If you look at a map of the Netherlands (which I should do more often, since I know many of its cities only as final destinations for the trains I take), you see that Maastricht sits in what Wikipedia refers to as an “eccentric location” on a little extra tail that dips down between Belgium and Germany. Of course, as always, there are a variety of strategic historical and military reasons for this, which you can read about in Alexandre Dumas novels and various other places. In more modern times, it was chosen as the location for the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, establishing the European Union, which I hope we can all agree to go ahead and continue to keep intact. Please.
Maastricht is definitely one of our favourite places we’ve gone in the Netherlands so far. We took my parents there when they visited last October, and had a wonderful time. And since I never blogged about it, I thought I’d share some of our favourite Maastricht sights and activities.
We took the train down from Amsterdam, and it took about two hours and forty-five minutes. That’s a bit longer than by car, but we like riding the train, and it was nice not to have to worry about parking once we got there. Our hotel was just down the street from Maastricht’s lovely main square, a location which I would definitely recommend, since one of the delights of Maastricht is just wandering through its picturesque streets.
Several months ago, I found myself quite overwhelmed with my to-do list. Or should I say to-do list. I had them on post-its at my desk at work. I had them on post-its in various places at home. I wrote them on little pieces of paper. I had a great many in the “reminders” app on my phone. Tony had invited me to Wunderlist to keep track of the shopping, so I had some there too. To say nothing of the shared Google calendar without which most events in our life and our children’s lives would simply not happen. Some stuff I even tried to just keep in my head, which resulted in insomnia, as I would lie in bed running through my internal to-do list, worried I had left something off.
Yes, he did it. While we were in Malta. And it was the most romantic thing ever.
Because he did it on holiday, you might think that it was a spur of the moment (and possibly regrettable) decision. But he’s actually been planning and talking about this particular tattoo for years. So when he saw a snazzy looking tattoo shop just down the street from our AirBnB, he figured it was a sign. From the inside, the tattoo shop was even better. There’s so much of the weirdly wonderful going on here, from the guy sitting to the right–who is not a guy, but a ghost–to that piano/shrine/home bar with all the candles gloriously melted over it
It's called melata honey, and has the distinction of having passed through the bodily orifices of not one, but two different species of insects. Small insects up in the mountains eat the sap of trees, which passes through their digestive tracts and is deposited (see how palatable I made that sound) on the leaves of the trees, where the bees collect it and further process it into honey. How wild is that? You can't make these things up.
Our Malta trip was winding down, but we still had one item left on the sightseeing list: Għar Dalam Cave. I get the impression that this cave was probably always known to the inhabitants of Malta, but the first recorded mention of it was in 1647 in a text compiled by the historian of the Knights of St. John.
The place didn’t really get excavated until the 19th century, when paleontologists dug into the floor of the cave and discovered incredible numbers of fossils in it, of things like pygmy elephants, hippopotami, and deer, all of which have been extinct on the island for thousands of years. This cave and the fossils contained therein show that Malta was once attached to Europe via a land bridge to Sicily, since the animals found are European types. Thousands upon thousands of bones and teeth are neatly mounted in Victorian-style display cases, also giving a fascinating glimpse into what it was like to visit a museum a hundred odd years ago.
Malta abounds in natural beauty, and how better to see it than from a colourful Maltese fishing boat or the back of a horse?
When we first booked our tickets and started thinking about Malta, the two things the kids said they wanted to do were horseback riding and kayaking. Unfortunately, kayaking seems to be a summer activity in Malta, and we couldn’t find anyone who would take us during what to Maltese people is the dead of winter (yesterday it was a sunny 15 degrees outside, and we were listening to the radio weather person commiserating with her fellow Maltese about the bitterly cold temperatures, and exhorting them to bravery). So we settled for the next best thing: a boat tour to the Blue Grotto. The tours departed in these cute little boats from this tiny cove.
Mdina and Rabat (in Arabic, literally “the city” and “the suburbs”) are what used to be the happening spot in Malta before Valletta was built in the 16th century. We went to Rabat first. It’s a cute little town with pretty streets and a nice church. Also, what is rumored to be the finest sweet shop in Malta. We tried the Maltese version of cannoli (not quite as good as the Italian version, but still very tasty), some very traditional date-themed cookies (not a huge fan of dates in cookies), and some soft almond nougat, like turron in Spain (seriously delicious).
One of the most, shall we say, exciting things about Malta is driving. They label roads here like other countries label cigarettes–“Speed Kills“, “Slow Down Immediately“, “Don’t Drink and Drive“. The signs are everywhere. And sure enough, most people appear to be ignoring them, at least the ones that have to do with speed. The road conditions aren’t exactly conducive to safety either. They are a mass of pot-holes and blind hair-pin turns. Most of the roads have no line down the middle to separate lanes of oncoming traffic. Instead, people just drive on whichever side of the road has fewer potholes, or right down the middle of it. To say nothing of the fact that they are supposed to be driving on the left side of the road, and a good portion of the rest of Europe, whence come their tourists, are used to driving on the right.
I didn’t think we could outdo the experience of Midnight Mass in the Cathedral of Granada last year. And we didn’t, because I’ll always remember it as an ethereal burst of soaring white stone and music in the midst of a dark night. But this year’s midnight mass at the Valletta Cathedral was its own kind of beautiful. For one thing, this:
The President of Malta was at the Midnight Mass (which was almost two hours long, so fortunately it began at 11). AND she shook my hand! The mass is so popular they have to issue tickets, and to avoid selling tickets to a religious service, the tickets include a reception afterwards at the Palace of the Grand Masters, which is now the official residence of the President of Malta, who greeted each guest as we entered. Here’s her car, waiting in the courtyard of the Palace.