What to do when you turn 50? I already have all I need and the thing I want most, a good health and day without pain, well, that’s something that doesn’t come with a gift wrap. As the saying goes ‘the most precious thing to give someone (and yourself) is time and attention’ we decided to treat ourselves with a little weekend getaway. Destination: Brabant Walloon, Belgium’s smallest province. Join me as I look back on my cosy birthday weekend.
On my hunt for suitable accomodation I stumbled upon ‘a couse house in charming village Beauvechain’ which sounded perfect and believe me, exceeded our expectations on all levels! It can be found both on Booking.com and Airbnb so don’t hesitate if you want to visit yourselves! Big thumb up for the warm welcome by Ilyas and Frédéric, homely warm interior, comfortable beds, and lovely outside dining facilities. The breakfast included is rich and delicious and some lovely details and attention (this being my birthday treat) put the cherry (or rasp-and strawberries in this case) on top.
Cosy, right?! And though no punishment if we would have had to spend whole weekend indoors some outside exploring never hurts…
Beauvechain, or Bevekom in Dutch, is located south of university city Leuven and from there reachable in less than half an hour. With language border meandering its way in surrounding landscape you’ll find yourself in Flanders one minute and in Wallonia the next when exploring the larger region around Beauvechain.
With accomodation lying in church’s shadow it’s litteraly the first thing that strikes you when stepping outside. The romanesque-style church has some festivities of its own as celebrating 1000 years of marvel this year making it one of the oldest in the country.
There are some lovely hiking trails leading you into rural countryside or just to take you around town for an evening stroll.
And even in smallest of hamlets where it seems like time stands still there are murals and graffity walls, like a portal to transport you back to 21st century.
Within a half hour radius (by car) the region offers a variety of cultural and historic sites to visit and nature lovers will not be disappointed with dominating Heverlee woods and Meerdaal forest.
We visited Mélin, distinguished by its white ‘Gobertange’ stone and listed as one of Wallonia’s prettiest villages.
A little trip to Hoegaarden, of course not without tasting the refreshing Hoegaarden beers and visit of the gardens
Vast Meerdaal forest can be accessed through the new Torenvalk access gate. A lot of detail went into preserving characteristic natural elements and offering more than ‘merely’ an access: a pleasure to visit for a quick stroll or as picknick rendez-vous under the watchful eye of the wooden mascotte kestrel.
Before we had to leave our cosy refuge a last short morning walk around Beauvechain…
What a perfect way to celebrate the past 50 years and hopefully many more to come!
We’ll be back!
Ingrid & co
anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old
When sun is out, so are we! The Summer vibes a few weeks ago lead us to Flanders’ greenest province Limburg and what better way to start this two-day trip than in Tongeren, Belgium’s oldest city.
Though we had visited the city of fearless Eburon-leader Ambiorix already in the past this time around our focus was on its green surroundings. A true ‘hike and seek’ in a colourful and hilly landscape dotted with grand castles and small hamlets. Join me as we start exploring?
We used our first day mainly to do some city strolling: market square, beguinage, basilica church, Moerenpoort,…
…and a few stops of course…
On second day we left historic town behind us and took car for a little loop tour to explore the surroundings, stopping whenever we felt like it for a little hike. With my foot problems (and back and MS…) reducing my mobility the hikes were mini ones, though nevertheless, had a fantastic day!
From colourful poppy fields and ‘Goed Van Gothem’ in Heers to ‘Hamal Castle’ in Rutten with Tongeren church in the background to U-shaped ‘Renesse castle’ and surrounding landscape park and fishing ponds in ‘s Heerenelderen. We also stopped in Nerem to admire the former chocolate factory transformed into ecological housing units and the opposite Rosmeulen castle. Hamlets Neerrepen and Overrepen offer great decor for some hiking and we had a delicious lunch in ‘Herberg de Horne’ in Vechmaal. After lunch we headed to the ‘Reading between the lines’ church, the eye-catching metallic art installation loved by both tourists and locals in Borgloon. We ended this little road trip in Mettekoven, a designated ‘greenspot’ with multiple hiking options. With its hills and fruit orchards a well-loved destination in Springtime with fruit blossoms colouring the landscape but frankly a lovely place in all seasons!
