A Travellerspoint blog

Malta - closed to tourists and now under feline rule!

What happens when you travel off season

semi-overcast 18 °C
View Malta on baluba's travel map.

IMG_5000.jpgAs I peered down out of my tiny Easy Jet window I could see the vast mass of multicoloured freight containers, almost beautiful against the azure sea, but a lump formed in my throat. Now Malta’s Freeport, previously it was Kalafrana, a British Naval base and where 49 years ago, my parents struggled not only to bring me into this world, but keep me here.
Craning my neck I desperately scanned the area for some remaining evidence of A1 married quarters but all too quickly it was out of view and we were landing at Luqa airport.

I was met by a very pleasant chap with my hire car. Knowing that I was going to be travelling off the beaten track (Freeport is not considered much of a tourist destination) and Malta’s bus network necessitating a return to Valetta every time one wished to change direction, not to mention the impending foul weather, hiring a car appeared to be the best option. I was a little concerned re Lonely Planets warning of lunatic drivers and roads that had not been maintained since the building of Hagar Qim back in 3200 BC, but I figured if I can survive Johannesburg, this will be a breeze.

Those of you that have ever hired a car will know that you have to fill in a diagram with little crosses where current damage to the vehicle is noted. After practically obliterating my diagram with some very large crosses we surmised that if I bring the vehicle back with all four wheels it would be ok. I paid 4 Euros for a very crappy map and was pointed in the general direction of Sliema where I was staying. The hotel’s directions were ‘opposite Toni & Guy’. This was going to be fun. I peeled off several layers of British ‘bloody freezing weather’ attire, donned sunglasses and hit the road, revelling in the 20 degree sunshine.

Lonely Planet, for once, did not lie. Maltese drivers are crazy and the person in charge of road signs had an enormous sense of humour. The sign for Sliema appeared ten yards after the turn and I ended up in Valetta. Navigating the tiny streets of the islands capital in my miniature car I felt like I was a Maltese version of ‘The Italian Job’. I binned the map and figured that on an island with an area of just 122 square miles, I couldn’t exactly get lost. But I did, several times. Eventually, whilst sitting in a traffic jam I noticed ‘Toni & Guy’ and a very convenient parking space. ‘Well bugger me’ I thought, ‘what a stroke of luck!’

I was staying at the Balco Harmony Hostel having been upgraded from a dorm in the Symphony owing to lack of visitors. I was shown to my single room complete with Sky TV, fridge and en suite bathroom for the ridiculous price of 10 Euros a night by the owner. A quick change into something more befitting the glorious sunshine and I headed off to catch the bus for the first stop on my list, St Pauls Cathedral in Valetta where I was baptised. Having already driven around Valetta I once again believed Lonely Planets warning that there is absolutely and categorically nowhere to park. A journey on one of Malta’s antiquated buses was high on my list of priorities anyway.

I was not disappointed, a wonderfully shiny yellow bus circa 1950 chugged up, I paid my 50 cents and took a red vinyl seat amongst the local Maltesers. We arrived a short while later at Valetta’s main bus terminal where yellow buses from various eras lined up. I hoped that the new European coach style was not a sign of the times and they would hold on to the now famous classic.

A UNESCO world heritage site and claiming fame as being Europe’s tiniest capital, Valetta was just as charming as its buses with narrow streets where balconies almost touched those opposite, elegant facades and a history that leapt out at you at every turn. Passing Straight Street, the once notorious hang out of sailor loving ‘ladies’, I found St Pauls cathedral. Unlike Britain where church doors are firmly locked for fear of the meek attempting to claim their inheritance when the vicar is not looking, St Pauls, in all its splendour was open for me to freely walk around and read the memorials to those who lost their lives in the many battles fought over Malta. I was hoping to find someone to show me the register but the place was deserted. I resisted walking off with the font as a souvenir and headed over to Lower Barakka Gardens.

The views from both Lower and Upper Barakka Gardens over Grand Harbour are astounding, at the lower, on the site of an old gun turret, is a monument to the Siege of Malta and those that lost their lives in WWII. It was very sobering stood looking out to sea, wondering what it must have felt like being bombarded with nowhere to run. Even with its four lane carriageways and bustling suburbs, there is no escaping the minuteness of the island and I found it quite claustrophobic. Couple that with Mussolini’s bombers overhead and it’s a pretty terrifying thought. Thankfully a cat cleaning his medals with an air of ‘I couldn’t give a shit’ caught my attention and I was back in the 21st century, heading for the main street to do a bit of shopping. En route I passed the remains of what used to be the elaborate Royal Opera House before the aforementioned little git bombed it during WWII. It was now surrounded by boarding and I hear it is gong to be turned into yet another street café. The oldest theatre in Europe, the Manoel, however, has survived every onslaught since it was built in 1731.

There was no escaping the festive season and many of Valetta’s streets were adorned with Christmas lights and piped sappy music assaulted my ears. I managed to resist all tacky souvenirs apart from a little yellow T shirt with the words ‘Born to be Wild – Malta’ how apt I thought! Bypassing McDonalds I stopped at a bakery and stocked up on yummy pies and deep fried date filled pastries before catching an equally antiquated bus home. If only I could remember where ‘home’ was. Now dark, nothing looked familiar and all I could do was keep my eyes peeled for ‘Toni & Guy’ and get off at the next stop.

I snuggled down in my tiny room with my pies and a bottle of wine brought from home. The spinach pie was a little odd with the addition of processed peas and a ton of salt but tasty and filling all the same. Sky TV thoughtfully provided me with 392 channels (seriously!) broadcasting from far flung places such as Kazakhstan and Libya, but not Britain, or even Malta, apart from the news. My English speaking options were BBC news, CNN news and Al Jazeera….news. But at least it drowned out the noise from the communal kitchen. Each floor of the hostel had its rooms built around a central communal kitchen, the floors were marble and echoed every sound, including knives on plates and the irritating laughter of a couple of Japanese girls preparing their evening meal. I went to make some coffee and discreetly mentioned to them how much sound travels in this place. They apologised and promised to try not to be too noisy. Peace reigned and much needed sleep took over, lulled by the newscasters of Al Jazeera.

At 0745 the traffic was already heavy. My intention was to head down to Freeport via Paola but with an upside down map and the sadistic town planner I ended up on the road to Rabat. The wrong direction by about 45 degrees. No matter, I thought, the map shows that there are roads heading cross country, they are little white roads, the ones that the map legend lists as ‘Hah! You call that a road?’ but I had all faith in my little battered Hyundai, it had obviously been there before.

Passing Rabat I spot a sign for the Blue Grotto. Why not, just a small detour. The beautiful tarmac road led me down to a small seaside village where restaurant owners were busy painting windows and doors in preparation for next season’s tourists. But I could see no sign of the famous grotto. A fisherman with nothing better to do led me down to some cliffs where there were some interesting holes where the tide was trying to infiltrate the islands substructure. A couple of photos and 5 euros later he announced that I would get a better view from the car park at the top of the hill. Now you tell me. He was not wrong, there in all its glory being lashed by the blue waves was the famous arch. 62 photos later and I am back on my way, across country, getting lost in abandoned villages.
It appears that the Maltese all take their holidays at this time of year and it was quite eerie driving through deserted villages, shops all boarded up, window shutters tightly closed and the only sign of life being the cats that eyed me suspiciously. This must be the time of feline rule in rural Malta. Felix Regina. Wild catnip parties were probably in full swing behind each and every locked door, the ones on the streets, moggie bouncers.

