Sunday, January 31, 2010

Departures

The morning tide was as high as the sun and the promenade at Sliema had been flooded by water from the bay. The bus broke down at Msida; we hung around the pavement with the queue for a state lottery booth, then the engine finally caught and we piled back on. Valletta was busy at half past nine - the tide of the city goes out in the evening - and the bench seats were all taken above the Saluting Battery. British marching songs played on a speaker, the water in the harbour glistened white in the sun.

My flight was three times delayed: a flight attendant fell ill, a man in a wheelchair couldn't get on the bus, and there was a brief computer malfunction as we taxied down the runway. The two people next to me were talking in Maltese, their speech peppered with English, "High Barnet, Northern Line...Ryanair, quite a lot cheaper...all the way north...three-hour flight...Durham...University of York".

Rabbat To Attard

Cross over Howard Gardens and you're out of Mdina and into Rabat, a farming town with three main sights: St Paul's Church and Grotto - a large, gloomy place built above a cave where the saint was supposedly interred for three months - and, a few hundred metres away and almost directly opposite each other, the catacombs of Saint Paul and Saint Agatha (because you just can't name an underground burial chamber after one saint without them all wanting one of their own).

It was early and I didn't want to go back to Valletta so I took the bus to Attard instead, navigating my way through several turns of the map to San Anton Palace, the offical home of the Maltese president. Its garden was almost the size of Mdina with more workmen than visitors and more stray cats and ducks than both put together. I found myself a deserted bench by one of the many fountains and attempted, unsuccessfully, to shell a hard boiled egg.

The Silent City

The rain had come down heavily overnight and the first of the day's showers had just begun as I arrived in Mosta shortly after nine. I was up a lot earlier than the Luftwaffe had been sixty-eight years before when the town's residents, gathered for an early-evening mass, had another unwelcome visitor from the sky: a two-hundred kilo bomb that fell through the roof, bounced without detonating and is now - along with the dome it pierced - the only reason anyone visits the place.

I took the next bus west for Mdina, the rain briefly coming down with all the force of a car wash as we passed the National Stadium and the new, purpose-built U.S. Embassy, leaving me to shelter from the last drops in the overhang of a pastizzeria. Through the entrance gate to the city you'll find yourself among a tight warren of narrow, high-walled streets, opening suddenly into odd-shaped squares each with its own cafe or church or museum. It's no longer quite as traffic free as the tourist guides proclaim - if the only cars here belong to the 400-or-so residents then there's a striking number of one car, one van families hereabouts - but from the rear bastion walls you can make out the coastline from St Paul's down to Valletta. Loiter long enough and the Silent City still holds true in the maze of honey-coloured buildings, listening to the wind and my groans of dismay at stepping in yet another puddle.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cospicua and Senglea

Cospicua isn't the most conspicuous of places today (the name derives from its, erm, conspicuously visible location outside the main fortifications of Senglea and Birgu), but St Helen's Gate gives you a half-decent view of what's left of the town. Clamber up some steps and you can walk along the walls above, locals having done their bit to retain an authentic air of danger by liberally sprinkling the place with broken glass and dog shit (note to whoever tied the fierce-looking, Shetland-pony sized dog to their front door: you've taken things a little too far). The outer gate, Poiverista, now doubles as a house and garage space.

Other than the rebuilt Our Lady of Victories Church, the best thing to see in Senglea is Vittorosia, across a channel dotted on this side with innumerable small fishing boats (washed on the dock by the locals after they've finished sponging down their cars). You could easily stand and take a hundred different pictures - I know, I tried - and still not exhaust the views on a sunny day. The best of all is from L'Isla Point, at the very tip of the peninsula, from where the capital extends from dockyard cranes to sea walls - although if you're as unlucky as me you'll have to share this potentially glorious moment with a tour bus full of people and their loudmouthed guide. Take the steps up behind the triangular five-a-side pitch (bit of a handicap for any side with two wingers) through Sally Port Gate, where you'll find a tiny park cut out of the battlements, and hopefully not an elderly German in tight white jeans and a ponytail talking on his mobile phone.