(please note this trip was made early February 2020 before Covid-19 restrictions)
Those who follow me here on the blog may have noticed my absence lately. A lingering foot issue combined with the already existing medical issues meant all energy went to healing. A work still in progress…I tried to maintain my daily posts on IG and for a while that was more than enough. I still had to complete the SA series but frankly I found it very confronting scrolling through the album in an attempt to choose some photos with Covid-19 travel restrictions and my own body limits. Though we live in hope; vaccination seems to give us part of our freedom and wanderlust back, though caution and prevention still have to be our number one priority and the personal medical issues, ah well, I focus on the days the pain is controllable and I am more or less mobile, with or without walking stick. But here’s to new beginnings, shall we? And for that we first need to end our SA travel adventures. So do join me on the last part of this SA trip where we explored Franschhoek region.
Leaving Oudtshoorn behind us (you can read up on that here Oudtshoorn: an ostrich a day… SA trip part 6) a four to five hour drive will bring us to final destination of this holiday before returning to Cape Town Airport: Franschhoek.
Following the R62 and passing through lovely little towns we saw landscape slowly change from Karoo vegetation to lush vineyard valleys.
Around noon we stopped and had lunch in Montagu, a town definitely worth exploring! The friendly owner of a deco shop recommended stopping in the Mystic Tin for lunch and that did not disappoint! Lovely outside terrace and garden with succulents and other local plants.
We stayed two nights in Airbnb Klein Dauphine Estate which comes with more than grand views. To fully explore the Cape Winelands region would recommend to stay at least four nights.
Franschhoek is one of South Africa’s oldest settlements and culinary belongs to absolute world top. The vineyards date back 300 years to when the French Huguenots settled in this corner of Africa. Franschhoek’s main street Huguenot Street is like a colourful string of pearls: the art shops and galleries, fashion boutiques, restaurants and bars complement each other and seamlessly fade out into the large wine estates, b&b’s and vineyards before being called a halt by the mountains surrounding the valley.
If Franschhoek alone doesn’t still your hunger its neighbours in the Cape Winelands region are more than happy to welcome you (Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington, Somerset West) and all this just an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
More into nature than food or wine? Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve is part of the UNESCO-declared Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve. Situated in the Franschhoek Mountains, the reserve offers breathtaking views of the valley. There are 10 hiking trails with varying difficulty, all together over 30 km hiking fun!
On our second day with the list of things to see and do endless and time not on our hand this being our last day we had to be resourceful.
Babylonstoren to the rescue!
Babylonstoren, at foot of Simonsberg, is one of the oldest (1692) Cape Dutch farms in the region. It has a fruit and vegetable garden, vineyard, offers dining possibilities as well as lodging, a farm and gift shop and, oh, let’s not forget the jaw-dropping scenery! With Simonsberg, Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek mountains as a backdrop, Babylonstoren does not disappoint! The immense garden can be explored during a guided tour or you can stroll and enjoy at your own pace. Spending a halve day here is the very minimum!
Could this last day be any more perfect? You bet! Returning to our accomodation we decided to stop at La Petite Ferme: a small boutique wine estate nestled into the Cape Winelands’ vineyards and with thé most incredible views over Franschhoek and the mountains beyond. We were just in time to join an informative and heavenly wine tasting, the kind that is given with passion and sparkle.
The estate’s winery offers a full range of wines from white to rosé and red. Quoting La Petite Ferme: “Each wine delivers on the promise of being an exceptional example of what the Franschhoek terroir has to offer. Bringing forward a perfect balance of wine making skill and farm management. Come and take in the atmosphere while experiencing some of the best hand crafted wines the valley has to offer”
And so our SA Western Cape road trip sadly came to and end and all that was left was to admire that last vineyard sunset, enjoy that last glass of wine and promise each other we’ll be back!
Hope you enjoyed this series! In next posts you can follow some of my local hike & seeks. Coming weekend we have a trip to Tongeren, Belgium’s oldest city planned so definitely more on that. There’s a scheduled birthday trip to Walloon Brabant and if all stays well Covid-19 wise and abroad travel is an option AND if my back and related issues aren’t too much of a spoilsport we’ll head to our beloved Lenk in Swiss Berner Oberland in August. Fingers crossed!
“Travelling, it leaves you speachless and then turns you into a storyteller”
With last leaves on trees here falling and teaching us how to let go, it’s time to focus on new things or pick up old habits…shall we continue where we left off in the South African road trip blog posts?