After driving round in circles I eventually enlisted the help of the last remaining human. ‘You don’t want to go that way’ he exclaimed ‘road is terrible!’ ‘No, go back up this road, bear right, left at the windmill, second right, three times round the roundabout and take a quick left at the refugee camp’. Refugee camp? I discovered that the place where my father’s office used to be was now a semi permanent tented camp for Somalian refugees. The road was shite. It had never been tarmaced and resembled very rocky cat litter. Oh boy, those cats really have taken over!

Another thing I noticed whilst driving around the island was that inland Malta appears to be totally devoid of colour. The entire island is built with the same pale yellow stone and the occasional red dome or green palm tree struggles to break through the expanse of stale custard. The multi coloured freight containers of Freetown as they loomed into sight were a welcome relief.

There was no entry into Freetown and no need to, a maze of freight containers appeared to be all that was left of Kalafrana. I headed down to Burzibuggia, fondly referred to as Birzy Bugger by my parents (could this be why ‘bugger’ is my favourite expletive?), and parked up by the tiny deserted beach opposite the vast freight terminal. At least there appeared to be humans habituating the small town. I set off on Mothers instruction to find the chemist. ‘The’ chemist? Surely a town of this size would have more than one chemist, but I soon found one, all very new and shiny. I had my doubts. A group of women were nattering outside. I approached one and asked if she spoke English. ‘So I am told’ was the stern reply. Oops, hit a nerve methinks. I explained my story and she immediately softened. By some stroke of luck this was indeed the chemist that was instrumental to my survival and the old owner was still alive and now living in Sliema. The woman was quite upset that she was unable to supply me with his phone number but went on to inform me that she used to be a WREN and was also stationed at Kalafrana, a little reminiscing followed and I took some photos before heading back to the beach where I discovered that indeed there was another chemist.
The beach was lovely, albeit it tiny, with white sand and clear blue water. ‘What the hell’ I thought,’ it has to be done’. Boots and socks removed, trousers rolled up, I dipped my toes into the freezing water and tried to imagine being a child again, on a family day out. Lonely Planet gives Burzibuggia a pretty poor write up, but I loved the place.

Driving along the coast I had a quick stop at Marsaxlokke, a pretty fishing village. Dozens of blue and yellow boats were in port with their owners making repairs whilst the seas were rough. There was a small market obviously geared towards tourists with tacky T towels, thimbles and over priced bad quality lace cloths. But there were no tourists!? Or so I thought. A coach load of loud mouthed holidaymakers in baggy shorts showing off white hairy knees pulled up. I think all of Malta’s tourists were on that coach. All 27 of them. I left.

I found a supermarket and stocked up on bread and cheese plus a few bottles of wine to take home, hoping it would be cheaper than buying at the airport. I was planning on heading back across country to Paola but took another wrong turn and ended up in a delightful town called Gudja…. I think. I stopped outside a building which was completely adorned with shells, pictures of saints intricately mapped out and painted in beautiful colours which were now showing the glorious signs of age. This was not in any of the guide books, I had found my own treasure! I still don’t know what the building was for, and naturally, there was no one around to ask. Not even a cat.

I found my way back to Paula with a picture in my mind given to me by my Mum of us all sat in the church square eating jam tarts and hoped that I would be able to find the flat that she had described to me where she and Dad had lived before I was born. But Paola had been completely swallowed by the ever expanding Valetta and I couldn’t even find somewhere to park, let alone sit in quiet reflection whilst munching delights from the bakery. So I did an about turn and headed back south, to Dingli Cliffs where, utilising my beloved new Swiss army knife I made myself a cheese sandwich, much healthier and less messy than a jam tart. The sea was calm and blue, below me the cliffs had been carved out into terraces where farmers grew the islands vegetables and it was wonderfully peaceful. I drove up the hill to the highest point in Malta and looked out at a tiny island. A small rock found its way into my bag to add to my collection of geological reminders of countries I have visited. I like the idea of Maltese rock rubbing shoulders with stones plucked from the depths of the Amazon in my little bowl of the world.

Next on my illogical zigzag tour of Malta was the far northwest corner and my first stop was the Red Tower. I got there just in time to see it being locked up so I never got to see the view from its roof, but it was indeed very red and driving further up the hill I was afforded a fabulous view across the cliffs to the empty nature reserve. Even the birds had taken a vacation, or been shot, the Maltese like to shoot things. Perhaps a mentality left over from years of fighting off invaders. If it flies overhead it must be an enemy and therefore must die. I hoped that if the gun toting Maltesers were still on holiday, the cats had not been practicing on the firing range. I planned on tying a white flag to the tail of my Easyjet plane, just in case.

At the top of the hill was what appeared to be a deserted Army camp and several of the ubiquitous stone look out posts that adorn the coastline. Not a cat in sight so I poked around the deserted buildings and crept up on the look out posts. An off course seagull soared up above. ‘In coming!!!’ I shouted, and hot footed it back to the car and back down the hill.

There are several bays and coves shown on my crappy map so I decide to investigate them all. Most were either dull or boring. Possibly the lack of sunshine, tourists and ice cream lessened their appeal. Anchor Bay on the other hand was positively bizarre. This is where they made the film ‘Popeye’ and the film set remains, its crooked, garish houses now a pleasure park for kids. The actual bay was the deepest turquoise I had ever seen, surely they had not coloured the sea in too? I decided not to shell out the 20 Euros or so to go in, instead admiring from the opposite cliffs.

In the furthermost corner, the map boasts ‘The White Tower’. I had seen the red, so may as well see the white one too. Passing a deserted and boarded up holiday park resembling an ancient Butlins on a wet British weekend I proceeded up the narrow, winding, decrepit driveway to the tower. Half way up is an oil barrel with a stern warning in dripping paint. ‘Private – NO ENTRY!’ Well I am buggered if I am going to attempt to turn around or indeed back up, so I put on an apologetic face and carry on. I find a crumbling abandoned building with dead mattresses in the garden. Obviously someone used to live here but got fed up with holidaymakers, fleeing the horrors of Butlins below, throwing themselves, Lemming style from their private piece of cliff.

I started heading back via Mellieha, St Pauls and Salina Bays. All of which I am sure are lovely in the summer but now they were all but deserted with just the odd person dressed to ward off the chill wind which was now coming in from the sea. All was uneventful until I reached Sliema. Approaching from a different angle I got totally lost again. It was now dark which didn’t make it any easier. There was a lot of traffic and the place was buzzing, cafes and restaurants open, shop lights ablaze. So this is where everyone has gone! I found somewhere to pull up in order to check my map but discovered the interior light wasn’t working. Bugger. Finally luck struck again and I recognised a shop at the end of my road. The only parking space was several hundred metres from my hotel so I decided I would not venture back to Sliema for the evening, I was starving and desperate for a hot meal but I was sure I would find something within walking distance.

Wrong! I walked for miles and the only restaurant I found was closed. There was a small supermarket around the corner from the hotel so I bought myself some ham to go with my remaining bread and a pile of chocolate. There was a lot of noise emanating from the kitchen again, so I whacked up the TV, poured myself a glass of wine and fell into bed.

I didn’t get to leave any earlier on Wednesday and when I did I was accosted by a Maltese lady as I approached the car. In her broken English she explained that her mother was sick in hospital, there was no bus for ages and she was desperate to visit her. Now, is this woman a complete loony who intends to hijack me, rob me of all my personal belongings and sell me to the cats for a slave? Or is she genuine? I have to make an instant decision as she is pleading by the car door. If she is genuine, how does it look for a tourist obviously better off than her to just drive off leaving her at the mercy of the antiquated bus system? I concede and make sure she sits in the back, away from my precious camera and ham sandwich which I prepared last night.
We arrive at the hospital and she rushes in, bowing with thanks and asking God to bless me. I had made the right decision. Now, which way is it to Rabat? Bugger!

