Porto Vs Malta – a Tale of two Cities


It’s hard not to compare Porto and Malta. To start with – I just spent 4 days in Malta, and now I’ve been in Porto for three days – so they are clearly placed in direct comparison.

Secondly, they are actually quite similar in many ways – and very very different in others.

Language of course is the first major difference. In Malta everyone spoke English – it’s the 2nd official language after Maltese – and all the signs, menus, and shop keepers are more than happy to use English. Porto is of course in Portugal, and Portuguese is the first, and for many of the folks we’ve met, the only language. For the first day, my husband was feeling very disoriented, but by day 3 we’ve gotten used to using sign language and are finding it very easy to get around.

Porto is a much larger city than Valetta in Malta, in fact – it is more populated than the entire island of Malta – so there is a great deal more hustle and bustle. And a lot more of everything – more restaurants, more ice cream shops, more cars, more buses, more of almost everything. But there is also less. I haven’t seen a hobby shop, or a store for buying lace or trimmings. There must be shops for hobbies, but in all our walking, we’ve yet to see one here in Porto. However, we have seen hardware stores, linen stories, lots of clothing stores, shoe stores – and grocery stores. Not to mention wine and port shops. There are also more touristy things, albeit crammed into a small area of the city. This is where Malta and Porto share a bit. Valetta was a tourist heaven – everything in Valetta revolved around making the tourists happy. That is the same in the part of Porto closest to the Douro River. If you are looking for souvenirs – you don’t have to look far once you’ve walked past the train station. Packed in from there down to the Douro are restaurants with lively Terraces, stores selling stuff only a tourist would want, and in the spaces not occupied by these, the occasional church.

Architecture is also somewhat similar. No, Porto doesn’t have the crazy glassed in balconies that were so common in Valetta, but they are both walled cities, they both have narrow winding streets – and here’s the strongest shared strength – pedestrian only sections.

I love these sections – you can walk down the center of the street in both Valetta and Porto and not fear for your life. It’s fantastic. Why don’t more cities try this wonderful approach. I realize it’s hard to get supplies in of course – and while I never saw them stocking the stores in Malta, we did spot that happening here in Porto. The traffic jams were of gigantic proportions – cars and truck everywhere as drivers grabbed boxes out of the backs and ran to deliver their orders before the streets were closed to traffic. And the Portuguese have the coolest way of controlling access to these ‘blocked’ streets. There are posts controlled by phone that block the roads. Drivers apparently either use an app on their phones, or call to some central number – and a minute later – down goes the post. Pretty cool, eh?

Both Valetta and Porto also are filled with churches and religious iconography. In Malta the churches are generally gothic or pre-gothic, dating back to the times of the Knights. Here in Porto, the churches are covered in glorious tile work. Either plainly coloured, or patterned, or my personal favourite – huge graphics of religious images. These glint and gleam in the sun, contrasting sharply with the occasional graffitied wall painting.

The inside’s of the churches of Malta, with the stark exception of the Co-Cathedral which is decorated from stem to stern, are fairly plain. But in Porto, over the top is the way to go. The altars, with few exceptions, had staircases leading upwards towards either the crucified Christ, a version of Mary, or sometimes the patron saint of the church. Once we saw a Church were the top of the staircase was empty. I asked – and it was explained that the ‘insides’ varied according to the season. At Easter time, it was the host, at Christmas, the Christ Child – etc.

I also asked about the staircase motif. I’ve been in dozens and dozens of Catholic Churches, and never seen this before. Apparently it’s a Portuguese thing – they had their own version of Catholicism- and is designed to help the faithful find their mental way up to G-d.

Food options in both Valletta and Porto abound, and since this is the start of the season of eating outside – there were terrace options everywhere. In Malta, which is a bit warmer than Porto, huge umbrellas are used to define your terrace from the terrace of your neighbor. And curiously – the terrace didn’t adjoin your restaurant. Instead, you occupied the center of the walking street – with space for pedestrians on the left and right. In Porto, the terraces are much more likely to be adjoining – absolutely the case when the street was open to traffic, but often true even on the walking sections.

Side note – in Coimbra – our next to next stop, I also spotted the use of these huge umbrellas in the center of walking paths to delineate the Terrace area of a restaurant. A ‘Terrace’ that disappeared when the umbrellas were folded and put away. It’s pretty cool.

