Malta: An island steeped in history

malta - fishing villagePeople who live on Canada’s Atlantic coast have seen the name many times – Valletta. That name is emblazoned on ship after ship that enters the container terminal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We have often wondered if most of the people who see this on a daily basis have any idea where Valletta is. As travelers interested in the wider world, we knew that it was in Malta, but Malta was a mystery to us – until recently. [The reason the ships bear this moniker is that ship registration is a major industry there.] 

As we often say, there is no better way to be introduced to new places that you might other wise never visit than on a well-selected cruise chosen with itinerary at the top of the priority list. That is how we found ourselves on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.

Picture a tiny island (really an archipelago) located just 80 kilometres south of Italy and 284 kilometres east of Tunisia in Northern Africa directly in that passage between the Atlantic end of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Because of this strategic position, Malta has a rich history of a succession of ruling countries: the Romans, the Moors, the Sicilians, the Normans, the Spaniards, the British to name a some of them. It is this very richness that imbues the tiny island with its appeal for travelers who are interested in both natural beauty and the influences of historical evolution on a place and a people. We are those travelers.

 

malta - map

Hiring the services of a private driver and a guide as we like to do, we were able to make the most of our short visit. We began with a walking tour of Valletta, a world heritage site. It’s a bit like walking through an open-air museum with historical artifacts that tell of the city’s storied past at every turn. The most historic buildings date from the sixteenth century and at every turn there is a story to be told.

 

We then drove out of the city into the beautiful countryside to the fortified city of Mdina (not a misspelling), inland slightly southwest of Valletta. Founded in 700 BC, Mdina was the capital of Malta until the 16th century. A walking tour of this historical masterpiece is a must-do when visiting Malta.

A visit to Malta wouldn’t be complete, though, without visiting a fishing village or two. The colourful boats, markets and buildings combine to provide you with a bit of a snapshot of modern life in the Maltese countryside.

malta - color

Malta is a tiny spot in the world that should be on your bucket list, if it isn’t already there. If you get the chance to visit, even if just for a day, jump on that chance.

It’s really difficult to tell the story of a visit to Malta without numerous pictures, so we’ve put together a brief video of the sights we’d like to share with you.

 

Christmas shopping in Nice: It’s better on the Riviera!

Nice dressed for the festive season

Travel memoirist Bill Bryson once wrote: “We used to build civilizations.  Now we build shopping malls.”  And for many of us who celebrate the festive season by exchanging gifts, the shopping mall becomes a second home at this time of year.

But for us discerning travelers who would rather save our money for an Executive-first class ticket than buy one another something that will end up at the Salvation Army thrift shop in six months, we take a slightly different approach.  The fact that we rarely spend Christmas at home (as discussed earlier in reference to a Christmas cruise!) does give us a bit of a distraction.

Leaving the house in the good hands of our house-sitter, we take very little in the way of gifts with us: we’ll do our shopping when we are on the ground in the south of France, and that shopping will be minimal.  It’s the experience of shopping in Nice that we really like!

Nice is the closest thing to a ‘city’ that is within a reasonable taxi drive of where our son works in Monaco.  About 30 minutes by cab from Monte Carlo, Nice has a population of fewer than 400,000 making it large enough to have shops, services and hotels in abundance, and small enough to be happily walkable.  Add on to that its charming old quarter (Vieux Nice), its Christmas market and its fabulous festive decorations, and you end up with an experience that puts you in the Christmas spirit like nothing else can.

Le Palais de la mediteranee: Our home base in Nice

When we arrive in Nice, we’ll check into the hotel Palais de la mediteranée on the Promenade des Anglais that stretches about six kilometers along the beachfront.  Then we’ll spend a day wandering the shopping streets and lunching at a pizzeria near the market.  We’ll watch the Nice residents stroll on the boardwalk (it’s actually paved) and we’ll visit the local Galleries Lafayette, the famed department store.  It’s not quite like its Parisian sibling, but it has three floors of ‘stuff’ that isn’t readily available in North America.

Then we’ll do some strolling of our own and watch the local residents pick up their Christmas trees from the lot on the waterfront, and wander among the snow-covered trees all around the place.  Does it snow in the south of France at Christmas, you ask incredulously?  No, it actually doesn’t.  The snow is fake; those of us who reside in more northern climes always find it hilarious how snow seems to be worshipped as the very essence of Christmas.  It’s clear no one along the French Riviera has ever had to spend a morning shoveling to get a car out of the garage.

After we pick up one present for each other and a few for the son, we’ll leave Nice behind us to head to Monte Carlo and a ballet premiere.  When we get back, no doubt we’ll have more stories to tell!

Christmas tree lot along the Promenade des anglais
Art surrounded by "snow" covered evergreens in Nice.

One perfect day – on the Med

The stern view from the perfect perch

I was sitting in our charter boat, sipping a glass of champagne and trying to see if I could bottle up the memory of this one perfect day so that I could take it out once in a while and relive it when I needed to.  Being able to do that takes really being in the moment – and a great still and video camera doesn’t hurt!

So, how did we get there that day?  It was last July and we were visiting our son in the south of France (we’ve often said that the main purpose of having children is for their entertainment value – and we have that in spades with our son who is a dancer with Les Ballets do Monte Carlo – yes, that Monte Carlo, Monaco).

We had seen along that part of the Riviera from Roquebrune just bordering Monaco to the east, as far as Cannes in the west as we visited from time to time on foot and by car.  Now, we wanted to see it all from the water.  So, as any discerning travelers would do, we started our research online.  We usually find that asking our friends is a recipe for disaster – many of them, as well-heeled as they might be – are unwilling to pay a bit more to get a bit more.  We are not.

To say that there are a lot of boat charter companies operating on the French Riviera would be a considerable understatement.  We narrowed the search down and emailed several.  The most personalized service, with the most interesting possibilities for planning our perfect day came from Boatbookings.com.  They were efficient and knew exactly how to provide us with what we were looking for (and they all speak English which made it so much easier!).  We settled on a 35-foot cruiser with a captain and catered lunch for an eight-hour cruise.

A glimpse of Monte Carlo -- from the harbor.

The young captain picked us up at the pier in Cap d’Ail where we always stay, and off we went for the day.  We stopped to anchor twice during the day – once for swimming off the boat, and once for our picnic lunch on board.  Of course, part of the perfection of the day was a result of the stellar weather – it could not have been nicer – or more luxurious.

In our continuing search for those luxurious experiences, this is one that will go down in our books as worth every penny (and euro) we spent.  It’s an experience that we’ll remember forever.