George Cross Recipient

Malta I believe is the only country to have ever been awarded a medal for valour, the George Cross in April 1942, for the Maltese people’s fortitude during the repeated bombing attacks on the island during the Second World War in 1941 & 1942. As we approach the airport in high winds, the sea appears to me to be iced over, the white waves looking all the world as the white streaks one sees sometimes in river ice.  This is part two of my birthday treat and the 102nd country we have had the privilege of visiting.

Looks like ice to me, but it is white caps

We are whisked away from the airport by a skilful taxi driver who darts through the myriad of roundabouts in what we perceive to be a Maltese style of driving where those on and off the roundabout merge seamlessly regardless of who has priority. Another new driving style for us to contemplate.

Our first impression is that the island is constantly under a building construction assault, cranes abound and new buildings appear to rising everywhere, sometimes shoehorned between the existing more dilapidated structures. Building maintenance does not seem to be a high priority here, perhaps the buildings’ owners have an eye to the future, demolish and build bigger. Having spent part of the summer in the wide open spaces of Iceland, we feel hemmed in and a little claustrophobic.

Sandwiched in-between, note the first floor cables

As we approach our hotel, we are struck by the cables, I presume communications, not power that are draped from building to building around the first floor level. No nice internal plumbing here.

Enclosed balconies, Sliema, Malta

Our hotel, the Malta Hilton, a very luxurious location for my further birthday celebration, is situated in St Julian, situated just north of the capital Valetta, but close enough for us to walk and then catch a ferry from the suburb of Sliema into the city of Valletta. 

Dolphin door knocker in Sliema, Malta
Streets in Malta
How to avoid those pesky stairs when moving furniture

As we motor towards the imposing skyline of the city past a couple of multi masted sailing ships, I am struck by how this view would probably have changed little in hundreds of years. The imposing walls, fortifications and church towers greet us as we arrive in Valletta.  We wander the streets taking in the history and beauty that this city offers. Blue skies and sunshine make this a great change from the cold we have experienced as winter arrives further north.

Approaching Valletta from the water
The dome of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Looking down one of Valletta’s main streets
View over the Grand Harbour from the saluting platform, upper Baracca Gardens Valletta
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist painted by Caravaggio in 1608
Sleeping Lady, a Neolithic masterpiece unearthed from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

There is such a scarcity of open space that we resort to walking along the coast towards the old firing ranges at Pembroke.  Here we find open space, plants and wildlife, plus the old warning signs about red flags and range in use.  Panoramic views to the sea are probably protected by old unexploded ordinance that keeps the developers at bay.  We do stay on the paths, no bundu-bashing here. We make our way to towards the Madliena Tower, one of many fortifications built along the coast.

Not many people walking on the old firing range
On our walk back, we stumble across another grand old abandoned building and immediately notice the Australian crest. After some research, Anne found out that the Australia Hall was a former entertainment hall built by the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society in 1915 as an entertainment hall for wounded soldiers. The building mysteriously burnt down in 1998 and was subsequently sold for one tenth of its value… Our uneasiness around property development practices here grows.

Australian Hall, Malta

To get a better picture of the country, we decide to take a hop-on hop-off bus trip around the northern part of the island seeing Balzan, Mdina, Mtarfa and Bugibba.  We spend most of our time in Mdina, a beautiful city with great views back towards Valletta.  There is not much free land anywhere on the island, either buildings or farmland.

The Mosta dome, third largest unsupported dome in the world
The City walls of Mdina
Inside Mdina
Two clocks different times to confuse the devil over the time of Mass.

I have always been interested in reading the local newspapers to get a feel for what are the issues that the press and perhaps the people have an interest in. 

Malta as been in the world news recently, before and after our visit, with an arrest in relation to the death in 2017 of Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated by car bomb. She was an outspoken critic of both government, opposition politicians and those in authority. She raised her questions about accountability and transparency and what is referred to as the “culture of impunity” at the highest levels.  It appears that her blog and its revelations split the island’s population with many for and against her stand. Her death was met with condemnation from both the journalist community and bodies with the European Union concerned with some of the reported activities in Malta.

On our last day I am fortunate enough to discuss my thoughts and feelings about Malta with a local.  They acknowledge that there are some problems, perceived and real, around development and they concede that there can be what we might call “accomodations” to get things done, which does happen in various forms worldwide, but they explain to me that Malta as a country that has no natural resources, the government has had to focus on encouraging investment and business immigration, tourism and financial markets development to provide for its people’s health and education funding. 

They finished by saying that when they are sitting in a restaurant having lunch in one of the three cities looking out over the splendour of the Grand Harbour and Valletta that there is no finer place to live in the world. Who am I to judge such a place with such a scant knowledge of the issues.  Go and see for yourself and make your own decision.

– Anthony

A dabble along the Danube

I, Anthony, must apologise for the interruption to  blog transmissions.  I am not really sure why it has taken so long to produce this blog entry, but is has been over a month since I started writing it.  We have been busy travelling, but that is not a real excuse as we have travelled and blogged successfully for over five years.  I started the blog a couple of days after my birthday and can therefore only assume that reaching this milestone has had a greater effect than I anticipated.  Well, finally here it is…….

