After spending one hectic night in Paris, as mentioned in my previous entry, Mr. C and were off to a Mediterranean paradise via Air Malta.
Malta is a Mediterranean island just south of Sicily and north of Tunisia and Libya. Because of its unique and convenient location between Europe and Africa, it represents an interesting blend of language, food, culture, and history. The primary language is Maltese (a strange blend of Arabic and Italian), but many people speak English as Malta was a British colony from 1813 to 1964. Malta is also a member of the European Union and, as such, uses the Euro as currency. The country is also devoutly Roman Catholic, and there were many festivals taking place honoring local patron saints. Although strangely its Muslim and Arabic past still lingers in the language and place names throughout the islands. Practically all the buildings are constructed of the tan stone that is mined on the islands. In fact, it is a law that buildings are constructed of this material, probably for both aesthetic and environmental reasons as there are few trees on the island. It gives the place a very beautiful and unique appearance.
When we first arrived in the small capital city of Valletta, it was dark and the place had closed up for the night. I was surprised how early everything was shut, as usually most Europeans like to dine late into the night. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling in Europe as I’m a bit of a night owl myself. When we woke up on our first morning in Malta, we saw that the city had been transformed! It was alive with tourists and locals, all shopping and eating on Republic Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. It was a completely different scene from when we had arrived. The sky was a brilliant blue and we noticed that you could glance down the steep side streets and see the Mediterranean sparkling out on the horizon.
I took a lot of pictures of the narrow alleyways and quaint wooden balconies for which Malta is known. The balconies sit on stone plinths and are are painted in a variety of colors; they come in many shapes and sizes. Some wrap all the way around the corners of buildings, like verandas, three, four, or five stories up from the city streets. Many are peeling paint, draped with old lace curtains, a faded Virgin Mary presiding over the window frame—all giving a very charming feel to the streets.
On our first full day in Malta we took an adventure to the beach. Getting around on Malta and Gozo is fairly simple as there are buses that run to all the major attractions. They do take quite a while to get you to your destination, as they often take winding, non-direct routes and stop at many locations. Apart from renting a car, there is no other way to get around, and seeing the aggressive style of Maltese driving, I’m glad we didn’t rent a car! We decided to visit Golden Bay, with its reddish gold sand and very beautiful water. It was a little busy and the water was surprisingly freezing cold! We enjoyed our time there nonetheless, especially sitting out on the patio of one of the nearby restaurants to enjoy lunch.
One of my favorite activities on Malta was visiting the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum. It is a neolithic (i.e., Stone Age) underground necropolis (cemetery). It is, in fact, the only known underground neolithic temple in the entire world. It is carved from the living rock and arranged into three different levels, each created at a different time period. When discovered it was estimated that it contained the remains of around 7,000 people. They were not stacked neatly, but the bodies were left out to decay, the bones collected and all deposited into little “rooms” carved beneath the ground—all remains were simply deposited into collective piles. Eventually it was forgotten and abandoned, all filled with mud and dirt until the early 20th century when it was rediscovered by chance. Farmers were trying to create cisterns for their newly built homes and broke unto the second level of the temple complex. Now it is a very delicate tourist attraction that only allows some 50 people to visit per day. As such, the tickets sell out months in advance. In fact, it is currently sold out until the end of July. If you plan to go to Malta, you must see this unique attraction, but make sure to purchase your tickets early. You won’t want to miss out!
No photography was allowed, which I suppose is fine because it was so dark anyway. The light damages the remains of red ocher paintings on the ceilings, mostly ornate spirals and hexagons. The necropolis was really a marvel of human ingenuity as it was carved from the living rocks only with stone and bone tools. It was utilized for a thousand years and discovered with a number of beautifully carved/sculpted depictions of people—ancestors, deities? The most famous is a tiny figure known as the “Sleeping Lady”—a voluptuous Venus of Willendorf-esque woman lying curled on a platform which seems to sag beneath her weight. She may represent an ancestor, a fertility goddess, or perhaps even the sleep of death itself. We will never know! But the fact she exists and was created so artfully is really amazing. I bought a souvenir version to keep in my classroom. I can’t wait to share my stories of the Hypogeum to my next round of world history students next semester!
After the Hypogeum we took a 10-minute walk to another set of Stone Age ruins, this time above ground—the Tarxien temple complex. This site was discovered with some very ornate carvings that are now housed in the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta—including spirals, a scene with domesticated animals, and the bottom half of another voluptuous woman wearing a skirt with dainty little feet. They were removed from the original site in order to protect them but were replaced with replicas. On the way we noticed the small town we were walking through was preparing for some sort of patron saint festival. The streets were bedecked with colorful banners and wooden pillars painted to look like marble. There were several statues of Mary and Jesus waiting to be positioned. We reached the Tarxien temples in the heat of the afternoon. It was not nearly as moving as the Hypogeum but really cool nonetheless. There is something to be said about walking within the remains of a stone temple complex erected around 3,000 B.C.E.
While waiting for the bus back to Valletta, Mr. C and I had a chance to sample one of the local delicacies: a pastizzi. It’s a buttery, savory pastry filled with either ricotta cheese or a seasoned pea mixture. Both are delicious, however I favor the cheese variety. Mr. C preferred the pea version. They are so delicious and basically flake apart into buttery bites as you eat them. Wash them down with an ice cold Coca-Cola and it is truly heaven!
You cannot miss a visit to Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in the center of the Valletta. Malta is also known for being the home of the Knights Hospitaller who took up shop there after 1530. Mr. C, who read a book about crusader knights, was totally engrossed in the audio tour of the cathedral. I’ve seen many European cathedrals, but this one was certainly something very special. The entire interior is completely covered in ornately carved and painted designs and motifs. It is quite spectacular and it practically glows from the ornate gold leafing. There are alcoves dedicated to the knights from each of the main countries: Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, and a few others. Well, some of these were not quite countries yet, but regions and city-states, but you get the point. The English knights had their own order elsewhere (not on Malta), but I’m not sure about the history. The floor is covered in beautifully detailed marble tombs (the coolest ones depict skeletons) where 375 knights are buried.
We also visited a few museums, like the Museum of Archaeology, which was just a few minutes away from Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. This is where the actual “Sleeping Lady” figure is housed along with lots of other relics of the past—neolithic pottery shards, tools, and carvings, Phoenician urns, Roman jewelry. It all gave a great overview of the colorful and vast history that Malta and Gozo have experienced. So much history on such small islands!
On our last day in Malta we checked out a medieval fortified city called Mdina (or the Silent City) that many people said we must visit. It is a walled city high on a hill and also home to several gates that were featured in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. I’ve read all the books and seen both season one and two of the TV show. Unfortunately we only made it two episodes into the third season before school and wedding stuff completely consumed our lives in May.
We spent the afternoon moseying around the beautiful city and stopped to have cafe lattes (a serious addiction) and cake at a cute little restaurant right on the fortified walls of the city. Too bad it wasn’t warmer and the weather nicer (it started to rain)—otherwise it would have been a perfect day! But we were still able to marvel at the narrow little medieval cities where Maltese villagers somehow manage to drive their cars. Only people who live in the village are allowed to drive there, and surprisingly a lot of people still live there, mostly people who have been there for many generations! I definitely recommend a visit.
After three days on Malta it was time to move on to the smaller sister island of Gozo, where we had a farmhouse rental with our name on it! Stay tuned for our adventures on Gozo and living the quiet, country life!