I take another wrong turn and end up in Mosta. No problem, I was wondering whether to visit the Mosta Dome anyway. The Dome is famous for receiving a direct hit by one of three bombs in 1942, two bounced off but the other one pierced the roof and rattled along the church floor without ever exploding. To the 300 parishioners receiving mass at the time, this was indeed a miracle.
Unfortunately when I arrived, mass was about to start and so it didn’t seem respectful to go in there and start flashing away with a camera. Not being particularly religious myself I decided not to join in the service either. However, I did get a quick look at the beautifully painted ceiling before leaving to get back on the road to Rabat.

Just outside Rabat is Ta’Qali Crafts Village, housed in an old WWII airfield site I read that this was a good place for arts and crafts, plenty of workshops with glass blowers, silversmiths, potteries etc. I was sure to get the Christmas presents I needed for friends and family back home. Lonely Planet warned to get there early before the tour buses arrived. I paid heed, completely ignoring the fact that there were only 27 tourists on the whole island and that the majority of inhabitants were on holiday. So guess what? Yes, damned place was not only deserted but most of it closed! All that was open was Bristow’s Pottery which was hosting a school outing (eeek!) a silversmith, and one of the glass shops. I went in to the silversmiths and was treated as though I was some crazy robber. The assistants looked positively scared when I entered, there was a bit of nudging while one of them was allocated the task of watching my every move. ‘Its filigree’ she stuttered while trying to smile sweetly when I turned to face the poor girl. ‘Really!’ I would never have guessed. I looked at everything, paying particular attention to the locks on glass cases and fiddled with my rucksack, just to give them something to talk about after I left and hopefully liven up an otherwise dull day.

So much for Christmas shopping, maybe I would be luckier in the main town of Rabat. I stopped off at the Mdina first, the ancient walled city that was once Malta’s capital. I was glad to be the only tourist around, it was wonderful walking around the old city walls, admiring the fabulous views and marvelling at the old buildings, some dating back to 1495. The sun was shining which made it all the better. Karrozzins, the horse drawn carriages, lined the road by the main gate, horses in full regalia with feathered headdresses. It was warm, quiet and peaceful and all was well in the world.

I walked down to Rabat, hoping I would find somewhere lovely for lunch but….Rabat was closed! Seriously, absolutely nothing was open, nothing. Bugger! Never mind, lovely sunny day, I shall go back down south and visit Hagar Qim, the megalithic temples dating back to 3000 BC, they sounded fascinating and I had missed them yesterday.

The temples are situated right on the southern coast on a cliff and as I approached the skies started to cloud over and a sharp breeze was blowing. There was some building works and renovations going on. I paid the whacking 4.80 euro entry fee to a disinterested girl in a portacabin and entered the site. Now I am sure if you are into archaeology and stuff, this place would indeed be fascinating. To me, it looked like a heap of boulders but with some semi interesting round windows still standing. The monster 20 tonne megalith was nowhere to be seen and there was no one to ask what had happened to it. Workmen were in the process of building a massive shelter in which to preserve this historic sight and the presence of enormous tubes of metal somewhat took the edge off it. The site is tiny and I had walked around it all in under five minutes. Determined to get my 4.80 worth, I went round again trying to feel something of how this place would have been over 5000 years ago, but I was cold and it just wasn’t happening for me. Perhaps it would be better at the other site of Mnajdra, a little further down the cliff. I set off down the narrow path, trying to shield myself from the biting wind. But bugger me, the damned sodding place was closed! Yes, closed! Works on the new shelters was in full swing, the place was surrounded by wire fencing with ‘Do not enter or we will throw you off the cliff’ signs. Doing my best Mutley impression I muttered and dratted all the way back to the car.

Disgruntled, cold, starving and still in need of somewhere to buy some Christmas presents I made my way back to my hotel with the intention of getting a bus into Valetta. For some crazy reason I then decided to walk. It was miles in the cold and as I discovered, there is a distinct lack of pedestrian crossings. Navigating ones way across four lane carriageways, dodging lunatic drivers is not my idea of jolly good fun and I cursed myself. Things were not much better in Valetta, I hate shopping at the best of times and I was getting no inspiration. Maybe some dinner would be a good idea and I strolled the streets looking for a suitable cosy restaurant. That was when the heavens opened. Every single drop of the threatened rain fell at that moment. Cold, tired, hungry and now sodden. It was also dark. I peered from under the wet hood of my jacket and saw the unmistakeable ‘M’ of McDonalds beckoning me in the distance. Normally I would never, ever eat at a fast food conglomerate whilst abroad, but in this instance I really couldn’t give a damn. I ordered a Big Mac, large fries, apple pie and monster coffee, sat myself at a tiny table and devoured the lot. I got a further drowning as I waited for the bus and arrived back at my hotel thoroughly bedraggled. My sister had thoughtfully packed a miniature whiskey in my case and I poured that into a steaming cup of coffee before adding an extra blanket to my bed and settling down for the night, hoping that the rasping in my throat was a result of Maltese dust and not the oncoming of yet another cold.

I had saved my last day for a trip to Gozo and I prayed that the howling wind and dark skies were not going to jeopardise my trip. I was relieved to see ferries arriving at the port. I duly bought my ticket and kept fingers crossed. Reminiscent of the cross channel ferries back home, cars are packed in and everyone heads upstairs to drink insipid coffee and eat luke warm sausage rolls. The sea was pretty rough but my coffee did not make any attempts to escape to the floor so I figured all was fine. We landed at Gozo’s main harbour, Mgarr about thirty minutes later. The sun was now breaking through and taken the chill off the wind, this was going to be a good day.

I made my way up to the capital, Victoria and easily found my way to a convenient car park next to the bus station. Gozo buses are a stark contrast to those in Malta, having a livery of a dull grey but still circa the year I was born, so pretty old but probably in better condition. My intention was to take a wander around the ancient citadel of Il-Kastell. After my usual walking around in circles in the wrong direction I finally came across the entrance. The Citadel was quite marvellous and of course, thoroughly deserted, from the walls are views stretching across Victoria to the harbour, across the green hills and beyond. I found an alarming array of cannons, some of which were pointed at each other from neighbouring turrets. I was not aware that Gozo was once at war with itself, or maybe the soldiers, bored with nothing to fire at turned on each other in a dangerous game of chicken. More likely of course is that King Felix himself overtook the city from within.

Gozo is not a large island, positively miniscule even by Maltese standards, but there was a lot I wanted to see in the short time I had there. That time was significantly reduced after a little chat with a chap selling grotty postcards at the Azure Window on the coast of Dwejra. ‘Boat still running was it?’ he queried after I admitted I had just arrived on the island. ‘Surprised at that with the sea so rough, and its getting worse, will they be going back?’, ‘Bloody hope so’ I replied. ‘Better take my number, you may be in need of some accommodation….postcard?’ No, I did not want a bloody postcard, I wanted to ensure that I could get back for my flight the next day. Don’t panic I thought, it will be fine, it’s always fine.
The sea was battering the rocks and I dodged waves to get a good view of the beautiful and incredible archway. I clambered up onto the cliff face until warning notices advised me to approach no further, I did not wish to be responsible for the collapse of the famous tourist attraction, nor plunge into the raging seas below so I turned back, skipping around pools and wondering at the strange urchin type shells litterering the beach, embedded into the rocks. Malta’s 27 tourists had obviously followed me, a coach had pulled up and its occupants were busy donning coats to protect themselves from the howling wind. Soon the beach was overtaken with day trippers all straining to see the window without being swept into the angry waves or getting their feet wet. It was time to leave.IMG_5400.jpg
A quick whizz around Gharb, then I sat in awe of the monstrous Basilica of Ta’Pinu, Malta’s national shrine to the Virgin Mary built after the holy sweet mother of Jesus herself had a chat with one of the locals in 1883. Took them 37 years to get around to building it mind you, had to wait for a few more miracles first. It was a toss up between a cattery and a ridiculously huge and expensive church. They chose the latter, the consequences of which are only now beginning to show.

