At this very moment it is likely I am wearing wellies, hopping over a stile, falling in a mere, climbing a hill, testing cream tea (VERY important), scribbling down museum opening hours or waiting for a train. Or just holed up in my office writing …
For my birthday in October Steve booked us a week’s holiday in a cottage in a rural French village called Tortefontaine, just over an hour’s drive from the ferry terminal at Calais.
Until then, the very name Calais conjured up for me memories of a miserable booze cruise, drizzle, catching a cold, and more drizzle. The only reason I’d known I was in France: the service-station waiter had picked his nose over congealed frites rather than soggy chips.
But in Steve I trust and, sure enough, I found the Pas-de-Calais region charming. Farmyards clomped across by mamies in wellies and hitched-up skirts, fallow autumn fields stretched out as invitingly as picnic blankets, and hamlets watched over by models of Jesus on a crucifix.
It was definitely not England and yet it felt like a cheat’s holiday; so easy to reach even with a little man in tow. The driving was laidback, with few other motorists around.
The ferry crossing had been smooth. We waved at seagulls and Vincent clucked at passing women until they dutifully admired his fluffy hair and two teeth. I don’t know when to break it to him that girls will not always be so readily impressed, especially not chic European ones.
Primrose Cottage was cosy, pretty and immaculately clean. Apart from a washing machine (holidays are too precious to spend in launderettes, I think), the only amenity I missed was a bath. Showering with an eight-month-old in your arms is like trying to shower while holding a slippery pike. A screeching, red, 19lb pike with kicking legs.
But while he may hate showers, at least Vincent is too small to have developed coulrophobia …
We didn’t need the baby monitor because we could hear every shuffle and snuffle Vincent made upstairs in his cot. The downside was that he could hear Steve and me too, scoffing crisps and drinking wine after he’d gone to bed. We watched subtitled films so we could keep the volume low; two of my favourite films of the past few years happen to be French (I’ve Loved You So Long and Tell No One) so this didn’t feel like doing homework on holiday.
The nearest commune (official town) to Tortefontaine is Hesdin (pronounced Ey-dan), with its Renaissance-style grand town hall, Thursday market and dusty bistros made stuffy from bar to bidet by old men in flat caps and corduroys. One of whom had the cheek to approach Steve while feeding Vincent his bottle and mime an embarrassingly graphic enquiry as to why I wasn’t breastfeeding. There was an inviting-looking frite van in the central square (Place d’Armes) but to Steve’s disappointment we never managed to be there when it was open.
We made day trips to the graceful walled town of Montreuil-sur-Mer (ten miles inland, despite its name) and the seaside resorts of Le Touquet and Berck which, even when wind-blown in the autumn and empty of tourists, retained a certain elegance thanks to soft expanses of beach and wide avenues lined with chocolate shops, icecream parlours and upmarket bars.
Café Leffe in Le Touquet was especially baby-friendly; while Steve tucked into a bowl of mussels steamed in white wine and I tore chunks from my woodfired pizza, the waiter entertained Vincent with funny faces and, unprompted, washed up his bowl, spoon and bib at the end of our dinner.
During this holiday I became a lot less precious about making all of Vincent’s meals from scratch. Ready-made baby food felt easier and safer to serve during long days out and – amusingly – he preferred much of it to my cooking.
While returning from Le Touquet we got stuck down a narrow farm track in soupe de fog. It would have felt like an adventure but, with a tired baby in the back of the car and less than a hand’s span of visibility out the front, I got nervous. I felt guilty. We crawled for over 40 minutes until two combine harvesters emerged from the gloom and flooded the night with light, unintentionally escorting us almost all the way to Primrose Cottage.
We also visited Lille, just under two hours’ drive away, where classy shops and patisserie windows piled rainbow-high with shiny macaroons temporarily sated my yen to return to Paris. I couldn’t resist buying Vincent a soft bowling set shaped like the trippy Barbapapa characters I’d loved as a tot, although I’ve hidden them away until he passes this current stage of gnawing everything he lays his hands on. Barbapapa, Barbamama and their brightly coloured Barbababies do look especially tasty. More age-appropriate for now is Sophie la Girafe, that famous teething toy whom I picked up in Carrefour for only eight euros. I suspect she will be chewed and squeaked and loved long after her spots have rubbed off.
