Two tales from Dubris

122 CE

Huddled in the rolling belly of the ship, Albinus re-read the message he’d been given in an effort to distract himself from the rolling in his stomach. Months on the road had inured him to travel, but for a man born and bred in a city where the land stayed still pretty much of the time, the road over the channel was not proving enjoyable.

A voice on the deck above called out a command, and Albinus felt the speed of the ship finally slacken as it began to tack in to the harbour. He rolled up and carefully slotted the scroll into its case, and tucked it into a bag under his cloak. With one foot he nudged the sleeping form on the low cot below the bench, which groaned and curled tighter into itself.
‘We’ve arrived,’ he announced, and at the sound of his voice the figure pulled itself upright and, wobbling, lurched to its feet, the thick sheaf of brown hair falling back to reveal the pale and green-tinged face of a young woman.

Other passengers began standing, green-faced or offensively sprightly, and gathered their luggage. The young woman, known since joining Albinus’ household as a child as Sasticca, shouldered a large pack, and made it up onto the deck, down the gangplank and onto the cobbled harbour square before dropping it to the ground and collapsing on top of it with a heartfelt groan.

Albinus gave his slave a few moments to gather herself together as he took in the last country on his journey, seeming at first glance much like any other in the Empire. Behind the familiar offices, inns and clustering apartments though was a new landscape. The hills shouldering the town were steep and mist topped, and behind them curtains of rain fell, even now blowing towards the sea in great gusts. To the right through the rain and mist he could make out glimpses of white, no doubt the cliffs he’d have seen on the crossing if he hadn’t been sheltering below decks.

‘Come on, we’ve got a job that needs doing.’ He commanded after a little while, and then strode up the main street through the town, followed by the woman trying to find a balance between carrying his travel pack, not slipping on the cobbles and not being sick. At any moment, she was sure, her stomach would come up and that would be it for her and her cleanest travelling cloak. The crossing had been worse than even the bar slave at Caletum had said; no wonder Julius Caesar had had such a rough time of it. And he probably hadn’t had to sleep on the floor.

They soon reached a fine looking inn, not far from the walls of the fort. Despite their knocking and calls, there was no answer however.
‘It’s not even a quiet time of year,’ Albinus ranted, as they stepped out into the rain and wind, which was coming now in regular fits and bursts.
A woman passing by looking up at them, and then shuffled over, ‘You’re trying to get into the Cliffs of Dubris, then? It’s closed today, been closed all week in fact. Strange business if you ask me,’ she added with disapproval, her odd accent lilting over the Latin. ‘If you’re looking for somewhere warm, you can’t go wrong with the inn at the lighthouse. It’s just up there, not more than 10 minutes.’ She pointed behind them, up one of the hills crowding over the town. At the top they could make out a glint of fire, almost lost in the daylight and weather.
‘Tell them Camilla sent you,’ she smiled, nodded and was soon lost around a corner.

Slave and master exchanges glances, and then turned on the path leading up the hill. As they crossed the small town, they could make out locals sheltering in the lee of bars, bakeries, food stalls, a furniture warehouse and even a small book store. They stopped at one counter to snack on cheesy bread and soup, where locals rubbed shoulders with other visitors and tried to warm up from the inside. As they climbed the hill, snatches of sunlight made it through the clouds, lighting up the trees and the sea which they could now see spread below them. The lighthouse, rather than a tiny colonial mound, was a tall and impressive structure, recently built enough for the bricks to shine slightly in the sun. At the top, figures moved around, tending the light and looking out to sea, and voices echoed inside its thick walls.

The lighthouse

The lighthouse

Less impressive was the brick building squatting next to it, probably the inn they’d been directed to. While Sasticca went inside to make arrangements for their stay and horses the next day, Albinus gazed up at the lighthouse wondering at the Fate’s decision to lead him to this backwater of the Empire, where even here the relentless energy of the old She Wolf could be felt. Though perhaps not forever, if the message he carried from the Emperor to the struggling commanders in the limitless north of the island reached them. For now, he thought, staring out across the narrow sea, I’ll enjoy the walls of civilization that will keep the foreign weather out and underfloor heating in.

1094 years later

‘Will, get back here boy!’

The boy in question didn’t pause in his breakneck dash up the castle steps. Ducking into an alcove on the staircase he just avoided a small troop of knights, heavily kitted out and liable to mow over any undersized servant brat that got in their way. As their footsteps faded overhead he ran up the last flight, and hid behind a wall hanging before anyone could spot him. From there he could hear the shouting of the knights that had passed, as well as a whole array of lords and dignitaries, each trying to make themselves heard over the raucous sounds of servants bustling, nervous horses in the keep and the usual life of the castle.

‘He has already taken London, and soon Kent will fall, we must move now!’ One voice rose above the rest, and then a silence fell as someone entered the main hall, their footsteps ringing on the stone floor.

‘The traitors in London may have allowed him in without a fight, but he was mistaken in not throwing all his weight at us first. That mistake will cost him the war. Yes he will turn here, and then we’ll make our move and show this invader that the loyal English will not fall so lightly.’

Muttering and some scattered applause followed these words, and then voices rose again as tactics and plans were discussed. It was high summer, and any day now the army of Prince Louis of France would arrive and crash against the walls of the castle.