The sea had taken over the beach at Xlendi, and the road, and the car park, and several shops and restaurants. My urgency to get round and out increased tenfold and I headed back towards Victoria. The tourist coach was ahead of me, attempting to negotiate the narrow streets and hairpin bends just south of the capital before coming to an abrupt stop outside an unassuming little shop front. This must be something worth visiting I figured, so I decided to join them. The shop opened out into a cavernous souvenir seekers heaven, they sold everything from exquisite lace to hand knitted woollies to coffee spoons. I was like a child in a sweetie shop and did all my Christmas shopping in one go. Next door was a lovely little jeweller’s where the assistant, in between practically begging me to buy just about everything, informed me that ‘Of course the ferry will be running back to Malta, we had major storms last week and the ferry still ran’. Phew! I bought a bracelet and threw in a fridge magnet out of gratitude. Another little store across the road was selling Gozo cheese, a vast array of jams, chutneys, sweets and …tobacco. A little Golden Virginia sprinkled on your goat’s cheese canapé? Yeuch! But I bought some anyway, you have to don’t you. Tobacco in a little plastic tub, purveyed by a cheese shop.

With the pressure now off I took a slow drive along to Ramla Bay. Included in the Daily Telegraphs list of the world’s best beaches and thoroughly hyped up by Lonely Planets author of the Gozo section I could barely contain my excitement. For sure it looked stunning driving down the hill past lush green valleys, the blue waves gently lapping onto the red sand in the distance, but my excitement soon waned. Yes, it was lovely, very pretty, but world class? I think not. I am sure it looked better for being devoid of sun worshiping tourists and the statue of the Virgin Mary that had been plonked onto the middle of the beach looked positively serene. Maybe she was on holiday too, taking time out from chatting with peasants, performing miracles and grizzling in various churches around the world. I took a wander along the shore in a vain search for seashells amongst the washed up debris before having a coffee from my treasured flask outside the closed café. In all my travels I have never had so much use for one single item as I have from that flask. Must have been a visitation from the Virgin Mary ‘Take a flask, forget the petrol filled magic match thingy and the pop up battery operated lamp, just take the bloody flask…and your wind proof lighter’. Cheers Mary, God bless you old gal. As I departed I looked back to see her looking down in disdain at a couple who had stripped off to go skinny dipping in the icy waters.

Returning to Mgarr Harbour I could see that the sea was now like a mill pond, calm and sparkling in the sunlight, but many must have decided to stay as I had the boat virtually to myself. I sat on the top deck and basked in the sunshine, we set off and I took a stroll to the back of the boat (sorry Dad, stern!) to take some photos of the harbour, but the back door was open and I could not see. The back door was open! Holy shit! Two men were casually coiling fat ropes, seemingly oblivious of our impending doom. I ran around in demented circles, ‘Oi!’ I wanted to shout, ‘the effing door’s open!!!’, but no words would come out. I had visions of the headlines ‘One of Malta’s 28 tourists drowned in freak Zeebrugge like incident, a previously unheard of terrorist group calling themselves the Freedom for Urban Cats Klan claiming responsibility’.
‘Oh sweet mother of Jesus, I know you are on holiday and I am an atheist and all that but…DO something!’ I swear she winked and whispered ‘Just kidding’ as the door slowly lowered.

Posted by baluba 20.02.2009 11:29 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Paris

213 miles on a plane, 1246 miles on foot, 14 historical monuments, 2 tall buildings, 500,000 displaced bones, 13 public toilets and coffee, oh yes, we had a lot of coffee….

sunny 14 °C
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The SatNav failed us once again, this time dearest beloved sister Corinne, had programmed it to take us to Luton airport…runway. Hmm, I know my car is an estate and it does carry an awful lot, but even with the addition of wings, I don’t think it could disguise itself as a cargo plane, and I am sure runway parking is terribly expensive, so we resorted to my sense of direction to get us to the to the long term car park which thankfully, did not fail us.

Paris is described by the Travellerspoint ‘Wiki’ as ‘the city of love’. Well, we are not lovers we told the hotel guy and being sisters we were not even close friends, so we will have twin beds please if you don’t mind nice Mr Hotelman. But he cocked up the booking. ‘Um Coreen’ he called in his lovely French accent as we were heading for the lift, ‘I zeem to have made un error, I geev you anozzer room’. A beautiful room it was too and obviously an upgrade. We had TV, mini bar, headed notepaper and envelopes ( because you write a lot of letters when you’re on holiday don’t you), an ashtray you could not use but a large window out of which one could stick ones head and secretly pollute the fresh Parisian air. Oh, and a kettle.

The kettle is particularly relevant. As we were doing last minute packing checks Corinne asks ‘Do you have the kettle?’ ‘No, thought you had it’, ‘I thought you had it’,’ Must be in the loft.’ ‘But they don’t have a kettle in the hotel and we neeeeed one cos I must have my coffee in the morning.’ ‘Yeah, me too, I’ll go and get the ladders’. ‘But its 3am, you can’t go crashing around outside in the garage waking up the neighbours, we’ll buy a new one at the airport.’ ‘OK’ (relief).

At the airport I begrudgingly shell out 20 quid for a pathetic little kettle which came complete with cups so there was no need to lug around the two ancient ones we dug out from the back of the cupboard with the intention of dumping them in the hotel ‘poubelle’ when we left. ‘Poubelle’ a lovely word don’t you think? Poo-belle, a bit like pretty crap. The name actually derives from a Eugene Poubelle who, in 1884 declared that all apartments should have rubbish bins.
So there we are in our posh hotel room looking at this large kettle and lovely white china cups. Bugger. I decide I shall return the kettle to Boots and get my money back. It is still sitting in the back of my car. The ancient cups were instantly relegated to Eugene’s pretty crap bin.

I have just worked two 14 hour shifts, got up at 3am, driven the 2 hours to Luton via Gate 17’s non existent parking space, flown for an hour (in a plane), navigated the Paris RER system and got us safely ensconced in a comfortable room with a kettle. I would have happily curled up in front of French TV with a mug of coffee and a French stick. But we have a day and a half to ‘do’ Paris.

After refreshing ourselves with a coffee at a local café, we set off for our first port of call, the Eiffel Tower, via A&E to have our hearts defibbed after realising that two cups of mediocre caffeine had just set us back almost 8 quid! ‘So where is it?’ quips Corinne, ‘Erm, could be that large metal structure just behind you?’ We were there in less than fifteen minutes. One look at the queue helped us decide that it really wasn’t worth going up and Corinne didn’t have her inhaler with her anyway.

The weather was glorious, so we strolled along the banks of the Seine towards the Louvre. Well, it started out as a stroll, but Corinne’s coffee decided it needed an emergency exit so we raced down Pont des Invalides, me desperately trying to take an imposing shot of the Grand Palais, we flew past Pont de la Concorde with its magnificent gilded horses perched upon giant towers guarding the way to the impressive Assemblee National, Corinne is now 500 metres ahead of me, I am trying to take photos and exclaiming ‘oooh, look at that!’ to no one in particular before racing after her looking like a thief who has just nicked some unsuspecting tourist’s prized Canon.

