A Travellerspoint blog

January 2013

Exploring Malta and Playmobil

by Ben

sunny 15 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

It is a sunny day in Malta and a good day for travelling for three of us at least. Unfortunately, Abby’s head cold is blossoming and she now has a bit of an earache but is still soldiering on.

Exiting our Xlendi apartment was made interesting by the winch system that is available. Right next to our apartment door is a boom on which is mounted a small electric winch. Being seven stories up, the winch is a wonderful amenity with which to transport luggage. Abby was not too convinced with the safety or reliability of the machinery (or maybe it was the operators) so chose to carry her bag down numerous flights of stairs. I guess she is the slimmest of the four of us for a reason.

Gozo/Malta Ferry

Gozo/Malta Ferry

In short order we headed for the ferry. They operate transit system where getting onto Gozo is free but leaving has a price. From our experience the reverse may be a better strategy if they don’t want to attract more residents. I believe everyone is more than willing to go to Gozo and most are reluctant to leave. Charging to leave is not the kind of disincentive they should be offering.

The Maltese Ferry system between Gozo and Malta is the picture of efficiency. These modern ferries operate around the clock and go every half hour.

On the ferry, we again experienced the sullen expressions and terse communication style of many Maltese. They appear quite affable and warm with each other but when a tourist is part of the communication equation a definite coolness sets in. I suppose being outnumbered in your own country by ignorant visitors from abroad does not warm the cockles of anyone’s heart. I would not call these interactions outright rude, but they take some getting used to. I would not say such mannerisms are universal but just very common. I suspect the fact that 80 to 90 percent of locals speak English as well as Maltese is a contributing factor. Tourists immediately speak in English rather than try any Maltese which may irritate the locals. Where is the respect for the local language? I must confess a lack of effort on my part as well. Maltese is a very difficult language with such nuances as “xl”is pronounced “shl” and “gh” is totally silent. One is more reluctant to risk some Maltese when a cold or sharp response is likely.
When we got off the ferry on Malta, we stopped at Melleha Bay to take a walk on the sandy beach in order to take in some brilliant sunshine. We then set course for some ancient temples on the very south of Malta. In general, the main roads on Malta are a refreshing change from the potholed curlicues that are the secondary roads. Even with these more recently paved streets,road speeds seldom go above 60 km/h. However, there was one road section which had an autobahn billboard next to it with a posted speed limit of 70 km/h along with photo radar signs and warnings that “Speed Kills” mounted on various signposts.

As we neared the temples the roads reverted back to more rustic tracks but nothing out of the ordinary until our GPS directed us to take a narrower stone fence lined road. There was a road sign for our destination so it appeared to be a legitimate route. The actual roadbed itself was in fairly good condition but the four to five high foot stone walls on either side felt a bit claustrophobic. Over the next few hundred meters the stonewalls seemed to devour the road width. Suddenly, the small Peugeot we were driving looked like an elephant attempting to negotiate an apartment hallway. I came to a complete stop when it was evident that I needed to pull in both side mirrors to move any further. It didn’t look good. Every 50 meters or so there was a break in the wall to an entrance to a field or farm building. Turning into one of these openings was tempting but to what end? The road we were driving on had to be one way, so driving back would be a last option if it were even possible to totally turn around in some farmer’s field without getting stuck.

We soldiered on even when at one point the folded in side mirror on the passenger side touched the stone wall. The roadway opened up slightly after this and we passed a farmer working on the edge of his field. He didn’t bat an eye at seeing our car using the roadway. Apparently this was a frequently used thoroughfare after all, and a road sign indicating a narrow road width was considered superfluous by the locals.

A few potholed roads later and we arrived at a very well-maintained building and parking lot for a complex of temples dating before the age of Stonehenge. A large school group was on the grounds and a small busload of tourists had just arrived. Our kids did not look too enthused by the prospect of touring the ancient ruins especially with the sudden influx of people. Considering the 32 euro price tag for a family visit, Muriel and I decided we should invest these funds into taking the kids out for lunch instead.

We went to the town of Birzebbuga which is near the main shipping port and factory area of Malta. Despite the industrial surroundings Marsaxlokk Bay was still quite pretty with a wide promenade along half of it. We had another well portioned Maltese meal that was heavy with British and North American influences. Food does a lot to revive a couple of teenagers.