Where the previous post left us in Plettenberg Bay it is time to move on. Next stop: Addo Elephant National Park. The first part of the drive leads us through Tsitsikamma NP. If we would have had more time, would surely have planned an extra night(s). It’s where ocean meets jungle, where wild meets wilder and leaves you speechless.
Time to leave Western Cape and Garden Route for now and enter Eastern Cape province. Our accommodation for the next two nights is Gerald’s Gift Guest House in Addo.
Another gem and highly recommendable and, bonus, within a short drive of the NP. But let’s leave that for tomorrow, first up a refreshing swim, garden stroll, lovely dinner, some mingling with the other guests, enjoy the sunset and a good night’s rest (after husband took care of the two giant spiders in the room)
Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa’s third largest reserve and malaria free, is of the ‘self-drive’ principle, though if you pay some extra you can opt for having a trained guide accompanying you in the car. You can try to spot the Big Five there, Big Seven if you include the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark at the Indian Ocean coastal belt. Though, as the name suggests, the reserve is most known for the herds of elephants. When the Park started, in 1931, there were only 11 of them, now there are over 600 of these giants! Best place to spot? Near a waterhole, though you will bump into them all over the park.
To spot lions (and/or leopards) it’s best to go early morning or evening (and take a guide with you). Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any.
In total we spent over six hours in the park, just to point out that there’s lots to explore and observe! Stay safe at all time and follow the park’s well-indicated routes and guidelines. Keep distance unless of course some animals choose to observe YOU more closely. The park also offers some hiking trails and picnicking areas.
We had far encounters with elephants and some scary close ones too…
We saw an abundance of zebras showing all hair styles and can confirm they do justice to their name as we often had to stop the car (and enjoy the view) as they were blocking the road…
We saw warthogs and buffalos, wilde- and hartebeest, ostriches, all kinds of birds, and lots and lots of other wildlife.
The park consists out of five different biomes, different ecological areas (like for example fynbos, forest, karoo…) each defined by their typical plants and animals. So many biomes combined in one park is rather unique and offers you as a visitor a great diversity. And, of course, a chance to observe the largest land mammal on our planet in its natural habitat is a wonderful experience.
Join me next time, in the SA series, when we’ll continue our trip and head to Oudtshoorn.
Yesterday, 22nd of September, was car free Sunday: a (mostly) sun drenched day were streets in city centres throughout Flanders and Brussels were cleared and cars were banned. We decided to visit nearby Mechelen, where innovation goes hand in hand with the sustainable development goals and targets for a better and more liveable future.
As all exploring requires some starter fuel, first stop: the newly opened neighbourhood cafe Grá
Where ‘Grote Markt’ was the place to be for cultural info and activities, ‘Bruul’ showcased police force’s horsepower and ‘Ijzerenleen’ was stage for sportive demonstrations…
Vismarkt and local pub ‘t Ankertje are always a welcome stop if you need to re-fuel again…
And if your energy tank is really low you can always head to the De Vleeshalle food court that opened this year…
Being in the neighbourhood, the Lamot centre housed the Joker Africa travel event that day, and as we will be visiting Western Cape next year, thé place and time to gather some useful info and tips.
And of course, historical buildings à volonté in city centre…
Events like these (mobility, cultural activities, citizen interaction, etc…) fit perfectly into where city sees itself by 2030, comitting to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Recreational domain De Schorre is inevitably linked to Tomorrowland… however, when madness and beats fade, the original function of the area returns: a lush green site where hikers, children, day tourists and locals can exhale and enjoy nature. The 75ha park is also often used for recreational or sportive events. Since last edition of TML some mythical creatures made the domain forest their home: at the request of the festival the Danish artist Thomas Dambo has brought seven giant trolls to life and this using recycled materials.
Together with my friend Kathleen I had a wonderful stroll in the forest, on the hunt for these friendly giants. Ask for a map at the domain’s information point. They are happy to point out the secret locations of the mythical residents, or just let the trail surprise you and discover at own pace…
Located in a former clay pit, the area is now a green oasis of peace and quiet.
With his unique creations the artist hopes to inspire people around the world to recycle and carry our precious planet and nature in their hearts.