In Lille we found a great place to eat: Chez la Vieille with its earthy cooking aromas and provincial cluttered decor served the local speciality that Steve had been hankering after: Carbonnade à la Flamande or beef cooked in Flemish beer and gingerbread. I ate a tart made with Maroilles, the local cows’ milk cheese that reeked like dog poo when we’d bought it ourselves but was transformed here into a pungent, rich warm flan filling. Vincent tried – and dropped – his first frite. The manager had been fast to find him a highchair and us a space to park his buggy in the cramped bar.
Nord Pas-de-Calais isn’t blessed with the sunshine and vineyards of southern France, it’s true, but its clean white sands, genteel towns and hearty, Flemish-inspired food and beer left me puzzled as to why so many Brits zoom through it en route to better-known destinations. If you have a little one and fancy holidaying overseas without flying or undertaking a painfully long drive, I definitely recommend a week of cheating.
Me, my husband and our baby on a self-catering week in Aylton, near Ledbury. It wasn’t the most ambitious of holidays. One of the leaflets in our rented cottage was for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens … less than five miles from our house. Steve and I joked about popping home for a cheap day out.
But Herefordshire was radiant after a record-breakingly rainy July; hedgerows sang with foxgloves and wiry lupins, and the orchards were fecund with apples and pears. This is the land of honesty boxes: eggs, jam, perennial plants and runner beans may be picked up for pence – unless you’re enjoying the Roman roads too much to stop. Steve sang along to the radio. Vincent discovered happy screeching and cut a milk tooth. I felt my tiredness lifting.
The Kiln, a converted oasthouse, is part of White House Cottages, run by Marianne and Nick Hills. It felt strangely fun to lie in bed at night and imagine the furnace that once blazed there. Upstairs in what is now a cosy living area and kitchen, hops would have been dried, ready for brewing.
Marianne and Nick have thought of everything – The Kiln even has kitchen scales, mixing bowl and a loaf tin, should you feel inclined to bake a cake. (I preferred curling up in an armchair under the sloping ceiling with a glass of wine and the Olympics on the telly.) A cot and highchair are available on request and there’s a communal laundry room with tumble dryer.
The Kiln may not be ideal for an older child or even a baby on the move – you’d probably need a stairgate and would have to be cooped up in one bedroom together. Although a gleeful entry in the visitors’ book said:
“It was calld the Kiln and I went down stairs to bed! Love Owyn, aged 6.”
Aylton is a rural hamlet, so a car is almost essential for this holiday. Aylton church, with origins in the 12th century, is always open and, unsurprisingly, contains no obvious reference to the spooky story told by Rupert Matthews in Haunted Herefordshire.
Matthews states, without apparent doubt, that the churchyard is haunted by the ghost of one 14-year-old Emma Foulger, whose body was presumed stolen by resurrectionists: “macabre villains” who sold freshly buried corpses to unscrupulous doctors for anatomy studies.
Bearing in mind many of mine and Steve’s usual holiday activities – long walks, tipsy picnics, galleries, pubs and restaurants – are out now we have Vincent, here are my Herefordshire (and Welsh border) heroes …
* Ross on Wheels: a buggy-friendly walk around Ross-on-Wye, devised by Sam Phillips of Ross Ramblers
As the Mega Nova fishing boat carries me and a dozen other hopeful whale-watchers into the Bay of Fundy, our chance of seeing whales feels slim. Brier Island, where we boarded, has been snarled in fog since the evening before. The narrow stretch of water left visible by the low-hanging sky looks grey and impenetrable, the crosswinds skimming over it creating hatchet lines.
If I were a whale I’d choose a day like today for moping about in the murky fathoms, rather than performing for a boatload of tourists.
Not that performing comes into it. My hosts at Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises Ltd conduct marine research in the bay, recording the behaviour of sealife and making their findings available worldwide. We are there to observe, not harass, and any close encounters will be at the discretion of the whales. Even the Mega Nova is named in their honour: megaptera novaeangliae is the scientific term for a humpback whale, meaning ‘big-winged New Englander’.
