Diary of a Lay Vicar on tour (to Malta)
(Random thoughts from the back of the coach)
Day 1 Lichfield to St Paul’s Bay
The day began early. The only good thing about the 4:45pm start was that it was an hour later than the French tour in 2013. Sadly, in common with the French tour, the heat on the coach didn’t reach the lay vicars and other passengers at the back. Fortunately, also in comparison with the French tour, the boys were much better behaved.
Probably best to gloss over rest of journey, it would sound too grumpy. Everyone felt a lot more human after full English breakfast in an Italian restaurant, while waiting to board the plane at Heathrow, and everything was on time.
The first thing we noted was how windy it was and, indeed remained so for the entire week. Apparently this is typical for Malta – no hat is safe, however secure the wearer might think it. We also discovered that the weather is very dry and, with no rivers or springs, water storage is difficult, something which might explain why the tap water tasted so peculiar. Other first impressions were that the written language seems to have an improbable number of qs and zs. It took a while to realise that qs don’t have a sound and are more like glottal stops. Another thing we saw was an awful lot of building work – design which seems to owe a lot to Lego, literally. The buildings all seemed to be cuboid, snapping neatly together. Our tour guide explained later in the week that apartments are popularly sold as shells.
After quickly noting that the hotel was clean and comfortable, we set off in search of beer, enjoyed overlooking the sea in sunshine – and rather warmer than the Lichfield we had left behind. Malta is very cheap – A litre of Cisk, the local beer, typically cost about £2 and was most agreeable. We ensured the quality didn’t vary from day to day through regular consumption. The local wine was also most acceptable with a decent glass of red for less than £2.
The evening meal was then followed by further exploration of the local area. My plan was for a short walk around the headland – it would be easy to find our way, all we needed to do was to keep the sea on our left to get back to the bar we had visited earlier. This would have been perfect had I looked at the map the right way up and kept the sea on our right. After a while, once my companions had started appearing increasingly agitated, tired and rebellious, I confessed my mistake and resorted to the excellent Google Maps to return us home safely. Mostly forgiven, during the rest of the week I pointed out on a number of occasions how useful the walk had been in helping us get to know the area and orientate ourselves for future trips. I’m not sure everyone was convinced by this argument.
Day 2 Gozo
Following a morning rehearsing in what was probably the wedding room at the top of the hotel, getting used to singing at concert pitch (an absolute pleasure for older tenors), it was off on the coach again on route to the neighbouring island of Gozo. The tour of the island included a stop at the “Azure Window” an exciting geographical feature where the boys reported that the local ice cream was excellent. Onto the Ghanjnsielem church, everyone we met was very welcoming, although unfortunately not very enlightening about the timing of mass and concert. Being rather British and heroic, in my opinion, we gave an impromptu concert at the start of what we thought was the mass but which actually turned out to be 45 minutes later. After encores, this resulted in an all time record quick change and dash for the appointed ferry, made with seconds to spare, despite a most unhelpful ticket barrier machine.
Day 3 Sliema
A morning in the ancient “Three Cities”, not enhanced by April showers, but with some excellent views; afternoon sunshine along the harbourside in Sliema and evening concert in St Patrick’s Church, where we received yet another very warm welcome – a recurring theme. Another lovely day.
Day 4 Valetta
A perfect day, from this writer’s perspective, mostly spent in Valetta – the capital and a really interesting place. Highlights included a visit to the Anglican church, where we regretted not having the opportunity to sing evensong; St John’s Co-cathedral which was simply stunning – even as someone who doesn’t really appreciate the baroque grandeur of many catholic cathedrals on the European continent, I found this place absolutely breathtaking. To recover we found tea with a selection of homemade Maltese cakes and pastries, before returning home on an overcrowded bus lumbering its way to St Paul’s Bay. Everywhere takes half an hour to get to on a coach. It takes much longer on a bus. The crowded island means travelling at more than an average 20 miles per hour isn’t possible.
The evening concluded with a visit to “Diana’s Bar” opposite the hotel. Clearly a reference to Princess Diana, this erstwhile republican writer initially refused to enter, but was eventually persuaded in the hope that it might be an ironic reference. The internal decoration, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, covered with Diana memorabilia and all things Royal Family ended the vain hope. Although slightly puzzled that the bar seemed to be celebrating both Diana and her estranged in-laws, nevertheless the beer tasted good, the crisps were free and the rest of the evening passed into a haze.
Overall, the Maltese people were very welcoming and British loving. They didn’t have many good things to say about Italians though. Actually, they didn’t have anything good to say about Italians.
Day 5 Mdina
A blissful morning catching up on reading, coach to the Dingli cliffs and guided walking tour around Mdina, completed with an enormous slice of cake and pot of tea. Yet again, very welcoming church people.
Day 6 St Paul’s Mass and home
Having been through a number of broadcasts on British television, spending hours in rehearsal with production assistants getting timings for everything to the nearest fraction of a second, it was rather refreshing just to turn up, half an hour beforehand, and do the service.
Lunch was a last opportunity to enjoy the local food, beer and wine before the flight home.
Glossing over the lengthy time to get through passport control and the journey home, having had time to recover, I am left with only very fond memories of a lovely time away and a closer bond with my fellow choir travellers.
This was a really good tour. The boys were excellent ambassadors for the cathedral. The Maltese do very good tea and cakes.
David Werry, April 2016