Leaving the domain and heading for our on site lunch spot we got treated to yummy surprise gift and totally in line with the green environment: thé most delicious apple tarts, made by local bakery ‘Den oude kneeder’
If you have a bit of interest for arts or some creativity running through your veins this is the place to be: a succesful marriage of heritage and contemporary arts in a breathtaking setting. Art galleries, festivals, shops, musea, amphitheatre, golden masjid, restaurants, planetarium, too much to mention. Do check out their website for upcoming events if you are planning a visit and would definitely advise to spend at least half a day (if not a whole day) there.
In the Centre of Katara you can find Gandhi’s Three Monkeys by Subodh Gupta, a series of three sculptures with military headgear. Each piece is made of cooking instruments, used pails, traditional Indian lunch boxes and glass bowls. Together, they recall Gandhi’s famous visual metaphor-the three wise monkeys-representing the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ proverb…
Don’t miss the pigeon towers…Poop collection: smelly(probably) but in this case very attractive(definitely) business and another win(g)k to the region’s cultural history. Like in most Middle-Eastern countries, in the past, pigeon’s poop was considered liquid gold as its composition made it an excellent fertilizer.
scyscrapers: tall, taller, tallest
You can find the tallest building in Doha in the Aspire Zone. 300m high this one offers 360-degree panoramic views and a cantilevered pool on the 19th floor in case you want to find out what it feels like to float 80m above ground.
‘Sometimes you gotta zig when eyeryone else is zagging…’
…One (there are two of them) of the ‘Zigzag towers’, or dancing towers. Close to our hotel and Lagoona mall.
Highest and most colourful towers can be found in West Bay area and can best be observed from the water, during a typical dhow boat cruise.
‘all that glitters is not gold…’
Without any doubt jaw-dropping infrastructures, the more reason the extremely dangerous conditions the builders work in and their ridiculously low pay should continue to be brought under attention.
show me your green (and blue) zones
Did you think Doha was only sand? Well Qatar definitely is but its capital tries very hard not to be. The city focusses on implementing green zones with a versatile function: playgrounds for children, picnic areas, green hills, tracks for joggers or cyclists, etc…
Where Aspire Park is Doha’s biggest park (and next to Aspire Zone’s Stadium and Villaggio Mall shopping complex) and has plenty of green zones and even an artificial lake, it is its vastness that may effect the ‘cosy-factor’. All depends on your personal interests. We were rather fond of the Al Bidda Park and walkway. After our visit of MIA (see part 1) we walked part of the Corniche and Corniche Park (7 km waterfront promenade and green zone offering Doha Bay vues) upto Firestation, a creative hub and great place to have lunch. They offer residency projects for upcoming artists. From there we did the walk back to old city centre through Al-Bidda park which runs pretty much parallel with the Corniche.
The Pearl monument and fountain can be found on the Corniche at the entrance of the dhow harbour. Where Qatar nowadays gets its wealth from oil and gas, it used to be from pearl diving and fishing industry.
More green? MIA Park, Dahl Al Hammam Park, Oxygen Park, hotel parks and many more…
and yes, if you insist, some sand too…
From Doha a short drive to Al Wakrah and then further inland plenty of sand dunes await. We drove in the dunes behind Sealine Beach. If you want to go dune bashing yourself and you are not familiar hire an experienced driver (safety first, always) and avoid weekends. Fun road side distraction: camel rides, falcon tête-à-tête and photo opportunities.
Both Sealine Resort and Al Wakrah souq definitely worth a stop, only make sure your visit does not overlap the souq shops’ closing time early afternoon as we found place rather desolated then.
Since early May 2019 Al Wakrah and Doha city centre are connected through red metro line which will make travel between them a lot easier. This is the first line implemented, three more planned to become operational.
Skipped due to lack of time but still on our to do list for when second time around:
visit State Grand Mosque
visit the planetarium at Katara
inland sea Khor Al Adaid
National Museum (that officially opened just after we left)
Banana Island Resort
Al Shaqab tour – breeding and training centre Arabian horses
Like I said in the intro of my first post, Doha, and Qatar in general, has probably not highlighted (yet) on your travel radar and yet it should…though you will find numerous articles telling you there is not that much to see or do, I strongly disagree and hope both my posts helped showing that.
Some practical info:
Doha is the capital of Qatar, located on the Arabian Peninsula. It shares borders with only one country, Saudi Arabia.
Time to go: November upto March (too hot and too humid outside this period)
Currency: Qatari Riyal
Language: Arabic is official language but most people speak English.
