Meandering Malta

Me and the Brits are here enjoying the off-season in Malta. Why it’s off-season I don’t know. The weather is lovely—long-sleeved shirts, but sunshine prevails. It’s my first solo vacation (probably my last), and my plan was to get lots of writing done on my teaching in Turkey memoir. Well, I’ve done some writing, but not as much as I’d hoped. Why? Well, this country is just too darned fascinating.


A typical street/sky scene in historical Malta.

I arrived Saturday mid-afternoon and headed down to Avis to claim my vehicle. Little did I know that as a former British Commonwealth nation, Malta follows the British system of roundabouts and driving on the left side of the road. ARAUGHHH!!!! It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I did OK—until I couldn’t find my hotel. I was poking around some back streets when I heard a MAJOR crunch on the passenger side of my car. Shaking, I parked just ahead to check the damage. The other car was fine, but mine had a black scrape down the entire side of the car from their side mirror. Oh, my GOD! Fortunately, I’d sprung for the insurance. I stepped into a nearby hotel for directions, only to learn that Club Riza was just around the corner. I inched my little Huyundai around the block and parked it—gingerly.

I’m staying in a little studio apartment that’s actually very sweet. It has a Murphy bed, so it feels like a living room as soon as I tuck the bed away into the wall.

I headed out for a walk to calm my nerves, and I came across a falconer training a very stubborn falcon. It was fun to watch, and I couldn’t help but think of the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Apparently when the island was ceded to the Knights of Malta, the Spanish emperor required the payment of a single Maltese falcon each year in rent. It’s said that Malta’s peregrine falcons were known as the world’s finest. Interesting.


The errant Maltese falcon…


and its frustrated falconer

I’ve enjoyed discovering the history of this 17-mile long mid-Mediterranean island. It’s 60 miles south of Sicily, a strategic outpost for whoever happened to control it at any given time (Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French, Brits, Italians…). The island has been under seige for much of its history, so the shoreline is dominated by either cliffs or fortresses, both of which are awe-inspiring. The Knights St. John moved to Malta from Rhodes in 1530 after that island was overtaken by the Ottomans. Later known as the Knights of Malta, they defended their island country from attack for many years.

PB220056The fortresses along the harbor in Valetta

As a Roman Catholic country, Malta boasts countless breathtaking cathedrals and basilicas (what’s the difference, by the way?), especially when its population doesn’t even reach 400,000. Ask me how many church photos I have. (A lot.)


A church facade in Valetta, Malta


The interior of St. George’s Basilica in Victoria, Gozo.

Beyond that, Malta has a few unique architectural features that fascinated me. I immediately noticed their wooden balconies, probably because they resemble those of Turkish Ottoman houses. Not surprisingly, both come from the same Arabic influence, originally intended to allow the harem (women) to see what was going on in the street without being seen uncovered. One guide told us that they didn’t originally have windows, and that the women watched the street through little peepholes in the floor.  In Malta these balconies are historically protected, with government funding for upkeep and renovation. Most of them are dark green, though some are other colors.


Typical balconies in Malta old towns–these in Valetta.


A street scene in Vittoriosa, MaltaPB250243

A mix of balconies in Senglea, Malta

I’ve also enjoyed the doors. Because most of the buildings are made of limestone (Malta is mainly limestone), doors are the only colorful features on many of the homes. Some have beautiful door-knockers, often golden fish. This is new to me, and striking (pardon the pun).


A Valetta door knocker


a brilliant door in the back streets of Vittoriosa


A Vittoriosa wine bar–closed for the afternoon. Sigh…

It’s also common to see a religious icon next to a door—a frieze, sculpture, or painting, often of the Virgin Mary or Saint Lawrence.


“Our Lady of the Grotto”


a clear message to all who enter


I think this doorside miniature is porcelain—Vittorioso, Malta.