The dining hall

The dining hall

Having heard all he needed to hear, Will peeked out from behind the wall hanging, ready to make a break for the stairs. The long tables in the dining hall, where he was hidden, where being scrubbed and set by a small army of servants, who also swept the floors and dusted brightly coloured banners hanging above the high table at the far end. To his right through the open arch connecting the rooms he could make out the crowd gathered in the main hall, where the thrones of the King and Queen of England waited, and where the worthies of the castle gathered to plan, argue and debate.

Paying homage in the main hall

Paying homage in the main hall

Beyond that was the room that the Constable had set for himself in the absence of the King. Will had never made it past the main hall, on a dare late at night, but other servants had spoken of a large, fine bed, warm furs all over the place, a special room just for treasure and everything done in the brightest colours you could think of. It sounded a world away from Will’s hay-strewn corner in the kitchen downstairs.

The royal suite

The royal suite

Just then a face turned towards him, and before the other servant could shout he’d escaped and charged down the stairs into the kitchens. Once there Rolf the baker grabbed him before he could make it outside and pushed him in among the other servant boys who were helping with odd jobs. He found himself fetching water, grinding barley, salting fish and soon lost track of what he had been doing before being caught.

Castle kitchens, looking neat

Castle kitchens, looking neat

It wasn’t till dusk was falling that he remembered. Looking around furtively, he saw that there was no one watching, put the butter he’d been patting into form in its box, and slipped out, up the stairs and into the keep. His cap was almost blown off in the strong winds, which blew the heady smells of the kitchen and the stables after him as he ran through the clusters of men and women finishing their tasks for the day and out through the gates. No one paid any attention to him, and he’d made it all the way to the old watch tower before someone called out to him.

The castle gate

The castle gate

‘Oi Will, what are you doing out here?’
He looked up the tower and saw his little sister Phillipa peering down at him, hair streaming out behind her.
‘What are you doing up there?’ He retorted. Her face disappeared and then reappeared around the door of the tower and she replied. ‘I’m watching for the ships from France to come, so I can be the first to know and will get a reward from the head cook.’
‘No, you’d just get into trouble for being out in the tower after dark. Get back, before Margery takes your sleeping spot.’
His sister turned back to the castle with a grumble, but before she ran away she asked, ‘What are you doing out then? You’ll get in trouble too you know.’
He nodded, and then said simply, ‘It’s Albina.’
His sister frowned, nodded and then ran back through the fading light to the castle.

The walls and the channel

The walls and the channel

Will turned back to the tower and the sea behind it, then ran and slipped down the wet grass of the hill and onto the path heading west. Carts and riders passed him, throwing up mud and almost trampling him a few times, so he stuck to the side of the path, covered in weeds. As he trudged the light faded and he felt sure he’d never make it in time. Then he finally reached the small turn off from the main road and followed the winding path up the hill to a grassy, tussocky, windy field overlooking the sea. As he climbed, he looked ahead and saw the great white cliffs, mottled here and there by greenery, but almost seeming to glow in the fading light. He remembered his mother bringing him here, in the few short years he recalled before she died, and telling him that no army that came across the sea to Dover could face the tall, ghostly cliffs, but would turn back in fear. He’d believed her, 3 years old and too in awe of adult wisdom and those mighty cliffs to imagine it could be otherwise. 6 years later he knew better, not trusting in adults or cliffs to keep him and his sister safe.

The white cliffs

The white cliffs

A nearby whinny brought him back to his mission, and he turned his back on the cliffs and scrambled amongst the bushes and shrubs until he found Albina. She was munching contentedly on grass, and seemed unsurprised to see him. She whinnied again, tossing her white mane about her short, furry neck.
Untying his rope belt, Will fashioned a halter and after passing it over her head began to lead her back down the path. Other ponies watched them go, ears twitching and then distracted by hunger returned to their own business.

Wild cliff ponies

Wild cliff ponies

‘You can’t stay out here tonight, girl, not with Prince Louis coming. Huw said the French would eat anything, so they probably wouldn’t be able to resist ponies, especially ones as pretty as you.’ So saying he patted the thick, white fur of her neck, burying his hand in the warmth.

The lights of Calais

The lights of Calais

If he was quick, there should be a back corner of the stables with enough space for a quiet, tamed wild pony, especially one that was so obviously lucky, with fur the white of the cliffs and the sense to come in when a French army approached. They had both been lucky, him and Albina, and Phillipa too, and even if the castle fell – which it wouldn’t, not with those huge walls and the old tower built by giants from long ago – there were ponies on the cliffs that they could hide among, and secret caves on the beach that their mother had shown them. In the distance ahead a light was lit on the tower, guiding him home.

799 years later again

This post is a little bit different from my usual reports of our travels, but the history and sense of place that I felt at Dover kept drawing these stories out and I couldn’t resist.

When we visited there were no Roman messengers wandering about, but there were the remains of what is thought to have been an inn, which we were unable to get into. A helpful lady directed us to the castle instead, and after the snack described in the first story, we eventually found the old Roman lighthouse. You can still go in, though the steps to the top are long gone. It was in use for a long time afterwards, when people had largely forgotten about the Romans, and in the meantime Dover castle was built around and behind it.

The castle in incredible, the largest in England and amazingly intact. The kitchens have been filled with models showing how it would have looked, and each floor had rooms fully furnished and decorated in bright banners, tables, chairs, chests and re-enactors. While we were in the great hall they put on a performance, making some visitors the royal family for the day, and leading us all in a dance to honour the king and queen. It was a lot of fun, and became yet another memory from a holiday full of wonderful memories.

