Italy & Malta April 2022

What a fabulous place to begin April and spring in Europe! We’re no April Fools, so cleverly chose to spend the first week of April in Stresa on Lake Maggiore.  Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy. It has an average depth of 200M and at its deepest is 400M. It was an hour’s train from Milan for 8 euros each, although you can get a 28minute trip for 19 euro. But who’s in a hurry?

We stayed in a wonderful AirBnB just off the main square, but was so quiet! It was super-comfortable and had everything we needed, so we settled in to relax. We both still had nasty colds and did a Covid test but were negative. Still, we lay low and took it easy. The weather was mostly clear but very chilly.

After a couple of days the sun came out and so did we! We enjoyed walks along the Promenade, with the crystal-clear lake at our feet and the snow capped mountains in the background. Stresa has been a favourite escape for wealthy people from Milan for centuries and the lake is lined with elegant belle-époque hotels and mansions.

One day we took the tourist boat to the Borromean islands. There are three islands just off the shore from Stresa. One was small and uninhabited, the second was the ‘fishermen’s island’ (Isola del Pescatori) and the third (Isola Bella) was mostly taken up by tiered gardens and a palazzo. The same family has owned all 16 of the islands of the lake since the 17th Century. We spent hours wandering the small streets of the fishermen’s island, which still retains its fishing-village feel. We enjoyed a lunch of ‘lake fish’, sitting in the sunshine and watching the lake traffic.

Then we caught the ferry to Isola Bella, which appeared far more prosperous and quite formal in comparison.

On another day we decided to explore other villages on the lake and took a public ferry to Palenza. The ferry ride was scenic but the town itself was a disappointment. It was very much a working town, with no features or charm. We walked along the lakefront and eventually came to a marina that had a trendy bar with a great wine list and really good food. We indulged in lake fish (brim) & chips.

We had some lovely meals while we were in Stresa. Michael had an amazing dish of tortellini stuffed with lamb and mint, soft and fresh and with a sort of gravy sauce. It was quite spectacular. Sue was eating an unusual dish of crumbed and fried snails sitting on a bed of pureed parsnips and covered with shaved truffle. Probably the truffle was a bit much and it was definitely very different from French snails.

We also loved an osso bucco we had, Michael’s served with potatoes and butter that were grated together, rather than mashed and mixed. Totally delicious! Another favourite was bass /brim from the lake itself, grilled and with a squeeze of lemon. But the winner had to be the paparedelle al cinghiale (wild boar ragu). We had it twice and it was perfect both times.

We think Stresa could be quite addictive. The longer we were there, the more relaxed we became and we found it quite difficult to tear ourselves away. But VinItaly awaited, so we caught a fast train to Milan and then transferred to one for Verona. We were really surprised by the small difference in price between the fast and slow trains and the first and second class. What the hell! We went the whole-hog and bought first-class, but it wasn’t that special, we have to say.

We’ve been surprised so far with the lack of tourism information in Italy. We’ve become used to going to the tourist office in the places we visit and seeking advice on what to do and what is available. They are a treasure trove of information. France, in particular, has a tourism office in every little village. Italy doesn’t seem to have offices at all and everything is driven by private companies or is online. It’s taken a bit of getting used to. Actually, unlike France that is still in the electronic Dark Ages in many ways, Italy has totally embraced all things online. But in true Italian fashion, the theory doesn’t always translate into practice or the service always work!

So we arrived in Verona and ended up by catching a taxi straight to our accommodations rather than finding any information first. We stayed in the lovely Lavender Cottage AirBnB, a 10-minute bus trip from the train station where the VinItaly shuttle bus left and a 25-minute walk or short bus ride into the beautiful Piazza Bra and the Arena.

The first day we walked around Verona getting our bearings and stopped in a little piazza for a light meal on the way home. The next day we went into the city to explore and to meet up with Thomas Hardy and his mate Wayne Leicht, who were here for VinItaly. The walk into the city along the ancient walls overlooking the river was so picturesque and the buildings of Verona are stunning.

 

We stumbled across a fabulous restaurant in a side lane for lunch. The sunshine was so gorgeous that we needed to find a restaurant in the shade or Thomas would still be looking like a nun! The food and wine were superb and we were glad to catch up with Thomas and make plans for the next few days.

