Saturday, May 22, 2010

Malta and Tunisia

We've had two busy days and added two more ticks on the world map - Malta and Tunisia. Both were very interesting places. I am glad we visited them.

The first thing you need to know about Malta is that it will disappoint most of your expectations. We did not see one Maltese Terrier. There was no Maltese Falcon to be found. The only Maltese Crosses were in the tourist shops. Hey, there weren't even any Maltesers in the food shops.

Once you get past that, though, you realize that Malta is a beautiful island. Historically it has two great moments of glory when the Knights of St John were able to repel the Ottoman Turks in the mid-16th Century and about 300 years later during WWII, the Germans and Italians failed to conquer the island. Otherwise, though, Malta is the sad sack of the Mediterranean. As Fodor's guide says, "Malta has been overrun by every major Mediterranean power: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs; Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese and the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem; the French, the British and now tourists."

That last bit is no joke. This is one serious cruise ship destination, and even this early in the year - a few weeks before the season begins in earnest - there were thousands of day trippers filling its streets. For such a rich history, Malta's streets look like nothing more than a huge, crowded outlet mall. Its shops and restaurants are full of local specialties - Benetton, Prado, Furla, Burger King, Starbucks. OK, we couldn't find much local to buy there. Even the jewellers who had been around since the middle of the past century are hawking stuff made elsewhere. About the only local thing we found were a few restaurants promising a local specialty - a casserole made with rabbits. You know you've sunk to new lows when hare pie is your biggest claim to local fame.

Visually, however, Malta is fantastic. High limestone cliffs, beautiful old sandstone forts and public buildings. Even a legacy cannon installation from British days - and if you didn't think that was British you soon found out because they were playing "The White Cliffs of Dover" on the PA system every few minutes. Someone evidently forgot to tell the country they were no longer a British colony.

Tunisia, another much-conquered place - was also great to visit. The city formerly known as Carthage sticks in everyone's mind, even though most of us only have a vague recollection that Hannibal brought some elephants over the Alps in the ongoing war with Rome. In fact, the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage lasted centuries, and it was only toward the end that Rome finally got the upper hand.

There are plenty of archaeological remains of Carthage, but few of its first incarnation as a Phoenician city around 2800 years ago. That's because Rome levelled everything when they finally conquered Carthage. There are plenty of Roman relics, but not as many as you would expect. Perhaps because the Vandals came around about 1400 years ago and levelled everything they found. By the way, a few centuries later the Arabs came from the east and - no surprise, I suppose - they levelled everything.

Most of the stuff we saw was from the Roman era. The baths are in exceptionally good shape and a large amount of the original buildings have survived. The rest is your standard here's-a-column stuff that may excite archaeologists and ardent historians, but leaves most of us casual tourists wondering how long before happy hour starts on the ship.

But the overriding impression we had of Tunisia was that it was a beautiful place, rich with history and full of friendly people who will sell you their sandals if you are willing to give them enough money for them. Of course, the southern part of the country is Sahara so the coastline may very well be the only really pretty part of the place. But since that is what we saw, that's good enough for us.

It would be so much better to show you some of the pictures from these places, but I have given up any hope of this ship's internet connection working well enough to do so. We will have a Shutterfly Day next week when we are in the US and let you see some of the neat stuff we've encountered this week.

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