I’m already in love with Nova Scotia; its foggy mornings, torn coastlines pinned by lighthouses, and cultural diversity shaped by the native Mi’kmaq people and settlers from France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and New England. I’ve had a wonder-filled trip so far: digging for clams, learning about shipwrecks and exploring the UNESCO town of Lunenburg.
So although my enjoyment of the week doesn’t depend on seeing a whale, it would complete the experience. Sometimes they swim under the boat, I have heard. Sometimes they get so close you can smell their fishy breath.
Harold Graham, the owner of the company and our cruise captain, is optimistic.
“We always see whales – we’ll find some,” he tells me from the helm of the Mega Nova. He would know: Harold has been running whale-watching tours for 27 years, navigating the Fundy waters for many more. In the winter, when the whales migrate to the warmer shores of the Dominican Republic, Harold is a lobster fisherman. I think I can guess which role he prefers.
“This is more like a hobby to me. It’s lots of fun and it’s nice to see the whales coming back every year.”
Showing me computers tracking the depth of the seabed and our position in the bay, Harold says he is looking in particular for a humpback whale named Shuttle, so called because of the rocket-shaped markings on the underside of her tail.
“Last year she was here with a calf, so we’re just waiting to see her this time and make sure she returns.”
A finalist in the New7Wonders of Nature, the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick has the highest tides in the world. One hundred billion tonnes of seawater flow in and out twice each day, bringing nutrients to the surface and encouraging the productivity of plankton and, in turn, mackerel and herring. This makes the bay an attractive summer playground for whales, dolphins and porpoises to feed and breed – and an ideal place for us to spot them.
The marine life extends up and out of the ocean too, to migratory birds flitting at the water for its plentiful supply of fish.
“Anyone interested in birds?” asks Shelley Barnaby, the chief naturalist on board. Two boys turn up their noses: “Oh my god, no!” says the elder. Their mother looks indulgently on, telling Shelley the youngest had been studying whales at school. He nods in agreement: “I know everything about them now”.
But I’m interested in the birds. During the cruise we’ll sight puffins, greater shearwaters darting at the surface for food, and gull-like northern fulmars which Shelley says throw up when frightened. At this the boys show a little more enthusiasm, baring their teeth out to sea and growling.
As the Mega Nova powers further out of the bay, the fog lifts, the sun emerges from its grey pall and people start tying their coats and jumpers around their waists. The calmer waters are black-blue now, instead of their earlier charcoal. Having heard via a radio to another cruise boat that there are whales in the vicinity, Harold drops the engine so we can drift quietly for a while, the atmosphere tense as we listen for the slapping of flukes or the booming of a lobtailing humpback.
Suddenly: “On the right side,” says Shelley, grabbing her camera, and we scramble in the direction of her pointing finger. The younger boy bowls over to the edge of the boat, knocking people out of his path. The other boat is bobbing on the water about 30 metres away, and I hear the delighted cries from its passengers before I see them myself: three humpback whales gently surfacing in near synchronicity. It is hard to believe their enormous sleek dark bodies are real; their dorsal fins jutting out of the water like animatronics from a monster movie.
Several of our passengers shunt up the metal ladder to the top deck for a better view. I’m not surprised to see that the youngest boy is one of them; nor should I be surprised to hear a breathy blow from a whistle above.
“Please don’t do that – the captain will think you’re in trouble,” calls one of the crew members kindly.
The other boy, below deck, having upended himself into a coolbox of food supplied by his parents, is leaning over the side of the boat, cramming a sandwich into his mouth.
“Those three whales were Flash, Tusk and Urik,” Shelley says, having photographed and reviewed their tail markings. “They were logging, which means sleeping”.
Seeing the humpbacks has made my day, but there are more cetaceans to meet, more gasps of joy to be elicited from the Mega Nova. During the three-hour cruise we also encounter porpoises and, briefly, fin whales, nicknamed ‘greyhounds of the sea’ because of their speed and streamlined shape. We spy a humpback whale called Churchill (who got his name from the V-shaped notch in his tail) and Vibes, accompanied by her calf.
