Malta, Jewel of the Mediterranean

Part of our small states series of stories

Malta movement.jpgA tiny speck of two main islands merely 80km south from Sicily and 280+km from Tunisia. It is even smaller than tiny Singapore at 316km².

Home of Christian knights and fought over repeatedly, the really ancient side of the islands are mainly a sideshow.

Our journey to what we term the jewel of the Mediterranean was both to know more about the ancient, and also to meet some old friends. Alps1Literally. From UNESCO sites that date back to before 3000BC, to the more “modern” medieval times, we spent eight days to truly immerse in the culture, history and cuisine of the Maltese.Alps3

Flying in over the alps, across to the boot that Italy looks like, we descended right into our Mediterranean adventure.Carnival3

We happened to be here during the week of Carnival. This is the time when children take part in parades in colorful costumes!Carnival4

The carnival is the time of celebration before the ritual fasting of the catholic faith. In the local context (Malta), the carnival meant a lot of feasting and celebrations, including the children’s parade. This parade features children dressed up in various themes. Some of them we saw included Halloween-like costumes.

Really old places

Tarxien areaThere has been a lot of archaeological finds on the islands of Malta. Be prepared to be underwhelmed. You need to understand that most of the archaeological sites were derelict when discovered. Unless extensive reconstruction takes place, these sites may be a pile of organized rubble. Without much of the original materials, it is difficult to even begin with. In the days to come, we will be doing a lot of walking amidst the structures that were built more than 3000 years ago.Tarxien temple 2

One such site is the Tarxien temples. They date in excess of 3000BC and are part of a large number of relics from that era spread across the island. Tarxien temple 4An interesting note: the concentric patterns on the preserved stone block is familiar – to the Celtic art. Take the bus to the Tarxien temples (Buses 8, 11 or 27) and it took just 20 minutes to get there and costs us just 15¢ for short rides. It is good for a nice walk in the early morning.

Not far from these temples is the UNESCO site –Hal Safi Hypogeum.

The Hypogeum is a labyrinthine complex of man-made chambers hewn out of the limestone extending some 11 meters below ground. It appears to have been used both as a burial site and as a temple. Neolithic man is said to have carved out the Hypogeum using only antlers and stone picks as tools, and in semi darkness!

It comprises of three superimposed levels. The upper level resembles the earlier rock-cut tombs found elsewhere on the Islands. The middle level, hewn out during the temple period (3800 – 2500 B.C.) is made up of numerous chambers. Many statuettes, amulets, figurines and vases were recovered here. The most famous figurine is that of the so-called Sleeping Lady, a reclining figurine, perhaps meant as a representation of eternal sleep. It is on display at the National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta.

We are booking ahead for ourselves a place for the following Friday’s 3pm tour. They only allow 10 persons per group and a maximum of 3-4 groups per day. Tickets can only be purchased up to 15 days in advance and normally sells out quick. Don’t procrastinate. You either come or don’t. At that time, it only cost us LM3pp.

Fortress Malta sights

Valette exploration 3Valetta Horse cart2Even as we walked, we had taken the horse carriage for 7 Maltese pound (back then it was 2:1 to the Euro!!).

The ride took us around the ramparts and streets of Valetta. A really nice view of Sliema and Manoel island greets you as we sat at the walls of overlooking the bay.

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It was also a nice walk all the way to Fort Angelo, one of many fortifications that were built by the Knights of St. John to protect Malta against invasion. The islands were to fend off invasions by the Saracens from north Africa. These hail from the time of the crusades and stood the test of many siege battles.

Comino Island 6For LM14.95pp, you can take a cruise that circles Malta and sail to the islands of Comino and Gozo.Cruise 01

Once on board the boat make its way pass the harbors of Malta on the northern side and catch a glimpse of St. Paul’s island – the place he was said to have shipwrecked on the way to Rome.

Comino Island 5We stopped at Comino island for lunch and took time to explore the island –taking views of the blue lagoon (so many places call theirs the same).

In the summer time, when the temperature is higher, many swimmers cool off in the lagoon!

Today we have an overcast and the winds were too strong to continue on the south side of the island. So instead the captain made an attempt to go round Gozo, but that too was thwarted.Gozo Ta Cenc cliffs1 It got really choppy and the boat was tossing about quite violently.

So we sailed on towards the south side of Gozo, but that was when the sea became really rough. We did managed to see the Ta’ Cenc cliffs though before we had to turn back.

It is a pleasure to take a day to shop at the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village. Located near the town of Mdina, the center is a collection of aerodromes of the British airforce. These were converted into workshops of various kinds – ranging from goldsmiths to traditional craft makers.