We flew Qatar Airways and thumbs up on all levels. Taxi is fastest way to reach city centre. We always used Karwa Taxi and found them reliable and cheap.
Doha is not exactly pedestrian-friendly, so be careful when crossing the street.
The implementation of the state of the art metro system will be a huge jump forward when it comes to connectivity. And of course looking towards FIFA World Cup 2022 all stadiums will be linked.
We stayed at Grand Hyatt Doha, close to Katara and The Pearl. Luxurious rooms with large balcony and a great pool area. One of the capital’s top Thai restaurants, Isaan, is located in the hotel. You can opt for breakfast in the hotel or go to opposite Lagoona Shopping Mall for a quick snack or to get your daily supply on fresh fruits or snacks.
As for food and drinks, know that the only place you can drink or buy alcohol in public is in five star hotels (except Ramadan) and it is very expensive. Opt for one of the tasty mocktails, you won’t regret it. Foodwise, the world will come to your plate, no worries. The choice in restaurants and world cuisine is endless: Armenian, Lebanese, Thai, Italian, Turkish, Persian,…
Time to wrap up the Valletta series! In this third and final post you can follow in our footsteps, or wheels, as I take you around a Three Cities tour and more extensive visit of Birgu/Vittoriosa, so buckle up, we’re off!
‘The Three Cities’ is a general description of the three fortified cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. With Birgu the oldest one, existing since the Middle Ages, the other two cities, Senglea and Cospicua, were both founded by the Order of St John in the 16th and 17th centuries. Each city goes by two or more names, the one before or after the Great Siege.
It’s day four of our Valletta trip and though our Airbnb is located in Birgu/Vittoriosa we still haven’t actually explored this side of the water. To cover all three cities, four if you include Kalkara, by foot would take us too much time and kill my back so we hired some wheels to the rescue…not just a car…you can drive that at home too, right?! We went for a Rolling Geeks ride. A cool (bottled water inclusive) and relaxed (just enjoy the ride) way to explore…Think a pimped golf cart and you kinda get the picture…Belgian owner Kris or associate are around to give you detailed info on what to expect: basically you drive your own electric funky car, there’s a pre-programmed gps, language of your choice and your on-board gps tourist guide tells you where to stop, get out, admire the view and all relevant historic details.
In about two and a half hours the tour takes you on a 17km ride from Birgu Waterfront to Kalkara, Senglea/Isla and Cospicua/Bormla. There’s enough time to take a stop and have a (non-alcoholic) drink (remember you’re driving) and if you should take a wrong turn, the gps corrects and Big Brother Kris and team are also tracking you…only seconds after your wrong turn you will get a call guiding you quickly and safely back on track. It’s hands on the wheel and eyes on the road…but you absolutely want to take selfies during the tour? No problem, the built-in camera does that for you…cool, right?! Enough talking, what do you get to see on this tour?
Kalkara Film Studios
Malta forms perfect decor for many movies and its versatily is a great asset. Even when movie plot shows a completely other city, it may well be filmed in Malta…large parts of the movie ‘Munich’ for example were actually filmed at various locations on the island, standing in for scenes in the movie that play in Tel Aviv, the West Bank, Beirut, Cyprus, Spain, Athens and Rome! Want to keep track of the filming tours or upcoming projects, then keep an eye on Malta Film Tours
From Senglea and its viewpoint Il-Gardjola you get wonderful vistas on the harbour and Fort Sant Angelo.
The tour also brings you to the Cottonera Lines, a massive construction of fortifications, built in 17th century, with major aim to protect the Three Cities. The British later on expanded with Fort Verdala. What used to be fort barracks are now houses and apartments.
Fort Verdala-Cottonera Lines
Further on the route: plenty of picturesque and colourful buildings…
The tour ends where started: at Vittoriosa/Birgu Waterfront…time for that drink now, what do you think?!
We filled the rest of our day strolling through Birgu and Cospicua…
Before Valletta was the island’s capital, Mdina was…and before Mdina, Birgu was…The Knights of St John renamed it ‘Cittá Vittoriosa’, meaning ‘the victorious city’. These days this is shortened to ‘Vittoriosa’.
Our strolls were followed by a little dghasja harbour cruise to get in those phenomenal views from the water, and to be honest, to cool down too…when temperatures are high nothing beats the sound of splashing water and wind in the hairs!
