Under the Maltese Sun

The copious amount of sunshine was just one of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Malta. Needless to say, I sunburned a little. We spent three wonderful days on that tiny island and saw it all… well, almost.

USEMEDSC01737 (3)

Day 1 – Off-roading and jaw-dropping vistas

The theme of Day 1 really did seem to be off-roading. We had rented a little manual Kia Picanto, and Tex adapted to driving on the left side rather seamlessly. But our GPS directed us to take some very rocky paths (I won’t even call them roads). Somehow, we made it out alive and laughing and with somewhat higher blood pressures. Anywho, our first stop was to see St. Paul’s Island on the north side of the island. This is where they claim that Paul and Luke shipwrecked. You can read about it in Acts 27. While this stop wasn’t initially part of our itinerary, it ended out being one of my favorite things. Not only is it incredible to think of the apostle clambering out of a wrecked ship right there, but it is also a beautiful display of God’s creation. And as a cherry on top, we were the only souls there to soak it in that morning.

 

FIXEDDSC01582
A view of St. Paul’s Island

From there, we drove down to Mdina, an ancient city near the center of the island. This was the capital of Malta during the time of Paul and is likely the town where Paul stayed for much of his time on the island. St. Paul’s Grotto (technically in the town of Rabat, but within walking distance of Mdina) is the underground site claimed to have been where Paul founded the first Christian community on Malta. We purchased tickets at the Wignacourt Museum, which gave us entrance to both the Grotto and St. Paul’s Catacombs, as well as some WWII bomb shelters. The catacombs are early (4th century AD) Christian burial grounds, made up of innumerable tunnels and cave-like rooms. We had never seen any catacombs before, and these were remarkably fun to explore. One of the special pieces of architecture down there was called an Agape table. It was at this table that certain funerary feasts took place in honor of the dead.

FIXEDDSC01611

One more memorable stop in Mdina was an adorable tea garden, called Fontanella Tea Garden. It sits on the edge of the city’s high wall and overlooks much of the island. We ordered tea and tried a couple of their popular cakes, a strawberry meringue and a lemon cheesecake. I was quite pleased with the quick service and decent prices of this little establishment.

DSC01601
A splendid tea
FIXEDDSC01607
From our table in the tea garden…

A bit after noon, we hopped into the car and headed towards the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast of the island. We were amazed at how easy it was to cover pretty much the entire island of Malta in one day, well really only 2 hours, of driving. Once we arrived and parked, we headed out to buy tickets for the much-sought-after boat rides into the Blue Grotto. I can only imagine the crowds there in the summer, but early February proved to be the perfect time to visit. For only 8 Euros each, we rode in a small motorized fishing boat out into the crystal Mediterranean and cruised through several grottos, including the Cat’s Cave, Reflection Cave, and of course the Blue Grotto. The light turquoise water that you can see in one of the pictures is caused by white sand on the sea floor reflecting light back up through the water. This was truly breathtaking.

FIXEDDSC01646

FIXEDDSC01638
Heading into the Blue Grotto

FIXEDDSC01650

Our last destination for the day was the southern tip of the island, near Marsaxlokk. We took in some sun and watched the waves lap against the stony edge of St. Peter’s Pool. While I do wish it had been warm enough for us to swim, we were happy to be there with fewer people. We also visited the Salinas salt pans, one area of many on the island which have been used since the Phoenicians first established them. Still today, throughout the summer months, there are families that tend to the salt pans and harvest the sea salt after the water has evaporated.

FIXEDDSC01655
St. Peter’s Pool

FIXEDDSC01657

FIXEDDSC01667
The Salt Pans

DSC01662

After a very long walk to a highly-reviewed and very much closed restaurant, we stopped at a little seaside joint in Marsaxlokk to eat. Tex had quite a plate of pan-fried calamari, and I had some yummy fish-filled ravioli.

Day 2 – The Maltese Capital

We spent all of Sunday in the capital city, Valletta, which boasts of forts, gardens, and long hilly streets. The two main things on our agenda were Fort St. Elmo and the Palace Armory. And of course, some renowned pizza.

To start off our morning, we began walking along the city wall towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I think we could have stayed in the gardens looking across the Grand Harbor all morning and never have gotten bored. Plus, it helps to have a walking encyclopedia like Tex to tell you all you need to know about the Great Siege which happened there.

FIXEDDSC01689
Looking across the Grand Harbor
FIXEDDSC01690
Upper Barrakka Gardens

We continued along the wall until we reached Fort St. Elmo (which was closed for another couple hours), and then walked into the old city center to the Palace Armory. The Armory seemed to be a fairly extensive collection, exhibiting everything from real Knights’ suits of armor to early guns. By this time, we were famished and rolled on down to Sally Port Pizzeria. I ordered the La Vallette pizza with Maltese sausage and goat cheese, and Tex had the Genovese pizza with pesto, parma ham, and “too much green stuff” (haha!). There weren’t any seats available at the restaurant. So we carried our pizzas down to a bench by the fort, tore the napkin in half, and devoured the pies while hungry spectators eyed us.

