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Malta's Millenia of History

Medieval Fortress Harbor is the perfect spot for a winter getaway

sunny 55 °F

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Another view of Fort St. Angelo across the harbor from Valletta, Malta

I couldn't sleep anymore. Despite the hour, it was time to get out of bed and explore the city. So, at 5 am on my first morning in Valletta, Malta, I left my hotel to wander the medieval fortifications of the crusader Knights of St. John. Malta is a tiny group of islands just south of Sicily, and was the stronghold for three centuries of one of medieval Europe's religious orders of knighthood. It is famous for having withstood two great sieges. It was besieged first was by the Ottoman Turks in the 1565, and the second time much later, during World War II, by the Germans and Italians. Each time the Maltese people and their foreign rulers heroically fought off much larger armies.

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Malta's medieval harbor

It wasn't as cold as I thought it'd be. Malta's Winters feature temperatures in the 50-60s during daytime, but dropping into the 40s at night. The wind whipped whenever I peered over edges of walls at the harbor and opposite shoreline. Malta is windy in Winter, though, and I would feel its tug and sometimes battering nearly the entire week I was to spend on its islands. Predawn Valletta was magical. There were enough lights in the streets to navigate by, and many of the towers, walls and churches were illuminated by golden spotlights. Other than the occasional person out walking their dog, it seemed I had the city to myself. Valletta is built on one peninsula among half a dozen that jut out into a great, natural harbor. All these spits of land were heavily fortified by the Knights, with Valletta the strongest of them all.

I made a circuit, following the outer walls for the most part. The views across the dark water to the other peninsulas were great, and I snapped a few timed, night shots with my mini-tripod. Just as I wound around the tip of the peninsula, towards its eastern facing side, the sky began to glow with the rising sun. It was a gorgeous sunrise, and a wonderful way to start my trip.

After breakfast, I visited the city's tourist information office. I had a number of questions since my research for this trip had been rushed (I was originally planning on going somewhere else, so Malta was one of my signature "back pocket" trips!). To my dismay, I found out my planned destination for the day -- the neolithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra -- are closed for renovation. Malta is rich with temples built by Stone Age settlers more than 5,000 years ago.

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Scenery from my Marfa Ridge hike along Malta's northwest coast

Since the clear blue sky promised a beautiful day, I decided to do one of the hikes I'd planned instead. I took a bus to the extreme northwest of the island, known as the Marfa Ridge. Although this is where some of Malta's best beaches are located, December is bit cool for swimming. Many of the beachfront communities and their rental properties that line the shore were closed. However, that ensured I had the coastal scenery pretty much to myself. It turned out to be a long walk, and though the scenery was nice, it was not nearly as dramatic as I'd expected. There were a number of medieval watchtowers spaced out across the area, but all were closed. There were great views of the cliffs of Gozo and Comino -- the other two of the three major islands that make up Malta. The weather held true, too, and it was a wonderful, though windswept day of hiking.

I was particularly excited about my destination for the next morning. Having been cheated of two of Malta's stone age temples, I was looking forward all the more to my visit to the Hypogeum. This UNESCO world heritage site is an underground temple built beginning around 3600 BC on three levels. It was used for nearly a thousand years both a burial chamber and a place to conduct sacred rites. Painted spiral or hexagonal designs can still be seen on the walls, which has led Malta to protect the site by limiting the number of visitors. Tickets must be bought in advance (I'd purchased mine on the internet before leaving the U.S.), and only groups of 10 at a time are led through it at set times during the day. The contrast between one of man's earliest religious structures -- the Hypogeum is older than the pyramids and Stonehenge -- and the ultra modern facility the Maltese have built to preserve, yet showcase it for visitors, is striking. The lighting was moody and dramatic, the narration in the hand-held audio device was well done. The guide would point out the portions of each cave or room that was being discussed, and answered questions readily. I have never been to those caves painted by early man in the Dordogne valley in France, but the Hypogeum evoked that "Clan of the Cave Bear" feeling. It was amazing to see the skill of these early architects -- including the bowing out of vertical lines to give an impression of greater size (the same trick the Ancient Greeks used on their temples like the Parthenon). What was life like for them, more than 5,000 years ago? It was fun imagining what the Hypogeum long ago when it was in use by the earliest Maltese.