Pastries in both cities were of course delicious – and if I don’t stop trying all the delicious options, I won’t fit into my uniform. The ice cream in Malta was better – I’m a fan of the Italian style ice creams. I tasted some in Porto – but they didn’t measure up in my opinion – neither in looks nor flavour. But hey – they were cheaper.

We naturally ate well in both cities. Maybe a bit better in Malta, we had meals supplied by locals that were delicious, and did consistently well when we branched out on our own. In Porto we ran into some losers (bummer), but also some pretty decent winners. As noted in an earlier blog, I absolutely adored the roasted chicken – and the Port Houses serve lovely wine.

So – a tale of two cities – both of which you should put on your must visit list.

Signing off to travel to other cities in Portugal….

The Soup Lady

Malta to the Max


It’s day 3 of our stay on this lovely island – and I’m beginning to appreciate why folks retire here. It is another lovely day – the sun is warm, the sky is blue, and the folks are friendly. What more does one need?

Well – if you are into Regency re-enacting – the answer is a day in the country.

Our plans for today are to do a bit of visiting – although our horse drawn carriages are not up to quite so long a trip. We must take transport from the future – a Bus. Well, actually – two buses. There are a lot of us, and we need space for our hats and canes!

Our ‘outing’ is to the homes of two family members of some of the organizers – at the first stop we enjoy a stroll in their olive grove, and do a bit of olive oil tastings. We also stroll down to a small local chapel, and the more energetic of us even visit the remains of the last donkey driven well on Malta.

We then change homes to a larger estate that has a swimming pool (no skinny dipping – sorry), a lovely flower garden, a commanding view of the ocean, and sufficient room for dancing. I’m guessing at least 2 acres of grounds in total, all of it beautifully maintained.

We stroll, we dance, we eat, and we chat. All things that Regency folks would have found endlessly amusing.

Eventually we must return to Valletta (it’s already 8:00 PM) – and regretfully end our Regency Weekend.

We retire to our rooms – and change clothes. There is of course the rest of this evening and all the next day to enjoy ourselves in Malta.

Dinner is at a lovely restaurant built into the walls of the old city, and featuring it’s own museum. Our group is a buzz with the excitement of the weekend, and we stay late chatting.

The next morning our plans include shopping for lace and trimming for more Regency gowns – and Malta offers some wonderful shops for this purpose. I buy meter upon meter of lovely trim, enough to make several more dresses. Now all I need is the material!

After shopping, we head over to the Armoury of the Knights of Malta – a highlight for my husband and Peter. I’m less impressed – if you’ve seen one helmet – you’ve seen too many.

We walk down to the walls that plummet down to the Grand Harbour to admire the set-up for tonight’s FireWork Finale. There’s a huge floating performance stage with enough electronics on it to cause a significant shock if it should hit the water. We watch crews position fire work barges out on the water – this should be a pretty decent fireworks display.

We’ve made reservations at the roof top restaurant that we enjoyed our first evening – they have a commanding view of the Grand Harbour – and should be a perfect place for watching the fireworks.

And they definitely deliver. There is an outdoor terrace – but folks have reserved tables there – and we can’t block their view. Instead we are told to climb a spiral staircase to another terrace – and discover the view is even better.

The fireworks start late – everything starts late here – but is well worth the wait. They are outstanding. Because they can – they use the entire length of the harbour – well over 2 km long – and the fireworks fill the space. They are coordinated to music – which we can hear rising almost dream like from below us. It’s an incredible experience – one I shall long remember.

This is our fourth night staying up after midnight, and I’m beginning to feel the strain. Since my normal bed time is around 9:30 – ok, I’ll push it to 10:00 – you can imagine that I’m beginning to feel a bit like butter spread too thin on toast. And tomorrow we must say good-bye to Malta and travel onwards.

My feet hurt, my back is saying – stop, and my mind agrees.

Enough is enough.

Signing off to get a well deserved nights rest – even if it starts at 2:00 AM – The Soup Lady

Malta – It isn’t just about meeting Royality


Not that meeting royality isn’t fun of course. It is – but life needs more than that – and Malta definitely delivers.

The Royality that we meet are two Marquis – but I’m getting ahead of my story.

Last night was a late night – and tonight promises to be late as well, but before we can go to the ball – our hosts have planned a day of Regency adventure. Well – not really adventure of course – but fun Regency style for sure.