DSC01700

Next, we finally made our way to the historical Fort St. Elmo. Some crazy things happened there. During the Great Siege, where the Ottomans were surrounding the Knights Hospitaller who inhabited the island, the Ottomans succeeded in taking Fort St. Elmo. The Ottomans subsequently slaughtered the defenders and floated their bodies across the Grand Harbor on wooden crosses. Some Knights who still remained in another fort, which I’ll discuss later, answered their foes with cannonballs made of the heads of Ottomans. Pretty gory and sad.

FIXEDDSC01709
View from the fort

To end the day, we roamed the streets of Valletta, poked our heads into a couple of churches, and grabbed some pastizzi to take back to the apartment. Traditional Maltese pastizzi are crunchy, flaky pastries filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. When still warm from the oven, these little things are delightful!

DSC01717
Inside the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Day 3 – A Place Called Victory

Well, actually, it has been called Birgu for its entire history and was renamed Vittoriosa about five centuries ago. Depending on who you are talking to, the town could be called either of those names. Personally, I like Vittoriosa, because it seems a fitting name for such a gloriously lovely town. Vittoriosa is built on one of the main peninsulas in the Grand Harbor and is known for its strong fortification, Fort St. Angelo. The town had a very medieval feel, with pale yellow stones paving the streets and covering the sides of houses. The Fort itself was more charming than an Italian villa. So charming that I told Tex he should become a Knight so that we could live there. (There is one resident Knight of the Order of St. John who has the privilege of doing so!)

FIXEDDSC01724
Defending Fort St. Angelo

FIXEDDSC01726

FIXEDDSC01739
This is where I wanted to live in the Fort…

Fort St. Angelo was the fort I mentioned above where some knights remained after St. Elmo was taken in the Great Siege. It was here that the knights prevailed, hence the town’s name Vittoriosa.

FIXEDDSC01741
A quiet courtyard in the Fort

To wrap up our time there, we visited the Malta at War Museum, where we donned some hard hats to explore another underground network of bomb shelters. Malta was very heavily bombed by Axis planes during World War II, because of its critical location in the Mediterranean. The museum provided a unique look into the lifestyle of Maltese civilians during the War. Finally, we stopped in the town main square at the Café du Brazil, which served up our favorite meal of the trip… Maltese rabbit ravioli!

DSC01756

That is the long and short of our most recent adventure. Thank you for taking the time to read it 🙂

Our Emerald Isle Adventure

We recently got back from the country I’ve long dreamed of—Ireland! It was the trip of a lifetime, even though we were only there for three and a half days. I am so thankful we had the opportunity to go and that the Lord provided beautiful sunshine-y weather while we were there. Here are the highlights… Actually every moment was a highlight… I’ll try my best to keep this concise.

DSC01262.JPG
My number one photo from the trip… Aren’t those cliffs amazing?

Day 1—Galway

We picked up a rental car from the Dublin airport, and Tex very promptly learned how to drive on the left side of the road in a right-side driver’s seat. Let me just say, he did amazing. I had envisioned it being very stressful, but it was not. Even Tex would agree. It takes a lot of concentration at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy (Note: I am speaking from my very extensive experience as a passenger seated on the left side).

Arriving a couple hours later in Galway, we made a beeline for food on Quay Street. We slid into The Quays Bar and Restaurant just in time to take advantage of their afternoon lunch menu. It is a quirky, rustic Irish pub and happened to be pretty quiet while we were there in the late afternoon. Tex ordered the roasted lamb plate, which came with a smorgasbord of yummy sides (including some very tasty sautéed greens). And I had the Irish seafood chowder with brown bread. This was when we first realized our love for Irish food!

The rest of the evening was spent browsing the sweater market nearby, grabbing (expensive) gelato further down the street, and strolling along the water’s edge. Galway is a cute and buzzing town.

DSC01217DSC01222DSC01226

Day 2—The Cliffs of Moher and the Burren

Leaving our Airbnb fairly early in the morning, we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher around 8:30am. That was the best possible time to go, I think. We had the lush green cliffs to ourselves. It is hard for me to even know how to write about them, because they were one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. Tall, windblown grass lay in wave-like patterns, rolling hills met with sheer-cut cliffs, and blue waves turned white as they beat the rocks far down below. There is a mortifying aspect too… Just knowing that one step too close to the edge could be your last. If you ever get the chance to go, please be careful, and please take me with you!

