We’re now feeling like we’ve really explored Catalonia. Along with finding many of the nooks and crannies in Barcelona, we’ve ventured up the coast to Girona and Figueres, westward and inland to Montserrat, and now it’s time for us to drive South down the coast. Our destination is Tarragona, a city founded in the 5th century BC, and now designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its extensive Roman ruins.
But along the way, we find a surprise and beautiful stop. The inspiration for the stop is part because the car is low on gas, part because Lindsey needs to use the bathroom again, part because I’ve found a cute little coffee shop, and part because it’s halfway between Barcelona and Tarragona. Sitges, a small touristy beach town full of nice hotels, has a quaint old city and a pristine cathedral right on the ocean. Tarragona is spectacular as is expected, but Sitges turned out to be the real treat today.
On the return trip, we take the Catalonian equivalent of California’s Pacific Coast Highway and enjoy the colorful sky created by the sunset as we return to Barcelona.
One specific Christmas tradition leaves us a little confused, intrigued, and tickled all at once. Apparently, there exists in Catalan mythology a character named Tio Nadal. Tio for short is a log with a face on it often propped up by sticks like the picture below, which we photographed in a tapas bar.
Starting on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, kids feed the tio a little bit every night. Some even cover him with a blanket so he doesn’t get cold. Then, in the days preceding Christmas, kids must take better and better care of the log to make sure that it will poop, yes defecate, many presents on Christmas. Even stranger, to make it poop when the day comes, kids often beat the tio with sticks singing all sorts of hilarious songs. It’s their version of Santa.
We’re off on another day trip in our rental car. First stop: Girona. We heard good things, but we had no real idea of its history. First, there were the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, and then finally a Catalonian county starting in the 8th century. One part of the old city that was particularly interesting to us was the old Jewish Quarter. It may be the best-preserved Jewish quarter in all of Europe. A Jewish community had lived there until late 1400’s when the Catholic Monarchs gave Jews the choice to convert or leave. The other highlight of Girona for us is the churro guy – freshly deep-fried churros sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar makes for a wonderfully warm snack on a chilly morning.
Not far from Girona, we continue on to Figueres, birthplace and now resting place of Salvador Dali. There, Dali built a very eccentric museum to house much of his art. In his words: “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be a totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” We may have experienced that sensation, but we definitely left feeling that Dali was a weird, eccentric, egotistical artist. Quote from Lindsey: “this guy’s nuts!”
On a different day, but related because he’s another famous artist who spent some time in Catalonia, we visit the famous Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Along with enjoying one of the most extensive collections of his art anywhere in the world, we also enjoy learning a little more about him through listening to the fictional novel Cooking for Picasso in the car as we drive around Catalonia. The book really paints a picture (pun intended) of how the artist had many mistresses in addition to his wives. He was married twice and had four children by three women, or at least officially. The book may suggest otherwise :).
Onwards to Barcelona. We start our time in Barcelona by learning about its history through architecture. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, Barcelona really takes off, and as part of the expansion created by the rush of people to cities, Modernist architects such as Antoni Gaudi get their chance to shine. Our guided tour throughout the city helps us appreciate these unique and beautiful buildings.
One building in particular, the Sagrada Familia, was very impressive not only in its grandeur, sculpture, stained-glass windows, attention to detail, but also for the fact that it began in the late 1800s and is still being built today. During these 150 years, there was one major hiccup in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War when Gaudi’s original plans, drawings and models were all destroyed. Although Gaudi had already passed away, many of the other architects and builders were able to at least piece most of his original vision back together. But many believe that Gaudi would have also fully approved of the building evolving over time as long as the original intent and vision remains intact.
I had the chance to visit this basilica back in 2010 and it was incredible to see the progress that has been made since. In the pictures below, I’ve included the old next to the new to appreciate how much grander the site has become. And now, our guide was saying that the Sagrada is predicted to be completed by 2026 to mark the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Although there’s still about 25% of the work remaining, because of new technologies plus an influx in funding from all of the ticket sales of visitors coming to witness the site, it may only be another 6 years.
After Mdina, a tiny town of 300 people that completely empties every night around 5pm, Valletta feels like a true metropolis (kinda). There are restaurants and bars, shops that stay open late, theaters, and seemingly hordes of people.
Stomachs still full a couple days later from our Christmas dinner, early breakfast, regular breakfast and lunch, we find a small wine bar named Trabuxu serving snacks for tonight’s dinner. The wine is great, the local cheese peppery, and the service accommodating enough for Lindsey to find things to eat that are neither alcoholic nor unpasteurized. We sit outside on a little stoop people watching as we enjoy our light-ish meal.
Our first full day in Valletta is definitely full. We start with a hotel breakfast followed by a wonderfully orienting tour of the old city. The guide helps us continue to piece together many parts of Malta’s history through the different kingdoms that once ruled. But two of the highlights extended beyond just listening to the stories but actually touching and witnessing them.
What better way to touch history than turn the pages of a 400 year book! Lindsey and I both look at each other a couple times before building up the courage to turn one of these ancient pages. One of the books we flip through contains the history of Malta, another was handwritten and has interspersed little drawings. The Valetta Library holds works dating as far back as 1100, but don’t worry, that one was well protected and far out of our hands.
We next get to witness a bit of history as we enter a 5th-generation gilder’s studio. The pride he takes in his work has likely only grown through the generations. He is in the process of making a Maltese clock for his daughter’s recent wedding gift and he explains the process of how the gold is gilded onto the frame. Each smaller-than-one-millimeter thick square of gold is several Euros, and the clock he’s in the middle of building could reach up to 10,000 Euros. He uses all traditional methods including natural glues made from animals. The only new technology that he’s incorporated into his practice is that of air conditioning – this allows him to work year around even during the humid months.