We are all dressed in our ‘day’ outfits – so while not ball gowns – we do look pretty fancy. Our day starts with breakfast – and I must say we create quite the stir at the breakfast area. The staff quickly realizes that we must all be together – and seats us near each other. Handy for comparing outfits for sure.

After Breakfast, we stroll arm in arm over to the Gardens, where we pose for pictures (there are a lot of Japanese who are going to leave Malta very happy), and admire the view, the flowers and each other. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour. We then gather for a group painting (amazing how quickly those square devices make instant paintings these days), then stroll down the streets of Valletta to the Casa Rocco Piccolo. Our tour will be very special – the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro will be our tour guides.

Our group is split in half – 10 of us go with the Marquis, 10 with his wife. We’re lucky to be in the group with the Marquis – particularly because in our group is Tony – also a Marquis in Malta! And of course he and the Marquis de Piro are friends, and trade lively banter through out our tour. I’m dying to ask the Marquis what his children said when he announced – 20 years ago now – that he was opening their home to tourists – but I guess the question was rather mute. His older son runs the company that runs the tours!

The house itself is lovely of course – and packed with odds and ends of a life well lived. They have inherited collections upon collections from their family members – and all of them are carefully kept in the house. There was a folding chapel – for use when you didn’t want to dedicate an entire room to your chapel, there were 3 shoes from various popes – given to the family as thank-you presents. The Marquis explains that being given a shoe said you were close to the Pope, a gift that has since fallen into disrepute – not surprisingly. I think it’s weird.

There were a few outstanding paintings, but most of the collections were books – particularly books on Maltese arts and crafts like lace making. In another room were paintings of famous family members, including one aunt who was considered fairly wild and carefree – in 1920.

In our Regency clothes, we suit the house well – and both the Marquis and Marchioness observe that we are probably some of their best dressed visitors.

We leave for a glorious multi-course luncheon, and then retire to our hotel. I for one am definitely napping before we must dress for the ball. Tonight is going to be a very late night.

The highlights of the ball – aside from it’s location in a Church Museum in Medina – is the horse drawn carriage ride thru the walled city, the glorious desserts provided (I’m very fond of the Nipples of Venus that were served), and of course the dancing. The Dance hall has much better acoustics then our practice space, and a lot more room. I dance and dance till my feet hurt – what a wonderful way to spend the evening.

Tomorrow will be more Regency Fun – but tonight was memorable.

Signing off to tuck her very tired feet into her warm cozy bed – The Soup Lady

Malta – Who knew they do Regency here?


Let’s be even more specific – who knew that Napoleon had been to Malta? I mean Malta is all about the Knights of Malta – wealthy beyond measure, guardians of the pilgrims to the Holy Land, heroes of the Crusades. But Napoleon – in Malta?

Well – he was definitely here. There seems to be some debate about just how long he was here ( I was told 3 days, and just passed a sign that said 7 days) – but there is little question that he came, he said ‘give up’, and the Knights simply said – ‘Ok’. No guns were fired, the French simply occupied Malta and that was that. It only lasted about two years however – and then it went back into British control – which continued until Maltese Independence in 1964.

But that’s .hardly the point. The point is that we are here in Malta as Regency re-enactors. Our goal is to have fun, and show off our best Regency dresses, suits and uniforms of course.

I’m staying in the very fancy Phoenicia Hotel, just at the main entrance to old town Valletta. The hotel is very nice – and fairly expensive. But we have a lovely room and a large bathroom that features Grohe faucets. I must say I like the size and the towel warming rack – but I’m not a fan of the shower. They have taken a tub, removed the faucet part that fills the tub, and added a dual function shower. So there’s a wand and a standard shower head, no tub filling faucet. It’s ok, but not like the EB Hotel. And the water pressure is definitely lacking. I’ve been told that there is precious little fresh water on Malta – perhaps that explains the wimpy shower.

Our Weekend activities are to include a wine tasting lecture, a promenade thru town, a Garden visit, a tour of a Regency period home, a private tour of a local monastery, a dance workshop, a ball, and an afternoon tea dance. Sounds like fun to me! And of course all of this is to be done in period clothes.

