I’d never been to either of these countries and both were on my bucket list. How lucky can one gal get when she has the opportunity to travel with good friends Bernie and Joanne Furshpan who made it all a reality. It doesn’t get any better since she was born on Gozo (the Village of Nadur) in Malta and he born in Israel in Tel Aviv. Each is now a citizen of not only the good ole USA, but Malta and Israel as well.
I call this couple the ‘Darlings of Cabaret’ or ‘the Love Couple’ . . . we originally met when Bernie and Joanne were running the Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street in NYC. I spent a lot of time there seeing and reviewing shows and we got to be close friends. Seeing their heritage and cultures firsthand was an extraordinary opportunity bequeathed on me by these two loving people.
Let me start at the beginning. We traveled on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul (their favorite mode of visiting Malta and Israel). Joanne had it all figured out that since we’d be staying at their home in Nadur on Gozo, it would be a good idea to rent an apartment (2-bedroom / 2 bath B & B) on Malta to take in the sites before our stay on Gozo. We hit the ground running! A dinner was already planned at Mamma Mia Restaurant with 22 of Joanne’s cousins. Straight from the airport in Malta we came, luggage in tow. The relatives were all so welcoming, loving and the word tired didn’t even enter my mind since I was so excited meeting everyone. And the food . . . well, you will see and hear a lot about the food which is not only plentiful but DELICIOUS! The Mediterranean diet and style of preparation is surely one of the most delectable and healthiest in the world.
The next day we went to Mdina, an ancient walled city where we entered thru an arched bridge and over a moat (no we didn’t swim it as it was dry) and where carriage rides are available as they were in the 1500’s thru 1700’s. You may have seen this scenic delight if you watch Game of Thrones as this is their set. The limestone facades are an alleyway of narrow streets where one can visit restaurants, gift shops and see the many old and beautiful door knockers (some are family crests) as well as plaques of saints. Many native Maltese live here as well.
St. Paul’s Cathedral contains the catacombs, a burial site with excavated graves. The dungeons re-enact the deaths of many found guilty. The reproduced figures are almost life-like as is the terror, torture and bloodiness of those slaughtered for their crimes and almost comes alive. It can get claustrophobic and queasy in this Museum of Crime and Punishment!
The capital of Malta – Valetta – is a Baroque style City of many museums, shops, art and cultures and the magnificent St. John’s Cathedral with its many rooms where the walls and ceilings are covered with extraordinary masterpieces of paintings as well as marble statues. It’s particularly famous for its Caravaggio, the only one he ever signed – The Beheading of John the Baptist. And luckily the week we were there, all the tapestries, usually stored, were taken out and hung for viewing. It’s not only looking up that matters but looking down on the marble floor where many tombstones of knights are buried. What a treat for the senses. It was completed in 1577.
After spending time at the Cathedral, we were parched and in need of some R & R. Across the road was an outdoor café where we stopped for a cool drink and to give our tired feet a rest. Little did I know that I had name value at this café where I was surprised to see chairs advertising Prosecco from Villa Sandi! Strolling down the main promenade was a treat finding anything and everything one might like to see or buy, including creative this n’ that by street artists – many wonderful gift items. Ah, shopping!
The next morning we were at the Fast Ferry Terminal at the Valletta waterfront, lined up and waiting to be transported to Gozo in 45 minutes. There is another small Island named Comino we passed along the way where only one family resides. It does have a beautiful Blue Lagoon for swimming and sunbathing.
Finally – Gozo, where Joanne was born in her parents’ home in Nadur and where we are headed and will stay for a few days at Bernie & Joanne’s new 2 bedroom apartment. It used to be the garage, now renovated in this 3- story house and just completed, or almost, as it still awaits a new front door and other furnishings. It has a small patio in the back and the hi-tech kitchen area is where everyone gathers.
Joanne is an extraordinary cook and baker, as is her Mama Theresa. We stopped at Mama’s house in Xewkija (pronounced She-waah) a village just a stone’s throw from Nadur, where Mama had lentil soup and chicken livers prepared for Joanne to take to her house for our lunch. Of course, there were many other items in that stocked refrigerator in Nadur because we also stopped at a local market to buy whatever we needed. Things looked so fresh and tasty!
The house has an apartment upstairs that is a rental and where laundry is done the old fashioned way using the washing machine and then hanging the clothes on the roof to dry so they smell really fresh. And getting around was made even easier now that Bernie had use of Mama and Papa’s stick-shift car which did the job.
