did because without fabulous company I don’t think we would have survived Malta. We had a wonderful time relaxing with the family, eating way too much, and regaling a fresh(ish) audience with our tales from the road, but as a destination Malta did not enchant us. As Jeff so aptly put it: Malta has the prices of Europe, the customer service of the Middle East, and the cultural allure of neither. So it is.
First the Good
Lest I devolve into negative-Nancy-ism, I’ll begin with the coolest thing we did in Malta: the Hypogeum (or the Gorgandulum, as it is colloquially known in the Sherlock family). This site – along with the megalithic structures of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija on Gozo – is old. Like, before-the-pyramids old. Long before other Mediterranean empires came onto the scene Malta was inhabited by a sophisticated and highly-organized civilization referred to simply as the ‘temple builders’. The temple builders left mysterious, round megalithic structures on the Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and Camino), and the relics of this enigmatic culture are quite fascinating.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (aka Gorgandulum) is a prehistoric underground burial site built by the temple builders into the soft limestone bedrock. Construction of the Hypogeum began in 4000 BC, and the complex was expanded and used continually until 2500 BC. The Hypogeum spans over 3 levels and has remnants of red ochre wall paintings that were very, very cool. The site was first discovered in 1902 and excavated by Sir Themistocles Zammit (best. cat. name. ever), and because it is such a fragile ecosystem it has extremely restricted tourist access. Luckily for us, Glenda and Liz are super planners and reserved our Gorgandulum tickets months ago.
In addition to visiting the Hypogeum, we saw the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temple complexes on Malta and the oldest temple of all, the Ggantija Temple on the island of Gozo. Several of these temples have very precise alignments to solar phenomena like the equinoxes, underscoring just how sophisticated these ancient people’s knowledge of math, astronomy, and physics must have been. Pretty cool.
My favorite thing about the temple builders are the unusual fertility goddess relics that have been found inside all of their structures. Sometimes called the ‘fat ladies’, these goddess statues are extremely obese female figures depicted as wearing pleated skirts down to their fat cankles. Often fashioned with removable (or interchangeable) heads, these corpulent goddesses are really weird. Their clothing and hair styles appear modern, and I’m amazed that ancient people were able to conceptualize such obese figures. I doubt that they’d ever seen a fat person, let alone a really fat person. Oh, how little we know about the ancient worldview.
Now it’s Negative Nancy’s Turn
Okay, now that I’ve said what I liked about Malta Negative Nancy gets to air her grievances. To quote Frank Costanza at the beginning of Festivus: I got a lotta of problems with you people!!!
The logistics of purchasing food on the island of Malta was hellish. There are zero grocery stores in the tourist area. Literally zero. I get that they’re catering to Brits fresh off the cruise ship, but normal humans need to buy things like milk and bread. There is a twee British hold over store called The Wembley Store (of course) that sells quaint gift hampers of tinned beans and clotted cream, but they don’t have anything you’d actually need, like, I don’t know… milk. When I finally tracked down a green grocer, they were selling rotten food — tomatoes that were actually decaying. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and I’m still offended thinking about it. WTF, Malta.
I can deal with crappy food if other things are interesting (hello Uzbekistan!), but the thing that pushed me over the edge in Malta was the lack of culture. Never before have I spent 2 weeks in a country and come away with so little insight into the people. I think that the issue is two-fold. First, I think that there just isn’t much culture in Malta to be observed. People don’t have a public life like in other countries so you’re just not going to see anything interesting as a tourist. No markets, no festivals, no nothin’. Second, the Maltese are… to put it kindly… not so nice. There I said it. I know it’s not popular to say but as a general class I disliked the Maltese almost as much as I dislike the Serbs, and that is something.
I found many people working in the tourism industry to be hostile (on a scale of slightly to sociopath) and unpleasant to interact with. We had two highly unpleasant encounters and several other icky interactions that contributed to my less than glowing-impression of the Maltese. The worst incident was an egomaniacal cruise ship ‘captain’ who singled me out and harassed me aggressively about ‘respecting him’. He was horrible, and actually provoked me to the point that I refused to sail on his ship and went home for the day. I honestly have no explanation for this offensive experience and in 6-months of world travel I have never been so pissed off.
The next day (not good timing) Jeff and I went to pick up a rental car car we had reserved. Naturally we arrive to find a completely different car that was a manual transmission. This kind of mix-up happens and really shouldn’t have been a huge deal but the rental car guy was extremely rude and absolutely refused to work anything out. No customer service, no problem solving whatsoever. He just jumped in the car and sped off, leaving us to figure out how to arrange transport to the island of Gozo for 6 people with approximately 60 bags. I’m not a traveler who needs to be coddled but the hostility of the Maltese was a shock.
So there is my rant: bad access to food, lack of culture, and shitty people. My Malta induced snit caused lots of other things about the island to pissed me off, but I’ll leave it at that. It seems like there are other travelers out there (like this gal) who had a less than great experience in Malta, so at least I’m not alone. I think that what I really need to heal this is a Maltese volunteer to complete the rites of Festivus and fight me. I’d really, really like that…
The redemptive island of Gozo
After a rough week on the main island of Malta, the whole crew headed north to the smaller island of Gozo (sans our rental car but whateves). Gozo is the ‘second’ island in the Maltese archipelago and Gozitans are regarded by the Maltese as less sophisticated country-cousins. We, however, found the smaller island to be a much needed respite. People are friendlier, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and we just had an overall better experience. We stayed at a really great farmhouse with a pool and a very friendly gaggle of neighborhood cats – so of course we were pleased. We named our favorite (i.e. the most persistent) kitty Ħal. Ħal was a little sneaky and had some secret routes into our house, but we loved him and plied him with generous servings of wet cat food.
My favorite Gozitan experience was dinner at local place called Tal-Furnar Restaurant and Bakery. The wood burning oven at this place has cooked something every single day for over a century, across 4 generations of the owners family. The place is not fancy – it’s nothing more than a shabby collection of tables on the pavement perched perilously close to the busy road – but Jeff and I finally felt like we had our first ‘authentic’ experience in Malta. We had a great dinner of local pasta and Gozitan Ftira (basically a pizza), and I was happy to see at least a bit of local life in Gozo.
For such a small country, Malta packed a punch, with some of the most frustrating experiences of our many months on the road. Luckily, Gozo gave us some good downtime and the relax time with loved ones was a wonderful balm for our Maltese woes.
After two weeks in Malta we packed up and headed to Valencia, Spain.
P.S. Thanks Glenda and Hilary for the photos!!! You guys did well. I’m impressed.