June 25th to July 7th, 2005
Tauck World Discovery Tour: “Treasures of the Mediterranean”
+ 3 days on the Cote d’Azur
(6/25/05) Our evening flight on British Air was delayed more than one hour for “baggage reconciliation” – and it turned out that they had ticketed one bag twice (!) – making our connection in Heathrow very questionable since our bags could not be checked through to Malta as expected. Thankfully, this did not happen to the couple joining us on this trip – Herm and Laverne Hannan.
( 6/26/07) We arrived one hour late at Heathrow, leaving only 45 minutes to catch the Air Malta flight (administered by KLM in London). I race-walked to the gate with the Hannans while Paul raced to baggage claim. We were told that it was too late for Paul to check the 2 bags even if he got them in time, but they did agree to alert the KLM desk. We sadly boarded without him… But to my surprise, he was at the bottom of the steps when we arrived in Malta! (He had sprinted through Terminal 4 and they let him board at the last minute, giving him the only seat left – in 1st class, where he collapsed and fell asleep after waving to our friends seated in the front of the coach section. He thought they told me – they thought I saw him – so it was a wonderful surprise!) But enough about travel woes – we all made it (except Herm’s suitcase, which arrived the next morning!) and were eager to experience Malta.
A minivan from Tauck World Discovery Tour whisked us to the beautiful Meridien Phoenicia Hotel – a grand old place with spectacular gardens and a view of Marsamxett Harbour in the city of Valletta (the modern capital city). After a quick shower, we had a nice welcome reception with Spanish guitar music, drinks and snacks. Then we were treated to a delicious dinner in the beautiful dining room, with a chance to meet some of our fellow travelers – Americans from all over the country, 4 Australians, and one couple from South Africa. The group was split into two groups – the “Greeks” (taking the 9-day trip) and the “Romans” (continuing 2 extra days to Monte Carlo) – determining our travel companions for the bus trips ashore. One pleasant surprise was the introduction of Peter Tauck, who was joining us on this trip (he takes one a year) – definitely cause for a little nervousness by the tour staff! Sleep came easily after an exhausting day.
(6/7/05) After breakfast we headed out for a bus tour of Malta – a fascinating country with an amazing history. The Maltese Islands, an archipelago strategically located at the center of the Mediterranean, cover an area of 316 sq km (Malta, the largest, is 27 km long and 14 km wide with a population of ~ 400,000). They have a rich blend of cultures dating back 7000 years – from the Temple Builders (3600 BC) to the Phoenicians (750 BC), the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans (210 BC), St. Paul’s Shipwreck (Christianity in 60 AD), “The Arab Experience” (870 AD), the Norman Conquest (1091 AD), the Knights of St. John (1530 AD) – followed by The Great Siege against the Turks (1565 AD), the French Invasion (1798 AD), and the arrival of the British (1800 AD). Malta was a major target in WW II, and finally achieved independence in 1964, became a republic in 1974, and was accepted into the EU in 2004. For history buffs, this is a fascinating place. They drive on the left side of the road, the currency is the Maltese lira (1= $3.14), and they are known for beautiful beaches, lavish church festivals (95% are Catholic) with fireworks - especially during the “festa” season from June till September, handmade Mdina glass, and local wines.
The buildings and topography reminded us of Greece with a variety of Arab influences. Our stops included the small town of Mosta, with a famous church that survived a German bomb that fell through its huge unsupported dome (and did not explode!). From there we went to the ancient inland walled capital of Mdina, where we walked through the historic town in rather oppressive heat (unfortunately the cathedral was closed). Our tour then continued through the countryside, the upscale tourist area of St. Julians, and returned to the hotel for a wonderful buffet lunch. We decided to spend the remaining two hours relaxing by the pool instead of taking the walking tour, but it meant missing the famous St. John’s Co-Cathedral with its famous vaulted ceiling (painted by Mattia Preti) and home to one of Europe’s most famous art works – Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist..
At 4:30 we headed to the Grand Harbour, cleared customs, and boarded our sailing home for the next 7 days – Le Ponant – a sleek, 300-foot, 3-masted vessel with 3 mainsails and 2 jibs. The sail-away was beautiful as we left Malta behind and headed for our first port in nearby Sicily. There was very little time for unpacking between the safety drill and dinner, but our first evening was pleasant – enjoying good food in the lovely dining room while meeting new friends. The cabins are small, but pleasant, and certainly adequate for our needs. The young crew and staff – mostly French – are extremely friendly and helpful! We’re looking forward to a fantastic week and the opportunity to get to know everyone.