VinItaly was a fascinating experience. We started to get an idea of the scope of the event when we got to the railways station and saw the crowds swarming onto the shuttle buses, which came every 2 minutes. Apparently, more than 140,000 people visit a day and remember, this event is only open to people in the wine industry!

Thomas had organized free tickets for us – that took a bit of finagling – but eventually we were in. It’s very strictly a show for exhibitors and buyers, not tourists like us, so we were a bit put off our stride at first.

The exhibition is HUGE! It had more than 20 pavilions and each housed the wine makers and merchants of a particular region.

Eventually we settled down and started doing what Michael does best – making contacts. We found out lots about where to go and what to see in places we knew we’d be visiting - Trentino, Tuscany and Sicily.

We spent two days at VinItaly, with quite a bit of time in the hall devoted to Tuscany. The International Hall was a little disappointing, as there were hardly any overseas exhibitors, probably due to Covid anxiety and also the timing of the event being in the southern hemisphere vintage. An interesting hall was the wine technology pavilion. The food pavilion was mostly filled with hundreds of olive oil producers and quite a few truffle merchants. 

Without a doubt the best hall was that for Sicily. Who would believe that such a small island would have 21 wine regions! The displays were very impressive, sometimes double-storied and Michael kept whispering about ‘Mafia money’. The wines were also impressive and we can’t wait to spend winter in Sicily, touring the regions and tasting the products.

We left Verona to spend Easter in the Dolomites, in the beautiful town of Trento, the capital of the northern province of Trentino. We had no idea what to expect but were delighted by this ancient town, surrounded by the towering Dolomites. The weather was superb – 24 degrees and sunny when we arrived and sunny every day we were there. The region of Trentino has been ruled by many different nations, including of course the Romans because it was a main stopover on the Roman road from Germany to Rome. Austria and then Germany ruled until 1918 and some towns are still mainly German-speaking. It was the site of many fierce battles in WW1. One of the settings in Hemmingway’s Farewell to Arms was near here and the other, interestingly, was in Stresa.

We stayed in the tiniest hotel room, right opposite the cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo, with its cafes and imposing baroque fountain of Neptune. Trento has a very ancient history and is characterized by the many medieval frescoes on the outside of buildings. Sue did a walking history tour and found out lots of interesting things. For many centuries ‘prince-bishops’, very powerful men who sat on both the German parliament and the Vatican Council, ruled it. Mussolini worked here on the newspaper and the Council of Trent that outlined the Reformation of the Catholic Church, was held here. Because it is so linguistically and culturally diverse it is one of only five ‘autonomous provinces’ of Italy, meaning that it gets to keep the taxes it collects. It is a wealthy, prosperous place to live but has high salaries and high prices.

The piazza of the Duomo was very beautiful and our favourite building was the Casa Cazuffi-Rella. It was two private houses that together formed something like the pages of a book, completely covered in frescoes explaining how to live a good life. In fact, many of the buildings throughout the town had frescoes on the inside and/or outside. The artisanship of the fresco painters was really impressive, as the paintings have survived the annual rains, snows and heat for 500 years. In medieval times a little canal ran through the square near the Duomo, where the women used to do their washing.

We found the Castello del Buonconsiglio to be very impressive. This was built by Trento’s bishop-princes, who lived there until 1801 when Napoleon arrived. It is huge, with many beautifully decorated rooms and lovely formal gardens.

One day Sue took herself off to an exhibit of incredible ceramics by Bertozi & Caoni, two ceramic artists who formed a working alliance in the 1980s. Many of the pieces had a distinct environmental message and some were quite whimsical.

On another day we took ourselves on a train trip through another narrow valley of the Dolomites to Levico. The train trip was more scenic than the town. Those towering, jagged Dolomites are quite amazing!

We had some wonderful meals in Trento, highlights being a superb risotto “mantecato al lime con The di Lapsang e caviale di trota’, or risotto with lime cream, Lapsang tea and large caviar. It didn’t look that beautiful but tasted divine, the best risotto we’ve had and in Italy that’s really saying something.  Another highlight was the Trento version of onion soup, which was really thick and creamy.