Breathless, with suitcases in tow,  we pause at the top of a yet another flight of steps. A peal of church bells ringing out, possibly to celebrate our ascension from the river to within striking distance of our hotel perched high over the city.  We have covered 2 km. / 1.2 miles in three hours, including standing in the cold for an hour, our route blocked by an implacable policeman. He was one of hundreds if not thousands deployed across the city today seemingly to make our hotel arrival one of the more unusual we have had.  This is all thanks to the visit of President Erdoğan of Turkey. Our taxi driver said the traffic jams were worse than when President Putin visited last week, the whole citadel has been closed off until President Erdoğan departs. I hope they do not linger over coffee.

Waiting for President Erdoğan to finish his coffee.
Lánchid Bridge over Danube and traffic held up by President Erdoğan

Oh where are we? Forgot to mention that! we are in Budapest Hungary, visiting here for the first time and taking our tally of countries visited to 100. Last month with my 65th birthday fast approaching and both of us sitting on 99 countries visited for an extended period, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and as a birthday present treat myself to a new country or two. So a meander along cities on the Danube for a week seemed like a plan which included staying the the Hilton Budapest which was built incorporating parts of a ruined 13th century Dominican monastery, has great Danube views, is within the walls of the old castle on the Buda side of the river and yes the castle is a UNSECO world heritage site.

The view from our hotel bedroom overlooking the Danube and Parliament

While I chose the location to visit, Anne has done the research and developed a plan for our stay here and the next cities we plan to visit over the coming week or so as part of my birthday indulgence. I really should do more preparatory research as, as we leave the airport, I spy a collection of Russian commercial planes, TU154, TU134, IL18 Yak 40 and others I do not recognise. It is a Malev Hungarian Airline museum, a missed opportunity, next time as we always say.  Hungarians drive with a confidence that belies in my view some of the potential consequences, but as always it seems to work for locals.

The front of St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
Széchenyi Thermal Bath, a grand spa in the heart of Budapest.
Chimney Cakes made from sweet dough and grilled or baked, large but delicious!
Millennium Memorial and other monuments in Heroes square.
Before and after restoration of building in Budapest.

We were lucky enough to pass the Museum of Fine Arts which had two special exhibitions, one called “Rubens, Van Dyck and the Splendour of Flemish Painting”  and the other “Rembrandt and his Pupils”.  Too good an opportunity to pass up. Both exhibitions are well curated with a wealth of background information on the eras in which the artists lived and the cultural, political and religious influences that shaped their world in the late 1600’s. The exhibitions may not have all the artists most famous works, but are drawn from many galleries around Europe especially from the Principality of Liechtenstein. We are able to wander through uncrowded galleries and admire their works and those of their protégés. I learned about Rubens time in Italy and his work during the counter reformation period when back in the Flemish region.

Museum of Fine Arts with great special exhibitions

The tiny portraits of those who died here adorn the wall of the building now housing the “House of Terror” museum which was used by both the Gestapo during WW2 and the the Soviet backed security authority which was known as the AVH and was feared across Budapest. Neither of us have a desire to enter, but are moved by a woman who places a candle above one of the portraits and then stands for a few moments in remembrance. Although it is now history, these people died in my lifetime. 

House of Terror Museum plaque wall
Wall plaque at the House of Terror Museum. A life lost in 1959.
Memorial to Péter Mansfeld a teenage martyr of the Hungarian Revolution, executed the day he turned 18.

For my birthday Anne has booked lunch on the Pest side of the river at a Michelin starred restaurant called Borkonyha Winekitchen where we spend a few hours working our way through a five course degustation menu which was matched with Hungarian wines. I am introduced to new grape varieties including Furmint and Cserszegi fűszeres that I had never heard of and providing an education in food and wine matching,  I cannot think of a finer way to spend my birthday, thank you Anne.

Local wines matched with every course at Borkonyha Winekitchen restaurant

Our second port of call along the Danube is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which when we visited Prague some years ago did not even exist as a country and therefore is new to us.  After a short train journey we find an interesting and compact old city dominated by Bratislava castle. 

Graffiti on a railway station en route to Bratislava

The river is as impressive as before but the old city is primarily located on one bank.  As we wander around the city on Remembrance Sunday we come across a memorial covered in wreathes and poppies.  A reminder of all those Slovaks and Czechs who fought with the Allies in WW2.

Local WW2 memorial after remembrance day ceremony.

We enjoy the architecture of the old city and while our stay is short we would come back if we were headed this way.

The Church of St Elizabeth “Blue Church” Bratislava
Cumil bronze statue, man coming out of manhole
“Witch” sculpture outside Bratislava castle
Michael’s Tower and old town in Bratislava
Bratislava castle

Our last stop on the Danube is Vienna for one night and the weather was with us again allowing an afternoon stroll through the city, cold but bright.  

Hofburg Palace
Chimney sweep image, Vienna
Christmas decorations in Vienna
“No Kangaroos to see here” Austrian Tee shirt

A perfect end to the first part of my birthday treat and now we are ready for the second part.

