April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
Click on any thumbnail to see a larger image
April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
As we passed over the Maltese coast, we could just make out the ground, but by the time we had completed the arrival formalities and claimed our baggage, it was quite dark. We were met by an agent for the car-hire company, who checked the directions we had been e-mailed by our host at the Duncan Guest House in Marsaxlokk. He agreed that they were very good instructions, but his verbal description didn't seem to match, since he said we should first look for the signs to "Ashak", and nothing in our directions seemed to correspond. It turned out that "Ashak" was spelled Ghaxaq, our first encounter with Maltese orthography. Most Maltese spoke fluent English, as we found out, but it took a while to get used to the writing of Maltese names.
Anyway, apart fron the initial nervousness of driving on the left in an unfamiliar type of car, in an unfamiliar country with signs that were not always easy to see, we found our way past Ghaxaq, and down the hill into the fishing (and tourist) village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsashlock and often written M'xlokk on signs), where we had booked a room at the Duncan Guest House.
I want to make a special mention of the Duncan Guest House, since Michael Baldacchino and his family were so friendly and helpful (not to mention cheerfully providing a full English breakfast cooked to order each morning).
When we arrived, everything was locked up and dark, but there was a note on the door saying "Martin. phone me at [number with the Maltese international code]" Luckily, we had arranged for our cell phones to work in Europe, and we were able to do that. Without Maltese coin, we would not have been able to use a phone booth, even if we had been able to find one. Soon after we called, Michael arrived and showed us to our room.
After we got settled in, Michael took us to a fish restaurant on the harbourfront (all the restaurants seemed to be on the harbourfront), run by friends of his. It was called "Il Bukket", which the owner explained meant "Bouquet", and then said "Like Mrs Bucket on TV". The food was good, and the company pleasant, but it was rather expensive for us.
Speaking of money, the Maltese Lira was quite a surprise. On previous holidays, I had used Italian Lira at about 1000 to the dollar, and Turkish Lira at abour 1,000,000 to the dollar. But the 10 Lira note at the head of this page turned out to be worth about $38 Canadian, or 25.00 Euro! It took a bit of getting used to the idea that a 6 Lira dinner was not especially cheap.
A busy first day
Michael had said we could park anywhere by the harbour, but he had forgotten that there was a market there in the morning. When we woke up, the car was surrounded by stalls being set up, and he had to negotiate with one of the owners to help us to extricate it. All of which was done with good humour, among friends. Thereafter, for the next few days, we parked on the street or on a different stretch of harbourfront.The harbour is very picturesque. All the fishing boats seem to have the same attractive colour scheme. At the time we were there, apart from the morning market, it was quite peaceful. Marsaxlokk is, however, a tourist spot, and we saw at least one tour bus. I imagine it gets pretty crowded and touristy during the high season. The harbourfront road is well supplied with restaurants, most with tables set out between the road and the actual water, and there are others on the internal streets up the hill away from the water.
Malta is in a very strategic position for control of Mediterranean east-west traffic. Over time, different invaders have chosen Marsaxlokk as a good landing point. As a consequence, it has some fortifications, but they aren't much in evidence. What we saw (like the small tower behind the gas pumps in the picture) look to be of Venetian age, at a guess.
One of the things we had absolutely to do on our first day was to pick up tickets we had reserved by e-mail, to visit the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5600-year old underground temple. It is a World Heritage site. You can't visit it just be dropping in, unless you are very lucky, but have to reserve, normally a minimum of two weeks in advance. The tickets were to be collected either at the Hypogeum or at the National Archaeological Museum in Valetta. We decided to collect them in Valetta, in part so as to see the museum, and in part so as to look at the town (we found later that it is practically impossible to avoid Valetta if you are driving the length of the island, but we didn't find that out until we tried unsuccessfully to bypass the city). But first, we went sightseeing on the south shore, away from Valetta.
Our first objective was the so-called "Blue Grotto." Having failed to get into the Blue Grotto in Capri, it seemed only reasonable to see if we could get to one claimed to be even bigger and better! I'm not sure whether we actually did get to see the Blue Grotto, but if we did, it wasn't a patch on the one in Capri, which I had seen many years ago. However, we did have a delightful boat trip around the picturesque cliffs of the south coast.
On the top of the cliffs very near the Blue Grotto are two of the prehistoric megalithic temples that were our primary reason for visiting Malta. These extraordinary temples are the oldest surviving free-standing buildings in the world. They were built between around 3600 BC and 3000 BC, the oldest being the Ggantija temple on the island of Gozo, built perhaps 1000 years before the first of Egypt's great pyramids, or the start of the great ring of Stonehenge. It is a matter of speculation who built them and what their connection might be with the residents of nearby Europe or Africa. There seem to be some possible affinities with cave structures in Puglia (southeast Italy), through the Hypogeum (the underground temple), so it is likely that the builders came from Italy. (My personal suspicion is that they originally may have come from the region of Albania, refugees from the marauding Indo-Europeans, but there is no direct archaeological evidence to support that link).
The first of the two temples on top of the cliffs that we visited was Hagar Qim (pronounced "Hajareem"). About 500m from it, downhill toward the sea, is the Mnajdra temple. The two temples have much in common, but also have significant differences. Mnajdra is more complicated, being perhaps an amalgamation of three individual structures. Each structure consists of a straight path from the "front door" to a circular or oval chamber at the back of the temple. Off this path there are symmetric side chambers, maybe two (one on each side), or four. The "front door" has two massive well dressed side stones, and is topped by horizontal lintel stones. Internal doors, on the other hand, are often rectangular holes cut through a big dressed rectangular stone.
Many decorated objects were found in the temples. Some we saw on site and again in the Archaeological Museum, so obviously one or other must be a replica. There is no indication which is the original, and they are so alike as to be indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Replica or original, the "Tree of Life" altar is a remarkable piece of work, whatever the date, but the more remarkable given its presumed date of around 3500 BC, the time of the first Sumerian cities. Much of the surface of the altar is stippled. The same stippling is on several dressed stones. It is clearly done carefully, within a prescribed boundary, even a framed area, but its propose is a mystery.
Mnajdra is just a short walk from Hagar Qim along a constructed causeway, presumably built to keep the tourists off the fragile terrain. The temple is well camouflaged against the fairly barren limestone background, but when it was built, the island was probably forested, and the temple might have been in a glade with a view to the sunrise over the sea. There had to be a sunrise view, because the solar alignments seem to have been quite important to the temple builders.
From the temples, we went to Valetta to explore the city and to get our tickets to the Hypogeum at the National Museum of Archaeology.