DSC01246DSC01257DSC01287

We drove over to the nearby town of Doolin for lunch at a pub, where we also got to experience watching a rugby game with the locals. After fattening up on Irish beef stew and fish and chips, we took the waitress’s advice and stopped by the Doolin Chocolate Shop. We spent the afternoon making a loop through the Burren and stopping at various places. The Burren is such an interesting region and not exactly what I expected to see in Ireland, though it is gorgeous. It’s basically massive rocks. Massive hills made of massive rocks. We stopped first in Kilfenora where we picked up a map and nosed through a beautiful cemetery of Celtic crosses. A little further down the road, we found Poulnabrone, an ancient portal tomb. It was similar to how I imagine Stonehenge, though it was just four rocks total and not very busy with people. We thought it was fairly impressive, especially given the fact that it was built about 5000 years ago! Our next stop was the Burren Perfumery. It was a cute little shop but honestly wasn’t a lot to see. Driving along the coast that evening, we made a couple more stops, including Dunguaire Castle and another cemetery in the shadow of a crumbling church, and then turned in for the night.

DSC01321

DSC01297
The cemetery at Kilfenora…
DSC01298
And the Church
DSC01313
The rocky Burren
DSC01317
Poulnabrone portal tomb
DSC01326
Another cemetery
DSC01334
Dunguaire Castle at sunset

Ooh, and I forgot to mention that early in the morning we spotted a bright double rainbow just as the sun was rising. And then we actually drove THROUGH it! We had no idea that was possible and were just waiting to see a leprechaun jump out. Ha!

DSC01238

DSC01232
The Burren at sunrise

Day 3—Aran Islands

Though I might have thought that nothing could compete with the prior day’s experience, our day on the island of Inis Mór certainly gave the Cliffs of Moher a run for its money. We expected a day of rain, rain, and more rain. But the Lord surprised us with a gloriously sunny and almost warm day. We had one fierce, five-minute shower, and that was all.

DSC01345(FIXED)DSC01356_FIXEDDSC01357

Anywho, we took the morning ferry from Rossaveal out to the Aran Islands. We promptly rented bicycles and took off along the low coastal road. Inis Mór, the largest of the three islands, was larger and had more sites to see than I had expected. We didn’t have time to hit them all. The main attraction is the ancient, semicircular fort called Dún Aonghasa. Here’s why it is so impressive: 1) it was built around 1100 BC and is still intact, and 2) it was built directly on the edge of a 300 foot cliff. Tex was impressed by the “Chevaux de Frise,” which is a network of sharp stones placed around the fort as a defense. The views from within the innermost wall of the fort are breathtaking. I felt as if I were in another world. And we got to watch this rain cloud come straight toward us over the wild Atlantic waves. What a thought to imagine living there 3000 years ago, with the blustering wind and raging ocean and secure walls of stone and verdant grass all in one heart-stopping place.

DSC01362_CHARLES FIXED THIS
Dun Aonghasa

DSC01366_FIXED IT

DSC01371_FIXED
This view from within the fort doesn’t do it justice.

After the fort, we decided to make a stop at the medieval ruins known as the Seven Churches. That was where we found the oldest gravestones I’ve ever laid eyes on—from the 800’s and 900’s AD. Crazy! From there, we started the long cycle up the high road. It was tough, but we found some horses to pet/laugh at along the way. We finished off our day on the island with some shopping for Aran sweaters and wool-knit goods. The ferry took us back to the mainland (if Ireland can be called that…?), and we made our way back into lively Galway for supper. Tex had an AMAZING dish called Fisherman’s Pie that was similar to Shepherd’s Pie but with a seafood chowder-like filling. I had a hamburger that supposedly contained black pudding.

DSC01377FIXED
The Seven Churches and cemetery
DSC01388_FIXED
We made friends with this sweet horse.
DSC01391_Fixed
And this guy had somehow gotten up ONTO the fence and was just hanging out!

DSC01400_fixed

Day 4—A Bit O’ Dublin

To wrap up our time in Ireland, we wanted to get a taste of the capital city. While we did enjoy it, I am so very glad that we chose to spend most of our time near Galway instead. Dublin has some lovely churches, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral. But we didn’t feel like paying the money to go in, so we enjoyed the architecture for a moment and moved on. We grabbed a bite at the South African food chain Nando’s and moseyed on down to Trinity College. It would be cool to go back there and see the Book of Kells. But that’s really the only thing I feel like we missed.

IMG_20191014_105658
Christ Church Cathedral

All in all, this is a trip I would take again in a heartbeat. The outdoor wonders were more stunning than I ever dreamed. God did a mighty work when he created that country.