By the time we left the castle it was getting dark, and so our walk to the cliffs, along the side of a road without a footpath, wasn’t the most pleasant but we made it in time to see them before the light entirely disappeared. They were tall and impressive, and someday I’d like to go back and climb down onto the beach to look up at them in full daylight. There were also many wild ponies.

So I hope you will forgive my indulgence in fiction and history and take my recommendation to visit Dover yourself one day, and see if you can find ancient foot steps as well.

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2015: Travels and moving forward

So 2015 is now in the past, and while like any year it creeps along at walking pace while living it, looking back it seems now to have been very full and sometimes reaching a sprint. It has been a year of travelling (7 different countries!), big steps forward (my own business) and important decisions.

It started, as all years do in Sweden, with fireworks and then a trip to Stockholm. Later in the month I met my mum in Copenhagen and traveled around with her, as we showed each other our lives in the North, both past and present.

As the darkness and cold continued to set in, there was a trip to sunny Malaga, a brief inoculation against the winter that has also left me in love with Spain.
Time passed, fear came to my home town, and then Easter and the turning of the seasons. I continued to work, relief teaching at schools and gathering private students, learning as I went. That fear seemed to grow throughout the year, rising from under the surface and at least right now it doesn’t look as though it’s going to recede any time soon.

More trips around the Nordic regions followed, including a cruise across the Baltic and a short stay in Aarhus, Denmark. Summer arrived, and with the holidays I left a beloved school, experienced my second Midsummer picnic and attempted indoor gardening. Other hobbies included joining a flamenco choir, trying to make it to a language café in between teaching and tasting the brews made by my partner.

As summer passed we flew to Malta, experiencing long sunny days, chaos, sea and incredible history. Back at home work continued to increase, with more and more private students and work through a consultancy. I found less time for writing and reflection, and for the first time since I started this blog, the gaps between posts became 2 weeks or more rather than 1. As my focus shifted, I set about making the most of the change, and formally set up my business, including a website and a business plan.

With the end of the year almost upon us, we visited London, a place I’ve long considered as a home that I’d not yet got around to visiting. It met, surpassed and left my expectations far behind, giving me yet another place that lurks invitingly in the back of my mind whenever I’m feeling restless.

Finally we returned to Australia for family, christmas and a holiday of sorts. It was intense, as any trip home to family, friends and real life is bound to be. As well as the various pressures and commitments, the days of the festive season were for the most part relaxing and enjoyable, filled with food and love. I also got a bit of a tan, though you wouldn’t think so if you asked the repairman who came to fix our dryer. I’m fairly sure I let him down a bit.

Then the year came full circle, with fireworks in the cold, cheering and friends, and a return to the long, dark wait until Spring. 2016 is still new and fresh and full of potential, and no amount of guesswork can tell what might happen. A few things are certain, and will be shared in their time, but mostly the year is unwritten, and we shall we what we shall see.

A ‘tower’, an abbey and charming eccentricity

London, the third:

As we climbed up the stairs at the Tower Bridge station, we were ambushed by history older than we’d expected. Looming over us was a wall, 5 metres tall and a metre thick, built and rebuilt over the years, starting in the 200s BCE. The wall once encircled what was then the Roman town of Londinium, and while only fragments of it remain, you can trace is through the names of streets, from Aldgate, Ludgate and the obvious London Wall.

An emperor, cranes and a really old wall

An emperor, cranes and a really old wall

In the shadow of the wall was a statue of Trajan, looking imperious, as well as a flock of tourists peering around through their cameras, looking less imperious. As the wall quickly came to an end, we followed the path it would have taken to a slightly more recent site, one which I’m sure you would have heard about, if not seen in an historical drama of some sort.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is not, as the name suggests, a tower. It’s a fortress, admittedly made up of a number of towers, surrounded by a high stone wall and a moat. And tourists. We decided not to go on a tour, but instead walked around it, admiring the ancient stones, the width of the Traitor’s Gate (I guess there must have been many of them) and the combination of brutal harshness and glimpses of royalty.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

From the Tower we crossed Tower Bridge, which was very impressive in person, and definitely contributed to the feeling that I was in London, the London of the stories and postcards. In a good way. Walking along the embankment, we passed a replica of the Golden Hinde (Sir Francis Drake’s ship), the Globe Theatre (a replica of the theatre built for Shakespeare’s plays) and innumerable people out on their lunch break from the skyscrapers lining the Thames.

Globe Theatre

Globe Theatre

Then I headed off to look at the graves of famous dead people. They were all housed in a very fancy building in a prime position by the river, namely Westminster Abbey. I won’t tell you how much the entry ticket was, for fear of frightening you, but after carefully skirting the graves of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, William Pitt the Younger, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell (briefly) and the Unknown Soldier I was able to come to terms with it. Other notables included Chaucer and memorials to Austen and pretty much any other author or poet you can think of. Plus most of the kings and queens of England since Edward to Confessor, which is a lot of royalty in one spot. Most impressive was the old and indeed long casket of Edward Longshanks and the elaborate memorials to Queens Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. After death they have been placed together, Elizabeth just above her half-sister, a setup that makes me wonder how they would have felt about it.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

It is a very beautiful building, and chock full of history, from the paving stone graves to the ceiling of the Lady Chapel and it incidentally fulfilled one of my life ambitions to have Jeremy Irons narrate my life, if only for an hour. It did also, despite being so tied in with Royalty and Religion, have a remarkably secular feeling, which I guess is the anglicanism as opposed to the somewhat shouty catholicism of Italy and Spain.