– Anthony

A week in the south of France

There are times when being cheerful and funny is not funny or appropriate.  One such time was 2 weeks ago, when the ambulance I called at 4:15am for Anthony arrived.  Anthony calmy woke me up saying “I need you to get up”.  Did I miss the 5:30am alarm clock for our day trip to Calais with my mum? No, it was much earlier and Anthony is writhing in agony.  Not his heart this time I hasten to add.  But what?  He tries to vomit when he never ever vomits.  His body is trying to expel something.  The pain on his side is relentless.  So once again, as he likes to joke, I call the ambulance.  By the time the ambulance arrives, the pain has subsided somewhat, he is dressed, can walk and I am ready to accompany him.  The paramedics are surprised to see him walk.  So Anthony jokes that whenever I call 000 or 999, the operator says they recognise me as a regular caller, do I want ambulance or helicopter?  Shut up Anthony I tell him, annoyed, then immediately feeling guilty as I know how much pain he is in really but he is putting a brave snd cheerful face.  Many basic tests and prodding later, and the pain now bearable, the ambulance leaves us behind having told us they suspected kidney stones and if the pain came back, to drive to the hospital emergency department and wait to be seen.  Over the next few days, the pain came and went, gradually in lesser intensity and I can happily report that he has had no pain whatsoever for about 10 days.

So we spend a week holed up at my sister’s home, waiting and dreading for the pain to return then both nursing a bad cold and cough at the same time.  We recover in time for our week in the south of France.  But this was not about touring in Provence but something completely different.  A retreat if you will.

A number of our kind followers and friends have often asked us when we were going to write a book.  We never thought our sedate travels would be of interest to the wider public but after so many questions and much encouragement, we have thought well, maybe. Maybe we could inspire others.   I recently read that a very well known writer and motorcycle traveller, Ted Simon, was opening up his home to aspiring writers and artists.  Ted is very well known amongst overland travellers and especially motorcycle travellers, mostly through his first book, Jupiter’s Travels which narrates Ted’s four-year journey through 126,000 km across 45 countries on a Triumph Tiger 100 500 cc motorcycle from 1973 to 1977. His book was first published in English in 1979 and I first heard about him and his book from fellow travellers in our hotel in Karthoum in 1982. An opportunity to get feedback from a successful writer who has inspired thousands of travellers over 49 years?! Inespéré!! 

We had met Ted in the US a few years ago and had had a few discussions with him.   I had read many travel books including his of course, read a book on how to write a book, spent quite some time thinking about our potential book and knew the blog would be useful for reference but that was it.  After about 18 months, I finally worked out a structure, and the first chapter.  Time to get some honest and early feedback.

We organised to visit Ted and stay in his 5 bedroom home in Aspiran, a tiny village in the south of France.   It was great to see him again, exchange stories and experiences – such a generous and kind man.

Well, I wanted brutally honest feedback and it was brutal!! The book structure and concept was sound he told me but I had better learn to write because how I wrote was bad!  Brutal but exactly what I needed.  Ted explained what was wrong and it all made sense. I went back to my first chapter and proceeded to work on it.  What Ted said was correct of course, I could see it clearly now.  I gave him examples of what I changed and it seems I have understood.  It doesn’t mean I will manage to achieve what is required, but I have been given some invaluable pointers.  I have always believed Anthony writes better than me anyway so we’ll see what happens now…  

Anne with Ted Simon in Aspiran

Aspiran, France

Walking outside Aspiran, France

While in the Provence area, we could not resist visiting a few historical and beauty spots on the way from and to Marseilles. It is amazing how much one can see, how much history and stunning places one can see when one travels slowly.  Medieval villages, roman bridges and viaducts, 12th century abbeys.  3 Unesco sites in one day!!   We could spend months in that region alone!

Camargue horses

Arles Coliseum

Arles obelisque and town hall

Frank Gehry’s aluminium Luma tower, Arles

Parc des Atelier with Frank Gehry’s aluminium Luma tower, Arles

Roman necropolis Alyscamps, Arles, France

Roman Pont du Diable outside St-Guilhelm-le-Désert

View from Pont du Diable

The back of Gellone Abbey, St-Guilhelm-le-Désert

Medieval St-Guilhelm-Le-Desert, France

Benedictine Gellone Abbey, St-Guilhelm-Le-Désert, France

Medieval St-Guilhelm-Le-Désert, France

A thistle, the shepherd’s barometer in the south of France

1st century Roman Pont du Gard, France

Pont du Gard, France

View from the Pont du Gard towards Nîmes

Gordes, Provence

12th century Cictercian Sénanque abbey, France

Sénanque abbey, France

Village des Bories, 18th century shepherds’s stone huts, Gordes

Borie stone hut, Gordes

On the way to Ted’s, we stopped in Arles and met up with one of my brother’s ex-girlfriends.  We had been in correspondence ever since his death so it was special to finally meet in person.  She and her husband even decided to stay at the hotel we were staying so that we could spend more time together.  Very special… Alan would be so happy…

Finally meeting Eve

-Anne