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Neolithic temple of Tarxien on Malta

Next, I walked a few hundred yards to the Neolithic temple of Tarxien. Researchers say that the Hypogeum mirrors the cloverleaf form of these above ground Stone Age temples. Most are symmetrical with an equal number of oval caverns branching off from the entrance. The difference being that these temples are one story (their wooden or stone roofs long vanished), while the Hypogeum was carved into three descending levels underground. Tarxien's temples are supposed to be the most reconstructed of the ones in Malta, but I could easily see a cynic calling them a "rockpile." Other than a couple of the oval chambers which had clearly delineated altars and Stonghenge-like vertical stone uprights capped by horizontal lintels, much of the site is hard to decipher. One cool thing, though: In a few of the chambers, you can still see animals and geometric patterns carved into the stones.

I returned to Valletta, and since it was another gorgeous day, decided to wander the fortifications and take pictures of the city in the daylight. I essentially followed my early morning path from the day before, but the views were that much more spectacular under the bright blue skies. I found a couple more great vantage points to take pictures of the city and its neighboring peninsulas. Most of the buildings were built with local limestone in the 1500-1700s, and glowed brightly in the sunlight. The architectural flourishes and details were great to look for, too: Stone lions with paws resting on a coat of arms, statues of early saints, leering mythological figures on fountains and rich scrollwork. The most striking feature are the balconies that are on nearly every building. These are usually made of painted wood with glass windows and project a couple feet out from the buildings, overhanging the street from the second and higher levels. On narrow streets, the long line of balconies gleaming in the sun can make for quite a sight.

I finished the day with a visit to the Grand Palace's Armoury Museum. This featured yet another hand-held audio device, like an oversized cell phone, which you punched in the number of the display you were looking at and listened to the description. It was an impressive, though relatively small museum. Hundreds of suits of armor from the warrior monks, the Knights of St. John, lined the polished glass display cases, and the information on the them was informative and accurate. Another room held every type of medieval and renaissance weapon, from swords, pole arms and crossbows, all the way up to hand guns and huge cannons. Being military buff, it was great to wander and see examples of some of the things I've read about for years up close. The rich, inlaid armor of the Grand Masters of the Order were probably the most impressive pieces in the museum.

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Detail on armor from the Palace Armoury Museum

Before dinner, I stopped by "The Pub," a small bar that is famous for being the favorite haunt of English actor Oliver Reed. The heavy drinker died in Malta during the filming of the movie "Gladiator" (he was Proximo, if you remember, the owner of the Gladiator school). They even have newspaper clippings on the walls of the pub detailing "Oliver Reed's Last Order." It was a quiet spot when I was there, with only six tourists including myself and two locals (including the bartender). Actually, I was surprised to discover lots of movies are filmed in Malta, including "Troy," "Munich" and the "Da Vinci Code." Malta has two huge water tanks on the shore that many films use to shoot their ocean scenes, such as "The Spy who Loved Me" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman." One film that has left its mark on the landscape is the 1980 Robin Williams version of "Popeye." The village of Sweethaven was left intact and is now an amusement park on Malta.

It was to the water I was headed the next day, too, as I took the ferry over to the island of Gozo. Onboard, I had an incredible stroke of luck (and a chance to witness the friendliness of the Maltese). I ran into two of the people from my tour of the Hypogeum: Vince, a Maltese dentist in his 50s, and his niece Johanna, visiting from San Francisco. They offered to give me a lift to my hotel, and ended up basically adopting me for my two days on Gozo. Vince owns an apartment there, in the seaside town of Marsalforn, and convinced me to pick a guest house in there so we could meet up easier. Gozo is so small and is basically walkable, he said, so it didn't matter much where on the island I stayed. I had dinner with them both nights on the island, and they were incredibly friendly and welcoming.

After checking in to my guest house, I tried to rent a bicycle for the two days, but all the shops were closed for the lunch hour. Since I was only headed to the neighboring village of Xaghra, I decided to hoof it, and within an hour was there. Once again, the day was sunny and this time quite warm -- easily in the 70s, I guessed. My goal was to see the neolithic temple of Ggantija. Much like the one at Tarxien, this consists of two temple complexes side by side, and here enclosed by an intact outer wall of massive stones -- some weighing 57 tons! They were neat to visit, though unfortunately big portions of them were roped off. Also, much like Tarxien, someone who isn't a history buff may go away decrying them as just another "pile of rocks." The Ggantija temples were perched on a hilltop with a lovely view to the south.