The final historical trek of the day was to a museum that had been highly recommended by friends, and as a plus was free. It was located down a side street opposite a park, ad looked from the outside very much the Victorian town house that it was. Once inside, I felt as though I’d fallen back in time, and would accidentally interrupt the gentleman of the house or a maid down a dark corridor. The gentleman in question would have been Sir John Soannes, who I’m guessing must have been something of an eccentric, as his house is packed full of antiques, paintings, models and the paraphernalia usually seen in obscure museum collections. Plus the sarcophagus of Seti I.
In order to keep the mood authentic, there is no unnatural light, so as darkness began to fall outside it became more difficult to make out statues in corners or the detail on carvings. Sadly like Westminster Abbey photography was not allowed, so I can only rely on my memory to describe the narrow corridors, woodpanelled and painting lined rooms and lived-in feeling which made me feel as though I was an intruder in someone’s house. Though it would have been someone who would have happily interrupted my musings with a long story about how he came across a relic, and would probably have told me not to walk with such a twisted, elbows in way for fear I’d knock something over, but rather relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
Instead of Soanne himself, there were a bevy of volunteers perched in alcoves or wandering about, ready to spill facts and info at anyone with an ounce of curiosity. This happened to me, and I spent a very interesting 10 minutes hearing how the sarcophagus was lowered into the room via a specially made hole in the roof and that most of the statues and models were in fact plaster, which made me feel a bit less worried about my elbows.
As I write this I realise that I could easily spend an entire blog post just talking about the house and its wonders. Maybe someday I’ll return to the house and the blog and try that, but suffice it to say that it is well worth a visit, and if you need another fact to sum up its endearing eccentricity, picture large dried thistles on every seat. To stop people sitting on the old furniture, obviously.

And what could possibly follow from a visit to the house of a very English eccentric? As you no doubt guessed, it was a poke around at Kings Cross St Pancras station. Yes, I did go to the actual Platform 9 and took a photo, and then found a huge queue leading to an owl-encumbered trolley wedged into a wall on the main concourse. At the end of the line two people with a camera and a lot of enthusiasm were setting up photos for the fans who eagerly leaped about with wands on command, sometimes while one of the staff sang the theme song at high volume. I didn’t stop for a photo opportunity, but I did check out the store which was packed with enough fans and merchandise to make Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes look like the Tasmanian international airport*.

Platform 9

Platform 9


'Platform 9'

‘Platform 9’

We followed up this busy, history filled and walking heavy day with a trip to a local Hackney micro-brewery, marveling between us at the richness of sights, stories, culture and life in London. I mean, where else can you go where you can be narrated by Jeremy Irons?

*At least as it was 13 years ago, before anything as exciting as another shop to compete with its existing single cafe and a non-corrugated iron roof. I love you Tasmania, really.

Streets and stones of London

Though my previous post may have lead you to believe otherwise, there is more to London than just staring at fascinating and ancient artifacts from around the world.
Before I get into that and continue our adventure from the portico of the British Museum, I have a joke relating to an item at the museum to share with you, dear reader.
Me: Knock knock?
You: Who’s there?
Me: Sutton.
You: Sutton who?
And then we laugh. I came up with that joke all by myself, though I have to say that the first listener didn’t give me quite the response I was after. Some people just have no taste.

Anyway, having left the museum (and material for other hilarious jokes) behind, we continued down to the main street, further into London. As we went I noticed plaques on the walls of the very typical townhouse frontages, one of which stood out especially. It was dedicated to Dame Millicent Fawcett, who as I’m sure you know, was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and played an important role in the campaign for women’s votes. History really is everywhere.

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Dame Millicent Fawcett lived here

We walked for a while, taking in the bustle of tourists and locals, the black cabs and double-decker red buses and ye olde style pubs. Soon we found ourselves in Leicester Square, which seemed to to be heart of the West End. Wherever we turned, huge posters for shows loomed above us, some familiar and some new. We headed to one of the last minute booking stands, and after some discussion, booked tickets to a certain musical for the second last day of our stay. There will be more on that in a later post, and yes, it was fantastic and not revolting at all.

It seemed now that we were starting to slip into the more well known parts of London, the streets and squares featured on endless tv shows and movies. One of the most recognisable squares also waited just ahead of us as we went down towards to river from Leicester Square. All of a sudden, a huge column topped by an old fashioned looking gentleman came into view, and beneath him was spread a place that I have seen so many times that I felt a sense of deja vu. It was also bigger in person, the fountains on either side more like elaborate paddling pools and the lions under Nelson’s Column many times larger than life. At the time it was too dark to properly make out the statues on plinths around the square, but something that was well lit up was the National Gallery, sitting becolumned and huge behind the square. It was closing as we arrived, so we put that off until another day.

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National Gallery at night

In addition to the tourists and locals hanging about and climbing the lion statues, there was a collection of flowers, candles and waterlogged posters huddled next to one of the fountains. The words ‘Je suis Paris’, #endhate and the tricolour in various forms were almost lost in the darkness, lit up by the light of the fountain and the flash of cameras. And if you’re wondering, no we didn’t notice a huge amount of security, no more than the serious clusters of bobbies that I imagine would usually stroll around busy areas.