Statues of saints also grace the cornerstones of many of Malta’s buildings. The deep faith of the Maltese is evident in nearly every neighborhood.


These icons appear on corners of churches and other buildings.


The light bulbs add a nice touch…


…and it gets even worse.

On my trip to Gozo (a small island north of Malta’s main island), I enjoyed exploring some of the island’s physical features, including an inland sea and the stunning Azur Window, a stone archway to the sea.


Me at the Azur Window on Goza

Another solo traveler and I hiked up a bluff overlooking the sea above a little fishing village where we’d had lunch. Speaking of lunch—the food here has been a disappointment. Because they cater to British tourists, and perhaps because of their British heritage, my meals have consisted of fairly tasteless meat and overcooked veggies. Oh—except for a wonderful salad plate of thinly-sliced smoked salmon, tuna, and cod. There’s always hope.


Heading up the bluff after lunch

The people here have been kind and welcoming, but in spite of that I’ve been a bit lonesome. On my first day I drove into Valetta to tour on my own, and two very kind older men chatted with me for a while, but that was it. The next day I took a bus tour of the northern half of the island and joined a young couple for lunch, which was nice, but I was the “odd woman out” with all the couples. Sigh…

On the Gozo tour I palled around with another single traveler, a young Polish woman working in London. Natalia and I are both avid photographers, so our pace was compatible. I picked her up the next day to explore the three ancient cities of Malta . After lunch we hopped on a little Malta boat with Captain Joey for a tour of the harbor, then hiked back to my car from the other side. It was nice to share the adventure, nice to finally find a friend.


The harbor cruise ‘vessel’


…and a typical Malta fishing boat.


All eyes and ears on the Grand Harbor, Malta.

I’m not sure I’d choose to vacation alone again, though—I think I’m just too darned social.

But Malta? It’s lovely. If you like sunshine and history, I highly recommend it. Even in November. I’d probably forego the car rental, though.

Oh—good news. The black scrape dissolved right off the side of the car with a little solvent. WHEW! There’s a bit of a dent in the door, but nothing like it seemed …

Arnavutköy’s Newly-Cobbled Streets

The new cobblestone road has found its way to my door, at last! The Cobbling Crusaders have finished work here and moved on up around the corner. These guys have been working their tails off since last summer ripping up and rebuilding the roadways all through the tangled maze of Arnavutköy. Remember, now, that these streets are ALL hills. Picture mountain switchbacks with side roads everywhere, all just one lane wide, and you have a pretty good picture of Arnavutköy. Some of the roads seem to go straight up, but actually the only direct uphill routes are stairs…and plenty of them.

working on a nearby street

The Crusaders in action

Back to the Crusaders (The Dudes). I’ve been snapping photos of these guys all summer, so most of them recognize and greet me. They asked me to take a picture of them on Sunday as they completed my road, Adalı Fettah Sokak. They’re eager to see my blog—I gave them business cards with my web site on it. I may also bring out my laptop to show them tomorrow, if I get home on time…

The Dudes

A Sunday group shot, by special request

So here’s how it all works. First the big guns come in: The heavy equipment includes a big old jackhammer-type hydraulic excavator, and another one with a Mike-Mulligan-type shovel, working in tandem to rip up a section of the old street. There’s pavement on top, sometimes concrete, and then below is another layer of big old stones and bricks. It’s a MESS!

ripping up the street

Ripping up the street below my apartment

They’ve had the devil of a time with the rain, too. What’s very different about this, though, is that these machines barely FIT in the street, and they actually let people walk through while they’re working—no safety codes here! (It’s the only way you can get home.) They close the street to cars only where they’re presently working, and it’s rare to have any warning before you get to the top of the hill and find that the road ends. Local drivers are experts at backing down steep, windy roads; there’s no way you could ever turn around in these streets unless you were riding a trike.

outside my window

Narrow street = Dump truck dumping just outside the window

From that point on, most of the labor is done by hand. First heavy granite curbing and drainage pieces are placed in the road and cemented in. Any questionable spots in the road are also cemented—generally with cement that’s been hand mixed (although I did see a cement truck the other day).

mostly just working by hand

The Dudes install curbing just below my apartment.

