A cruise around Malta or: Peace, beauty and Enya

What would you during your last day on Malta? Dash about cramming in the sights you’d missed? Sunbathe by a beach and wait out the day? Cruise around the islands on a ship with tasty food and pleasant music as the cliffs and towns pass you by?
I’ll let you guess which option we chose.

The ship (there you go) was one of those sleek vessels with polished wooden decks and every nook and cranny supplied with cushions and sunbathing mats. From our perch on a bench on the prow, we watched the residential towers, party neighbourhoods, industrial sites and finally the Fort of St Elmo pass by, as we gradually gained speed, slicing into the calm blue water as we headed out to sea.

Fort St Elmo in the morning

Fort St Elmo in the morning

I am going to say here and now that this post may contain moments in which I wax poetic. There is really no help for this, as my choices with some of the sights that we saw is bland and false disinterest or poetic panegyrics.

Our first sights once we were out of the harbour was a ring of floating fish farms, and the flicker of a dorsal fin gave away the fact that we were not the only visitors. The captain told us that a family of dolphins had been seen nosing around the farm for years, and as far as I could tell from the relaxed ducking and flickering they did seem very casual, a group of locals making their daily visit to the local eatery, without any real rush.

Floating farms

Floating farms

Continuing around the southern point of the main island we spotted a few of the line of towers that ring the east coast. They date from the time of the Knights of St John, though looked so neat and well kept that I guessed they must have been used in WW2 as well. Though from our seats on the ship, munching snacks and humming along to hits of the 90s everything seemed peaceful and calm, this was a reminder of the vulnerability of the islands, at least in the past. I hope they can remain ornamental, but with Tunisia and the recent beach shootings so near, it’s impossible to know what will happen in the future.

Turning north again the landscape changed, beaches and harbours giving way to towering limestone cliffs and occasional rocky shores. Sights from other days could be glimpsed, such as the white tents that shelter Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim, sheltered in turn by a small tower. How must they have looked to people sailing or paddling past when they were intact and in use, the huge stones a short distance from the cliffs, nestled in the low hills that rose slowly behind them? Was there a continual line of people going to and fro, and smoke rising from fires within the temples? Were they painted in multiple colours or left the golden white of the cliffs?

Mnajdra above the cliffs

Mnajdra above the cliffs

It wasn’t just human constructions that drew our eyes and stuck in our minds. Sometimes when sights, sounds and feelings all come together, a moment is recorded in my mind and kept for posterity. When I think back to that day I can see waving curtains of cliffs, layers of yellow, pink and white, above sparkling blue water. In the background Enya is crooning about sailing away and any conversation from the other guests has faded, as if we were alone with the cliffs and the sea and the sky. There were a few hours of cliffs, ventures into massive caverns and caves and drifting along but it’s that moment, that perfect moment, that I have been able to keep and try to share.

Cliffs of Malta

Cliffs of Malta

Just after midday we arrived at Comino, the tiny island between Malta and Gozo. There we anchored just around the corner from the famous Blue Lagoon, which is a sheltered bay famed for its crystal clear water and popularity with tourists. It was, of course, packed, the swimmers forming a solid lump on the beach and in the shallows. The water was quieter amongst the boats where we were, but no less clear and blue.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

With an hour and a half to spend before the boat took off, we put on our shoes and went for a hike on the scrubby, rocky island. We had planned to have a look at the castle that had been used in filming the most recent Count of Monte Cristo film, but unfortunately and surprisingly given what we could see of the size of the island, it would take about an hour to reach it. This, we decided, was a tad unrealistic so after a closer look as the very blue and very busy Blue Lagoon we swapped shoes and hats for bathers and snorkels and plunged into the sea. For the next while, we snorkeled around the bay, pointing jellies out to other swimmers and schools of fish to each other and generally feeling as though we had landed in some sort of paradise. Many times we were able to swim just above darting schools of fish and seemed almost able to touch them before they effortlessly shimmered away, and spotted crabs and sea urchins among the coral and sand dunes.