Mdina Fortress 3From there it is a short ride by bus to Mdina, the old capital where you can walk amidst numerous beautiful buildings in the city. The cathedral in the city exudes a golden-yellow hue, giving a stark contrast to the blue sky. It must have been siesta time, for the streets were quiet. But that made for great opportunities without photo bombs!

Mdina GateFrom the defensive bastions of Mdina, you can see the entire area around it. The fortress sits on top of the highest point in the area. It is easy to see how this location was chosen to be the capital, since it was further inland. Quite a brisk walk we must say but well worth it. The cat here takes in the view with us!Mdina Fortress 6

And not far is the suburbs of Rabat is an important point for visitation if you are the religious kind, for the catacombs of St Paul are located here. These were the old quarters of Christians in the early start of the religion, at a time when it was considered just another religious sect. Close by, visit the church where the grotto of St Paul was built. We had a beautiful day, and it felt more spring today.

Going to Gozo

Gozo day tripI recalled that we only paid LM5.75pp for the day trip to Gozo. Hmm, was it really that cheap? Might have missed a digit.

Anyway, we were picked up at 8am and headed straight to the ferry point. We boarded the 9:30 ferry and departed for Gozo.

The trip started with a visit to the Ta’ Pinu church which is situated in the middle of a valley of the same name. It is a beautiful church, especially with the clear blue sky.

This was followed by a trip to nearby Gharb village Maltese folk life museum. The village museum houses many artifacts of the tools used by the farmers on Malta from hundreds of years ago. Again the streets seem deserted…

Stopped over by Xlendi bay for lunch and where we could have a look at the cove. We then continued to Calypso bay, where a natural “window” to the sea gave us some beautiful views.

The way down was full of sharp rocks. There are numerous passages and easy to get lost in if exploring alone. So, stick to the paths!

Gozo Ggantija temples 1The Ggantija temples were next, in which we walked through the ruins. Like we said earlier in this page, mainly rubble, organized well though. Actually, the best way to see the Neolithic temples is by the air, which means a helicopter trip but at that time we did not budget for it nor knew how to arrange for one.

Our last stop of the day in Gozo was its capital – Victoria. The citadel was a steep climb up! But the views from the top were great! The top of the old citadel was covered with wild flowers. Sunny day + cool breeze made it easier on us to complete the ascent.

One of the main crafts in Malta is the making of glass. We found many shops selling these wares, including the ones in Ta’ Qali. Taking the rest of the time to do some shopping, we were driven back to the pier for our ferry back to Malta. From there it is a 30-minute drive back to our hotel.Valetta Bus terminus

Buses here on Malta are the old British Bedford… They are in the process of being replaced. Of course, the seats on the bus are not in great condition (you get what you pay). The system remains that you buy your ticket from the bus driver. Do not sit next to the entrance, there are no doors or they are not closed when the bus is moving!

Old friends

We spent a whole day with friends made from the days we traveled in Eastern Europe in 2001. Today they hosted us and booked a car to drive us to various sights.

Marsaxlokk bay, where you can see many Maltese fishing boats is one of our stops. These boats go 25 miles out to sea. You can see the ‘eye’ on the front sides of the boats. The eye was a relic from the ancient religion of the sea god – Poseideon. There are many Maltese who depend on the sea for work.

Next up – Blue grotto. This is a natural wonder like the one in Capri. We took a boat trip to the grottoes and the views were great! You can see the cliff formations from the sea and the hues of colors in the caverns. There was Cat’s cave, Blue window and many other views of the caverns. You get a different perspective on the formation of the blue grotto when you returned to the top of the cliffs.

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Dingli area 1The Dingli cliffs was next from which we enjoyed a breathtaking view! This stretch of coastline consists of plunging cliffs, quite similar to that of South Australia!Dingli cliffs 1

Did you know that the name Dingli is said to have been derived from Sir Thomas Dingley, a knight of the military Order of St John…

Maurice & Maryrose8Back in Valetta, we walked up to the lookout point of Senglea, where we had a look at the designs on the different faces of the tower.

Maurice & Maryrose2The city of Vittoriosa, known by the Maltese as Birgu, retains many interesting buildings including the early Auberges of the Knights, their hospital, the Armory, the Treasury and palaces connected with the Order’s administration. All legacy of the times when the various Christian military orders had their base here.

We spent the afternoon at the home of Maurice and Maryrose in the tiny commune of Attard. Maryrose made so much food that we were stuffed! And we played with the cats too… But it was time to stay goodbye to our old friends. Keeping in touch via letters and postcards is getting rare, and in this instantaneous world archaic. But this tradition we will try to maintain for the longest time possible.

We appreciated the gracious hospitality that Maurice and Maryrose extended to us during our journey. Your loving ways have inspired us to emulate you. In some ways we are envious of how connected you both were throughout life. You will always be remembered.

This essay is dedicated to Maurice† and Maryrose Saïd.

March 2003

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