Next a dump truck brings in loads of finely-crushed gray gravel and dumps it on the road. The workers shovel it into one of their four beat-up wheelbarrows and spread it on the road with spades, in preparation for the load of granite cobblestones that comes next.

The beat-up wheelbarrow

The ancient, battered wheelbarrow

a cobble pile-my apartment on left

A load of cobblestones just dumped outside my apartment

Each 4-inch rough-cut stone is arranged in a wave-like pattern, tapped into place with gravel sprinkled between, darker stones periodically accenting the picture. These four Cobble Dudes can place about 100 feet of cobbles in a day—amazing. Rebuilding the roads of Arnavutköy seems a never-ending task, though they continue to forge on. It’s always a surprise to see which road is closed each week.


The wave-patterned cobblestones

Friday night I got home after dark, and the team was pounding cobblestones by the light of street lamps. They worked from 8 to 8 that day, when they’re usually done by 6 or 7. I wondered if maybe they took time out to go to the mosque, since Friday is their holy day. I just don’t know. Maybe they had a goal to reach.

night cobbling

Night workers—Friday only

After everything is in, the steam roller comes through—probably the noisiest of all the equipment. He rolls back and forth over the stones, setting them flatter into the gravel. Then—they move on.

outside my door

Saturday morning I woke to them cobbling at the bottom of my steps.

A friend at school is convinced that the owner of a granite quarry has a connection with some high-up mucky-mucks, because this is a HUGE project, and somebody is making mega-bucks off of it. The city looks much better with its new marble curbs and granite-cobbled streets, though, and the rough stones offer better traction for both cars and feet. (Not surprisingly, there are a LOT of 4-wheel-drive vehicles in my neighborhood.)

new cobbled street

A finished product near my street

So—this is my latest news: a spanking, new road.

Libby’s happy to see the mud gone, too—no more foot scrubs after every walk.


Miss Libby—happy!

Getting to the meyhane

Friday evening didn’t start off all that well for me. I need new glasses (badly), so after school I trekked over to Kadıköy to visit a recommended optician. Well, the glasses appointment took a bit longer than I’d planned—mainly because Ali Bey spent a long time talking me into some very cool glasses, then dropped the price bomb. $1100. Really. “NO WAY!” I said. “I’m only a TEACHER!” (in Turkish, of course). Who spends that kind of money on glasses? Not me. It meant we had to start all over again, but in my price range. Sigh…


The beloved Istanbul Ferry from the European to the Asian side

Frazzled, I hurried to the ferry, crossed the Bosphorous, and hopped a bus. I nearly sprinted up the hill to my apartment to take a quick shower and get Libby out for a short walk. It was 8:30. The dinner at the Mehane was starting at 9:00, and there was no way I’d be there on time. Geez–I thought I’d had so MUCH time to spare. Typical.

So, anyway, I trekked back down and got to the bus stop about 8:45. Not too bad. I texted Erica that I’d be a little late, then waited. And waited. And waited. Sigh…

At long last a VERY packed bus pulled up. As I rode (sardine style), I debated taking the funicular up to Taksim Square, but my recollection was that the restaurant was near the lower end of Istaklal, so I decided to go a bit further and take the Tünel up from Kabataş, which I thought (wrongly) would put me closer. Imagine my reaction when I got off the tram and realized that the Tünel was closed. ARAUGHHH!!!!


The Galata Tower at night (halfway up the hill)

That meant I had to hike up a steep hill of narrow cobbled streets past the Galata Tower—alone. I noticed a woman about my age just ahead of me, so I caught up with her and started chatting. An English teacher, too, she was just returning from an evening school event. She was interesting—I wish I’d asked for her card. Oh, well…

Long story short, after much MIS-direction, I FINALLY found the meyhane, which was actually closer to Taksim Square than I’d thought. I arrived around 10:00, exhausted, sweaty, and starved. Everyone was well into both devouring and imbibing, and the meyhane was in full swing.