Playmobil Factory

Playmobil Factory

For a total change of pace we decided to take a tour of the nearby Playmobil factory. Playmobil operates the second second largest factory in Malta. It has 800 employees working three shifts a day to produce all the small Playmobil figures sold worldwide. Other factories in Germany and elsewhere make the larger toy components. The factory produces tens of thousands of toys everyday mostly using robotics although there is still a fair bit of old-fashioned assembly line work taking place as well. From the complex processes used for producing each part and the quality of the workmanship you can begin to understand why these plastic toys are so much more expensive than most other plastic toys on the market. As factories go, it looked like a nice work environment where employees rotated jobs to prevent boredom.

Playmobil Factory

Playmobil Factory

During the factory tour we were taught how to assemble a Playmobil figurine by hand which we were then allowed to keep. Some of the smaller production runs are still put together by hand. Playmobil has people throughout Malta who also work part time at home putting together toys.

After our factory tour, we headed to our hotel in Sliema which is in the heart of the densely populated region of Malta. It is a couple of kilometers from the Maltese capital of Valletta. It is really impossible to discern where one town begins and another ends. The streets and traffic are very thick in this area of Malta and one can only imagine what it is like in the summer. Fortunately our hotel has free underground parking. We are in a modern hotel with extremely large rooms. I had booked two rooms since a 4 person room was not available. The cost per room was quite inexpensive so the two rooms together did not put us much above budget. When we saw our rooms I realized we could have fit a large family in each. At least the kids like the idea having their own place.

Muriel and I looked for fixings for a picnic dinner at a mall two blocks away. The mall was a bit of a shock since it was a brand new four storey affair that could compete with anything in North America. Quite a contrast to everything we have seen in Malta so far. The food store attached revealed big city North American prices as well. A long English cucumber goes for 1.90 Euros or a little less than three dollars Canadian. The modern Malta is not necessarily an improvement over the historical but it is nice to have some comforts-except for the food prices in the grocery store which are in sharp contrast to the more reasonable prices we have encountered for most things elsewhere in Malta.

Posted by KZFamily 06:52 Archived in Malta Tagged malta gozo playmobil Comments (3)

Natural Gozo and an Evening Feast

by Ben

overcast 14 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Xlendi

Xlendi

Muriel and I started the day with a morning walk around one side of the Xlendi Bay. The walkway starts below our apartment and runs along the inner inlet and then crosses a small gorge over what is probably a 400 year old foot bridge to a small fortress on the bay called Xlendi Tower. The sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds thus continually changing the appearance of the landscape. We just can’t get over the unique beauty of this place and the fact that we have it mostly to ourselves save for a few locals busy renovating apartments and businesses in anticipation of the tourist season.

Xlendi: Pools for making salt

Xlendi: Pools for making salt

During our walk we saw numerous rectangular indents in the soft rock below the tower –undoubtedly they were human constructs. I suspected that they were shallow ponds for making salt and a bit of research revealed that I was correct. What was interesting was that such a freely available resource such as sea salt was monopolized by the Hospitaler Knights to provide income. If you want to know more I came across this site.

Gozo Countryside

Gozo Countryside

Abby once again is not feeling 100 percent. She has developed a head cold that we are sure is going to be shared around the family before long. We had established a rule at the beginning of the trip that no one was required to go on any outings if they didn’t feel like it. Abby exercised this option while the rest of us set off for a few hours of leisurely exploration. Gozo is quite small so it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere although it does involve and negotiating a labyrinth of roads that wind through numerous villages. The secondary roads are often more patch than pavement and at times the potholes outnumber the patches. We were looking to go for a walk along some cliffs that overlook the islands of Comino and Malta. We found a dirt road that led us to an ancient landscape of stone walls abandoned fields and roads and the outlines of numerous dwellings. It felt almost eerie walking through an area that was once fully utilized and then universally abandoned seemingly all at once. At one time Gozo must have been much more intensely used for the raising of domesticated animals but now huge tracks of land are returning to the wild. The rocky landscape produces only a meagre amount of grass at best so it is not surprising that modern Gozitans have chosen to more intensively farm the truly fertile areas of the island.

