Monday, June 25, 2012

Trip to Malta & Sicily - Part 1

Alternate Title: Eating Our Way Through Malta - A Story of Weight Gain

Seriously, I can honestly say that I've never had a trip that was so food-centric. And that's saying a lot, because I've been on cruises before. And, those ships are basically just floating restaurants.

Please note, I'm not complaining about our Malta trip at all. Who doesn't like to eat?

But, let's start at the beginning.

My BFF from college is James. Yes, he's a guy. No, we're not related (although, most people we came across assumed we were brother & sister). No, he's not gay. No, we've never had anything other than a friend-type relationship. Yes, men and women CAN have perfectly platonic friendships. Shocker!!

Anywho, James went to graduate school in Malta for the past year. His major is something hippyish that I can't really remember right or something like that. Why Malta? Why not Malta! Actually, there are four colleges in the states that have a partnership with the Malta college. He went thru James Madison University, so if you're interested, check out their program.

Well, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit James in Malta. We'd probably never get there if we didn't go to visit a friend. It's never really been super high on my radar until recently (the opportunity to have a free place to stay on a Mediterranean island figured in greatly). Sooooo, we planned a 5 day trip to go visit James.

We left for Malta on a Friday night, via Air Malta. You all know my distaste for flying (OH GOD, NO, I HAVE TO FLY SOMEWHERE!?!? NOOOOOO!!!!!!). So, because our flight wasn't until 6:30pm, I had all day to stew & worry about it. Great. And, of course, getting thru the Frankfurt Airport is no Swiss picnic. I swear, we always get stuck behind the dumbest of dummies. This time it was a group of about 20 Japanese senior citizens. Every single one of them tried to go thru security with bottles of water. Every. Single. One. But, they all refused to get rid of the bottles, so they all sat there, chugging their water. BUT, they couldn't all do it at once (because apparently they weren't paying attention to anything until it was their turn, so, one at a time, they all went thru the same rigamarole). Come on, people!! How do you not know the rules by now??

Other than that, the trip was uneventful. Actually, Air Malta is a lovely airline. I've heard that they can be delayed a lot, but we had no problem. Well, except the smell. I'm confidant that Josh and I were the only Americans on the flight. I'm also confidant that we were the only ones wearing deodorant on the flight. After being here over a year, we're pretty used to that, though. Except when you're sealed in a big metal tube with 130 other people who embrace the "au natural" scent.

But, like I said, the airline itself was lovely. The flight was just a little over two hours. And, they gave us dinner. I had the vegetarian meal, and for the first time in FOREVER, the vegetarian meal WASN'T CURRY!!! This really excited me. Courtney is not a curry fan.

We arrive in Malta around 9:45pm. Stepping off the plane, we were immediately coated with a thick layer of sweat. At least I was (unfortunately, I sweat like a whore in church, so I was damp the entire trip). It wasn't hot at all (probably low seventies), but holy crap the humidity!

One note - because we were going from one EU country to another, nobody ever checked our passports. We walked off the plane, waited about 5 minutes for our bag, and were immediately on our way. The Malta airport has won several "Best Airport" awards. It's even been named one of the top 15 airports worldwide! It's very small - if any of you have ever been to the Newport News, VA airport, it's about that big.

James & his girlfriend Lexie (she's a Malta native) were there waiting for us. It's always so good to see friends/family when you step out from an airport baggage claim, isn't it? Anyway, the two psychos were drinking hot chocolate (I'm sweating now, just remembering how much I was already sweating then). Psychos!

Apparently they drive on the left side of the road in Malta. Makes sense, though, as Malta was British-owned until 1964. In fact, the two official languages are Maltese & English. Everyone spoke English there. Maltese is an Arabic-based language, and therefore super-confusing to us. Thankfully, every single sign/menu/storefront was in English.

Lexie drove us back to James' apartment, about 15 minutes away. Holy crap, are the roads awful in Malta!! James told us that the Maltese government basically spends all the money on tourism, and ignores the needs of the Maltese people. Suckfest.