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Je Suis Paris

From the square, as we turned our backs on the National Gallery, a familiar clock face appeared in the distance. Not having any other plans, we headed towards it, dodging crowds, crossing busy streets and passing endless pubs and theatres. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben were all as impressive as I’d thought they would be, lit up and seeming to have just jumped out of a guidebook.

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There was also one final sight that I wanted to take in, one that isn’t on the front pages of the guidebooks. The Stone of London. I’d heard about it in the novel Kraken, by China Mieville, and then found references to it in guides to obscure sights of London.
It’s origins are mysterious, from a Roman mile stone, the foundation of a bath house to the remnants of a medieval wall, and has been mentioned in travel guides from the middle ages to the 18th century. In the 14th century the leader of a rebellion against the king swore an oath on the stone before going to war (he failed, though it probably wasn’t the stone’s fault), and it was commonly believed to be the heart of London. If it was moved, so it was said, the city of London would fall.

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The Stone of London

It’s now located behind a grating in the wall of a convenience store, with only a small plaque and the neighbouring London Stone pub giving away its location. Maybe in another 2000 years it’ll still be there, slightly more reduced and unimportant looking, dragging myths with it into the future.

After all this adventure our feet were starting to hurt and our stomachs were rumbling, so we sought out dinner and drinks and then went home. By the time we made it back, sleepy and tipsy, the name of the train line that we had to catch was completely hilarious. It kept us going at least halfway home.

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A tube line

There’s no place like…

It’s a strange contradiction, that one of the cities whose landmarks and streets I have known as well as my home city hasn’t been on the top of my list of places to visit. Rome, France, Spain, Japan, New Zealand, Istanbul, Malta – they’ve all been ticked off, but somehow that one city lurking in the background, all foggy streets, lamplight, theatre and history, just sat there quietly, waiting, as overlooked as the back of my hand.

Last week I finally made it there, and I should warn you that I have collected enough memories, history, stories and material for at least three posts. Until the next time we visit.

So without gilding the lilly, while I may have the body of a woman I have the heart of a man, so we will keep calm and carry on, the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable, and despite my love of the sound of deadlines as they whoosh past we shall get on with it (‘Yes, get on with it!’).

In case my heavy hints didn’t help, the place that we went, finally, was London. Now that you’ve reached this point, go back to the title and complete the line preferably in a gravelly Johnny Depp voice. It will set the mood. (Obviously I don’t endorse this view of London. It was much less foggy for a start.)

My first impression, as we stepped off the train at Liverpool Street Station, wasn’t darkness, creeping fog and dirt, but the pride and elegance of the Industrial era towering over a living city. Having been recently renovated, the iron columns of the old station loomed above us, topped with delicate lattice work buttresses and supported by painted palm bases. Far above was a semi-transparent ceiling that let in enough light to give the building a glow but not enough to see the clouded sky. It was a good first impression.
From there we made the most important purchase of our trip; oyster cards. I cannot overstate how useful these are, to be able to unthinkingly breeze through the gates of the tube or onto buses with a little, satisfying blip. The second most important thing we collected was a map of the underground. These were both worth their weight in gold.

Oyster and map

Oyster and map

So it was a simple thing to make our way to the airbnb accommodation, settle in and make a plan for the evening. My partner had, predictably, looked up the location before and sussed out the local pubs and breweries, of which there were many, so it was to one of these that we headed for our first night.

The pub was loud, warm and bracingly welcoming. However, within 5 minutes of stepping inside we had committed our first cultural faux pas. To us, a space at a table with empty and half-full glasses means that someone has left without finishing their drinks. But au contraire! Here it meant that the drinkers in question were outside smoking, and had left the half-full glass as a sign that they’d be back. Muttering apologies we escaped and found a new spot, where we excitedly ordered our first sausage roll in years and I enjoyed a very hot, very clovey mulled cider.
‘To London!’ we cheered, clinking our glasses together and settling into the beaten up old couch.

So, knowing me, as many of you readers do, what would you lay your money down as the first place we’d visit in London? If you guessed the National Gallery then no, but you’re close. If you guessed the recently opened Jack the Ripper museum, then frankly I don’t think you know me as much as you think.
If you guessed the British Museum, then well done! You win the prize of my esteem and a detailed description of my visit the next time we meet. Be prepared for enthusiasm and jazz-hands.

British Museum

British Museum

There is a piece of stone that I have wanted to see for most of my life, at least since I was 8 or 9. I’ve seen a copy and left a flower on the grave of one of the men who worked with it, in Paris. It is one of the most important artifacts in the world, and enabled us to open up a part of human history that had been partly hidden behind mysterious symbols for a very long time. It was, of course, the Rosetta Stone. I am, however, a person who enjoys drawing out the anticipation, so it was to the right, and the Assyrian gallery that we headed for first.

There we found the reconstruction of a massive door, cuneiform rolls and semi-human statues staring down at us. The most interesting for me were the panels from the palace of Ashurbanipal II in Nimrud. They showed hunting, war and the gods, typical stuff, but something about the finely detailed curls in the beards, the lone, perhaps baffled fish in the river crossing scene and the delicate beauty of the gazelle being offered up to the king charmed me. We spent a while there, staring and absorbing, before we slipped into the Egyptian gallery.

River crossing from Nimrud

River crossing from Nimrud

It didn’t take long to spot the Rosetta stone, mostly surrounded by school kids and tourists and looking exactly as I’d imagined. It was a very special moment and the culmination in a way of a lifetime of immersing myself in history.