It was fairly blustery so we kept our hike short in case a down pour should strike. The little dirt there is in this area instantly turns into cement like substance once it gets wet. In no time you are a few centimeters taller due to the accumulation of sticky mud on the bottom of your shoes.
After our cliff walk, we headed off to town of Marsalforn, which has the largest amount of tourist accommodation on the island and has possesses a few hundred meters of sandy beach which is a rare sight on Malta. Much like Xlendi, the town was largely abandoned with most shops and restaurants closed or undergoing renovation. The winter seas crashed waves over the waterfront road and a fairly sizeable amount of sand had been deposited on the patios of the closed restaurants. As in Xlendi there were a number of businesses in danger of flooding due to the waves and had small dykes of sand and boards built in front of their doorways to keep the seawater out. I guess the number one business principle of location, location, location makes the costs associated with annual flooding and the related repairs worth bearing.

Our visit to Marsalfron confirmed that we had located ourselves in the best town in Gozo and that winter was really the best season to be here. We can see that summer crowds competing for limited beach space would not be our scene.

Gozo: Monument of Christ

Gozo: Monument of Christ

On our way to Marsalfron we stopped to hike up to the Monument of Christ. It is like a mini Christ the Redeemer statue from Rio, Brazil. It looks the work of one church or even a farmer. On Gozo any hill can quite quickly give you a great view. This deceptively small hill gives a ripping view of the entire area and the wind blowing at the top is at near gale force. The statue itself is a bit disappointing being made of fibreglass but from far away it does add interest to the surrounding countryside.

This evening we had made plans for a very rare dinner out. Even though Abby was not feeling her best, she could not pass on a culinary fieldtrip. Travelling as a family on a budget has meant trading off on experiencing local cuisine. However, tonight we went all out trying to address this deficit. Our research told us the Boathouse Restaurant was the top restaurant to visit in Xlendi in the winter. It is right on the waterfront and we have noticed over the weekend it was packed throughout the day which we took as a very good sign. Fortunatley, a weekday evening in the winter saw many tables available and waiters quite ready and willing to be attentive to our needs.

A few of our readers may not be too pleased with some of the dining choices made by Muriel and me. We apologize in advance but really have no regrets. We wanted to eat Gozitan specialties. Muriel ordered a traditional Gozitan fish soup (Aljotta) and I ordered a deep fried pepper cheese (Ġbejna) served on top of a salad as our appetizers—both were absolutely delicious. Abby had French onion soup and Hannah a prawn bisque which both had a Maltese twist as they were very thick soups. Abby enjoyed hers while the consistency of Hannah’s along with its pungency required an acquired taste. All of our appetizers fully revealed that Maltese restaurants serve incredibly large portions of food.

For our main course, Muriel and I wanted to eat the number one meat on Malta; rabbit. Muriel had rabbit spaghetti, which is quite popular, and I had pan fried rabbit in a dark brown sauce of red wine, cinnamon and cream. When my plate arrived it appeared I was being served nearly an entire rabbit. With apologies to the Easter Bunny, Beatrix Potter fans and all pets named Fluffy, Muriel and I enjoyed our meals immensely. Abby steered clear of anything that hopped and had a savoury crepe stuffed with chicken and mushrooms which was equally delicious. Hannah decided to go with the Sicilian connection that Malta enjoys and ordered a seafood risotto. This dish came loaded with mussels, squid and octopus. It was the octopus that Hannah felt she needed to develop more of a palate for. All-in-all it was the best restaurant meal we have had since coming to Europe and for a higher-end restaurant it was great value.

With stuffed bellies we waddled home to enjoy the night view from our balcony. The ache we felt looking down on Xlendi wasn’t from our stomachs as much as from the thoughts that we were leaving this wonderful location in the morning.

