Dear fellow travellers
This is an interesting week for Malta, as the island adopts the euro as its national currency. The lira maltija, which has served Malta well for thirty-five years, will be consigned to currency history. And Europeans from Andalucía to Finnish Lapland can ponder how long they might have to wait before the first euro coins with Maltese designs turn up by chance in their small change. The three lowest value coins (1c, 2c and 5c) all depict an altar from the Mnajdra temple complex. Perched on the south coast of Malta, the temples at Mnajdra might well lay claim to being one of the seven wonders of Europe. They are almost certainly the continent's oldest ceremonial buildings. It is interesting that Malta, one of the most Catholic nations in Europe, harps back to a pre-Christian past in its euro coin design.
Prehistoric art of another kind features on the new Cypriot euro coins which also officially enter circulation today, but only in the southern part of the divided island. The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus will continue to use the Turkish lira. The new one euro and two euro Cypriot coins both show the Idol of Pomos. The five thousand year old cruciform sculpture was probably a fertility symbol.
Those United Kingdom citizens who remain ever wary about all matters European will probably be surprised to find that a UK Overseas Territory also adopts the euro today. The two Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) on Cyprus (Akrotiri and Dhekelia) will switch to the new currency. These two pockets of land are political curiosities of the first order - not part of the European Union, and more than mere military bases, they have a sizeable indigenous Cypriot population. But this does not usher in a UK version of the euro coinage: rather the SBAs will rely initially on Cypriot euro coins, and in due course no doubt on all manner of other euro coins that will eventually reach Cyprus.
Early evening in Malta is a time to wander, even in these past days when the island has been lashed by unremitting winter rain. Maltese curiosity about their new currency seems to have done nothing to eclipse the islanders' perennial obsession with presepji - Christmas cribs. It is the hour or two after dusk when many Maltese take time out to visit the churches, homes and other venues which host fabulous displays of Christmas cribs.
Christmas cribs in Malta, as elsewhere in Europe, tell the nativity story in local dialect. Just as many German cribs might have you believe that Bethlehem was located in the Bavarian Alps, so Maltese cribs celebrate the vernacular architecture and local landscapes of the Mediterranean island. Papier mâché may have replaced rustic local stone and gagazza as the prime crib materials, but still the Maltese crib tradition prioritises local scenes: Maltese farmhouses and windmills abound. Each year prizes are awarded for the best cribs.
Many residents of the Maltese capital, Valletta, are this year taking the chance to visit the Auberge de Castille - the building houses the office of the Prime Minister and is usually closed to the public. But it opens its door for two hours each evening over Christmas and the New Year period to allow the public to see a spectacular Neapolitan crib, which displays a trio of nativity scenes against a backdrop of daily life in Naples. Not very Maltese, but a popular seasonal diversion.