View on Gardjola Senglea
Monument at Lower Barrakka Gardens
All now left to end this perfect day is an evening stroll down the Waterfront admiring the yachts and a delicious ‘dinner with a view’ as day slowly twinkles into night…
The final day of our trip, well half a day, left us just enough time to join a historic re-enactment group as Fort St Angelo stepped back in time to when it was under French occupation….
The central location of the medieval fort in the Grand Harbour offers spectacular views and was in history of extremely strategic interest. It played an important role during the Grand Siege and was headquarters to the Grand Master of the Order. According to legend it is built on site of a fortified Roman settlement.
Such fun watching those ‘soldiers’, ‘salesmen and women’ marching towards the Fort…though in that heat in full gear and costume…you must admire their passion…
All work and no play?? Euuh, obviously not always…
On day three of our recent Valletta trip we decided to visit the ancient walled city Mdina (m-dee-na). It is Malta’s former capital and lies high on terraced fields, dominating the island’s surrounding skyline. If you feel some ‘Game of Thrones’ vibes upon entering through city gate, that’s because the gate and other locations featured in season one of the popular series…welcome to King’s Landing…
In the GoT series Mdina city gate represents one of the entraces of King’s Landing.
Mdina is easily accessible by bus and the ride takes about half an hour, depending on traffic, dropping you off at the garden opposite the entrance gate.
Through course of history Mdina went by different other names: it was founded ‘Maleth’ by the Phoenicians and renamed ‘Melite’ by the Romans after the honey the island was famous for. Under rule of the knights of Order of St John activities switched to the newly built Valletta and Mdina therefore lost its capital status.
The current and still used name is derived from the Arab word ‘medina’, though it also goes by its nickname ‘The Silent City’ and ‘Citta’ Notabile’, with the latter probably the most accurate to this date: the noble families that once lived within city walls are replaced by about 300 noble and lucky inhabitants with security cameras closely monitoring the entering cars and their drivers.
St-Pauls Cathedral is a baroque church dedicated to apostle Paul. Under each bell tower is a clock: the right one being a normal one telling time, the left one showing date and month, though legend says the two clocks were to confuse the devil. The church was destroyed during the Sicilian earthquake of 1693 and had to be rebuilt completely.
Meanwhile some mingling with the locals…
Another GoT filming location, Littlefinger’s brothel…
No walled city nowadays without souvenir shops…Mdina is famous for its glass, used in jewelry and deco items…
We had lunch at Trattoria 1530, part of the Xara Palace Relais&Chateaux hotel and located in one Mdina’s lovely picturesque squares…by the way, can you spot our little lunch companion?
can you spot our little lunch companion?
re-fueled we again hit the winding and narrow streets…
sun makes an excellent artist drawing shadow lines on the walls
sun makes an excellent artist drawing shadow lines on the walls
Charming Mdina is rightfully on UNESCO’s World Heritage tentatives (the waiting) list.
Join me next time for the final part in this Valletta-series where I’ll take you around a fun ‘Three Cities’ tour.
2018 stands for feast in overdrive in Valletta, capital of Malta, as the entire year it proudly wears the crown of ‘Culture Capital of Europe’. If you haven’t put it on your travel radar yet, now’s the time to adjust your antennas! With 320 monuments all within an area of 55ha that makes this compact capital one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world, and if UNESCO says so…
We explored this charming and picture-perfect city early June and we were completely under its spell from day one… join us, that’s the husband and me, on this little photo stroll through Valletta’s streets…
…though not winding…no, the city centre handles a uniform grid pattern and orientation is therefore easy. First things first though: we flew in from Brussels South with Ryanair and stayed in an Airbnb located in Cospicua/Bormla, one of the so-called ‘Three Cities’. We had a lovely trip to Mdina and an extensive fun tour of ‘The Three Cities’ which I’ll tell you more about in the next posts.
but let’s focus on Valletta first…
Malta’s history is forever linked to the Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem but to fully understand the capital’s and island’s current mix of styles and influences we need to step back much further in time for a (very brief, I promise) history lesson…
In chronological order the island was invaded by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, then came the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Norman, the Sicilians, the French and Spanish…are you still with me? Then, in 1530 the Knight Order arrived (more on that later) with years of glory and fall, followed again by a, this time very short, French rule; after them the British took over for many years. During WW2 the city suffered extremely heavy losses and bombings and then, fi-nally Malta gained independency in 1964…and if you would think all these influences would result in a mishmash of styles, think again…it all blends perfectly well to a, to this date, modern vibrant town that fully embraces its cultural heritage.