By far our most spectacular sighting is of Lewkos, though, a humpback whale who swims close to the boat near the ocean’s surface and gracefully flips up her flukes as she dives, droplets of saltwater cascading from her body as she honours us with a perfect view of the underside of her tail. One of the biologists tells me later that humpbacks’ tails are graded by intensity from white to black and Lewkos’s bright flukes had inspired her name (lewko means ‘white’ in Greek).
But still no Shuttle.
The elder brother, recovering from a bout of seasickness – perhaps intensified by his sandwich cramming – stands next to me and leans casually on the rail.
“Come on, when do you think we’re going in?” he asks. “We’ve been out here, like, hours.”
He is pale and I feel sympathetic. Although the waters are calmer than earlier, the irregular loppiness of the boat is making me feel queasy too and I’m hanging on to my breakfast thanks to salted crackers pocketed the night before at the Brier Island Lodge. I could watch whales all day, but my sea legs are ready for land.
I am disappointed not to have seen Shuttle. I have to remind myself that the Bay of Fundy is a natural wonder, not a theme park, and whales come and go in their own sweet time.
But a few weeks later, as Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises enters its 25th-anniversary year, an update appears on Facebook. The bay had been “flat calm” one day, it seemed, and not only had the crew added two new mother-and-calf pairs to its list of whales, but Shuttle had been spotted in amongst the waves.
I hope Harold is at the helm of the Mega Nova today, and even happier than ever in his work.
As I pushed Vincent’s pram towards the bus stop for the 11C to Harborne, all kinds of horrific scenarios were running through my mind. Pram wheels get trapped between bus and kerb, baby falls out, driver pulls away … I know other parents manage with pushchairs the size of moon buggies, a weekly shop swinging from the handles, and wriggling toddlers who have to be yanked up the steps by their armpits, but they’re not me, with my remarkable capacity for ineptitude. I haven’t been shopping with Vincent yet without crashing his pram into an aisle of dry goods or, more memorably, running over someone’s toe.
Fortunately, now we were about to embark first ever bus journey together, there was a kind-looking man in a baseball cap also waiting at the bus stop.
“The bus is only one minute away!” he said and I smiled. He would help us!
“That’s good,” I said, falling back on that ever-reliable topic of British conversation: “Don’t want to be standing in the rain for too long, do we?”
“This rain portends a very bad event,” he said and I thought, Oh God. Please let him help us onto the bus and then make him go away.
“There was rain like this in the days before nine-eleven,” he said, launching into an anti-semitic tirade about Jewish bankers and how they brought the rain before they brought down the World Trade Center.
Scrap that … just make him go away.
He didn’t help us onto the bus; didn’t even let us go first. I turned the pram around and bumped Vincent up the steps backwards, his eyes squeezed shut (this boy’s got the measure of me already) and tiny arms flailing out with every thud. I paid the fare (I hadn’t even known babies in prams travelled for free) and made for the buggy space.
The bus driver didn’t wait for us to get settled before pulling out onto the Watford Road and Vincent’s pram lurched a full 45 degrees. The woman opposite visibly shuddered: was she shuddering at me, useless mother, or at the bus driver’s lack of patience? I regained control, stamped on the pram brake and positioned myself where Vincent and I could see each other.
Bollocks, the man was back. He’d decided not to sit down but instead stand directly in front of me, twirl his fat fingers around the grab pole and make me his captive audience. He was muttering something about the East being red and the West being blue, and how a very, very big event was going to shake the whole world up at the end of this year. It had been predicted by the Star of David, or the Wingdings font, or … something. I wasn’t listening.
“Oh really?” I said, pointedly turning my head away and watching the rain slipping like tears down the window in Selly Oak, falling on the terraced student houses with their To Let boards. I felt like crying myself. I didn’t know why I was being polite because he was a weird, deluded racist. “I’m not interested, to be honest.”
He continued. The number 11 was significant apparently: the date of the attack (oh, really?), the emergency phone number in the US (no, really?), the flight number being American Airlines Flight 11 …
I took out my phone and pretended to text someone. I wondered whether I could justify sneaking a hand into Vincent’s pram and pinching him ever so gently – just enough to make him squeak – so I would need to tend to him. But he looked so content there, batting at his dangly owl toy.