Vittoriosa

When Charles I of Spain invited the Knights of St John to take possession of Malta, Birgu was the place they chose to settle, fortifying an area that swelled to become the Three Cities of Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa, renamed in celebration of the Great Siege of 1565. Traces of the Knights are still visible throughout the Three Cities, though less so in Senglea, which received the Coventry makeover that was much in vogue throughout Europe during the early-1940s and entailed entire districts of historic architecture being flattened and replaced wholesale by heaps of rubbish. (In Britain the trend lasted through the 1960s, though an early form of political correctness meant it was known as urban planning rather than aerial bombardment.)

For tourist purposes, the Three Cities turned into the Four Cities in the late-19th century when the British got into the fort building act too, throwing up Fort Rinella to house the state-of-the-art, world's biggest cannon, Armstrong 100-ton gun (it was fired forty times and didn't hit a thing).

Buses from Valletta all stop outside Vittoriosa's Three Gates, a mammoth series of defensive structures which withstood the Great Siege and now, appropriately enough, house the Malta at War Museum (though the steep admission fee proves a deterrent against entry every bit as strong as anything the Knights ever built). It's a short walk downhill from the main gate to the Inquisitor's Palace, home of the Inquisition from 1574 to 1798 and breeding ground for two popes and twenty-two cardinals (experience of enhanced interrogation techniques was evidently as highly prized by the Vatican then as during the later years of the George Bush White House). The area behind here is the Collachio, starter home for the Order before its climb up the island's property ladder. Now a spruced-up warren of ancient streets,these days you're more likely to see t-shirts and ladies' underwear than muskets or swords poking through the upper windows. Almost every corner boasts a plaque from the council expressing its "sincere thanks" to the residents for keeping the area clean, provoking the opposition of dog owners who've allowed their pets to shit everywhere in retaliation.

Behind Victory Square the streets tumble sharply to St Lawrence's Church and the marina, pleasure boats straining gently at their moorings on the crystal-dimpled water. The peninsula ends at St Elmo's Fort, a huge, many-cornered slab of stone taking in Floriana, Valletta and Senglea in one, uninterrupted sweep.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tourist Prices

"Ten euros?" repeated the bald man with the north-of-England accent, turning back from the entrance to the Grand Master's Palace. "No, no, too expensive, that. Last time I were here it were only a lira." Even out of season, Valletta had been priced for tourists. You approached every gate with a sense of trepidation, on the look out for ticket booths, prepared, for embarrassment's sake, to retreat before anywhere the price wasn't prominently displayed.

In the Backstreets

It was half past one, I'd just been politely hurried out of the Anglican Cathedral ten minutes before the official closing time, and I was in the high, cool streets of Il-Mandragg, the closest a city of six thousand gets to an off the beaten track. A car reverses into a narrow parking space, wrecking a perfect shot of an archway. Streetlights are strung to cables down the middle of the road, clothes hang out to dry, a horse-drawn carriage waits for passengers in a square, women sweep balconies while their husbands lean from first floor windows, talking to the street.

Valletta manages almost everywhere to be smaller than expected: every second turning leads to somewhere I've been before.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Valletta

My Rough Guide called Floriana "a quiet little town that feels like a suburb of Valletta" and that was pretty much what it was. Monuments to dead airmen and independence, a Roman square with stone columns spaced about like stumps in a forest clearing, a cat-feeding station, a boarded up church with Sex room? scrawled on what used to be the window, a look-out point over a white and beige jumble of houses and church domes and factory chimneys as if someone had managed to squeeze a provincial Italian city together with a Lancashire milltown and the outskirts of Fez.

I passed back through the bus station and into a square straight out of a Disneyland Mediterranean village. Porticoed arcades, painted wooden balconies, a Burger King and a craft shop with Clearance Sale, Factory Prices Inside pasted on the window. There were children playing hide and seek behind the tomb in Hastings Gardens and a five-a-side pitch built into the battlements. I walked down Republic Street, the spine of the city. Past St John's Co-Cathedral the sights came thick and fast: the National Library, Manoel Theatre, the Grand Master's Palace, St George's Square, the dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel jostling an Anglican spire for primacy of the sky.