Packing to come here was a nightmare, as I’m sure you can imagine. I need at least 2 dresses for Saturday (one for the ball, one for the day time activities), plus a day dress for Friday and a different day dress for Sunday. I need shoes, fans, gloves, head decor, my re-enacting glasses, and for cold weather wear – a Spenser and a shawl. Men, particularly men in uniform, have it so much easier. Which is why Victor is opting to come as a civilian – that way he can change clothes 4 times as well!

Our goal is get all of our re-enacting clothes into one big suitcase – using our carry-on suitcases for non-re-enacting clothes. And surprise, surprise – we actually manage to do this. Victor’s jackets, pants, vests and shirts take up most of the room, I use stuff bags to hold my rolled up gowns. I’ll just put them in the bathroom with the shower on hot and full blast to steam the wrinkles out.

And my plan totally works. I manage to get 4 dresses, 3 head ornaments, 1 black turban style hat, my dancing shoes, 4 reticules (small bags a lady carried to hold necessities during Regency times), and 4 pairs of white gloves into 3 stuff bags. And we manage to get those stuff bags into the one suitcase!

My dress on Friday is rather simple. A plain blue dress with my brand new and very beautiful green and gold Spenser (a short jacket with long sleeves) over it. I’m warm and comfortable, and I look good. Perfect. The wine tasting and lecture was interestingly done – but I can’t say that the wine blew me away. Malta is too dry and too warm year round to allow for really good grapes to grow here. And the winery we visited insisted on using only grapes grown on Malta for their wines. I’ll pass. And their ‘cellar’ is up a spiral staircase. That is definitely odd.

After the wine tasting, we have ‘free’ time – which I choose to spend visiting the Co-Cathedral of St. John – headquarters of the Knights of Malta. And it is wonderful. My senior price includes an audio guide – and I patiently listen to every thing it has to say. The Church is magnificent – but the highlight is the Chapel of the Novices – where hang the art work of one of those novices – the famous artist Caravaggio. After killing a man in a dual in Italy, Caravaggio fled to Malta and became a Knight of St. John. While a novice, he painted two massive paintings, both of which now hang in the Chapel. He was later expelled from the order – apparently he killed another man in a dual – he had a very bad temper – but the order kept the paintings.

And they are stunners. Gloriously beautiful and well worth the price of admission to the Church. I loved them – and spent almost 20 minutes admiring them. He was such a master of light and dark, of the theatre of painting. Sigh.

But I must return to the Regency world – so I leave the church and head back to the hotel.

Later in the day we have a dance practice that doesn’t go that well. It’s in the under-Croft of another church in Valletta, and it’s hard floor, hard walls, and arches make it impossible to hear the caller. She tried to use a sound system, but the feedback was very annoying. But we solider on, and do almost 30 short dances – just enough of each one to gain at least a tiny bit of motor memory.

I’m surprised that she doesn’t think to demonstrate the dance before calling it. We’re mostly experienced dancers – and watching folks do the dance one is just about to do is often enough to enable us to do the dance for ourselves. After two very terrible teaching efforts – she realizes that with this many people (we’re easily over 60) speaking so many different languages (I counted Italian, French, Russian, Maltese, Accented English (British/American/Canadian), and Spanish for sure), showing is faster than talking. So she smartly switches to demonstration mode, and the teaching goes much faster.

Unlike our practice sessions at home, we are learning a lot of dances – and then ‘dancing’ them for a fairly short time before starting the next one. I thought it was great fun – Victor found the feedback pretty annoying.

There’s a break in the middle for some much needed lemonade and biscuits, then back to the grind stone to learn the last dances before we head out for dinner.

The Weekend Price is all included (except breakfast), so as a group of around 60 we walk to our dinner restaurant. It’s on the top floor of an old old building, well located overlooking the Grand Harbour of Valletta.

Like traditional hotels everywhere – there’s an elevator – sort of. But it’s slow and small. And there are 60 of us. I quickly do the math and decide that walking up 5 floors is going to be a lot faster than waiting for that elevator. And so it proves. I arrive in time to grab a table – outside but away from the wind – and Victor and I are quickly jointed by the Canadian Contingent – Sebastian and Elena, Peter and Miyoko. Several other dancers join us – and we make a jolly, if a bit cold, party! Bottles of wine later, we retire to our separate dwellings in Valletta, tired but happy. Tomorrow is going to be a very full, very busy day.

Signing off to prepare for a day of dancing, sight-seeing, and Regency fun – The Soup Lady