Since it was still early in the afternoon, I picked out the nearby town of Xewkija for my next stop. The town is famous for the Rotunda, a cathedral with what is said to be the third largest dome in all of Europe. This honor is debated by the inhabitants of the town of Mosta on Malta, who say theirs is larger. Both are amazing sights in such tiny places, though, and are a testament to the religious devotion of its inhabitants. Unlike much of Western Europe, Malta's citizens are staunchly religious and conservative. The tradition is that the island was converted to Christianity in 60 A.D. by St. Paul, who was shipwrecked on the island on his way to being taken to Rome for trial. The people look like most southern Europeans, olive skinned with black hair. Although most speak English, they do have their own language of Malti, which is essentially Arabic heavily spiced with Italian. Listening to them, I finally hit upon what it sounded like: Arabic spoken with an Italian cadence and rhythm. Vince showed me one evening over dinner that even the Malti word for God is "Alla." After visiting the Rotunda, which was bright and airy inside, I wound my way southward for awhile longer, but the lengthening late afternoon shadows forced me to turn homeward. Cutting through Gozo's capital of Victoria, I saw a square setting up huge, brightly colored banners for a religious festival.

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My Maltese friends, Vince and Johannna

When I was perhaps a mile from my guest house, a car honked and pulled over: It was Vince and Johanna. They drove me the rest of the way, and told me what time to come over for dinner. We had a pleasant meal (Vince cooked spaghetti), and had a particularly interesting discussion on religion. In that theme, we jumped in the car and headed to Victoria to see the "Festa." It was great. A marching band led the image of the Virgin Mary through the streets, followed by fireworks in the church square. The Maltese love their fireworks, and these aren't just the usual U.S. style shoot into the air and watch explode in colors. They construct elaborate banners festooned with rockets and fireworks that spin, revolve and detonate. Even model airplanes zipped on lines overhead the square powered by huge bottle rockets. Vince had seen a couple friends in the crowd, and after the show was over, the five of us retired to an indoor/outdoor bar. We drank until 1 am, and had a blast discussing topics as various as the Maltese love of karaoke (which I was spared a demonstration of, thankfully!). As we headed back to the car, a light mist began to fall.

That mist presaged the first rain since my plane had landed. It was cloudy and looked threatening when Vince and Johanna picked me up the next morning. They were going shopping for lace, a Maltese specialty, and had offered to drop me off at my destination for that day, coastal Dwerja. It is the site of Gozo's most spectacular natural scenery and I wanted to hike up the coastline. The rain continued to hold off as I checked out the Inland Sea, a circular pool perhaps 100 yards away from the shore and connected to the waters by a narrow tunnel. In calm weather, I'd read boats will go through the tunnel, but today's weather was anything but. I then leaned into wind and tromped back out to the shore to see the Azure Window, as the natural rock arch is called. In the other direction was a narrow bay protected by the limestone plug of Fungus Rock. It was called that for a rare medicinal plant that the Knights of St. John harvested there to use in their hospitals (they were noted healers in addition to warriors, and were also called the Hospitallers).

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The fantastic coastal scenery of Dwerja on Gozo, Malta

I hiked along the shoreline towards the bay, and to my pleasure, saw patches of blue sky begin to appear in the cloud. Maybe I'd get lucky after all! The wind continued to buffet me, nearly tossing me to the ground a couple times. Thankfully, as I was not far from the edge at times, it was blowing from the sea, and would shove me away -- not towards -- the drop off. I gained height as I worked my way around the bay, admiring the view. I tried to snap pictures in the patches of sunshine, but I also had to time it against the strongest of the wind's gusts -- which had to be peak in the 30-40 mph range. After more than an hour of hiking, I reached the headland and clifftop overlooking the bay from other side. The panorama beneath me was splendid. Fungus Rock in the mouth of the bay, the Azure Window, and a watchtower built by the Knights all lined up dramatically. It was truly spectacular. I admired the view for a few moments, than glancing at my watch, saw I needed to hurry back down to the parking lot, as Vince and Johanna would be returning shortly.