A Sense of the Other

If Sicily is, as D.H. Lawrence once wrote, an island on the brink - "one hop and you're out of Europe" - then Malta's so close to the edge you barely have room for a sidestep. There are cars on the island that are older than me: British-built and immaculately preserved, like those 1950s Buicks you see in Cuba. A queue of people speak in a language that sounds like a minor dialect of Arabic and the bus comes with a Liverpool FC pennant in the window and the name of the driver's favourite saint daubed in red paint, just as in Goa. Only the backdrop of the bay is classically Mediterranean: fishing boats and Italian restaurants in the squiggle of pastel-coloured Baroque.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Malta: Children of Empire

When Germans visit Malta do they still dive-bomb in from the sky? That's what I was thinking as we landed at Luqa (probably not helped by the massive turbulence). This was, after all, Britain's "unsinkable aircraft carrier" through the early years of World War Two, the most heavily bombed nation in the war. I may be the product of a GCSE History syllabus but the island is the child of a far older one: virtually every major civilisation swept through Malta, ending with the British, who stayed from the Treaty of Paris in 1814 until independence in 1964 (though the troops stayed on for another fifteen years).

If Sicily had been conquered by the English this is how it might have looked. Red telephone boxes, Mothercare and Next, signs with Today's London newspapers on sale here, English spoken everywhere, and as many HSBC branches as you'll find in Hong Kong.

The plane landed at 7.45. By eight I'd passed through customs, withdrawn money and was sitting on a rickety, bright yellow British Leyland bus for Valletta. We bounced up and down. Outside was a blur of dark buildings, lit windows and gears struggling against the onset of time. You had to pull a cord above the window when you wanted to be let down - I would've written stop only we never technically did - and I would later be slightly disconcerted by the sight of one man crossing himself after boarding.

It had started raining lightly by the time I changed buses at Floriana. The stops were arranged by number in a circle around a fountain. Dance music played from the radio on a modern, single-decker bus. The only light was directly above the driver.

Raising Standards

The worst teacher I've ever seen had an MA; one of the best had never been to university at all. David Cameron's latest gimmick to appeal to middle class parents - devised no doubt by a bunch of people who've barely set foot in a classroom since they left their expensive, fee-paying schools - doesn't wash (and I got a 2:1, so I would've made the cut).

What makes a good teacher? The ability to teach.

The real crime of a poor-quality university degree is this: we're encouraging millions of people to stay in education, loading them with debt on the premise that they'll eventually land a high-paying graduate career and then spewing them out into the kind of jobs they could've got by leaving school at 16. Sort that one out, someone, and you'll be doing something worthwhile.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Malta

Off to Malta. Note to any totalitarian regimes planning to launch a three-year aerial bombardment which will result in the islanders being awarded the George Cross en masse by an grateful relic of Imperial ambition: Not while I'm there you don't.

In my absence, I'll be counting on the good people of Jarrow to help put a stop to the BNP.

Another Bloody Transfer Window

For Newcastle fans this month's transfer window promises to be the usual Ashley-inspired headfuck of thwarted moves - Kilgallon stays put, Beckford withdraws transfer request - uninspiring loan signings (Blackburn Rovers reserve? Get yer bags packed now) and speculation that yet more of our miniscule first-team squad is about to be sold over the manager's head.

A degenerate gambler (Tony Soprano's words, not mine), Ashley's running our promotion campaign like a ten-pence flutter on the National: the only players we sign come with Sports Direct stickers attached and 70% knocked off the recommended retail price. The penny pinching reached its nadir this week with the news that we couldn't agree terms with averagely-talented Manchester United reserve Danny Simpson - and after the poor dear had been on Twitter to say happy in newcastle :) whats gonna happen in january. It's not just that sentence which lacks a question mark: Danny's so far down the pecking order at Old Trafford they even play Gary Neville before him.

Brace yourselves for Ashley's last-day helicopter rescue mission to the club's training ground and news of a shock, unrealistic transfer target. "We did all we could but ran out of time," a club insider will lie. Hughton will subsequently declare that he was satisfied with his squad all along, thereby fulfilling an important part of his job description. If we don't get any injuries and everyone stays in form Ashley's gamble might even come off. If it doesn't though, we're fucked - and the only silver lining is so is he.