From Trento we caught a train back to Milan, where we stayed overnight in the Sheraton airport hotel before catching an early flight to Malta. It was a surprise that the cheapest flights to Malta left from Milan and we only paid 50 euro each for a return fare, including all the stuff about seat allocations and baggage allowances.

After such an early start we arrived in Malta at our lodgings by 11:00am. This time we’d booked an apartment hotel, basically a very large hotel room with a kitchen. It was cleaned daily and had a rooftop sun terrace and a good gym, as well as a business centre. They all overlooked the promenade and the bay where the ferries and tourist boats departed and across to the old city of Valletta.

We were initially surprised at the lack of vegetation on Malta, as it is largely limestone buildings on top of limestone rocks. The Maltese saying that ‘our geography is our history’ is really apt and says it all. Set as it is in the middle of the Mediterranean at the nautical crossroads of Europe, Northern Africa and Asia it had enormous strategic importance. It’s been occupied by everyone from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, to the Romans and then the Knights of St John, before Italy and then Britain took over. It is now independent and part of the EU. As you would expect, Malta is incredibly multicultural, and in fact we met very few Maltese people in the two weeks we were there. The official language is English, which made it an easy place for us to visit.

We stayed in Sliema on the Strand that has many cocktail bars, restaurants and some discos. It is from here that most of the tourist boats and the ferry to Valletta depart, so it’s a busy, bustling place. A block back from the Strand and history takes over; full of old homes with the traditional painted wooden Maltese balconies.

Malta is the island of a thousand marinas, and we remember seeing boats registered in Valletta on our travels all around Europe. The traditional Maltese fishing boats have eyes painted on both sides of the bows, exactly as Phoenician boats did in the past.

Malta has an extensive bus system and it seems to be how most people get around, so we purchased our weekly pass and set off to explore the archipelago. We began with Valletta, the capital city built by the Knights of St John. They ruled from 1565 until it was eventually signed over to Napoleon.  The peninsula of Valletta is only 1km long and ½ a km wide and slopes very steeply from the centre street to the water on both sides. It was actually a planned city set up in a grid pattern, so even Sue had trouble getting lost!

We’d been told that a visit to the Fort St Elmo and the National War Museum would give us a good understanding of Maltese history from Roman times onwards and it certainly did that. It was all about walls and defenses, cannons and engineering. That was very important, given the sieges it had to withstand, especially some very fierce ones from the Turks.  There was also lots of information about its experiences during WW2. The whole island was awarded the St George’s Cross for valour in repelling the attacks of the Italians.

St John’s Co-Cathedral was deceptive.  On the outside it was a fairly restrained and elegant but inside it was decorated in the baroque style to within an inch of its life! In fact, Sue did find the inch that was undecorated, but that was in the gift shop! There was gilt-painted plaster motifs on every inch of the walls, marble tiled and inlaid tombs on the floor, and paintings by Mattia Preti on the upper walls. The original of Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist being beheaded is here as well as one of St Jerome.

The ‘Three Cities’ of Malta – Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua sit on three ‘fingers’ that jut into the southern harbour of Valletta. You can catch a ferry there from beneath the battlements of Valletta and the Barrakka gardens. We were there just in time to witness the noon cannon fire from the Saluting Battery, held every day at noon and 4:00pm. We had a wonderful time walking the narrow streets of Vittoriosa and Senglea with the gorgeous houses and churches before we got distracted by the most marvelous restaurant, set in the walls of Fort St Angelo. Fabulous crispy baby cuttlefish for Michael and calves liver with stuffed zucchini flowers for Sue. We were too impatient to wait for the ferry home, so caught one of the low-riding traditional wooden ‘dghajsa’ back to Valletta. That was fun! It only carried up to 8 people, but a number of passengers disembarked early because they were frightened by how low it rode in the water and how it rocked.

On Sunday we were up early to catch a bus to Valletta and then from there to the Marsaxlokk fishing village and fish market in the southeast of the island. The market was huge and had everything: jewelry, underwear, linen, household items, tourist rubbish, wonderful fresh vegetables and fish – lots of very fresh fish. Along both the wharf and the street sides of the market were the seafood restaurants. It was a good thing we were early because they were all nearly booked out! You choose your fish and its then weighed and cooked.  We had a lovely fresh sea brim.