From the sheltered bays of Comino we circled Gozo, passing the Azure Window, the cathedral studded hills and green valleys in between. In a small cove we pulled in and dropped anchor, and descended once more into the clear blue Maltese waters. Below the surface the waves had formed curves and twisting lines in the land which shifted slightly as the tide pulled them and us towards the shore. Occasional fish also swam past, almost impossible to see against the white sand and dimmed light below the surface. Above us the sky continued to glow blue and warm, unchanged from the morning, though a breeze grew as we turned south, towards Malta.

A cove at Gozo

A cove at Gozo

Drifting back down the east coast we saw familiar towns and castles, and even the bay where we were staying for one more night. The heavily populated and less cliff lined east side seemed a different island to the serene and austere west coast, where the only signs of humans were occasional fishing shacks and ancient temples. There the natural defenses of the cliffs precluded any castles or towers, as well as any industry that didn’t also include perilous climbs up and down the rock faces. It’s this serenity and sparseness that was the most beautiful for me, and the timelessness of geology.

Endless cliffs

Endless cliffs

Before we either knew or wanted it, we were back in the Grand Harbour, passing again by the Fort of St Elmo and the tourist sights and apartment buildings. We docked and department, barely able to believe that an entire day had gone by, and so fast.

Returning to the Grand Harbour

Returning to the Grand Harbour

It was the only day we left ourselves entirely to the whim of someone else and not having to plan travel and preparations was pretty wonderful. Even more wonderful was the peace, luxury and beauty of gliding through calm waters in the shade of pastel cliffs and swimming with schools of fish in crystalline bays.

Our ship, MS Hera

Our ship, MS Hera

More than just a highlight of the Maltese holiday and a perfect ending, this cruise was a highlight of my new life in Europe, and I hope that as long as I live I can recall that moment of peace, beauty and Enya.

Advertisements

Calypso’s island

In The Odyssey by Homer, the hero Odysseus is shipwrecked on an island during his long and arduous journey home to Ithaca. On the island he is met by a sea nymph who takes a shine to him, and decides to keep him. Though he longs to return home to his Penelope, he is seduced by the sea nymph, who offers him eternal youth and her love. 7 years pass until he begs the gods to intercede and let him continue on his journey home. According to some stories the sea nymph is enraged and tries to kill herself as he leaves her, and in others she realises that he is miserable and helps him build a ship and gather supplies for his voyage, waving him off as he left.
Whatever the truth of the ending, the name of the sea nymph was Calypso and according to legend the island was Gozo, the second largest of the three Maltese islands and where we were lucky enough to spend a day exploring.

We got to Gozo by ferry, from which we got a view of the cliffs and coasts of the islands, including a view of Comino, the smallest of the three islands which lies between them. Comino is famous for two things, both of which I’ll explain in another post very soon.

Mġarr Harbour

Mġarr Harbour

The first impression I had of Gozo was of a cathedral on a hill above a city of limestone. This sight was repeated throughout the island, which even after many years of habitation seems to mostly consists of the ancient style of villages perched on hills, surmounted by surprisingly elaborate cathedrals, and with farmland nestled in the valleys between them.
We took a hop on-hop off bus to get around, winding first through the steep streets of the harbour town of Mġarr and then crossing through villages and green valleys to Victoria, the capital of the island. Marking it out from the other hill-top towns, Victoria is surmounted by a walled fortress, which we reached by climbing up a steep road lined with strange bollards. They weren’t technically bollards in the usual sense, but looked like tall, boxlike altars covered in bright paint and embosses with gold. Streamers hung from them and the street lights, all of which we worked out later was preparation for an oncoming religious festival, the bollards signifying the various saints that preside over the town.
Inside the walls the fortress also seemed to be unfinished, with cranes leaning everywhere and scaffolding hulking on the sides of many buildings. From the walls we could see over the surrounding countryside, even as far as a statue of Jesus with arms stretched towards the sea, in a valley to the east.

Walls of Victoria

Walls of Victoria

From Victoria we headed to the coast to see an amazing structure that wasn’t made by humans. To get there we had to climb and scramble across an obstacle course of tidal rocks, rock pools and low caverns, dodging all the other people who were heading to and fro around us. The sight at the end was worth the trek. The Azure Window is a narrow cliff jutting out into the sea with a window worn into it which reaches about 30 metres from the calm sea to the arch of harder stone above.

