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.

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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