…The World Trade Center towers collapsed to a height of 11 storeys …
I’ve put up with a lot from strangers on public transport in the past (hello suspected scientologist with the PowerPoint presentation on solute particles and water memory that lasted all the way from Marylebone to Birmingham New Street). But this was intolerable and, besides, I’m a mum now. I have a duty to protect my baby son from weirdos.
“Please leave me alone. I’m not interested.”
“After September 11th there are 111 days left to the end of the year … are you sure? Something very bad will happen to the world soon.”
“I’m quite sure.”
“OK,” he said, looking around for an available seat. Then, in anger: “But you mothers of small babies, you aren’t looking around at what’s happening in the world. This is a big problem!”
He was right, in some ways. My world has become smaller lately. I’m less interested in watching the news than on focusing on the little character unfurling in front of me, on seeing his tiny fingers clasping mine, on the smile that grows bigger and gummier each week. And it was because of my small baby that I’d made myself prey to a complete nutbag like this man; by being scared of getting the pram on the damn bus and looking around for help, I’d made myself open and vulnerable.
When we reached our stop the driver lowered the floor to kerb height so Vincent and I could alight easily. Why the hell can’t they do that every time?
Vincent was six weeks old when we bundled him up on his first road trip: to my home city of Norwich, three-and-a-half-hours’ drive away, for the Easter weekend. It was a bit of a cheat – a holiday ‘lite’ – as we stayed at my mum’s house, complete with washing machine, homecooked dinners and round-the-clock relatives to hold him. Also, Vincent’s fairly easygoing: after a halfhearted fuss about being strapped into his Maxi-Cosi, his baby weir-pig snores lasted all the way to the A11.
There’s no packing light with a little one. The car got jammed from foot to roof with Vincent’s things and, having been told by a grumpy Steve there was strictly no space for anything non-essential, I was wedged into the passenger seat with my feet hovering above Easter contraband: daffodils, a bottle of prosecco and a paper bag full of rhubarb. By the time we stopped for a break my calves ached from their unnatural suspension in mid-air.
We were the only diners in the echoey hotel where we ate lunch – East Anglia’s answer to The Shining. The tall nervy housekeeper made a convincing Shelley Duvall, as she hovered over our table admiring Vincent and reminiscing about her grown-up son’s babyhood; how she would stroke his cheek until he fell asleep. It made me sad to think how much she must miss those days.
When Vincent started squawking and I said it was lucky no one else was around to be disturbed, she looked horrified. “Oh no!” she said, smiling at him. “Don’t ever apologise for things that children naturally do. You’ll spend the next fifteen years saying sorry.”
We arrived safely. April showers and runny noses prevented us from showing Vincent the big skies and sandy beaches of my childhood Norfolk; instead we visited old friends, drank tea and scoffed my mum’s hot cross-less buns. (Our family’s Easter celebrations are almost entirely pagan.) It was perfect. And, most importantly, we had succeeded in taking the little man away on what I hope was his first of many happy holidays.
I learned: Never underestimate the amount of ‘stuff’ you need to pack for a baby (consider buying a roofrack). Never apologise for your baby crying: babies cry.
I haven’t travelled far lately and yet I feel as though I’m on the biggest journey of my life. My first baby is due in the middle of February.
Fittingly, it was at Schiphol Airport back in June when I first suspected I might be pregnant. My friend Becky and I were in transit from a screenwriting course in Bremen, and she bought me a glass of prosecco to celebrate the past few days. It was deliciously crisp, the way I like it, and yet it didn’t sit right in my stomach. Deep down I think I knew it was my last drink for a while, and I’m grateful to Becky for making it a special one.
Two days later those stark blue lines confirmed why I felt so strange. I wrapped up the pregnancy test and left it for my husband with a Post-it note that said, “Hello Dad”. I’ll never forget the sight of Steve looking up at me with his eyes shining, saying: “Is this real?” He twirled me around the kitchen and I could hardly see him through the tears in my own eyes. The spell was only broken when he realised with horror that I must have peed on the stick.
When I was eight weeks pregnant, I flew to Nova Scotia on a press trip. Most of my family and friends didn’t yet know I was expecting – Steve and I were waiting for that reassuring 12-week scan – but I had to tell my hosts why I looked like a blanched sea urchin. They were wonderful, taking special care of me, and the three square seafaring meals each day kept my morning sickness somewhere out near the Bay of Fundy. I threw myself into all the activities, even managing to prise a few live clams from the squelchy seabed, defeated finally when they squirted fishy water in my face.