When they pulled up, I discovered their first foray had been unsuccessful, and they had more shopping to do. Vince offered to drop me off at the citadel in Victoria, to explore there. I jumped at the chance, despite the worsening look to the sky. Built in the 1500s, the castle dominated the town from a hill in its center. It is also built entirely of local limestone. I'd read that limestone "mellows" with age -- turns a rich gold color from its original bright tan. This walls, towers and cathedral of the castle were all of this warm color, and gave it a stunningly photogenic look even under gray skies. I wandered the walls and towers, taking pictures and enjoying the views. Gozo stretched away beneath me in a 360 degree tableau. I could see hilltop Xaghra, where I'd visited the temples yesterday, the massive dome of Xewkija looming in the distance, and even the sparkle of the Dwerja coastline to the west. The wind continued to batter me when not blocked by castle walls, but it was magnificent nonetheless. Although there are half a dozen museums and other sights within the citadel, I didn't stop in any. It was simply just too romantic wandering the pathways of the windy, golden castle atop the hill to take time to stop! When the hour was up, and I had to meet my friends back down at the entrance, the first thick rain drops began to fall. I found a cavelike niche along the street and ducked in out of the wind and rain to waited till Vince arrived. I chuckled and wondered how miserable I'd have been if I HAD rented a bicycle yesterday! The rain, driven by awesome wind gusts, was coming down in earnest. The day's sightseeing was officially over!

I enjoyed dinner with Vince and Johanna one last time, and said goodbye to them, as they were returning to Malta that evening. It was a low key evening afterwards, as I visited an internet cafe, read my book for awhile, then planned out my sightseeing for the rest of the week on Malta. It wasn't until about noon that I arrived back in Valletta the next day, and since the day was still threatening rain, I decided it was time to do visit the city's indoor attractions. I began at the Archeological Museum, which housed many of the best relics from the neolithic temples I'd visited. I saw the 5,000 year old statues of Magna Mater, or "the Fat Lady," as the fertility goddess was nicknamed. The carvings of deer or spiral designs on the altar tops looked way too crisp to be four or five millennia old. It was nice that the museum allowed photographs, as so many prohibit them anymore. After the Archeological Museum, I visited the Sacra Infirmia, which was the Knight's hospital in Valletta. The only way to visit it is to buy a ticket to the Knights of St. John "audio-visual" show. My guidebook had warned it was hokey and not worth it, and it was they right! I thought being a history buff I might get a tad bit more out of it, but I was wrong. The only saving grace was the exhibit allowed me to visit the cool old building and some of the passageways beneath it.

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Architectural details in old town of Mdina, Malta

The next day, the weather dawned bright and sunny, which was good, since I was headed to the old capital of Mdina, about a 45 minute bus ride away. I'd been told by Vince and others that Mdina is a highlight of Malta. It is an old, walled town that nowadays houses only a few hundred inhabitants. In the old days, though, it was the home of the island's nobility. I was actually somewhat disappointed. Mdina was nice. It was quaint. However, I enjoyed wandering Valletta and the citadel in Gozo much more. One big strike against Mdina is you can't climb the town walls, except for a small portion, so you miss out on that view from above. The cathedral of St. Paul was definitely the highlight. Inside, its color was lavish from the painted frescoes on the ceiling down to the richly colored marble slabs that made up the floor. The slabs were actually the tombstones of various nobles and clergy that are buried inside the church. So, as you walked across the marble floor of the cathedral, you were in effect, walking atop the dead.

That seemed to be the theme of the day. My next stop was a museum atop the excavated remains of a 2nd Century A.D. Roman Domus, or town house, just outside Mdina's walls. I like just about any kind of Roman ruins, but this museum was extremely well done and was an excellent surprise. It displayed statues, Roman tools, etc., in the upper levels, then as you descended to the basement, it showcased its highlight: The mosaic floors of the domus. These had been cleaned and restored to excellent shape. The walkways above and around the floor allowed you to get a great look at them, and some fragments were in display cases for an even closer view. A short stop, but well worthwhile.

The same was true of my next stop, in the town of Rabat that spreads beyond Mdina's walls: St. Agatha's Catacombs. These medieval crypts sprawl beneath the church and were one of the burying places of Mdina's dead in the Middle Ages. Some religious frescoes painted on the cavern walls are bright and lifelike to this day. As your roam the passageways beneath, you encounter skulls, bones and the sprawl of cavern after cavern. Definitely a bit spooky, but the atmospheric lighting and deep shadows make you forget about the morbid nature of your sightseeing, and instead enjoy the exploration. It helped that there was only one other traveler in the catacombs while I visited. I wondered just how ominous it might have seemed if I'd been down there alone! Unfortunately, no photos were allowed, which was a bummer, as it was a truly unique and exhilarating experience.