Ashley a man with business acumen? Don't make me laugh.

UPDATE: Solano? Why do I get the impression we do most of our scouting in the News in Brief section of Britain's tabloid papers? I love the bloke but what's next, free agent Graeme Souness as tough-tackling cover for Alan Smith?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rod Liddle in Trouble

Seems Newcastle-hating muck-raker and prospective Independent editor Rod Liddle ("as ever, a fairly large number of them still believe that Newcastle will waltz the Championship" - gone a bit quiet on that one, hasn't he?) has admitted writing racist comments on an online football supporters' forum after initially claiming his account must have been hacked (And who of us hasn't used that one, eh?)

Tsk, tsk, who's the deluded fool now, Rod?

Incidentally, like 99.9% of the UK population I haven't bought a single copy of the Independent in years. But if Rod does get the job I hereby pledge never to briefly glance at its front cover in airport branches of WH Smith's ever again and to turn off any TV programme in which Simon Calder - The Man Who Pays His Way appears (but only after I've accidentally heard all the good bits).

See how you like that, Lebdev!

This is Football

Liverpool are the new Newcastle, Manchester United, financially, the new Leeds (Try spending your way to another great team now, Fergie), and Chelsea could just well be the old post-Abramovich Chelsea (it was difficult to tell against Sunderland: the opposition's defending was as ugly as their manager's nose and the only way they could have made it seem more like a training session was by turning up in bibs and slinging a row of traffic cones across the halfway line). Manchester City, on the other hand, have so much cash they get to have a new manager, more money to spend than every other team combined and to play all their easy games one after another like they've found a cheat for a computer game that means they never ever concede another goal (except for last night, obviously. "That Robin Binho's been brought off," my dad shouted, as the world's best player in his own head suffered the indignity of becoming a substituted substitute).

City, along with Spurs, are the last great hopes of cracking the monotony of the Big Four this season, with City favourites because a) they can afford to buy a replacement everytime someone has a bad game and b) their manager isn't under a police charge (and do you reckon they only got Redknapp on tax evasion because they couldn't get the murder, racketeering and whisky-smuggling charges to stick? I never did buy that car crash story).

Newcastle, meanwhile, just continue being Newcastle. Which is good and bad at the same time.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Farewell Geneva.

It was grey and damp and the flight was delayed by an hour "due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft," announced in French and flawlessly polite R.P. Swiss Air girls were handing out free Polos as you made your way to the gate. There was a loud party of fortysomethings returning to Liverpool and two businessmen representing Dell Europe talking insistently into their laptop.

My bag groaned with cheese and chocolate bars.

Geneva: Nightlife

Geneva's restaurants were more expensive than Tokyo and the bars were charging five quid a pint so mostly everyone hung around the hostel at night. There were Irishmen making tuna salad sandwiches, Americans checking emails, Australians making endless cups of tea and Chinese and Koreans keeping to themselves, stealing the kettle to make noodles in their rooms.

Six cans, some pasta and a game of table football made a night out for me.

Geneva: Day Two

It was the afternoon of the second day when I first realised there were hills at the back of Geneva. The sun came out between light rain showers, the pavements were slushy and there were black pools in the places where you crossed the road. A man stripped down to his trunks and ooohed and aaghed his way slowly about the lake. The water was so clear you could see right to the bottom. The city, so dour and prim the previous day, looked like it might have been designed specially for the lid of a biscuit-tin box, so pink and beautiful was it as the sun went down.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Geneva: Afternoon

I wound through the Old Town like a cat chasing string, mixing with lunchtime crowds and Russian tourists. Focus on Life, read one sign. Migration - Is It A Crime? read another. There were tables in the main square outside a tea rooms and gelateria but everyone was shut inside, sheltering from the cold.

Headless snowmen were dotted all about Eaux-Vives Park. From the rise near the exit you could see across the gunmetal lake, pleasure boats laid-up and snowbound all the way along the quay.

Encounter at the Airport

"Can I just ask what credit card you're using at the moment?" said the woman at Newcastle Airport. "I don't have one, I live in Japan," I half-fibbed in reply. "Oh, right," she smiled. "I thought you had an accent."