The pace slows momentarily as we go through the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre with its promise of spotlessly clean and art adorned lavs is in sight. We ponder at the ponds, one is full of terns, the other, ducks. Obviously some sort of segregation going on here. I wonder what the ducks would do should a tern inadvertently land in their midst? A flock call of ‘En coulet, sal tern’ probably. In English, that means ‘go away’ nicely, but don’t say it to your mother. I have probably got the French wrong too, but I am sure someone will put me right.

Pristine toilet in sight, a young lady stops us, she is holding a gold wedding band. She says she just found it on the ground. ‘Oh my goodness, it looks brand new, someone must have lost it’ we respond in unison. ‘Its no good to me, doesn’t fit, here, you have it’ she replies. Now we are in a quandary, what do we do? Where is the nearest police station? Do we look for a gentleman (for indeed it is a gentleman’s ring) sobbing into his new brides shoulder having lost his blessed wedding band on their honeymoon? Oh my, too much pressure! But then the young lady returns ‘Good luck for you! How about a little something for me?’ Ah ha! A scam! I quickly return the ring to her, and relief rushes over me. Corinne is already relieving herself in the Louvre loos which were so clean they stunk of bleach and there was not so much as a Monet in sight.
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Now ferociously hungry we stuck into French style hot dogs fresh from the microwave, marginally more expensive than a cup of coffee. We spot a large archway that we had not noticed walking through. Would this be the Arc de Triomph? No, surely not, isn’t that stuck in the middle of the road surrounded by horrendous traffic? Or would that be Marble Arch? I take a photo anyway, just in case. Later consultation with the map reveals that we were terribly wrong.

Being of limited time we decide not to enter the Louvre, experience has told me that it takes a week just to find the Mona Lisa and when you do get there she is encased in glass, surrounded by tourists and looking as miserable as Venus who is probably still in need of some arms so she can gesticulate at passers by peering at her nakedness.. Instead we decide to make our way to the Notre Dame.

We returned to the Seine and strolled along the Quai. Really strolled this time, ignoring the thirst we endured for fear of turning our trip into a tour of Paris’ 1452 (ish) public toilets. At the street market Corinne bought the least tacky fridge magnet she could find and I indulged in a comic picture of a camel smoking its namesake. Couldn’t help it, I still have a thing about camels.

We found our way without incident to the Notre Dame and sat outside watching a young girl being accosted by pigeons and a lovely old lady feeding her beloved sparrows. There was something wonderful about this crinkly old lady, hand outstretched to the tiny agile sparrows. They showed no fear of her and remarkably, the pigeons stayed away, perhaps they were also subjected to the steely gaze that I was afforded when I pointed my lens in her direction.

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The Notre Dame is truly a magnificent building, the gothic towers, gargoyles more threatening than any old lady and so many knobbly bits. I am no architectural buff, but surely this is a remarkable feat of engineering for the 14th Century. Deciding once again, not to venture inside, Corinne not being particularly interested and me not wishing to relive memories of breaking her video camera on my last visit which just happened to be my honeymoon back in 1997 when I was married to the since departed Rob, departed to Moffat that is, although we still have fond memories of our exorbitant dinner at the Grand Hotel but that’s another story, we headed off in the direction of the Latin Quarter.

Le Quartier Latin is just lovely, quaint little streets lined with fabulous little restaurants displaying mouth wateringly seductive brochettes of giant prawns, chunks of salmon and other fishy delights.

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Unfortunately we were not hungry so we settled for a happy hour half litre of beer at a street bar with a decidedly stroppy waiter and a unisex loo. We sat there and watched Paris walk by, a mixture of crazed drunks, trendy teenagers and typical exquisitely groomed Parisian ladies who were attending a beauty parlour next door. A saxophonist serenaded us then got the hump when we told him we had no money to give him, we had spent it on a 5 euro beer. Only 50 cents more than a cup of coffee, bargain!

Next on the agenda was my favourite. Getting lost in a major city. We were not disappointed. After zigzagging our way in what we thought was the general direction of the Eiffel tower, we were suddenly confronted with, the wrong tower. Namely the Montparnasse tower. ‘Is that not right?’ enquires Corinne, ‘No, it is most certainly very not alright. It is alright if you want to see where we are going tomorrow, but it is not alright if you had visions of soaking your weary legs in our sumptuous hotel room bath whilst I whisk up a couple of lattes using our lovely (and free) kettle within the next hour’. With us both being very close to 50, Corinne on the wrong side and me on the scary side, the old joints aren’t what they used to be and we were already aching and hobbling like a pair of geriatrics. We could have got the Metro back, but that would be too easy wouldn’t it! We may miss something special, like a signpost.

After resorting to consulting the map, which is not easy by closed shop light using a very small map of a very large city and having to scrabble for reading glasses, we get an idea of the general direction we should be headed and hobbled off. Sighting of the dome of the Invalides lit up like some monstrous gilded…thing, heartened us a little, but on first glimpsing the neon blue lights of the Eiffel tower and its beacon beckoning us in the direction of ‘home’, all pains were forgotten.

Seeing Paris’ most famous landmark lit up like this was something to behold, emblazoned with the European flag of 12 gold stars it took on an almost Disney like character. We rested for a short while in the blueness, people were still queuing to go to the top and once again we opted out. One single step in a vertical direction and we would both have been crippled for life. As we made our way on the last 15 minute leg of our journey we turned back, to see the whole bloody thing covered in glitter and flashing uncontrollably. It was so gaudy it was almost beautiful. Ok, so I admit to uttering ‘wow!’ and ‘oooh!’ a couple of times like a child at a fireworks display but really, what would Gustave have thought?

We made one further stop at a local supermarket to stock up with bread, cheese, ham and wine (we could have bought four bottles of wine for the price of one coffee!) then hobbled to the hotel opting for the lift to take us to our room on the first floor.

That bed felt sooo good, curled up with a glass of wine watching the US Presidential elections in French, stuffing our faces with bread and cheese.

The following day we felt remarkably recovered and with the promise of another sunny day, we decided to walk to the Catacombs. It was not a particularly interesting walk apart from running into the Statue of Liberty on Pont de Grenelle. She must have been on holiday too, but I didn’t see anything in the papers about it. We did a few zigzags to liven it up a bit and came across what must have been ‘food row’. A shop each for cheese, meat, poultry, fish, bread, cakes, coffee and chocolate. We slavered in windows and recoiled at the prices for chocolates. We were armed with home made ham and cheese baguettes and so resisted all temptation.

Finally we arrive at the inconspicuous Catacombs. Had there not been a queue forming we may have had trouble finding it. We took our place at the end and about an hour later we were at the entrance. Probably should have taken a look at the entrance first. There is sign stating that if you happen to be of a nervous disposition, suffer from claustrophobia or even the slightest bit frail, then this probably isn’t the best place for you. There are 132 steps down and 84 up. You have to walk 1.5kms underground in semi darkness. Corinne still remembers vividly the time we went to York and I had a claustrophobic panic attack in the museum, running up the wrong stairs pushing old ladies and small children out of my way shouting something unintelligible about needing to see the sky. This was a very, very long time ago and since then I have been in deep caves and even survived the walkway to hell in Ethiopia so I tried to reassure her that I would not be an embarrassment. The defibrillator inside the entrance was a little unnerving though.