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Fantastic views of Malta's fortified harbor from the vedette on Senglea

I hiked back out to the main road next, and headed towards Malta' Aviation Museum. I ended up taking a wrong turn and going the long way, but found it, all the while glancing nervously at the dark clouds gathering above me. They unleashed their torrents just moments after I stepped in the first of the two aircraft hangers that compose the museum. It was cool to look at the World War II aircraft, like British Spitfires and Hurricanes, and even the semi-skeletal remains of their obsolete biplane torpedo bomber, the Swordfish. As the rain hammered the metal roof, I sat down and watched a videotape that was playing about an anti-aircraft gunner in the British army who fought in Malta and endured the siege and aerial blitz by Axis Germany and Italy. After the rain stopped, and I'd seen most of the show, I hiked back out to the main road and caught the bus back into Valletta.

My final day of sightseeing began with an early morning bus trip around the harbor to the "Three Cities." These are three peninsulas the jut out into the harbor across from Valletta. It dawned another bright and sunny day, and I took full advantage of that to take lots of photos of the brightly colored boats bobbing on the water, the fortified walls looming overhead, and the church domes and bell towers peeking even higher above them. It was a beautiful morning, and I explored the "cities" of Sliema and Vittoriosa, wandering their streets and alleys. Maltese towns are simply exquisite. The balconies, winding narrow streets, stone steps of alley ways, all combine to make just walking around an enjoyable experience. I would have to say that I did more of that than anything else in my entire stay, and where elsewhere that might have gotten old or tiresome, in Malta it never did.

I capped my visit across the harbor with the Malta at War Museum, which is built atop a World War II bomb shelter. After watching a wartime film produced in Britain lauding Malta's efforts, they give you a hard hat and let you explore the maze of passageways carved into the rock beneath the museum. Many of the rooms had been refurnished to show what they looked like during the Blitz, and the ways the Maltese tried to make them homelike during the large amounts of time they huddled in them. It was definitely worthwhile, especially the occasional displays that explained construction techniques best protect people, or make their time inside more bearable and healthy.

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Valletta's magnificent Co-Cathedral

As interesting as the museum was, it couldn't compare with St. John's Co-Cathedral, my next to last stop. It's called a co-cathedral because, along with the cathedral in Mdina, it was named the seat of the island's archbishop. The colors, gilt-encrusted walls and columns, the decorations -- all were simply spectacular. The long church has a number of small chapels tucked away on either side. The Knights of St. John were divided into "langues" (languages), by which European areas the knight came from. Each langue has a chapel in the cathedral, and they vied historically with one another to see who could decorate theirs more lavishly. Once again, the audio guide proved handy here. Each section was labeled with a number to key into your cell phone like device to hear a recorded description. These were informative and added immensely to the visit. Plus, it allowed you to conduct your circuit in whatever order you wish, which I used to dodge the other tourists and groups in the cathedral. Vince had told me on Gozo that I HAD to visit the co-cathderal, and he was right. It was gorgeous and magnificent at the same time.

It'd be nice to say that I ended my day's sightseeing there, an appropriate climax. However, with a bit of time left, I succumbed and went to another of Malta's horrid "Audio-Visual Experiences." This cellar full of cheese was called the Great Siege of Malta exhibit. I can honestly say I did not learn a single thing from it, nor even once nodded and thought, "that was kind of cool." My guidebook had warned that it was bad. And once again, I figured the military history buff in me would make it at least palatable. Nope. Wrong. It was not just bad, but very, very bad.

However, no matter how rank and cheesy that exhibit was, it could not spoil my week in Malta. From my predawn ramblings in a darkened Valletta on the first morning, to my hikes on the raging coastline of Gozo, through the wonderful castles and fortifications that drew me to the island, Malta was an excellent trip. The relics of its history were impressive, its coastal beauty was inspiring, and its people -- those staunch defenders that withstood two of history's greater sieges -- were welcoming and friendly. For such small islands, Malta showcased the many reasons to go explore them.

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:22 Archived in Malta

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