The Azure Window

The Azure Window

Near the base of the window is a sheltered area with shallow pools and a deep hole that plunged I don’t know how deeply. People of all ages were climbing on the surrounding rocks and jumping in, splashing about and generally making me wish I’d brought my bathers. Groups of divers trudged to the pool, heavily laden with tanks and equipment and then disappeared in clouds of bubbles, exploring whatever lay beneath.

We did get to have a closer look at the Window, however, and we didn’t have to get wet. Around the corner from the carpark where we’d arrived was a small bay surrounded by cliffs, where little Maltese boats rocked in the water under the gazes of patient Maltese fishermen. We hired one of them to take us out for a short tour, and were soon puttering through a narrow slit in the cliffs, the high rock faces seeming to part like curtains as we passed through the darkness to the sunlight on the other side.

Passing through the cliff

Passing through the cliff

Once out in the open water we saw huge cliffs and at the base of them small grottos which we explored. As we floating into them, the fisherman pointed at the waterline where we could make out the shapes of coral growing on the rocks, and shining in a strange way. He explained that it was something to do with the qualities of the coral, though it still seemed unearthly to me.

Cliffs and glowing coral

Cliffs and glowing coral

As we bobbed into the various grottos and looked down and then up into the high roofs, I could imagine that people in the past would have thought gods or spirits lived there, just out of reach of the light, perhaps waiting to pull them in if they weren’t careful.

A grotto in the cliffs

A grotto in the cliffs

We also got to see the Azure Window from the other side, the swimmers and cliffs now framed inside it.

As with the main Maltese island, Gozo has its share of ancient history, the most impressive being the Ġgantija temples. If the same sounds something like ‘gigantic’ to you, you’re on the right track.
Local folklore says that the temples were built by a giantess who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, because there was no way that mere humans could have moved the massive stones into position. While it may not have been built by giants, the site is still distinguished as being the second oldest surviving religious structure in the world, and dates from 3600BCE. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, it was prior to the invention of metal and the wheel had yet to be introduced to Malta.

An ancient altar?

An ancient altar?

In person the temples very imposing, though in worse condition than the temples we had seen on the main island, as they have been exposed to the elements and people for longer. A number of rooms, wall, altars, walkways, floors and doorways remain, giving us some idea of what the site might have looked like when it was in use.

A wall of Ġgantija

A wall of Ġgantija

The temples sit on the edge of a plateau, and it was along the side of this that we soon trundled on a bus, heading down into the valley below. As the road curved around the side of the hill, we passed a site that we hadn’t had the time to visit. We did get to see the view as it would have been seen from the mouth of the cave. Remember Calypso? This was where she had lived, her cave nestled in the shelter of the hill with a view through the valley to the sea, all the better to watch out for travellers to welcome and enchant.

View down the valley

View down the valley

Gozo seemed to us to be a holiday away from the bustle of Malta, where the locals themselves go for a break. It’s greener, quieter and beautiful, and I recommend it to anyone visiting Malta.

Now you may be thinking that by the time we got back to the apartment our mystery history adventures were over. Au contraire! There was one more discovery we made before we rested from our day’s journey, and we barely had to leave the apartment to find it. Around the corner from the apartment was what seemed to be an overgrown field between buildings and the construction site, in the middle of which lay an area of exposed stone. A closer look revealed long, deep cuts in the stone, always two parallel lines that began somewhere out of sight and then disappeared in the same way. They were straight, crossed over each other and curved, as if a group of people had curried through mud with carts, and a hot day had dried it out. They are known as cart-ruts and they appear all over Malta, in small remnants and huge sites more than a hundred metres long. This is basically the entirety of the concrete knowledge about them. They are believed to be from the Bronze Age and up to the Roman period and were formed by humans over a very long period of time, the results of carts weathering tracks into rock.