In August, hours after our 12-week scan (and overjoyed to have seen a healthy, wriggly baby on the ultrasound monitor), Steve and I caught the Eurostar to Paris. Usually we love nothing more than pounding around a big city for days on end, discovering backstreet eateries and local characters. But we’d both underestimated how tired pregnancy would make me feel and I ended up frustrated and aching, revived only by regular ice-cream stops.
We caught the overnight Le Train Bleu to Nice and took the rest of our holiday at a slower pace: swimming, eating fresh pasta and hanging out in the Old Town.
And that was my last proper trip. We recently bought a small Victorian terrace which Steve has nicknamed our Little Donkey house (because we’ve “got to keep on plodding onwards” with the repairs and decorating) and that’s all the adventure I need at the moment. I’m too pregnant to fly, even if I wanted to, and my wanderlust has been temporarily quashed by a desire to strip walls and sand floorboards. I think they call this nesting.
Sometimes I catch my breath and feel momentarily stunned by how much parenthood is going to change our lives. Clip our wings. No more impromptu camping weekends or road trips for a long time; babies need so much stuff. I never did complete my pre-family travelling to-do list; I haven’t been to Japan; haven’t seen much of Africa. I never got to share with Steve the fabricated wonders of Universal Studios in Florida. When we do go, there will be a smaller person (maybe people) dictating which rides we queue for.
But I am delighted by the idea of becoming a mother. Every time I feel my baby kick, poke or flutter, I’m surprised by the strength of my feelings for someone I haven’t even met yet. I feel fiercely protective of the tiny life growing inside me – as the ten-year-old who came hurtling towards my belly on a shopping trolley last week discovered to his detriment.
There is nothing for it: this baby will have to be a good traveller. And I’m looking forward to experiencing life’s adventures as a mum.
I’d always thought of Malta as a package-holiday destination; its history and beauty squashed between high-rise hotels. But when I find myself on a quiet patch of the island’s west coast, walking down a gentle slope to the remains of some of the oldest religious sites on earth, I start to change my mind.
Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are megalithic temple complexes, hewn from sand-coloured limestone and set near an expanse of Mediterranean blue. Evidence of similarly mysterious sites is scattered across Malta and its little-sister island Gozo, some just unassuming clusters of stones. The earliest temples were built in 3600BC, predating the Egyptian pyramids by nearly a thousand years.
Since their unearthing in 1839-40, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra have suffered damage from wind, rain and sun, as well as rapid changes in temperature. Restoration programmes have brought varied success. The temples’ vulnerable position by the ocean means they are the first sites to be given protective canopies by the EU and Maltese government: cream awnings stretching taut over steel arches. But in the shade of their modern coverings, the weathered stones still resemble altars, benches and annexes, whispering secrets from a time long gone.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage site but in late October it almost echoes with a lack of visitors.
“Do you think Malta’s tourist industry is making enough of the temples?” I ask Darrell Azzopardi, our guide, as we study one of Hagar Qim’s largest megaliths. It is more than 6m long and thought to weigh 20 tonnes. When conjuring up visions of the temple builders, I understand why Gozo’s best-preserved temple site was named Ggantija, meaning ‘gigantic’ or ‘of the giants’.
“We can never make enough of the temples because we always need more visitors,” Darrell says, explaining that tourism accounts for about a quarter of the GDP of Malta, Gozo and tiny Comino. “But it’s not enough to promote Malta for the temples only. We have to integrate this prehistory with the rest of the history here.”
And what history. Malta’s position at the heart of the Mediterranean means it has been occupied over time by powers that include the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, French and British. This island has seen wars and sieges, invasion and bombings, and rule by the romantic-sounding Knights of St John. But today I’m intrigued by what came before; the puzzle of the people who designed and constructed these temples without written language or sophisticated tools.
I admire the pitted decoration on what is believed to be the altar stone of Mnajdra’s East Temple. Some astronomers think the marks represent a tally of days between the appearances of certain stars, although this theory is not universally supported. I’m fascinated by the idea that, during equinoxes, the sun rises in perfect alignment to the main axis of the South Temple. During summer and winter solstices it aligns with the door jambs, so only a slither of light can enter inside.