It’s Festival time on Gozo which means each Village prepares their own festivities to honor their particular Patron Saint. Folks gather not only from the Village but many come from far and wide to participate in the 3-day celebrations. Our first evening of festivities took place in Xewkija with marching bands, music in the plaza, tables set up where people could buy a ticket and eat at long tables outdoors, dancing and sharing the great joy and pride they feel in their community. Many families, many visitors, much excitement. The women are dressed to the nines, the gossip flies, the children run around with water guns and the men are strutting with pride. Church services are elaborate as the Saint is carried out of the Church and up and down the various streets & roads. People are sitting at every outdoor café and it’s hard to score a table unless you’ve made prior arrangements.
Joanne is a center of attention as the Camilleri’s have lived in Gozo for many generations. Practically everyone is a cousin, an uncle, an aunt or somehow related. Meeting her friends from childhood who still live in these villages was amazing. Her uncle Giuseppe is a famous stone carver and responsible for making many of the limestone fountains, balustrades and other artistic carvings viewable in homes up and down the streets and in the Church.
Mama Theresa’s brother Mike lives next door to Joanne & Bernie’s house and he not only makes honey from his beehives but carves wooden items – a source of income over many years. Here’s some information you’ll love. Mama Theresa’s husband Carmello (a former policeman) is a self- taught woodsmith and truly an artist. Look at the photos showing tables, chairs, lamps, banisters, photo frames, breakfront and more in their home. Remarkable delicate and detailed craftsmanship!
We visited Ramia Beach viewing it from a mountaintop and Calypso’s Cave and Blue Hole. We go to Nuno’s Cave, a small home where, in the basement, stalagmites and stalactites with continuing running water were discovered in the late 1800’s. It is now inhabited by the great, great, great, great grandson of the then owner. If you ring the bell, he will come and let you in and show you down to the basement. In return he asks for any donation in order to keep the place going. Unusual!
The area boasts 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of which is Ghantija, a prehistoric temple dating back to 3600 BC. It is believed it was built by a race of giants, Goziyans. The historical values are stunning. I felt as if I were in a movie or a time machine. In fact, that was my feeling throughout this entire adventure!
We visit Lunzjata Valley where miles of farmland produce any and every vegetable and fruit and where snails can be found in the ancient crevices. There is continual running spring water and where a home has been set up to help teen drug addicts.
Cats, cats, and more cats . . . they wander everywhere and seem to be well fed and cared for. Mama Theresa has 2 cats that live in her backyard where she tends garden and feeds the kitties twice a day . . . they love her lasagna (and so do I). The secret is in the sheep milk cheese she makes and adds to the recipe.
If you believe that all things happen for a reason then it was fortuitous when Bernie, while shopping for tools, met Rabbi Chaim Segal who came to Malta from Canada 10 years ago to set up a Chabad center which had been holding classes for children at his and wife Mushka’s home. We were invited to come to their home where we learned more about their mission. Only 200 Jews when they arrived and now well over 400 and growing. To help the thriving population, they have made arrangements with many donors and the local officials to buy an old post office in the Village and turn it into a Jewish Cultural Centre where a synagogue, classrooms, and a restaurant will become a home for all Jewish activities. They now have half the funding and we were given the extraordinary opportunity to tour the old Post Office and see the Rabbi’s vision become a reality. Much should be accomplished by the Fall of 2023. This is especially dear to Bernie as he is an integral part of a Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Southampton where he is a Board member and runs programs for young people to raise awareness and learn about their Jewish heritage.
Our adventures moved along on Gozo continuing to see family, shop for items for their new apartment and be treated to everyday life. Joanne cooked, hosted friends, as we attended lunches and dinners and continued to visit historical sites. The experiences kept me in a whirl physically and emotionally – a good whirl!
And all too soon, it was time to get back on the Ferry and to the airport to start our trek to Israel. We flew to Tel Aviv where Bernie rented a car and we began our drive to our first hotel Maxim where we stayed two nights, visited the house where Bernie grew up and spent an afternoon with Leah and her friend Rachel. Leah was his babysitter until Bernie emigrated to the USA at the age of 6 ½. Oh, the stories she told and the love they have for each other. We had lunch at a favorite haunt, Albert’s. Salads of every description and bread are put out before we even order lunch. Portions, as I had come to learn, are plentiful and enough for 3 or 4.
A Coincidence . . . For those who know musician Seth Weinstein in New York City, he’s a traveler without boundaries (backpack trekking worldwide), he had just come off a walking trip in Norway and was meeting his Dad in Tel Aviv the same day we arrived. Of course, he and I met up that first night to catch up on so much as it had been quite a while since I saw him. He would be going on to Cairo.