Cart-ruts in the suburbs

Cart-ruts in the suburbs

We picked up a book on the subject (Cart-Ruts and their impact on the Maltese landscape by David H. Trump) which is delightfully inconclusive. As well as offering multiple possibilities for dates, causes and reasons, the book ends with,

‘If any reader can come up with a convincing answer…, I and many other scholars would be delighted to hear from them. However, Maltese cart-ruts would be much less exciting if we knew all the answers.’

We may never know who made them, why they were made or how. We are unlikely to know why the temples of Ġgantija were built on the hill and what was done there. We will never know whether a Greek traveller washed ashore on Gozo to be welcomed and kept by a mysterious woman in her cave.
But we can wonder and as Mr Trump says, life would be less exciting if we knew everything.

Art, a Silent City and the problem of history

The first few days of our visit to Malta had been full; full of sights, tastes and bustling. As with any feast we needed a bit of a pause afterwards to digest and take a breath before we plunged on into dessert.
So on the Wednesday our first activity wasn’t running to a bus but strolling to the nearest beach. There we paddled, splashed, read, dozed and generally ignored the passing of time. Neither did we pay attention to the sunscreen that was washing away in the gently lapping water, though we certainly noticed it later.
The rest of that day, a reverse hump day, passed with grocery shopping at a van, a ‘beer-tail’ and views of the sea.

Cisk and chips

Cisk and chips

Having cleared our minds of stress and bother, we began Thursday with a bus ride and soon found ourselves waiting for a second bus, wondering after 45 minutes if it wouldn’t be easier to walk. Luckily, before the heat caused us to actually start this mad trek, the bus arrived and we gratefully squeezing among the other holiday goers and locals, heading to the old capital.
Mdina sits on a hill just above the neighbouring Rabat, looking down on the surrounding countryside from behind high, honey-coloured limestone walls. The bus took us up to the walls, but before venturing into the city we took a detour to a small and unassuming museum to find out more about a period of Maltese history that we’d missed so far.

The Domus Romana museum is, as the name suggests, located on top of the remains of an ancient Roman house and though it was small and the staff seemed almost comatose from boredom it was one of the most surprising museums I’ve visited. I was expecting the mosaic floors that I’d read about to be of the smiling masks and abstract patterned variety, and they did have those. But as I looked down at the largest mosaic, which had probably been the centrepiece of the peristyle, I thought I was seeing something modern. The mosaic had been done in a series of 3D maze like twisting patterns that looked as though they were coming out of the floor. I’ve seen Roman mosaics with chariot drivers, faces and animals, some of which looked almost lifelike and many with incredible detail and skill, but the modernness of these was amazing.

3D mosaic

3D mosaic

Just off from the peristyle was a room that might have been the study, decorated with black and white diamond shapes in a pattern that again seemed to lift out of the floor. In a corner damage had been fixed inexpertly, showing that the owners had fallen on hard times. I wondered why, and how and who they are and as usual wished for a time machine.

Old and often repaired

Old and often repaired

Outside were more remains, less well preserved, of other houses and streets which ended suddenly on the right with a large ditch. This had been built a few decades ago when they were building a railway, cutting through and demolishing part of the house and other buildings, not even leaving rubble behind. They had known about the remains, but had cut through anyway, which I guess isn’t all that surprising in a country where you can’t avoid history even if you wanted to.

It’s the same problem, if you choose to think of it as a problem, that lead to us having to walk across a construction site to reach the bus stop or run along a highway to get to the nearest town. The construction was part of a roadworks project that should improve the roads along the north-eastern part of Malta, and I’m sure will be appreciated by tourists and locals alike when/if it ever finishes. The problem is that there has been a major delay. While preparing for the roadworks someone found the remains of a Neolithic tomb, and after calling in archaeologists and doing excavations and studies the roadworks were delayed by 3 months, pushing it into peak tourist time and generally making life irritating for everyone except the archaeologists.
The same person who told us about the roadworks also mentioned that anyone building a house in Malta had better have a lot of patience and time on their hands, as all houses have to be in a set style, upgrading a house is fraught with paperwork and gods forbid you find anything historical lying around. Just don’t bother, she said, shrugging with a mix of pride and exasperation.
History, she seemed to imply, may be all very well and good, but we’ve got to live and how can we do that if it keeps haunting us?