We descended the tiny stone spiral staircase, counting each of the 132 steps, emerging 20 metres below ground into the narrow passages of the disused quarry. We followed the dim passage to the sculpture of the Port Mahon fortress of Minorca, carved out from memory by someone who was supposed to be working down there, I think they gave him the sack after he had finished it. Finally we came to an opening and a doorway. A sign above a doorway warned ‘Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort’ translated ‘Halt! For this is the empire of death’. A chill ran down our backs.

In 1785 the Council of State, following complaints from the population about the nasty pong coming from the cemeteries, issued a decree authorising the transfer of old bones to the quarry. Initially these bones were thrown in a heap, but in 1810, some smart artistic type chap named Hericart de Thury came along and turned them into walls. Long bones arranged in neat rows with skulls laid on top, the other bones piled behind. He then got a bit clever and started arranging them a bit more artistically resulting in what is now seen to be a work of grotesque art. The bones kept coming until every cemetery in Paris had been cleared and continued to arrive until 1860. I don’t think anyone knows just how many souls are laid to rest there but it feels like the result of some ghastly holocaust. I was glad to get out and hurried up the 84 steps back to the land of the living.
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As if we hadn’t seen enough death, we visited the Montparnasse Cemetery and marvelled at the ornateness of some of the tombs, all so beautifully kept. Bones hidden in sarcophagi, as they should be.

To cheer us up a little we decided to go to the top of Montparnasse tower and enjoy the 360 degree view from the terrace of the 59th floor. Voted in a poll by Virtualtourist recently, it has been deemed the second ugliest building in the world, exceeded in hideousness only by the Boston City Hall. Personally I did not think it was that bad but was sure the view from there was better looking at the Eiffel Tower than the other way around. We were lucky with the weather, even at 210 metres, the air was still and there was just a faint haze over the distant outreaches of Paris.

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After all this upping and downing we had built up a thirst and so headed back the Latin Quarter to find our stroppy waiter and his 5 euro beers. This time we decided to take the Metro, but after walking a mile underground to the trains, realising we needed a ticket, walking the mile back and returning once more, we may just as well have gone on foot. Surprisingly, even though we had no idea exactly where it was, our noses took us straight to the bar and we took our places amongst the other unsuspecting tourists catching the sharp end of the little waiters tongue. If ever you are in Paris and come across this little bar with its benches and tiny stools outside, remember, never, ever sit next to each other. You must sit opposite if you want to avoid getting short shrift!

The lure of fish brochettes became too much and we found ourselves in a little Greek restaurant munching on a huge platter of fish, meat, moussaka and salad, washed down with a bottle of wine and followed by something decidedly chocolaty. Yum!

Not wanting a repeat performance of yesterday’s journey home, we took the double decker underground RER which involved just a little chopping and changing of stations as we tried to decide exactly which direction we were supposed to be heading. More wine and French TV soon lulled us into a blissfully peaceful sleep. That was it. Paris ‘done’.

The next morning greeted us with lashing rain and so we enquired about an airport transfer, advertised at 16 euro each. There was no vehicle available but the receptionist kindly arranged us a taxi. Luckily I enquired as to the cost. 50 euro!!!! I told him I would rather get wet and pay just 8 euro on the RER, so that’s what we did.

Orly airport is just horrid. There is no departure lounge as we know it, somewhere to while the time away in the lovely duty free shops. No, once you are through security (after the usual rigmarole of removing half your clothing, revealing holey socks and Asda knickers cos your trousers fall down without a belt) there is not so much as a working vending machine and we were forced to sit there, listening to some revolting Brit sniffing and snorting. We let him board first and sat at the other end of the plane.

We were home by mid afternoon and whilst unpacking what did we find in the wardrobe? The bloody kettle!

Posted by baluba 21.11.2008 11:33 Archived in France Tagged foot Comments (0)

Not Poland - Malta!

Oh the joys of cancelled flights!

semi-overcast 10 °C

I received an email from Sky Europe, 'Dear passenger, blah blah, flight cancelled, blah blah' free rebook or refund...just call our offices in Slovakia(!) or your local number'. They omitted to mention that calls to the UK office cost 25p per minute.
I sent two emails protesting about having to call Slovakia or indeed pay 25p per minute to have the privilege of rescheduling a flight that was cancelled through no fault of my own. Finally I relented and phoned Slovakia having located an old iternational phone card. Lady on the other end was very nice and the call was all of 2 minutes. They had no suitable alternatives so I have asked for a refund. I am still waiting.

Soooo, I have booked a flight to Malta. My parents are delighted. I was born there many years ago, leaving when I was just 18 months old and have never returned. I am now armed with a list of really interesting places to visit, like where I was born, which is now a freight terminal, the Drs surgery, the pharmacy, the garlic field where my placenta was buried (GROSS!) etc. But I am actually really looking forward to it. For once passport control will know the birthplace listed in my passport, Kalafrana!

Having armed myself with the current Lonely Planet guide I have realised that in the four days I have there, the public transport system is going to be a real pain, having to return to Valetta every time I want to change direction. So I have hired a car. A very cheap car. You dont get much better than £10 a day do you? Now my task is to cover as much of the little island as possible and maybe even take in Gozo as I can just pop accross on the ferry. Did well with the hostel too. Booked a dorm for 9.50 Euros a night and just received an email informing me I have been upgraded to a single room, complete with ensuite bathroom, fridge, hairdryer etc plus the use of two kitchens. Whoohooo!

I leave on 1st December and so far, the weather reports are looking good. 21C on average and not raining till the day that I leave.

I think I am glad that Poland was cancelled, with its freezing cold and having to stay in the house of Amityville Horror because the lovely little rustic backpackers cancelled on me too.

Bruges has been cancelled too. We have been informed that our much awaited works day trip to the Christmas Markets is no longer to be because the day of the market has been changed, and no, we cannot even just go anyway to peer at where the market should be. All to do with Trades Descriptions Act or something. Bloody hell.

To make up for this hiccup in my plans to visit lots of Europe, I booked a day trip to Dublin for February. Ryanair were having a sale on and the return flight cost me 2p. Cost £8 to pay for it though, cheeky buggers. Still, £8.02p is not bad for a day out in another country.

As for Congo, well..not having much luck am I? But I am hanging in there, things could change. I am bloody well going even if I have to personally go out there and bang all their heads together. Parents not amused by this train of thought so if it gets really really dangerous, then I shall concede and find somewhere else to spend my 50th birthday. Any suggestions gratefully received.

I did get to Paris by the way and blog will be updated soon!

Posted by baluba 12:33 Archived in England Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Prague

Less of an adventure, more of an experience!

rain 11 °C
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One experienced traveller, one beginner and one club medder. Three females well past 40 arrive in Prague. Whatever God there is, please help us.

Even getting to the airport was not straightforward. Having never been to Luton before I conceded to using my sister Corinne’s new Satnav. She has it all programmed in, I have tried to memorise the directions to the off airport parking. Sandra sits in the front with me. Everything is fine until we hit J10 of the M1. I want to head towards the airport, the satnav wants to go to town. Sandra does not even know which county we are in. We follow the satnav and the written directions and are subsequently on our way to China.

It appears dearly beloved sister has programmed the satnav to someone’s house in Luton. I am sure they would not mind, at 0400 in the morning us dropping the car keys off and giving us a lift to the airport! Satnav abandoned, we finally find our way to the car park and set off on the bus to the airport. Isn’t Luton tiny! Corinne and Sandra whizz off to the loo. Having a bladder made of stronger stuff I wait outside, but they don’t know this and spend half an hour waiting for someone else called Claire that they have been shouting through the toilet door at. Hugely embarrassed they run off through the airport giggling like schoolchildren.