Rosetta Stone, at last

Rosetta Stone, at last

Also in the Egyptian gallery were reliefs, sarcophagi and monumental heads of Amenhotep III and Ramses II. The latter especially looked serene, sure perhaps that thousands of years later he would not be forgotten or left buried in the desert.

A serene Pharaoh

A serene Pharaoh

The next part of the museum we ventured into focused on Greece, and it was here that my partner found himself unexpectedly entranced. He’s recently completed a ceramics course, bringing home a selection of lovely bowls and plates, so the displays of ancient plates, amphorae, vases and jugs entirely grabbed his attention. And they were stunning. Almost all where in the black on red style, showing gods and heroes parading about, or mortals indulging in an amphorae or two of wine. The quality of the work was stunning though, often discreetly signed by the painter and the potter, and found in places as far afield as Campania in Italy and in Egypt. It reminded me of the fineness of Georg Jensen ewers, or other designer home wares that you’d be more likely to display on a shelf than actually use.
Further on there were Corinthian helmets, one with a dent, Sassanid swords and statuary, but for me it was all a build up to the main event.

Athenian pottery

Athenian pottery

I have been debating with myself as to whether to get into the politics surrounding the artifacts I’m about to describe. Though it’s important, for now I’m going to describe the moment so you can see what I saw, and someday I’ll get into the issue, perhaps when I’ve seen the original home of the artifacts.
When I first heard of the Parthenon Marbles, or the Elgin Marbles as I first heard them referred to, I for some reason imagined then literally as big, white marbles. As in the round ones that kids used to play with, but white and smooth and a metres tall. I am, I fear, sometimes too literal.

What they actually are, of course, are the friezes and statues that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, carved of fine marble and showing at once the incredible artistic outpourings of the time and how difficult it can be to correctly interpret the people of the past. Most of the works show a cavalcade of riders filling up panel after panel with movement and life, the muscles and tendons on the horses and men seeming to thrum with energy even without the paint and decoration that would once have covered them.

Living marble

Living marble

A parade was also taking place, with men and women tugging along heifers, sometimes against their will and carrying mysterious instruments for purposes that we don’t know.
At the end of each room where large but fragmentary statues that once sat on the triangular ends of the temple. Neptune, and perhaps Aphrodite and Demeter lounge and sit around, headless and armless, the folds of their clothes caught in sudden movement. The heads of horses also perch on display, nostrils wide and eyes fierce, though their bodies are long gone.

Parthenon sculptures

Parthenon sculptures

Finally there were the ‘Metopes’, panels showing a battle between centaurs and Lapiths. Again and again a man and centaur were shown locked in battle, always at a critical moment. It felt as though in the moment of sculpting the fight could go either way, the stone clutched in one hand could fly into the enemy’s face or a spear could be turned aside. In addition to the fine artistry, they seemed to live and tell a story, if we can only work out the message.

An endless battle

An endless battle

Having left the world of classical Greece, we found ourselves sharing space with fragments from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. If you’ve ever wondered where the word mausoleum comes from, look no further. In the 300d BCE a woman called Artemisia commissioned a massive tomb for her husband Mausolus and herself, which became one of the wonders of the ancient world. Though they were part of the Persian empire she employed Greek architects to design it, and the fragments that are left show a mix of both influences. Two massive statues remain, possibly of Mausolus and his sister-wife Artemisia, but the most amazing piece in my opinion was the head, shoulders and part of the legs of a horse that once stood with three others in a chariot on the roof. It was simply huge, towering over me as it once did over the city.

A colossal horse

A colossal horse

Then there was the Celtic room which turned into the Romano-British and then Viking gallery. It included incredible dishes and cups from the Mildenhall find, a delicately made chest chain probably worn only once by a very young Romano-British bride on her wedding and a seemingly unimportant letter from the Roman period.

A silver dish from the Mildenhall find

A silver dish from the Mildenhall find

It was from 100CE Vindolanda on the then border of the empire, and addressed to a woman named Sulpicia Lepidina. It was a birthday party invitation, written mostly by a scribe but in the bottom corner it had been signed by the sender, Claudia Severa,

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

This letter is thought to be the earliest known writing in Latin by a woman, and I adore how innocuous it is. And at the same time showing the love and life of real people, and everyday life. I hope Sulpicia made it to Claudia’s birthday.

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings

At the end of the long room were the treasures from the Sutton Hoo burial. I’ve known about these for a long time, but somehow the fact that they were in the British Museum had slipped my mind until I read up about the Museum prior to visiting. Knowing that I was eager to see the treasure, in particular the helmet, my partner told me to close my eyes and turned me around to see it when he spotted it before me. I saw first the reconstruction, a beautifully made helmet of silver, inlaid with precious stones and decorated with symbols from the Roman, Celtic and Viking worlds. To the side was the original, much reduced, but with the decorations still visible.

Sutton Hoo reconstruction

Sutton Hoo reconstruction


Sutton Hoo original

Sutton Hoo original

Even though no one knows for sure who the man buried with the helmet was, he was lucky to have incredible craftsmen available to provide treasures to take on his final journey. As well as the helmet, was the clasp of a purse, a brooch and buckles, made of gold and gems and of the sort of quality I’d expect on the catalogue of a professional jeweler today. It goes to show that despite the prejudice about those who went before us being somehow less able due to the limitations of technology, they were just as capable of creating beautiful things, simply and confidently.