We round out our day of touring by going to an ornate theater in the middle of town where they’re currently performing a very silly rendition of the Little Mermaid. These satirical plays, full of their British humor, are an end-of-year tradition. Otherwise, the theater typically is home to a bit more serious material. That said, it’s wonderful to see all of the locals performing and their families in the audience cheering them on. When surrounded by so many tourists around town, it was wonderful to see this strong local community as well.
Although Valletta does not charm us as much as Mdina did, it did give us an even greater appreciation for the history of the island. Every site we visit from Fort St. Angelo to St. John’s Cathedral which houses the largest Caravaggio to the Barrakka Gardens all reinforce that so much has happened on such a small piece of land.
Leading up to and throughout our visit, I’ve been enjoying The Sword and the Scimitar, a book by David Ball that captures through a tale of historical fiction the period when the Order of the Knights of St. John ruled on the island. Many of the names that appear in the book are also said aloud by our tour guide and in many of the museums we walk through. Although at times a little violent, the book was a very entertaining way to learn a piece of history of this special island. And what better way to enjoy some of this book than with a cup of joe from our favorite coffee shop Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters, which I think we averaged two visits per day.
Marsaxlokk is the main fishing village of Malta. We stop for a beautiful seaside seafood lunch, and then meander to enjoy the fabulous colors of this picturesque little town.
For our first couple days on the island, we rent a small car to hop around to all of the scattered sites. Driving a manual car on the wrong side of the road made for a fun challenge for both Lindsey and me. I wouldn’t say I’m great at driving with a stick-shift on the right side of the road; however, learning to shift gears with my left hand was a small fraction of what felt so weird. In addition to using manual transmission, driving from the wrong side of the car, winding down narrow cobble-stone streets, taking wide right turns and small left ones, driving on and off of packed ferries, and there being no real highways given the island is so small all added to the adventure.
Enough about the driving; where did we drive to? Mostly we put on our figurative archeologists’ green, pocket-fill vests and round hats and go explore the many megalithic temples. Luckily, we don’t have to pronounce the names here, but among the temples we visit include Hagar Qin, Mnadra, Ggantija, Tarxien, Ta’Hagrat, and Skorba. These temples (not sure they were actually temples vs. homes) were first erected in the 4th and 3rd millennium BC. As a couple helpful references, the pyramids are from the 3rd millennium BC and Stonehenge was closer to the 2nd millennium BC.
One unfortunate thing we learn is that many of these ruins were uncovered at a time when archeology was more of a hobby than a profession. And as a result, the meticulous records of how things were found are often not included as well as the method of uncovering treasured ruins was likely not as careful. That all said, it is wild to imagine a culture so many years ago so advanced to be building these perfectly cut stone structures that included idols, statues and carvings on walls.
One of the many reasons that Malta became a destination for us this winter is how they celebrate the holidays. Many Christmas traditions in Malta happen outside the home. Not only does everyone attend a Midnight Christmas Mass, but many then follow it up with an early breakfast at a local restaurant. Christmas lunch is then also frequently enjoyed out. We pass by many a restaurant full of tables reorganized to accommodate large families cheerfully clinking glasses.
Not to be outdone by the Maltese, after a Christmas Eve feast at our Xara Palace Hotel, we pop into three Masses on Christmas Eve, most of which are not in English so we soak up the atmosphere more than the sermons. The last Mass we enter right at the end to admire another beautifully decorated church, and we time it just perfectly to be handed a honey ring (a traditional Maltese pastry). A couple of the locals spot us and give us the thumbs up.
After Mass, we haven’t quite worked up another appetite, but it’s time for Early Christmas breakfast. This is actually a thing in Malta. We enjoy orange juice, tea, mulled wine, and a full buffet breakfast around 2am in the morning surrounded by families young and old. And finally, because we’re still not fully stuffed, Christmas lunch the following day has a very similar appeal. Lots of families feasting out!
Along with the specific Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions, Malta and Gozo are fully decorated for the occasion. The streets are lit up, Christmas trees a plenty, and cribs with manger scenes. On the nearby island of Gozo, we even swing through a real-life Bethlehem complete with animals, bakers, a well, boat rides, and a manger scene with a baby Jesus. Malta knows how to do Christmas.
After a 36-hour layover in Barcelona, during which we mainly try to fight our jetlag, our babymoon gets started in the walled city of Mdina, Malta. Mdina is beyond medieval – in fact, it was Malta’s capital city back into Antiquity. Starting with the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, then the Phoenicians as early as the 8th century BC, then eventually being home to the Romans, after which the Byzantine empire took a turn, and more recently (1500’s AD) the Order of Saint John. Finally, after having to put up with the French and the British some, Mdina and Malta are independent today. Everyone wanted a piece of Malta given its ideal position smack in the middle of the Mediterranean (just south of Sicily). And as a result, Mdina, which sits high near the middle of Malta, saw many famous civilizations and empires come through.
We spend our first three nights on the island sleeping within the walls of this fortified city, with its population of about 300 (I’m not missing a “K” on that 300). Once the tourists leave around 5pm, the city clears out and our small hotel, the Xara Palace, is the only hotel within its walls. We wander the curved, quiet streets ducking into churches, cafes and medieval homes. The quiet of the city is both magical and eerie. The only sound is that of the wind and the night time brings with it an incandescent glow. It feels like all roads lead back to St John’s Cathedral so we’re never too worried about getting lost and instead always try to go down the alley that we haven’t already seen. Mdina is clean, quiet, peaceful, and full of history.