The flight is on time and I have to drag two shopaholics away from the stall selling £10 watches. ‘Ooh, should I have the light brown or the dark brown?’……’oooohh, there’s even more over ……’ They are dragged to the counter to pay and whisked off to the waiting aircraft.

On arrival in Prague two blank faces look at me after I announce that we have to get a bus, two Metros and take a short walk. ‘Ok, I will go and get the tickets’. Following the hostels directions we find it very easy to get there and my two companions are thrilled at having negotiated a foreign city’s public transport system.

We arrive at the hostel. Corinne and Sandra have never stayed in a hostel. Refusing to stay in a dorm I had booked a triple room with en suite bathroom. Luxury huh!!!?? The young chap behind reception looks at these three aging females and I wonder what is going through his mind. Our room is on the top floor and we drag our unnecessarily heavy suitcases and backpacks up two floors.

Three small wooden beds, neatly in a row. Which one was daddy bears bed we wondered! At the end of each bed was a neatly folded little towel. Little being the operative word. With the web site promising ‘linen and towels included’, my suggestion of packing sarongs had been poo poo’d. Exactly which part of our bodies were we supposed to dignify using what amounted to little more than a flannel??

There are signs everywhere threatening instant eviction if you dared to smoke in any part of the building. All three of us are smokers. I had visions of us trying to sneak a fag in the bathroom and being flung out into the street in just our flannels. We decided against it.

I go downstairs to buy some drinks and the receptionist hands me a brochure on guided tours. ‘This, I think, will be good for you’. Huh, the cheek of it! But at least I discover an outside smoking area, on the ground floor although it is only open from 8am to 10pm

Corinne, having visited Prague before, successfully takes the lead in guiding us to Wenceslas Square. We feel like we have been transported to London. Not only is it cold and wet, but all around us are Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Tesco, Spar, Kentucky and the ubiquitous McDonalds. We head for the backstreets and find a delightful little restaurant where we stuff our faces with duck with red cabbage and dumplings, masses of rye bread and huge chunks of apple strudel with whipped cream. Topped with a few beers we are all but immobile, but we manage to trudge in the cold rain back to the hostel.

The brochure said ‘fully equipped kitchen’ so we brought instant coffee. But there was no kettle and no mugs. ‘Diet coke all round then!’ Great. We head downstairs for a cigarette, waving frantically at the automatic light which only comes on after you have negotiated half of the spiralling concrete stairway, and sit, like naughty children huddled amongst the dirty laundry outside, taking in enough nicotine to last till 8am. We were exhausted though, having been up since 0230 that morning and we soon fell into our beds and slept, serenaded by Corinne’s snoring.

In the morning it became apparent why Sandra’s backpack had been so heavy. One full sized mirror, new, large sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, shaving foam and a pack of 1000, yes 1000 cotton buds. Together with an assortment of other beauty products, enough to start a small shop. Sandra has not quite grasped the concept of travelling light yet. I feel bad for bringing a hairdryer!

Breakfast is fabulous, lots of bread, cheese, sausage, cereals etc. and gallons of lovely hot, strong coffee. We have discovered that we can hire a kettle and so three mugs make their way into Corinne’s handbag. Borrowed you understand, just borrowed. Could not believe they were stamped with ‘Ikea’ on the bottoms! Is anything made in Czech Republic? Or even Poland for that matter. Corinne has convinced herself that we are in Poland for some reason. She has told all her friends she is going to Poland, so let’s hope when the postcards arrive from Prague that their geography is as bad as hers.

The rain seems to have eased so we set off in search of the vernacular railway. No idea where it is and it’s not on my map, but there is a big hill, so we head for that. On arrival at the station there are hoards of tourists, students and children, we grab tickets and squeeze our way to the front of the queue disregarding the chewing gum blowing youths. The group of small children join us in our carriage. Now Sandra has a big thing for children and she promptly ups one of them to sit on the seat next to her and starts patting his head. Oh my God, we are going to be carted off as suspected paedophiles! It’s a long way up to the top, and very, very steep. I shut my eyes and pray for well maintained brakes and inattentive teachers as Sandra coos over the little people with snotty noses.

There is a huge tower at the top so we part with cash and start the ascent up the spiral staircase. The whole bloody thing is swaying and Sandra gets seasick. Corinne is asthmatic and has forgotten her inhaler, so we make very slow progress. The view from the top is worth it though, just a shame it is such a grey day. I take a zillion photos of rooftops and castles and Sandra takes a zillion photos of….us. In her view, a scene is not interesting unless someone is standing in front of it. Sandra has to have her photo taken in front of everything. You know the sort, ‘this is me in front of…., sitting on…., eating a…’ etc. Corinne just doesn’t take a camera. Too much technology.

We then take a walk down the hill, utilising bushes for the loo rather than shell out yet another 10 or 20 CZ for public toilets that issue you with two squares of paper. The views across the city are fabulous, the little sun there is bouncing off gilded rooftops. Confirming my belief that you can never get lost in any city, we end up back in the Jewish Quarter and then on to the Old Town just in time to see the striking of the beautiful, if incorrect, astronomical clock. An American lady tells us not to blink or we will miss it. She is not wrong, five seconds later the whole parade of Apostles has passed and Death rings his (or her) last bell. ( I have just finished reading Death at Intervals by Jose Saramango who surmises that Death is indeed a woman, wears Prada and falls in love with an aging cellist – sorry, just gave away the story! But it is an interesting read.)

Now starving, we set out to find a sausage stall, after accosting an unsuspecting German tourist, one is located. Corinne and Sandra get themselves hot sausages in buns while I just take a quick photo of this…and that..and ooh look at that! On my arrival at the stall I see these lovely looking things that can only be described as an empty sausage roll. Mmmm ‘I’ll have one of those please’. I pay my money and am given an empty sausage roll. ‘But I want a sausage in it!’ The lady looks at me in dismay as she plonks a sausage in the middle and demands more money than I can buy a 3 course lunch for. In retaliation I smother the whole lot in tomato sauce and mustard. Very pleased with my big sausage in a roll I return to show it off to Sandra and Corinne. Very jealous they looked too, until I bit into the sickly sweet roll. Ah! This explains the dismay on the vendor face. What I had done was the equivalent of putting a burger inside an iced Belgian bun!!! No, I never lived that one down!

Next stop was Prague Castle and we arrive just in time for the changing of the guard. I run off half a gig on my camera then realise I did not take a spare memory card. The next half an hour was spent hitting the delete button hoping, with each and every one, that it really was crap and not a potential winner for the TP photo competition. The castle is very impressive with its black gothic towers silhouetted against the grey sky, gargoyles competing with each other for hideousness, but the crowds were a bit too much and so we left. Even Charles Bridge was heaving and there were major renovations underway, so we went off to explore the backstreets.

One thing that we noticed about the Czech Republic language is that just about everything ends in ‘y’, particularly borrowed English words. Our favourite was ‘thrillery’ books!

The heavens opened again and we sought refuge in a large clothing store and stocked up on underwear. I go all the way to Prague and buy a fluorescent pink bra and knickers with black and diamante skull and crossbones. Bloody gorgeous! Afterwards we warm ourselves with hot wine at the sausage stall. ‘Of course it’s not alcoholic’ I claim ‘its hot, it’s evaporated!’ But after half a cupful, Corinne and Sandra are hopelessly tiddly, so it’s back to the hostel for coffee in our ‘borrowed’ mugs made with our hired kettle.

We had decided the next day to take a trip to Cesky Krumlov, a small town near the Austrian border just three hours away. Described by the AA Pocket Guide ( a present from Sandra’s boyfriend as my 1989 version of ‘Lets Go Eastern Europe’ was deemed defunct) as ‘simply ravishing’! We couldn’t wait.