Posted by KZFamily 06:42 Archived in Malta Tagged malta gozzo xlendi Comments (1)

Gotta Go to Gozo - Republished

By Muriel

overcast 13 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Gozo is proving to be simply a wonderful place to recharge and appreciate God's beautiful handiwork. I love the sandy arid cliffs combined with the green of the terraces and the blue-green colours of the bays. It seems to soothe my soul and generate a peace within. And this despite the trials that come to Ben while driving on the wrong side of the road! Actually, he is doing just great and has discovered how to drive with just the right amount of aggression and restraint. It definitely is a two person job, however, and I am a fully active partner as navigator. Between the GPS' sometimes nebulous' directions and Gozo's many 'diversions' (seemingly permanent detours), the journey is only really restful when the car stops and we get out to walk or take in one of the many vistas. The first order of the day was to find a grocery store to purchase supper fixings. Seeing a free parking stall in the centre of Victoria, Gozo ("quick, Ben, grab it"), we took advantage of it and hoped there was a store nearby. Alas, once found, the grocery store was closed for the daily three-hour siesta so we elected to visit the Citadel in the town instead. It is an imposing fortress but its best feature was that it provided a beautiful view of the countryside.

Victoria, Gozo: View from the Citadel

Victoria, Gozo: View from the Citadel

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Today, we visited the Azure Window, so named because one can view the sapphire-like sea through a natural arch, formed over many thousands of years. It is on a beautiful, craggy coastline, sharing its natural glory with another rock formation named Fungus Rock, because of the fungus that readily grows there. There were a few tourists but not many due to the winter climate. Several come by bus as there is both the tourist sightseeing bus which allows patrons to ‘hop on, hop off’ at various spots on their own timetable and the island bus. Each would be a worthwhile option for people without a car. We find our little Peugot very handy, however, and make the most of travelling around, especially considering the following: when we picked it up from the Malta airport, they ‘very kindly’ had filled it with half a tank of gas, charged us for that (with appropriate markup) and told us to ‘bring it back as empty as possible.’ Even with seeing much of Gozo, we have only used an eighth of a tank so I see their scheme to supplement their rental profits is a reliable one. (Most other car rental places provide you with a full tank and if you return it full, you have no extra charges so , in this way, you only pay for gas you actually use.) Those astute Maltese!

Azure Window, Gozo

Azure Window, Gozo

Next to the Azure Window is the Inland Sea, a small body of water that comes through a channel from the Mediterranean. Surrounding it are a couple of dozen boat houses. All appeared to be locked for the season. As we humans are wont to do everywhere it seems, they have put in a road to see these two geological sites, added a restaurant, some souvenir shops and an ice cream truck for good measure, and promoted it. Voila, insta-tourist site. I must admit we partook of the ice cream but declined the insistent ‘guide’ who was attempting to sell guidebooks by thrusting them into our hands through the car window upon arrival.

We felt we couldn’t leave Malta without having stepped into one of the 365 churches on the islands so, on our way back home, we popped into one that still seemed very much in use. I can’t recall the name of it just now but it was quiet, dark and restful inside. The many churches on the Malta Archipelago rise high into the sky and provide startling interruptions to the otherwise diminutive skylines. Several of them have imposing domes, with one actually larger than St. Paul’s in London. Pretty impressive for such a small country

Victoria, Gozo: Typical Maltese Church

Victoria, Gozo: Typical Maltese Church

We came across a very well-stocked little store and were happy to find a choice of pre-made curry sauces. We paired the find with mango chutney, bought some chicken and rice, and enjoyed a delicious, easy meal at home tonight. Fortunately, the girls were hungry by then, despite having a rare sojourn to a restaurant for lunch on their own. They were served very large platters of pasta and had to leave portions on their plates. They almost didn’t have room for dessert but, luckily, gelato stomachs are separate from lunch stomachs so they were able to go to the same cheap, beach-front gelato stand we frequented yesterday. The evening saw us doing laundry, puttering and playing Dutch Blitz --no one remembers who wins the first game of the evening, just the last one. Sigh.

Posted by KZFamily 09:33 Archived in Malta Tagged malta gozo Comments (4)

Gorgeous Gozo

by Ben

sunny 14 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Xlendi: View from our apartment

Xlendi: View from our apartment

It is still a little hard to get our heads around the fact that we are visiting the tenth smallest country (approximate in terms of land area) in the world let alone staying on its smaller and less populated island. Gozzo is little bit like the Saltspring Island of Malta. Everyone who lives on Malta likes to come here for a daytrip or for a weekend in the winter and then abandon it to the tourists in the summer. The people of Gozzo are much like Saltspring Islanders in terms of maintaining a separate identity from their larger island neighbour. It supposedly would be an insult to call a Gozzon, Maltese.