Purse clasp from Sutton Hoo

Purse clasp from Sutton Hoo

By now we were tiring, and the wonders of the past were starting to blur together a little, so we headed to the exit. On the way out I bought something which I felt symbolised my impressions of London, at least prior to visiting; a compact umbrella decorated with writing from the Rosetta Stone. Armed against the likely rain, we went out and continued our first day in London.

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.

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.

Eyes and stones of the past

Our second full day in Malta dawned full of promise and hoping for the best we decided to put our fate into the hands of the tourist buses. We had avoided them as being too touristy and expensive in comparison with public transport, what with budgeting and travelling locally and all that. As we had stood at the bus stop the previous night, being told that the final bus that could take us home wasn’t accepting anymore passengers, and after a few hours of discovering every pot hole from coast to coast, we felt we had reached a tipping point.
So off we trundled to Sliema, where we accosted one of the army of people trying to make bookings (she seemed surprised to be an accostee for once) and got tickets for one of the hop on hop off buses that endlessly circled the islands. After a little bit of being bussed about, we made it onto the doubledecker bus, taking our seats on the roofs and plugging in our headphones to soak in the surroundings the history in comfort.

Our first stop was Tarxien, a large open air Megalithic temple that is about 5000 years old. It lies in the middle of a little town, so we followed signs to a square, surrounded on one side by a cemetery and on the other by a high wall. In the shade of sparse trees a food van sold wilting fruit and vegetables, or would have had there been anyone to sell them to. The area was entirely empty of tourists or tourist traps, and a duck around the corner to the entrance revealed that the site was closed for the time being, while a protective cover was built. Which was, we agreed, a good idea. It would have been better to have been made aware of this fact by the lady at the tourism office, the bus driver who announced the stop or even the Tarxien website.

Our view of Tarxien

Our view of Tarxien

Somewhat miffed, we bought some groceries and ducked into the almost hidden door to the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni in the hopes that someone may have canceled their bookings.
This ancient site is probably the most famous of the prehistoric temples in Malta, and only accepts a limited number of visitors per day to preserve it. As such you need to book well ahead, more than a month as I discovered when I attempted to do this. When we arrived there were no cancellations and the next available booking was on August 2nd. We left the office, almost lost among the other buildings whose construction had precipitated the Hypogeum’s finding, and the destruction of the temple above ground. In a later post I’ll go into this inability of the Maltese to build anything without discovering some remnant of their history, and the pride and irritation that at least one person feels about it.

For now at least, the heroes of this story are standing at a bus stop, feeling a little let down by fate and whatever gods oversee tourists. They won’t be downcast for too long though, as the bus arrived not overly late and they got to enjoy some time with the wind in their hair and the sun on their skin as they journeyed on towards another site of interest.

Marsaxlokk is an old fishing town and has been since the Phoenicians settled there in the 900sBCE, if not before. Though the restaurants along the waterfront were listed as must see/eat attractions, we decided to stay on the bus while the driver took a toilet break, admiring the neat terraced houses and colourful array of boats bobbing in the harbour. Many were painted in the style that seemed unique to Malta, lines of lateral red, blue and yellow along the length of the boat and small eyes or fish painted on the prow. The eyes are another tie to the Phoenicians, a sign to ward off the evil eye and protect against malign forces that has somehow managed to survive into the deeply Catholic culture that exists today on Malta.

A Maltese boat

A Maltese boat

As the bus moved off, we rounded the coast and soon came to our next stop and our second attempt at seeing some of the ancient history of the islands. As with the temples we had tried and failed to see, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra date from the 3000-4000s BCE are were built by people who left many traces of their lives but none to indicate where they went or why they suddenly disappeared from history. Unlike the other sites, these aren’t located in busy towns but instead on hills that end in cliffs overlooking the sea.

Before we could catch more than a glimpse of them, however, we were ushered into a small cinema and handed 3D glasses. A short film soon followed, with a warning to be aware that the experience was going to be more sensual, or at least sense oriented, than we were used to. As the history of the site unfolded before us, gusts of dusty, limestone heavy wind and a light drizzle of rain punctuated the turn of the centuries. Without words we saw the structures being built, used, abandoned and finally discovered and reconstructed. When the lights turned back on we went out and explored the small but very interesting and interactive museum, having a go at bashing rocks with other rocks and other educational activities. A plaque on a wall acknowledged the contributions that Norway had made to the funds to preserve the site, which seemed to us to be very generous, if a little baffling.
Out under the sky again we walked down the dusty path to the nearer of the two temples. As we walked through the scrub buzzing with insects and small birds, I wondered how much the land had changed since the temples had been constructed. The forests were gone and old roads faded, but our view over the sea and the flowers blooming on the edges of the cliffs must have been familiar to those ancient eyes who had watched the temples take shape.

A room in Hagar Qim

A room in Hagar Qim

Ħaġar Qim is large, even though the limestone it is made of has been weathered by time. The stones form ramps, chapels and altars, some carved with swirls or a pattern of dots, one block even weighing 57 tonnes. A menhir stands at the back, 5 metres tall and around the base are scattered stones that I suppose the archaeologists couldn’t find a place for. In one room a hole in the wall lets in a circle of light, and at certain times of the year this circle lights particular stones, marking the equinoxes for reasons that are lost to us.