Once we’d had our fill of looking at the pretty harbor and traditional fishing boats we headed back to the bus stop, with a long line and a wait of more than 30 minutes. An enterprising older man pulled up with a very comfortable mini-bus and packed 15 of us in for 2 euro each, when the bus only cost 1.50. Everyone was happy! Catching a bus in Malta is always a dicey business because when they’re deemed full they don’t stop and let anyone else on. You may be stuck waiting for up to another hour, only for the same thing to happen! Enterprising taxi drivers hang around busy bus stops.

We chose very carefully between all the ways to get to and tour Gozo. We wanted the transportation and to have free time to see Victoria and also to have a look at the Blue lagoon. Our tour was very disappointing – too many people, too many stops and it took far too long. We should have caught the fast ferry to Gozo and the local bus to Victoria and given the Blue Lagoon a big miss. Wisdom in hindsight!

We were delivered to the capital of Victoria, named for Queen Victoria in 1897.  The Citadel or Il-Kastell was used in the early 1500s to house the entire population during the raids of the Turks, which usually took place in summer. At one point the Turks took the whole population of the island into slavery.

There are four museums within the citadel walls and we went to the Old Prison, which was only decommissioned in 1904! It was a place for ‘unruly’ knights of St John. ‘Unruly’ in those days apparently meant those who fought amongst themselves or were disrespectful to the Grand Master, rather than those who raped and pillaged!

We also looked at the Cathedral of the Assumption, built at the very start of the 18th century. The most amazing thing is that there is actually no dome, but inside there is a trompe l’oeil painting of a dome. Fooled Sue, she didn’t even realize it wasn’t real and didn’t take a photo!

The history of Malta is even older than most people realize. They have over 20 prehistoric monuments. We visited Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, which are called ‘prehistoric temples’, although the true function of the monuments are unknown. We can tell you how awe-inspiring it is to stand in front of something built nearly 6000 years ago! Built by people clever enough to excavate, move and lift huge monolithic rocks and arrange them according to the solar system, so that the light at the summer and winter equinox falls on certain stones or altars.

Hagar Qim is thought to be a ‘fertility temple’ or place of motherhood worship and they have found large female monolithic carvings there. Mnajdra, is a 10 minute walk down the hill and is thought to perhaps be a male fertility site. This site was extended over the hundreds of years, with extra temples being added.

Both ‘temples’ are made from the limestone local to Malta and there are crude carvings and stones pitted with marks believed to be a calendar. Both temples were either fully or partially roofed, incredible for such large structures. The feature we both loved was the ‘doors’, carved from a single slab of limestone. One even had ‘grooves’ on one side where some sort of flap would have been attached. It is amazing to think that these structures were built purely for some form of worship or event, they were never lived in and there is no sign of habitation close by.

We had caught the local bus to and from Mnajdra, so Sue decided to do the same to visit Rabat and Mdina. Michael was still nursing his sore achilles and decided to have a lay day at home. The bus trip took an hour but was well worth it. Medina sits on a hilltop, built of the mellow golden limestone of Malta. It was progressively built by the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs and has high walls and a deep ‘ditch’ that may previously have been a moat but is now peaceful gardens. Within the walls are gorgeous winding streets and it is very calm and peaceful.

Rabat and Mdina are so close that you naturally wander from one to the other. Sue stumbled across some streets lit by wonderful floral free-standing street lights that culminated in two free-standing chandeliers in front of St Paul’s cathedral. She also braved the St Paul’s Catacombs and WW2 shelters. The catacombs were used for about 500 years, from the 3rd century AD. Both the catacombs and the WW2 shelters were very narrow, barely wider that your shoulders and with not much ventilation.

Malta is definitely worth a visit. It has an intriguing history spanning 6000 years, fabulous art and architecture, great boating and good food as well as cheap alcohol. In season, the diving is apparently fantastic but the water was too cold to investigate dives when we were there.  We took two weeks exploring Malta at a leisurely pace and making plenty of time to enjoy the sunshine. Below is a photo from our rooftop terrace.

Next we are off to Venice for the Art Biennale 2022. See the next blog for lots and lots of photos of stunning artworks!