The next evening, we met Bernie’s favorite cousin Ora and her husband Effie. They grew up together and are more like brother and sister. The stories I listened to – – oh the stories! Down by the seashore, we had dinner on the beach after an evening of watching Israeli folk dancing which attracts men, women, teens and can be found in many towns almost nightly. It is a national traditional pastime expressed with great joy.
Building in Israel is everywhere as it is on Malta as the populations keep growing and to accommodate the growing number of tourists.
After two days, we left Tel Aviv and drove through the Negev Desert seeing many communities and Arab unfinished housing, including Bedouin camps throughout as we travelled close to the West Bank walls. There are many checkpoints along the way and security cameras. Perhaps it’s a false sense of security? but somehow, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but quite secure.
We were on our way to what I knew was a highlight of my travels, the Dead Sea. Along the way, we stopped for a bite to eat, saw camels, more cats and bought delicious dates. We arrived at Isrotel Hotel – a large, sumptuous spa and resort on the sea where Ora and Effie were joining us for 2 nights. They are fun, funny and loving and it was joyous meeting and spending time with them.
No one wasted any time getting into bathing suits and going into the salt water indoor pool at the hotel where I had to get my salt legs going. Took a while to figure out how to not keep popping up . . . a challenge for short people who can’t reach the bottom of the pool! It was delicious and suddenly my skin felt remarkably soft. Outdoors was a big pool with a wall of water surrounded by lounge chairs and coconut trees. You know what that is like. But what we craved was the real thing . . . right outside the hotel was the Dead Sea where we made our way to the small beach and I had the chance to actually walk into the Dead Sea’s salt water that makes up the bottom. Just lifted my feet, laid down and I was floating. A feeling I will not soon forget and, if I’m lucky, may have a chance to repeat. Across we could see Jordan.
The dining room at the hotel was huge, the food stations endless with every kind of fish, meat, salad, vegetable, bread, desserts, drinks one could imagine. It was an eating frenzy! People want to taste everything so it’s not unusual to go back several times to fill plates with new tastings. It reminded me of the old Catskill days but more! Wonderful conversations and stories were all part of breakfasts and dinners when we all met up. It was especially heartwarming hearing Bernie speaking Hebrew, his native tongue and feeling at home. He loves Israel.
Of course, Joanne and I had shopping to do in between – face creams, gifts to buy, things to see at the Dead Sea Mall not far from the hotel. It was all magical. I did make an effort to travel light with one carryon and a backpack. But I knew I would need another piece of luggage in order to get the additions back home. We also got to meet some of the young gals who are part of the Israeli Army!
All too soon, it was time to leave Isrotel and continue thru the Negev Desert making our way to Jerusalem but with a stop at Masada where the sad history of the Jewish people are imprinted forever. Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans and the violent destruction of the kingdom of Judea at the end of the Second Temple period filled with tragic events. Built by Herod, king of Judea, Masada was a palatial fortress with camps, fortifications that now allow visitors the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view via a cable car up to the top to visit the ruins. Bernie is a walking history book sharing his knowledge and information. It was 104 deg. as we made our way around to see the remains of the many rooms. Biblical history came alive.
Back in the car, we were all very tired when we finally arrived at Harmony, a small hotel, right in the heart of Jerusalem and in walking distance to the Old City. As tired as we were, we dropped our luggage and made it downstairs to Happy Hour!!
Up early the next morning, after a luscious breakfast, we walked to the Old City to see the on-going King David excavation and to visit the Western Wailing Wall. Somber yet joyful and where I took the opportunity to leave a prayer in one of the many crevices.
History abounds with a visit to the holiest of churches, Church of Sepulchure erected on the exact site according to traditions dating back to the 4th Century, where it contains two sites considered holy in Christianity; the place where Jesus was crucified, known as Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb which is where he was buried and resurrected. Believers of all faiths, and non-believers worldwide, make their pilgrimage to this site for the experience which has great emotional impact.
The sites, the sounds of Jerusalem were plentiful and served to make me feel I have now been in touch with not only my heritage but with the communal beginnings of all mankind. Malta was an eye-opener to the many similarities that exist between Israel and Malta. How can I even begin to thank my extraordinary friends and hosts for this dream come true travel experience?
Featured Image: Bernie, Sandi, Mama Theresa, Joanne and Mom of her best friend
View the short video piece for some more visual effects and chuckles!