A hearty teacher’s welcome!


The lovely Melissa with her Turkish husband Orhan

“What’s a meyhane?” you ask.

Good question. It’s a Turkish restaurant that serves alcohol, generally a fairly rowdy venue. Also known as a tavern or cabaret, many meyhanes offer live music, and it’s not uncommon to have people dancing on the tables before the evening is out. The Çardak Meyahnesi was no exception. My friend Erica and her husband Erdem had organized the evening for us,


Erica and Erdem, our evening hosts

a group of about thirty teachers and friends enjoying mezes (hors d’oeuvres), dinner, drinks, and live music for an all-inclusive price of 60 YTL ($40). We were a mix of yabancis (foreigners) and Turks, all sharing the same love of interesting company, good music, dancing, and laughter.

I have to admit, Marita’s husband Duff was the star of the evening: the first to get up to dance, he kept bopping, imbibing, and beaming all night.


Mr. Duff launching from chair dancing into the real thing

Turkish dancing is a little different from Western dancing; you keep your hands up and moving. It’s kind’ve a cross between Zorba and the hula, I guess. Following Duff’s lead, the rest of us got up and danced—and danced—and danced—until the wee hours.


And soon we were all on our feet–note Duff in the background.


Everyone danced the night away.

Food was continuously served throughout the night, as were a bevy of beverages. We merged with other diner/dancers on the balcony as the musicians played non-stop from 9:00 until who-knows-when. What stamina!


Looking down on the musicians and diners on the main floor–oh, so dizzy!

So, my friends. That’s a meyhane.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t mind attending another one, but perhaps next time I’ll limit myself to ONE rakı. This traditional anise-flavored beverage is not to be taken lightly.

“Termal” means Thermal—as in SPA!!!

Let’s see…this is my fifth year in Istanbul, and at least my tenth trip to Termal. I wonder how many times I’ve written about it. The joy of being over 50 is that every experience seems new.

Actually, I wanted my friend Sally to experience Termal, one of my favorite spots in Turkey. It’s only a few hours away, and with a few days off school, I decided to go for it. Sally and I hopped the Fast Ferry on Wednesday morning for the hour-and-a-half luxury trip over the water. We found the nicest seats on the boat, ordered Turkish coffee, and were basking in the joy of our adventure when a young couple interrupted us. Apparently it wasn’t open seating, and we were in their carefully-selected spots. Oops. Blush. Affidersiniz (Excuse us.)

We were met at the pier by the lovely Gizem, a young Turkish woman who had worked in Grand Marais all summer.


Gizem, our lovely guide

She led us along the beach to a celebration of Republic Day at the Ataturk statue, where I snapped a few photos. It never ceases to amaze me how very much the Turkish people value their independence. We Americans tend to take it for granted.



A military celebration of Turkey’s Republic Day

Then Gizem treated us to soup in a lovely restaurant, then brought us to the street bazaar. After reveling in the colors and sounds and general hubbub of the bazaar, we grabbed some roasted chestnuts and hopped on a mini-bus to Termal, which is located in the mountains above Yalova.




…and pumpkins, also doubling as winter squash in my recipes.

We checked into the Çamlık Hotel, pleased to see that we had a spacious balcony overlooking the river. Gizem headed home to help her mother with dinner (we, of course, were invited), and Sally and I packed up bathing supplies to visit the hamam (Turkish bath). After changing into bathing suits (which we really didn’t need), we clomped (in our plastic scuff slippers) down the marble stairs to the showers. We had a bit of trouble managing the temperature, so we started our experience fully chilled. We walked down a white and gray marble hallway to the spring-fed pool, which was a little murky from the recent rain, as it’s fed directly from a hot spring. It was warm, though, and lovely, much like a huge marble hot tub.