Following the seasons

Following the seasons

Mnajdra was a little smaller, located a hundred or so metres the the north of its neighbour, and similarly impressive. Among the immense pillars and towering walls is a perfectly balanced altar framed by pillars, the soft gold of the limestone giving it a luminous quality.

Ancient altars

Ancient altars

Though neither temple is as large as Tarxien, nor as famous as the Hypogeum, they have a sense of permanence and endurance that’s only strengthened by the sparse slopes and steep cliffs where they perch. And long may they perch there.

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

Forts, festivals and sunsets over the sea

The capital city of Valletta on the island of Malta was at one time the headquarters of the Knights of St John, and had in fact been built by them. Or they ordered it built in any case. The Knights were one of the more adventurous orders, skipping from country to country one step ahead of the Ottomans, laying siege here, being besieged there and amassing a lot of wealth along the way. When they eventually washed up on the scant shores of Malta, I imagine there may have been some sights of ‘here we go again’ from the inhabitants, or whatever the local equivalent is on an island that almost seems to be the hot potato of the Mediterranean.
These latest visitors would only be around for about 250 years, but during that time they left their mark very clearly all over the islands. 14 towers circle the islands, castles and fortresses surmount most large hills, and at the capital you can’t go 5 metres without seeing a trace of them. Especially if you approach by water.

Fort St Elmo is perched on the seaward facing point of the penninsula. As you approach from the north on a bus, winding around the points of St Julian and Sliema, you can catch glimpses of the massive walls and towers, the golden limestone glowing in the morning light. From the walls themselves you can get an amazing view over the harbour and surrounding metropolis, as well as imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers watching the sea for invading fleets. In 1565 there would have been blood and fighting where we stood enjoying the sea breeze, as the fortress fell during the Great Siege. A little distance away from the walls, we found the small, quiet chapel of St Anne which had apparently been the site of the last stand of the Knights, and where a number of priests were killed. I read this before I went in, so I couldn’t help shivering a little as I looked around, and not just from the chill of the darkened room.

Chapel of St Anne

Chapel of St Anne

In addition to chapels, walls, bastions (whatever they are) and gates with eyes, the Fort of St Elmo contains a war museum detailing the military history of Malta.

An eye guarding the gates

An eye guarding the gates

Not having a huge amount of interest in the subject, at least when it doesn’t concern really ancient military history, I left my fella to it and wandered out of the fortress and into the streets of Valletta. The main streets leading from the city gates to the fortress were busy with tourists, so I nipped down a few side streets, passing locals going about their business. There was an old man on a mobile talking animatedly, a woman hanging up washing on her balcony and a number of stray cats snoozing in the shade of parked cars. For some reason most of the cats on Malta are ginger. My theory is that once, long ago, a ginger cat was brought to the island and through a campaign of feline bullying took over the capital city and ensured that its descendants continued its gingery legacy. Most likely it came from Sicily, where keeping it in the family is apparently de rigueur.

My feet eventually led me to the Museum of Archaeology, where I spent a happy few hours exploring the long history of the islands. Among the things that most struck me were the sculptures from the Neolithic period. The most common were large women, sitting with legs decorously folded to the side and one arm folded. There were no heads on the bodies, but rather a hole where archaeologists assume a series of interchangeable heads could have been inserted. Though some were clumsily made, there were many that had been very finely carved, the folds in their dresses precisely made and their hands and feet delicate, giving a sense of dignity and poise even after all these years.

Stone ladies

Stone ladies

Elsewhere in the museum was a room dedicated to the Phoenicians, who had dominated the islands before the Romans took over in the 200sBCE. I’ve never had a chance to see Phoenician artifacts before, overwhelmed as they were and are by their noisy competitors, so a tiny curse scroll in their script and a sarcophagus who looked as though she was holding her breath were pleasant surprises.

Phoenician sarcophagus

Phoenician sarcophagus

History ancient and military achieved, we met up and made our way to the Upper Barakka Gardens, swapping notes on the history of the islands. From the balconies and shady tables of the gardens we had an amazing view out over the harbour and city, the industry of the docks chugging away behind tourist boats, and ancient fortresses blending with busy neighbourhoods.

Valletta from the gardens

Valletta from the gardens

Before we could let ourselves settle too deeply into our chairs, however, there was an event that night that I very much wanted to attend. The L-Imnarja is an ancient agricultural festival held in honour of St Paul and St Peter (or at least since Catholicism came to Malta), which takes place in Buskett Garden. This is a grove not far from Mdina in the centre of the island and as such I had assumed from the safety of my computer in Sweden that it would be no problem to get there and join in the market stalls and watch the donkey and horse races before the fireworks were finally set off. Once in Malta the reality of traveling the 12.5kms from Valletta to Buskett settled in, and so did we on our bus seats as we sadly passed the stop for the festival, realising that if we did get off there would be no reliable way to get back home.
Instead we continued on the bus to Dingli cliffs, which is less disappointing now that I know that we should have gone around the corner to see the real ones. The sunset over the scrubby flowers and plants and the sea beyond was a lovely sight though, and worth the long bus ride and teenagers loudly singing the hits of the 80s.

Sunset over Dingli

Sunset over Dingli

Tired and hungry, we went back to town and dined on local pastries and a slushie overlooking the Sliema harbour, were refused admittance to the last bus home as it was too full and caught a taxi back to the apartment, trying not to doze off as we rocked up the roads and trudged across the construction site in the bright, Mediterranean moonlight.