Eh?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Geneva: Arrival

The snow was melting in Newcastle. From the sky the ground was a patchwork pattern of misshapen Torte cakes, with flour sprinkled carelessly on top. The plane was only a quarter full; everyone else seemed to be travelling on business or on their way to the slopes.

I slept and woke to find the tops of mountains bursting through clouds like islands in a sea of foam. Geneva edged closer in increments: lakeside houses, a villa in a wood, fast-moving traffic on a motorway and the drab dull greys of airport buildings. A machine by the baggage claim popped out free tickets for the train. Five minutes after boarding I was in the city centre.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Geneva

I'm in Geneva (the city in Switzerland not the mid-90s high-pitched Indie boy warblers. Easyjet don't fly there, silly - though if Ryanair did they'd probably drop you off at Gene and tell you to take a bus the rest of the way, taking advantage of a special low rate with one of their partners).

And it's cold.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Still Sicko

When is any bill better than no bill at all? Not without a public option, it isn't.

I've met enough Americans without any form of health coverage to know it isn't just the kind of people you see jostling against the crime scene tape in The Wire who can't afford an ambulance ride to hospital. There are millions of young, educated people whose jobs don't provide medical insurance - much as their British equivalents might moan about being locked out of a final salary pension scheme - who play a potentially crippling form of medicare roulette every day of their lives.

Sarah Palin is wrong. Socialized medicare isn't evil, putting profit before people's well-being is. It's easy to forget how lucky we are to live in a country with the NHS (and the BBC, though you need to live abroad to really appreciate that). Neither of which would be safe in the hands of the Tories (not that I propose voting for Brown. The choice between the two main parties is currently as enticing as the offer of a shit or a piss to go with your cup of tea).

Obama is shaping up to be another Bill Clinton, without the sex and second term. And Cameron? Charlie Brooker has his measure.

UPDATE: The Tories destroy the BBC? Here's Liberal Conspiracy on just how they'll do it. Resist, people. Resist.

Back to the Freeze

It was long after dark when we came in over Newcastle and the ground below was cold and white. The flight attendants sat by the doors, gossiping about the weather with a couple in the front row. "We've been waiting for a flight to Liverpool for three days." "It's like The Day After Tomorrow, isn't it? I sent me dad out for a spade and B & Q had sold out." "My husband's car's a BMW and that's crap in the snow." "Honestly, you couldn't even see the wheels."

Trains, Planes and Faro

The brightest thing about Sete Rios Station was the sunshine outside. I hung around by a bus stop, looking at a pair of concrete overpasses and a smashed-up sign for the zoo, waiting for my train. Inside was a grim little cafe and shopping-mall staircases going up and down to the platforms.

We crossed the great bridge, had a close up view of Jesus, skirted marshes and an autostrada, passed green fields and grazing sheep and dried-up plains that looked like the back end of a beach. And then the Algarve, sunglasses and ice cream on the marina. The sun was high, the restaurants were out of almost everything I wanted to eat.

Sunset Over Lisbon

As the last dregs of colour drained from the day I was back at the Miradouro da Graça, looking out across the city in the direction of the bridge. The sun dipped red then yellow, dogs started barking, coffee cups clinked, and tram bells clanged on the hill below. Accordian music played in the background; like Paris, only sung with an English voice.

Way Out West: Sintra

The train left the shed at Rossio, the suburbs passed in high-rise blocks painted orange and yellow and grey, washing lines from fifth-floor windows, the loping slate-grey arches of the Aqueduct of Free Waters, graffitied platforms, building sites and vandalised stations with metal bins covered in marker pen scrawl. Only the tourists were left by the time we got to Sintra. There was a whitewashed station building with orange-red roof tiles, done out in colonial style but marred by a Pizza Hut where the ticket office should have been. The centre lay on the other side of a valley, white-spired and gleaming in the sun.