Sally and me in front of the Valide Sultan Hamam

Next was the sauna, heated also by water from hot springs. One nice thing about the Termal hot springs is that they don’t stink. Relief. The floor of the sauna is slatted marble with hot water bubbling beneath it and steam rising into the room. As hot as it was, we were surprised that the wooden seats were sit-able. We were the only ones in there. Apparently saunas aren’t popular with Turkish women, and we were the only yabanci (foreigners) in the whole hamam. We probably looked dopey with our suits on, as the other women were dressed only in panties. Oh, well. It’s not like we were trying to blend in or anything.

After the sauna we went to the banyo, where marble benches and large, round marble sinks surround the room. We scrubbed ourselves from top to bottom, dipping a bowl into the sink and sloshing it over ourselves. A gutter running around the perimeter of the room brings all the excess water to who-knows-where. A huge round marble slab fills the center of the room, much like a low tabletop, about 15 feet in diameter. This, too, is heated, and you lie on it, feeling like a big slab of pie dough. It’s hot, but we coped.

Last, but CERTAINLY not least, we headed for the massage room. We each had an phenomenal massage by Fatma, the strongest woman on the planet (or at least in Turkey). Oh, my—it hurt so GOOD!!! Instead of massage oil, hamams use soap, which slithers across your skin in a deliciously sensuous slide to oblivion. That was the best 20 lira ($12.50) I’ve spent in years! Fatma finished by pouring buckets of hot water over us to wash away the soap. Oh, my goodness. How I wish I could bring her home with me, at least to Arnavutköy!


The historical Turkish hamam with David and Sally in the foreground.

Another sauna and one last scrub finished us, then we dragged our limp bodies back upstairs to dress before dinner at Gizem’s house.

We caught a blue mini-bus back to the city, which was an adventure in itself. Our driver was young, accompanied by two of his cronies. They stopped to chat with friends who passed in the street, then stopped at a store to pick up cigarettes. It felt more like “criusin’ with the dudes” than taking a public bus. Fun, though—or at least amusing.

Gizem and her brother Giray met us at the bus stop and guided us to their apartment just around the corner. We parked our shoes outside the door, and Gizem handed us each a pair of pointy, black velvet, boa-enhanced, heeled slippers to wear. “This is Turkish tradition,” she said with a smile. “I’m not sure I can get into them,” I said—and I was right. My foot hung three inches over the heels, so you can imagine how gracefully I teetered across the living room. I’m sure they had a good laugh over it after we left. Gizem’s family welcomed us warmly, though, and they made us feel very much at home. Elif (her mother) had prepared a lovely dinner of lentil soup, salad, çig köfte, and güveç (a broiled individual casserole). The table was tastefully set with bread arranged around each plate. It was lovely, and each dish was scrumptious.


Elif serving up the best çorba (soup) in Yalova


Giray, Cemile, and Elif with me and Sally (photo by Gizem’s father)

When we left, lo and behold, who was driving the mini-bus but our friendly dudes. They laughed a welcome, joking with us as before. Another cruise home.

The next morning my friend David arrived to share our day. We lingered over breakfast coffee, then enjoyed the sunny morning with a hike. We explored a new route up the hill across the river, finally emerging on a mountain-top meadow inhabited by a cow and her calf.


A young calf relaxed at the top of the mountain…at least until we arrived,


when he went to graze safely by his mother.

The view was spectacular and made up for the two tons of mud we’d hauled up on our shoes.


A view from the top


The mud built into huge clumps almost like snowshoes.

More hamam, more food (soup, pide, and ayran), more trekking, and a ferry ride home. Fortunately, the rain held off until we headed home. Oh, my!


After soup, we enjoyed cheese pide (like pizza) and veggies. Yum!