We are staying in Xlendi, one of the most popular little communities on the island. We are on the top floor of an old apartment building that has been renovated off and on for the past 25 years. We have an incredibly large patio that has a commanding view of the small harbour below and of the unoccupied rocky hill and cliff opposite. It is certainly the most beautiful vista of any place we have stayed so far.

Xlendi: Our apartment balcony

Xlendi: Our apartment balcony

As has been the common theme for our entire stay along the Mediterranean, we needed to work at getting our place warm and address some defects but that is what you face in the rental price bracket we choose . Fortunately we have a gas space heater that does wonders and by the morning every inch of our totally glass fronted apartment was warm and toasty. We awoke to brilliant sunshine. The bright light revealed what we had already noticed when we arrived; our deck and windows were covered in sand and dust from previous storms. The housekeeper for the place hadn’t done much to prepare for our visit (many dead light bulbs etc). It was difficult to enjoy the view through all the dirt on the windows and enjoy the spacious deck due to the dirt. Fortunately, a broom, bucket, mop and squeegee were handy. If we were staying for four days I wanted to enjoy the full visual beauty. I spent an hour or two sweeping, opening storm shutters and washing windows and cleaning deck furniture. The result although not perfect was a vast improvement and I truly felt I had a million dollar view I could thoroughly enjoy.

Xlendi: Our homebase on Gozzo in Malta

Xlendi: Our homebase on Gozzo in Malta

The kids decided to enjoy a well-deserved break and stay in their jammies for a good part of the day. Meanwhile, Muriel and I got out to explore. We walked down a number of flights of stairs to get to the inlet below our apartment and headed up the walkway and eventually the rocky hill on the opposite side of the harbour. In the summer the inlet is usually still and transparent and a magnet for swimming. Today is was a bit wavy but still beautiful. A rough walkway has been built to a small cave that has an outlet into the inlet that swimmers can use. After exploring this feature, we hiked up the hill taking advantage of shallow steps that have been hewn into the hill to help farmers access the ancient rocky pastures above. It looks like these enclosures may have housed sheep or goats for grazing over the centuries although we saw none of either. The view from the top was absolutely brilliant. Just around the corner are cliff faces of a 100 meters or more and a view of a small fortress below. Any hill that is not solid rock has been terraced for pasture or for growing vegetables. It really was something out of a postcard.

As beautiful as the natural beauty is the human architecture leaves much to be desired. The practical and cheap multi-storey rectangular box is the only style used for residential construction. A flat roof for drying laundry and for housing each apartments water supply completes each building. Everyone has a water reservoir on the roof to create water pressure for their dwelling. The only bit of decoration on the building may be any archway for the front balcony and wrought iron or cement railing and these were not even universal features. Nearly every building is golden sandstone and the doors a rustic pine. The notable exceptions to these rough buildings are the abundant churches with their red domes. The population of Malta is less than 400,000 people but there are 365 churches on the island and each is capable of holding a sizeable congregation. The churches ring their bells several times a day noting prayer times and services.

Next to the Xlendi harbour is a gelato stand. We took a second trip down to the waterfront with the kids to have some dessert. We are really enjoying the prices here. A generous scoop of gelato complete with cookie and sprinkles or nuts is only a Euro. We had hot chocolate and cappuccino for the four us the afternoon before right by the water for just over five Euros.

We spent the rest of day just enjoying the view from our seventh storey apartment and each other’s company. We are feeling like we have the town mostly to ourselves even though we are in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It also has one of the highest per capita rates of car ownership in Europe-but that is a story for another day.

It is never a good idea to generalize about a people, because you usually get it wrong. However here are a few impressions we have had of the people so far. They are not easy to smile and seem to have fairly stand offish mannerisms, although Hannah has described it more accurately gruffly hospitalible. The language is a mix of Sicilian, Arabic and English which is unlike anything we have heard before. It is semetic language and is the only semetic language that uses a latin alphabet. Malta is definitely unique unto itself in terms of unique layout of its villages and roads and the amount of churches.

Zoom in on the map below to get up-to-date on our recent travels.

Posted by KZFamily 12:03 Archived in Malta Tagged malta gozzo xlendi Comments (7)

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