I could get swept away in the mysticism, especially when Darrell points to what might have been libation points for offering liquids to the gods. My husband asks whether the holes bored through some of the stones, probably for tethering animals, could in fact have been used for channelling light sources. Then: “Oh no,” he checks himself. “I’ve gone a bit Indiana Jones.” We stare at the holes, laughing, and a lone visitor pauses to look too, one hand twitching over his camera as though something otherworldly is about to happen.
The canopies above us caused controversy when they were introduced in 2009, in a conservation and development project costing €4.7m (which included the construction of a visitors’ centre). They are only an interim measure to protect the limestone until a less intrusive method can be found, yet people still complain about the canopies’ visual impact, and of course their expense.
“Personally, I think the site would look better left as it was,” says Darrell. “But this measure was needed. In a hundred years’ time the temples would have crumbled.”
I don’t mind the canopies. For me, their sail-like curves sit companionably beside the calmly rolling ocean, and they let in light. The corbelled wall structure hints that the temples may once have had roofs – made from a perishable material such as grass or wood – and so the artificial cover creates atmosphere in the temple rooms, aiding my imagination. While we’re at Mnajdra, the temperature drops suddenly and we hear but don’t feel the pattering of rain.
“Well, that’s one very good thing about the canopies!” Darrell says.
As we wander back to the visitors’ centre, which was inaugurated in September by Malta’s prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, Darrell talks about Heritage Malta’s plans to create a nature walk at this site. It’s an ideal spot: wild rosemary and Mediterranean thyme are known to spring up from the soft scrubland, alongside dandelions and delightfully named spurge, fleabane and sea squill. This is a home for weasels and wall lizards, while zitting cisticola birds and Sardinian warblers visit to breed. In February and March when cape sorrel is flowering, I’m told the ground is carpeted in yellow.
Best of all, on this western coastal edge, there are no high-rise hotels to cast shadows over the island’s prehistoric ‘giants’ and their megalithic legacy. Glancing back at the canopied temples in their idyllic setting, I’m pleased to have changed my mind about Malta.
This is an extract from my travel book which has the working title The Birdwoman of Bangkok and Other Tales: Singapore to London Overland.
The cyclo driver who took us on a late-afternoon tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s back streets had four teeth, wore a ‘STEPS Musicband’ T-shirt, and referred to Steve as Man. Not in a hippy way, like “Hey man”, but as though Man was Steve’s given name.
“Hello, Man. Man! Sit here, Man. You are a good, big man.”
He complimented Man on his choice of woman – “She is very good” – then proceeded to shout the same incomprehensible stories over and over into Man’s hurting ear while pedalling us through quiet lanes of shops that sold broken clocks.
“Help, he’s giving me a headache,” Steve whispered.
“YES, and my friends come back London one week, then go back one week. London friends come back one week,” shouted Mr Steps, for the third time. In the throes of his excitement, he kept forgetting to steer the cyclo.
“We’re going to die,” I said.
“Come back one week, go back one week. They are my London friends!”
Soon his ramblings gave way to a commentary of his own devising.
“This one Notre Dame Cathedral.” He pointed to a crumbling church in a less-than salubrious part of town. “And this one, Man,” he said, both arms sweeping off the handlebar and in the direction of a tatty apartment building, “This one big Hong Kong bank!”
The poor guy needed help, but that didn’t excuse him from trying to charge us double at the end of the ride, claiming our agreed fare was for one passenger only. Fortunately Man and I were well-versed in cheeky scams by now, and handed over the pre-arranged money. The cyclo driver argued only gently, and we left him scratching his belly through the STEPS T-shirt and grinning a gappy grin.
Walking back to the hotel as dusk was falling, clouds stretching like pulled grey wool across the sky, we saw families kicking up their da cau in the park, while children too little to join in wobbled around on toy-shop trikes. We took a shortcut down an alley and were transported into my vision of old Saigon: laundry sagging on lines from window to open window; wrinkled ladies squatting down to chop food on the pavement; a brass funeral band playing a racket outside a mourning household where candles burned on the porch.