Having gotten our fill of the Roman history of Malta, we walked through the gardens and along the moat and walls that surround the old capital. It’s been inhabited for about 6000 years, fortified by the Phoenicians in the 700sBCE and called Malet, then taken over by the Romans and named Melita and over time it was passed through the hands of the Saracens who gave it the name Mdina, followed by Normans, French and English until we get to today. They all left their marks with high walls, an impressive city gate and a maze of palaces, cathedrals and houses that add up to the almost unearthly ‘Silent City’. It has apparently also been a site for the filming of Game of Thrones where stood in for King’s Landing at one point, which I guess must have made it briefly a little less silent.

Mdina city gate

Mdina city gate

It’s called the ‘Silent City’ partly because no cars are allowed to enter, and possibly also because just under 300 people live there. It seemed to me though that the main reason for the silence, broken only by the quiet chatter of tourists, clip-clop of horse-drawn tourist buggies and bustle of small souvenir and craft shops, is the thickness of the doors and the height of the barred windows on all the houses. There is a definite impression of there being two cities, one passing by on the streets, and the other inside the walls of the houses, and never the twain shall meet.

Silent streets

Silent streets

After exploring the twisting streets and alleys, we found a cafe that had been recommended by our Bulgarian roommates. Fontanela sits perched on the city walls, overlooking the countryside to the north. From our table we could see all the way to the sea and beyond, even making out Valletta to the east and many small unknown villages in between.

View from Mdina walls

View from Mdina walls

Filled with pastizzi and ftira (a local tuna sandwich), all of course delicious and surprisingly cheap, we wandered some more and encountered no one who wasn’t a tourist or a shop keeper.

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Just out of the shadow of Mdina sits the craft village of Ta’Qali. While my fella went off to explore the nearby Aviation Museum, I wandered around the complex of former airforce huts, many of which contained the typical tourist fare. I soon found some that were more interesting, shops divided into the display area while at the back craftsmen and women worked away. Potters painted, carpenters carved, glassblowers blew and silversmiths twisted filigree. Near the back of the complex I walked into a glassmaker’s workshop, where a craftsman was molding something with the ease of much practice. I stayed to watch for a while, as he molded, coloured, blew, heated and pinched the blob of glass into shape, while the furnaces thrummed behind him and an industrial sized fan kept the temperature to a liveable level.

Making a swan

Making a swan

After I’d been watching with interest for a few minutes he gestured for me to climb over the rope dividing his workshop from the watching area, and indicated that I could choose a colour. I chose blue and then green, and he then explained and demonstrated the steps of molding, heating, stretching and pinching, which turned a pear shaped lump into a delicate swan. It was something like magic to watch him at work, and as the swan disappeared into one of the ovens to gradually cool I wished that I could have it myself, so I could be reminded of the fascination of watching a craftsman at work whenever I saw it.

Then he got a new lump on a long, hollow stick and held it out to me.
‘Blow hard and steadily,’ he advised and I tried to do so, watching light-headedly as the lump ballooned out into a clear bauble of glass, perfectly round. After saying that I may have blown a bit too long, but smiling, he gently tapped it against the side of the tray in front of his chair, where it smashed into shards unrecognisable from the remnants of sculptures and other tourist attempts.

The remains of my first attempt

The remains of my first attempt

Then another group of people wandered closer, curious, and I slipped out, glancing once at the oven where the swan sat as I went.
The last stop was a silversmith workshop, where the owner demonstrated the twisting, welding and beating involved in making the delicate and intricate works around him. There was a tiny grand piano, complete with strings and a stool and a Spitfire plane made of tiny twists of silver. I found a small Maltese cross and bought it, as my personal reminder of Malta.

Having both finished exploring, my fellow explorer and I met and waited at the bus stop, as bus after bus went past. After about an hour the bus we were waiting for arrived, and we climbed on, tired but satisfied with our day. The traditional rabbit stew and local wine that evening also helped.