The island thanks it name to the Phoenicians, who called it Maleth, which means shelter. The Maltese language, still spoken, found its origin in Arabic and the capital was named after Jean Parisol de la Vallette, Grandmaster of the Knight Order and also the one who commissioned the building of the new city capital. You can have coffee full Italian Style and a Mediterrenean afternoon siesta oh and driving left and tea and biscuits stuck around too 😉
How exactly did those knights end up in Malta? When they were thrown out of Israel by the Muslims, they first ended up in Rhodes until they had to flee from there too. The Spanish king gave them Malta to make their home, which they did. Years of glory followed, with fortifications being built, coming out victoriously out of the Grand Siege and Turkish attacks and the building of a brand new capital and more defence structures. All that building and defending against enemy invasions cost a lot of money though and by then some of the knights of the Order had a certain decadent lifestyle they didn’t want to give up, scandals followed and hence the fall of the Order.
Enough talking, time for photos now 😉
Staying in the Three Cities meant our daily trip to the city centre included the inner harbour crossing by ferry (fun) or typical dhasja (much more fun).
Stepping off the boat and heading left brings you to the elevator (your feet and back will thank you) going high up to ‘Upper Barrakka Gardens’. This is a ‘must do’ to see and be seen: you can admire the phenomenal view on the Grand Harbour, watch the canon firings at 12 and 16pm, feed the pigeons, have a snack and drinks, people-watch or just rest and absorb those holiday vibes.
These gardens were installed on the upper of the St Peter & Paul bastion, originally as place of recreation for the Italian knights of the Order. On the lower tier you can find the saluting battery.
From Barrakka Gardens on you can start exploring the city at your own pace or if you appreciate some extra historical and cultural info, join one of the many guided tours. We joined a ‘Colour my Travel’ tour taking us on a three hour walk through the city centre.
Covered Food Market
The Lady of Victories chapel is built on the exact spot the very first stone was laid when building the city of Valletta.
A definite must see is Saint John’s co cathedral, built in only five years time. The interior decorating took much longer and if you step inside you’ll immediately understand why as there’s not a blank inch in the cathedral left. Paintings, floor marble stones, tapistries, sculptures, crypt, you name it and you’ll defintely find it inside! The decorations on the walls were all paid for by two Cottoner brothers, Raphael Cottoner and Nicholas Cottoner. They were both grand-masters and you can find their monograms RC and NC on the walls. St John’s Co Cathedral has 375 graves. Their gravestones, all in marble, show the knights and grand-masters that are buried inside this cathedral. The oratory is also of great interest and do expect some crowds when visiting, all admiring one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces and the only work signed by him ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’.
Rabbit and roasted veg at La Pira, typical Maltese kitchen
when local, drink local
Merchant St, Republic St and Old Bakery St all lead to Fort St Elmo, the crossing streets will either lead you to Sliema Ferry landing area or Upper and Lower Barraka Gardens. Do not miss out on those Lower Gardens as they equally guarantee a phenomenal view.
Monument Lower Barrakka Gardens
detail of view from Lower Barrakka Gardens
Even on colourful eye-catcher and cities’ trademark, the famous balconies, the mixed cultural influences left their mark. There still, apparently, is some discussion whether Arabic or Spanish origins. Most probably it comes from Arabic times when women had to stay out of sight and this got translated to Maltese way over time, with housewives watching the world go by from above and with little side-windows to gossip with/about the neighbours (?)
By now you probably think there are only old stones to walk on in this capital…meet Valletta 2.0…
The above photo is part of the Parliament House and architect Renzo Piano’s (the one of the Shard in London) so-called ‘City Gate Project’, a masterplan to restyle the old City Gate area. He made some very drastic changes, as the old gate in no longer an actual gate but a V-shaped entrance and citizens had to grow accustomed to this new style. However, to my opinion he succeeded wonderfully wel in marrying old and new. The stone slabs in the limestone are carved out this way to copy natural erosion by nature.
Have I convinced YOU that Valletta is worth a visit? Then start planning your trip and check the cities’ tourist site and 2018 cultural highlights!
Next post in this series will highlight the Three Cities and Mdina, stay tuned 😉