The receptionist advised that the bus was quickest and we could pick it up, quite simply, from IP Pavlova Metro station. No. 115. We set off early, missing breakfast and arrived at IP Pavlova. Lots of buses, no 115. No one that speaks English. Cursory enquiry with a young chap resulted in a laugh and the shaking of his head ‘No, not here’. Ok, so we must have it wrong. No matter, hot foot it to the railway station. The information desk is closed so I enquire at the ticket office. ‘What time are trains to CK?’ ‘Ask at information’. ‘But it’s closed’. ‘So?’ Great, thanks. Back to the information desk where someone is lurking behind the blind. I point to my watch and give a quizzical look. International signal for ‘What time do you open?’ I thought. She shrugged her shoulders. Great, thanks. We run around the station like demented idiots, holding our noses through piss filled tunnels until we find an information board and then to a different ticket office. A very polite gentleman prints off a timetable for us. The train leaves in an hour and arrives after lunch. Pointless. ‘Why don’t you get the bus?’ he asks. Huh? ‘Yes, it goes from IP Pavlova, leaves in 15 minutes. ‘Shit’. Race back to the Metro, back to IP Pavlova and accost a man selling papers. He directs us round the back of the station, behind a building and we find the bus station hiding behind a sign saying ‘Taxis’. I locate a ticket office only to be told the bus was full. That’s it, bugger it, I am going to the zoo. But then I find another and I am told that we can get a different bus and pay the driver. It’s the 115. We grab some croissants and chain smoke till the bus arrives, 30 minutes late. As we board I notice a sign saying smoking is strictly forbidden anywhere in the bus station. Bugger. There is also a sign on the bus forbidding eating or drinking. Three girls are now sat on the back seat, faces covered in croissant crumbs, stinking of smoke and trying desperately to look innocent. We are on our way to Simply Ravishing!

After an uneventful three hour trip, we arrive in Cesky Krumlov. An adorable little town surrounded by the Vlatva River and nestled at the foot of the Sumava hills, it came complete with multi coloured, trompe l’oeil adorned castle, guarded by doughnut munching bears. It is market day and the main square is full of craft stalls, their vendors in traditional dress. There are umpteen stalls selling hot food from big fat sausages to steaming hot garlic soup served in a hollowed out loaf. The man making empty sausage rolls cannot understand our hysterical giggling.

We were surprised that it was free to wander around the castle and its grounds, you only had to pay if you wanted to go inside. It was all truly magnificent, built into the sides of a cliff and afforded stunning views across the town and surrounding countryside. The grounds were immense with mazes, fountains, woods and a lake. Red squirrels darted between the trees, escaping the lenses of a group of Japanese tourists. It was a shame that once again, it was raining. I can imagine that in the summer, the place would be breathtaking.

We strolled around the cobbled streets, marvelling at the vast array of marionettes on sale, resisting the beautiful garnet jewellery and enjoying coffee and cakes at half the price of those in Prague. The hot garlic soup was not sufficient to warm us up so we headed for the hot wine stall where Frankenstein’s monster dished us up a huge beaker of spicy red loveliness. ‘This one is definitely not alcoholic’ I tell the girls. But two glugs and they were both decidedly squiffy and I pretended not to be with the two giggling, supposedly fully grown adults back to the bus. We slept all the way back to Prague.

On our final day the sun shone and all was wonderful. The calm river mirrored the bridges, churches glistened against the blue sky and ten million tourists poured out onto the streets. Bugger. After a last little bit of souvenir shopping we decided to have a slap up lunch and took refuge at a street café, soaking up the sun while we waited an hour and a half for dessert. Yup, tour bus turned up and spoiled everything.

Prague is lovely, but like any other big city it is probably better seen in sunny weather or with thick snow. Keeping away from the main streets where there is a McDonalds on every corner reminded you of being in Eastern Europe with its gothic architecture and evidence of a brutal communist regime.

Those that know me will know that I am not comfortable in big cities, have little interest in architecture and even less in flamboyant churches. I am glad that I have been, but I have no need to return and I was glad to be returning to Morocco a few days later. Bugger is, I developed a stinking cold which stayed with me my whole time in Morocco. Coughing and spluttering across the desert, the camels took me in as one of their own.

Posted by baluba 14.10.2008 09:03 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged women Comments (0)

A series of mini trips....

I have caught 'booknowitis' !

semi-overcast 16 °C
View Istanbul & Malta & Paris & Czech Republic & Morocco on baluba's travel map.

This is a terrible, terrible thing that has happened to me, and to my knowledge, there is no known cure.

You see, I keep getting these emails from airline companies offering cheap flights to various European destinations. Normally I would have just binned them being not terribly interested in cities, or even Europe for that matter. But recently one arrived offering flights to Prague for £16. Sixteen quid!? All the way to Prague for sixteen smackaroonies, 20 euros, $28, 197 CNY (Chinese Yuan Renmimbi?). Bargin!

One, if in reasonable state of mind, does not pass up an offer like that, so the 'Book Now' button was hit. I leave next Wednesday, 24th September. And that was the start of it.

Since then, every email has resulted in me hitting the dreaded 'Book Now' button. It sits there, in red, pleading for attention like a hungry dog.

Having already planned to return to Morocco on the 30th September and Bruges for a day trip with work in November, I am now setting off to Paris in early November, Zakopane in December and Istanbul in January.

Hah, Zakopane all you European novices, like me, ask. Where on earth is that??? Well, a quick Google search revealed a glorious little town in Poland. The highest town in Poland no less. In december it will be covered in snow and, no doubt, hoards of skiers. I don't do skiing, but I have located a lovely little backpackers lodge, nestled at the foot of the mountains in the forest. Cool. Its costing me £6.33 a night including breakfast. Even cooler. Its called 'Goodbye Lenin'. Hmm.

In case anyone is wondering how I have the time to do all this, well, I am lucky in my job that I work six shifts a week, crammed into three days allowing me four days off. Every six weeks, they owe me a day off, that then gives me five days to bugger off somewhere. Wicked huh!?

So, my next entry will be Prague. This should be interesting. I am going with bereaved sister and depressed friend, both of whom now have steady boyfriends. Those of you that have read my last Morocco entry on my other blog will understand why I am considering confiscating their mobiles. For someone that prefers to travel alone, this is not going to be easy, but I am sure we shall have some fun!

The big Congo trip is still on the planning table but I may have to wait until next December owing to the weather. Its getting very exciting, now including tracking Lowland Gorillas and a trip on the Congo where they made 'Africa Queen'! This will have to be a blog on its own, entitled 'Will Claire survive the Congo or get mugged, robbed and killded?' What an adventure!!!

Lets hope I don't get mown down by a bloody tram in Prague, mutilated by a rabid camel in Morocco, garlic overdosed in France, squished by a wayward bobsleigh in Poland or trampled on by ugly Christmas poultry in Turkey.
(Why on earth are they called Turkeys????).

12th December 2008

As you now probably know, Poland was cancelled and I went to Malta instead. But now it is back on and I head out there with beloved sister in March. Hopefully there will still be some snow so we can do a bit of tobogganing! Bruges too was cancelled owing to the company going bust.

I have also booked a day trip to Dublin for 2p in Feb and also heading out to Malaga in the same month to visit a friend. Just got to get something sorted for April now!

The Congo trip is almost officially off. Its just a bit rediculous out there at the moment. So, I am heading off to Indonesia. See my other blog, I shall put it on there as I am finally adding the dragons bit!

Posted by baluba 18.09.2008 23:50 Archived in England Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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