So, James is a lucky bastard, in that his apartment was looking out over the marina. His town is Il-Gzira, Malta...although, pretty much all of the cities run into each other, so it was impossible for me to tell where one town ended and another began. His apartment was an older one, but perfect for a college student, or a young couple. Unfortunately, there was only one A/C unit, right over the bed. And, it wasn't turned on during the day (it's an energy sucker). So....more sweat for Courtney. BUT, at least every other building in Malta had super awesome A/C!!

After we plopped our stuff down, we all walked down to the Black Gold Pub in Sliema. This was where James and a bunch of his classmates always go. There was a local band playing wonderfully awful covers of pretty much every song, ever. It was so much fun to watch the locals. It's very very very obvious who is Maltese, and who isn't. Josh, James and I are all giants compared with the Maltese. They're all little, tiny, round people. But, man, do they love American classics! The dancing was awesome, as well.

We stayed there a couple hours, but Josh and I are early risers when we're on vacation. We don't travel to relax, we travel to explore. James stayed with Lexie, so we had the apartment to ourselves. The plan was to get up and moving by 9am the next day. Welllllll, it didn't exactly happen like that. Josh and I got up earlier than we planned, so we went for a walk while we waited for the other two to meet back up at the apartment.

OH MY GOD, THE SUN!!! SO bright, and hot. Thankfully, the air wasn't hot (it was maybe in the low eighties), but the sun! I applied sunscreen several times, but it didn't matter. I was toast after 15 minutes.

But the place is lovely.

We walked around for about an hour, just taking in the sights & sounds. It’s a very bustling little city. But, we were starving!! James and Lexie came back around 9:40am or so, and we all walked down to a restaurant called Cafe Jubilee. It's a Maltese chain (I think they have one in Budapest as well, though) restaurant, that also sells local foods (olives, jams, sea salt, etc). Man, did it hit the spot! Even though it was still mid-morning, we all had sandwiches. I had a caprese sandwich on Ftira bread. Ftira is the local Maltese bread. Very crispy on the outside, but soft & chewy on the inside. Delicious, but I'm pretty sure I cut the crap out of the inside of the mouth on the bread. Worth it.

At this point, it was getting kinda late in the morning, and we were ready to get out & explore! This day was spent going to Gozo, one of the 3 islands that makes up Malta. The main island is Malta, and then there is another island, Comino. But Comino is tiny, and there are only 4 permanent residents there (although a ton of people go there for the snorkeling & hotel).

Even though the main island is small, it took us forever to go up north to get on the ferry to take us to Gozo. The roads are so windy, and small, and beat up. Then, you get stuck behind a bus for a few miles or so. We did do a quick stop at the Rotunda (Church of St. Mary) in the town of Mosta. During WWII, a bomb was dropped on the church while 300 people were inside for Mass. The bomb ended up being a dud, and no one was injured. Although I'm sure a couple people may have had to change their pants after that. :/

It’s kinda hard to get a good picture of a huge building when you’re right in front of it. :/

Next up, the ferry ride to take us to Gozo. It was a quick, 20-25 minute ride. What was weird is that the same German lady that we sat next to on the plane, was on the same ferry with us.

Lexie’s family rented a vacation home on Gozo. Apparently everyone on the main island goes to Gozo to relax. And the atmosphere on Gozo was definitely much more calm than on Malta. Eventually we were going to Lexie’s family’s vacay home, but first we were able to explore Gozo.

The first stop was the Inland Sea, and then the Azure Window (they're right next to each other). Of course, as soon as we parked the car and got out, we saw the same German lady from the plane. She was VERY excited to see us.

Oh, jeez, the sun....sooooo bright. Gah!! Josh and I made sure to stay well hydrated on the trip. We also had a Maltese beer at the Inland Sea. We had to! It was too hot to NOT have one. :) Also, we took a 15 minute boat ride thru the Inland Sea. It was only €3.50 a person, and well worth it.

