Around and about Malta

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Saturday, June 3, 2006

After a solid effort in Valletta to get about and see the city and some of its more famous sights, it was time to get out into the countryside and see what else Malta has going for it. So I allowed myself a full day on the apparently notorious buses to see the south and east of the island, even if the weather didn't look like it was going to co-operate.

I found that there are a bunch of things around Malta that reveal its incredibly long history as well as confirm the important location it holds on the Mediterranean's trade and migratory routes. I was only able to see a few of these but each was definitely worth checking out in its own way so I'm glad I braved the elements.

Heading south first up I aimed for Dingli Cliffs on the coast. Half way there the sky opened and because I didn't particularly want to be stranded in the rain without cover I jumped off the bus early when it reached Rabat. The ancient fortified city of Mdina ('walled city' in Arabic) lay nearby but I'm a little over walled cities by now so instead beelined directly to the shelter of St Agatha's Catacombs.

Apparently St Paul converted the Maltese to Christianity very early on after being shipwrecked here in 60AD. Legend also has it that a couple of hundred years later, Agatha, a young virgin from Sicily, fled the persecution of Christians in her homeland and the attentions of the Roman Governor who had fallen in love with her. She came to Malta and prayed around the area her chapel is now located. However in an unwise move she returned to Sicily not long after and was tortured to death for her faith, hence becoming a saint and having her fellow Christians in Malta build these catacombs not long after in her honour.

The crypt now extends more than four square kilometres, dug into the soft limestone under Rabat. Most tombs date from the 3rd century AD so it is actualy older than many of the catacombs in places like Rome (which usually date from the 4th-6th centuries AD). Visiting here turned out to be an excellent choice as the antechamber is decorated with colourful 12th century frescos and there was no guided tour arrangement, meaning you can wander the semi-lit grottos near the entrance by yourself.

Some of the burial niches you come across contain skeletal remains and there are other, older frescos to be found further from the entrance. The one pictured above dates from the 4th century apparently. Also of interest is the round 'agape' tables carved into the floor in places - this is where mourning families would come for a meal with their dearly departed. Nothing like the stench of death to whet your appetite...

Back topside and the rain had passed so I blithely thought I might walk the rest of the way to Dingli. It was a couple of kilometres there but the cliffs were a further couple from the town itself, making for an hour long expedition. Still, that was fine as the weather was mild and the flat, rocky and sand-coloured countryside rather unusual. Eventually I made it to what I think were the cliffs, more like steep hilsides falling away into the ocean, which encompassed small but interesting farming plots halfway down the slopes. Somewhere out in the hazy distance to the south lay Libya and Tunisia.

Having found my stride I continued walking to my main goal of the day - the pre-historic monolith temples of Hagar Qim. Past Clapham Junction (as exciting here as it is in England) and through Buskett Gardens (apparently a forest but only slightly greener than the rest of the land around). This involved avoiding some shooters hunting birds with shotguns, skirting a quarry or two and walking for maybe 6-8 kilometres through sparsely populated and remote areas. It didn't look that far on the map but with a combination of poor signage, winding and often directionless pathways and the gently rolling land (that hid the temples until I made it there), it was surprising I found them at all. All I can say is thanks to the local couple that gave me directions and then came and found me with their car to give me a lift, the last bit was the killer and frustrated by absolutely no signposts to guide the way!

Moral of the story is get a bus back to Valletta and then another bus out the the temples. Lesson learned in the end but by now the sun was shining which allowed me to appreciate this pre-historic marvel in all its glory.

They don't look like much but these temples pre-date the Pyramids by 500 years, making them the oldest free-standing monoliths known to man. Frankly I was surprised as they are not just standing monuments but were obviously fully fledged temples back then too, with walls and ceilings, doors, altars and windows hewn straight out of the rock and assembled in a circular manner not unlike Stonehenge.

Hagar Qim is good but the temple further down the hill called Mnajdra is of the same era and is somehow better preserved, especially so when considering that the limestone used here was a softer variety that, whilst easily shaped and carved with decorations, should probably erode faster as well. Maybe it just got buried sooner. Either way, it was built between 3600 and 3000 BC and it's been calculated that the doorway was aligned perfectly with the rising sun of the equinox as well as that of the soltice, so that the sun shines directly through the door on the two equinox dates and through an angle resulting in a razor-fine ray of sunlight on both solstices. Sounds like those clever little druids at work again (even if they were just a hoax). Amazing.

Just so you know, whomever constructed Hagar Qim and Mnajdra also dug fat ladies. No, not the two pommy birds that love pasta but dozens of fertility goddess figurines that have been excavated from various sites around Malta and Gozo (including Hagar Qim) and are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Valletta. Also, if you a planning a trip to Malta you should book ahead for an excursion to Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a complex of underground burial chambers dating from the same period as Hagar Qim (around 3,500BC). A model I saw looked amazing, but the number of visitors is severely restricted so you need to book at least 10 days in advance, even out of season (I'm dead serious - tried booking myself and no slots until the 13th of June!).

Anyway, back into town on one of the world's cruellest buses and then out again to the divinely named Marsaxlokk (pron. Marsashlok). By the time we got there using the most bone-crunchingly circuitous route possible I was ready to bail out the back through the Victorian-era emergncy door. So that's why all the locals move to the middle of the bus eh? A less jarring ride by far...

My teeth stopped rattling in my head long enough to appreciate the little fishing village and harbour that I found here. Hundreds of brilliantly coloured fishing boats had me reminiscing of scenes from Asia, from Lombok all the way to to Mui Ne in Vietnam. The low-lying, chalk-white town in the background added to the effect but since I couldn't find a decently priced fish and chips for a beerto wash down I hopped the next bus back to Valletta. Pretty boats seen and done.

I thought it was to Valletta but no, we ended up on a magical mystery tour to Sliema, on the other side of one of the harbours surrounding Valletta. It must have been ordained however as this area is the growth capital of the island and you really should come to check it out. I came, I saw Valletta's walls from afar, took a couple of photos and got on the right bus to town. Well and truly over Maltese buses by then I can tell you...

And with that I was off to Gozo, predictably on another yellow bus. Maybe some diving, maybe something else. We shall see when I get there and how things pan out with the return ferry to Sicily. Seeing as though the locals use Merhaba (Turkish for 'hello') I can probably use Inshallah (Arabic for 'God willing') around here too.

Next entry -> yoyo on Gozo

Words from the Wise #71

"Malta is a sod of a place."
David Niven

If he said Maltese buses are sods of things I'd agree with him...
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