It was a long, not quite as steep as you would have imagined climb up to the Moor Castle, on cobbled streets past a lemon-coloured church and a house where Hans-Christian Andersen stayed in 1866, then stone steps between moss-covered boulders and, finally, a soul-crushing assortment of stones raised at irregular height from the ground. I was aiming for Sintra's highest point, the peak of Cruz Alta, but the semi-friendly guard at the Pena Palace assured me that the only way to reach it was through the park, which like the castle used to be free. In Sintra nearly everyone is semi-friendly: even the maps cut off right at the most useful section.

It was one of those places that seemed to exist solely to suck euros out of tourists' pockets: souvenir shops, cafes with pratos da dia in every major language laminated to the door and the tourist office handed out a sheet of paper listing admission fees along with their photocopied map. The only things that didn't cost five euros were the places that charged more.

Campo Grande

There was a peacock waiting for a bus at the top of the Campo Grande. I wasn't surprised: it wasn't the kind of place you'd loiter in after dark. Further down, before the bullring, I came across a seated figure with big feet, a pointy nose and trilby, clutching breasts the size of Martian cannonballs.

I had no idea what it was about either.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Belém

The 10.10 to Cascais bounced westwards out of Cais do Sodre, past Lego-block bridges, dock buildings and red-brick warehouses. The tracks ran down the middle of a main road, never more than a boundary throw of the river until we reached the 25 de Abril Bridge and the stop for Belém. T. Exterior: 14 scrolled above the exit doors; people were jogging the riverbanks in shorts.

I walked first to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a prow-shaped slab of concrete with three giant waves cresting above the heads of navigators, missionaries, viceroys and kings. Two men were playing The Sound of Silence on panpipes, someone else was selling scarves from the fold of his arm, another offered three pairs of sunglasses pulled from a jacket pocket. A ferry crossed the Rio Tejo, a plane came in low overhead.

Lisbon

Alfama, Graça, Bairro Alto, Chiado. That whole first day I seemed to be forever climbing up or coming back down, miradour upon miradour upon miradour. There were tiled terraces and cobbles spattered with dog shit, red-roofed quarters and streets falling away to the wide, grey river.

I broke up the hills in the grid-like shopping streets of the Baixa. The busiest restaurants had railway-station floors, hard, white tables and middle-aged men standing up at the bar. I heard "Hey! Psst!" and turned to find a strategically opened hand and, several decibels lower, "Hashish? Cocaine?"

Travel Stories

I got to the hostel at nine. The Smiths were playing and there was a double bed pushed against the back wall with Make love not war stencilled in place of a headboard, pictures from VH1 changing silently above. On the right, opposite the entrance to the kitchen, young Canadians were swapping travel stories. "We've been through every country in western Europe except Britain, Ireland, Andorra and Liechtenstein." "Yeah, we started off slowly but we're trying to spend no more than three days in each place now." "We did the opposite, but we started in Scandinavia and everything's so expensive there." "Expensive? Did I tell you how much it cost to see a soccer game in Madrid?"

Portugal

I had tried to come to Portugal once before. Early morning fog delayed my flight to Stansted by three hours and I missed the close of check-in by two minutes for my onward flight to Faro. I called my friends in Lisbon from a food court in Victoria and ended up with relatives in Southend for the rest of the week, eating whelks, hiding from the December cold in shopping centres and walking on the pier. It wasn't exactly what my (soon to be ex-) Korean girlfriend had in mind. Compared to that, a bit of snow on the runway and a one-hour delay didn't bother me in the least.

Dropping out of the clouds, we came in over horizontal black mudflats, cut through by channels in the shape of lightning bolts. It was a chalky blue day, like late-September in England but with wind whipping back the palm trees. As we landed the sun came out; there was an announcement of a further delay to the Liverpool flight in what sounded at first like Bulgarian spoken fifty percent through the nostril.

I took the bus into Faro, bought a train ticket and killed an hour among the whitewashed buildings and orange-tree lined squares of the Old Town. The shopping streets had lengths of red carpet tacked to the cobbles, used by pedestrians and cars. At five o'clock I was on the train, heading north.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Eve

This is how 2010 begins: with everywhere chucking out at two in the morning, no public transport and a couple of inches of snow still falling from the sky. People huddled in doorways for taxis that don't arrive, traffic and pedestrians struggling along car-width tracks in the middle of the road.