Crocodile Rock!

Then, we walked up to the Azure Window. It was really an awesome place, and the water was sooooo blue!!

After that, we decided to go up to a nearby lighthouse. We had to park at the bottom of the hill, and walk up....I was not excited about that. Buuuut, did it anyway, with only a small amount of complaining. :) One good thing to know is that there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. We never saw any snakes, just lizards, but the landscape would’ve been PERFECT for big ol’ nasty snakes.

After the lighthouse, I think we were all ready to get out of the sun for a little bit. So, what’s that mean? That’s right, it’s time to eat! There is this little bakery (Maxokk Bakery) in the middle of some sleepy little town on Gozo that makes pizzas, Ftajjar (a local savory pie), and Ftira (not the same as the bread I was talking about before - more like a pizza, but made with the same Ftira bread dough). We called ahead to order, but we still ended up waiting for about twenty minutes or so. At least we were in the shade!

We ended up just taking the food to the vacation house. Oh my god, was it good food, too! Check the link to the bakery, and look at the menu. We ordered the vegetarian ftira, sausage ftira, and pepperoni pizza. The veggie ftira was AMAZING. I’ve always thought people that put potatoes on pizza were big old weirdos. How wrong I was. It was just covered in potatoes, green olives, capers, tomatoes.....oy, I really want one right now....Josh wasn’t TOO fond of the sausage ftira, but he’s not really a cheese-lover, and it was FULL of local cheese. The guys both said the pepperoni pizza was awesome, though.

Lexie's family was very welcoming. The house was amazing. There was even an underground cave in the back of the house. It was used as a wine cellar or something, but back in the day I guess all the houses were linked up via this underground cave system? Or something?? I don’t know.....I thought it was creepy. :/ Everyone was really nice, though. We did find that the Maltese are a very generous, hospitable people. Quit a difference from the typically.....reserved nature of Germans. (I had to think of a diplomatic way to put "cold and untrusting", so I went with "reserved" ;) ). Check out the view from the house.

Although, her family did do one thing that Josh and I thought was hilarious. Everyone was outside by the pool, either lounging or playing cards, while we were inside eating. The sun went down behind the house (it was late afternoon, early evening at this point). They all came in because they were too cold sitting out there.

TOO COLD!?? These Mediterranean people are nuts. This was the first time I stopped sweating in the past ten hours! James laughed too, and said most Maltese get cold if it drops below 90. ;) (btw, that’s only a slight exaggeration...very slight)

Lexie stayed with her family on this night. James, Josh and I had a trip to Sicily the next day, and we had to be ready to leave by 5:30am. (James had a cot to sleep on, as he had given Josh and I his bed for the weekend) So, Lexie drove us back to the docks, and dropped us off so we could catch the ferry. Then, we took a bus from the ferry back to James' neighborhood. It took us probably 40 minutes (minus the stop at the Rotunda) to get from James' house to the ferry. Taking the bus back, it took about an hour. I thought the roads were bad when we were in the car. Being in the back of the bus on the Maltese roads practically vibrated my kidneys out of my body.

The bus we took dropped us off about twenty minutes from James' apartment. We could've taken another bus, but decided to walk thru the Maltese Red Light District.

Not quite as spectacular as the Amsterdam RLD, lemme tell ya. We saw maybe 3 hookers....they were, um....not quite as lovely as some of the A-dam hookers. BUT, we still felt pretty safe walking thru the area. Malta, in general, is a very safe country. Although it's still pretty late in the game on some humanity issues. Divorce just became legal last year, and the government is now working on a "cohabitation" bill, providing legal recognition to unmarried couples who live together.

Anyway, we finally got back to James' apartment. I think it was almost 11pm at this point. Such a LOOOONG day, but we had a great time. But we crashed almost as soon as our heads hit the pillow. Which was a good thing, because we had to be up at 4:45am the next day, to take our trip to Sicily.

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