Wine and Karri trees

The last time I travelled almost 300kms by road* I ended up in the capital city of another country, exchanging one language, monetary system and culture for another. This time I swapped the dramatic cliffs, pine forests, snowy fields and deep fjords for endless sweeping fields, flame coloured native christmas trees and towering forests. Rather than north we went south, stopping in at places known by the locals as ‘Bunners’, ‘Busso’, ‘Cow Town’ and ‘Margs’, proving that even within the same country, a language can change.

Margaret River, or Margs, is WA’s best known wine region, full of vines, big wineries, boutiques, chocolate stores and restaurants. Within minutes of sampling a local Cab Sav** you can be swimming on white sandy beaches or surfing in legendary beaches, or descending into ancient caves to see towering forms and fossils. If this sounds like I’m writing copy for a tourist magazine, keep in mind that when describing this area, it’s hard not to wax lyrical. Plus for a WA woman who has been to other, more famous regions, I maintain the right to be proud of the work of my fellow WA folk, from a state where we are not usually known for creating fine wine, art and culture. As we tasted Shiraz and Petit Verdot, chatted with the owners of the little, boutique wineries and drove along the tree lined, rural roads, it felt like another land where the days of indulgence and sun would meld into each other, and where we forgot about the days to come after the holiday. It was not this way for the whole of the holiday however.

We arrived in Busso with rain clouds dragging behind us, fat and sleepy from the food and relaxation of christmas, ready to drop our stuff and get started on the holiday mood. On our first and only stroll to the beach, just behind our accommodation, the clouds opened up and wind howled, sending us back to our rooms questioning our plan for an afternoon swim. Heading into town for groceries and dinner we went to have a walk on the jetty, which at almost 2kms long is the longest wooden jetty in the world.

Clouds approaching the jetty

Clouds approaching the jetty

Despite the intention to trek the whole length, the weather again conspired against us and with sheets of rain drove us back to our car, laughing and dripping. We dried out over dinner at a pub, and fell asleep almost before our heads hit the pillows, barely noticing the raucous chatter of our new neighbours.

The first full day had been planned sometime before, and so we headed off fairly early to our appointment at a jeweller, where we got a reality check and a day to think things over. After which we scoured the Margaret River breweries for a free table and eventually fed ourselves, lining our bellies for the wine to come. A chocolatier and a few boutique wineries followed in a haze of deliciousness and an edge of tipsiness, ending at a brewery that had just the right mix of casual and quality, and brought about a heart to heart and a happy glow to the end of the day. The glow extended as we happily contemplated our haul of wines that evening, and enjoyed a few glasses over our picnic dinner.

How do you know that a decision you make while on holiday, when your tastes run a certain way, and when you know that they could change, is the right one? Especially when it’s something that you will, quite literally, carry with you for the rest of your life? This is what we did on the next morning, confirming the order and walking out feeling simultaneously buoyed and flummoxed. It was done and there was no going back. From the forests of Yallingup, which translates as ‘The place of love’ in the Indigenous language, we followed winding roads to the Wardan Cultural Centre, where we were able to meet someone wonderful. We took a tour with her and her daughter, where we were shown the trees, flowers and fruits that her people have survived off for tens of thousands of years. We tasted the balga and the snakebush berries, and chewed peppermint tree leaves, and learnt of the sheoak and how to make a moi moi. Most of all we got to spend time with an elder who knew herself and her land, and was as much a natural leader as anyone else I have ever met. It was a privilege to hear her speak about survival, joke about people she’d met and watch her daughter learn, the girl’s eyes following everything and completely comfortable in her place.
I hope to be able to go on one of the survival camps she runs one day, so I can learn how to survive on the land that I call home. Even after most of my life lived in it, I couldn’t live on it.

From the life and tranquility of the bush we continued to sample wines, lunch in Margaret River and make our way further down south. The landscape changed from Marri and Jarrah forest, to Jarrah with absurdly tall, Dr Seuss-like balgas, paperbark swamps and recently burnt scrublands. In time we began to spot the trees that I love most of all, tall, white trunks sticking out among the old marri trees. They are the tallest trees I have ever seen, and when they fill the forest in looks like a haphazard temple, the columns and green canopy unmoving as we pass underneath.

Panorama from our cabin

Panorama from our cabin

We stayed at a well known resort just before Pemberton, where we had also enjoyed our first ever getaway holiday years before. In a cabin overlooking the artificial lake, with the rushing of the waterfall and the stately karri forest reflected in the water, it was another world.

Beedelup falls

Beedelup falls

It was a world that we shared with the wildlife, including ring necked parrots that didn’t take any encouragement to gobble the seeds that I put out for them. The resort provided them as an alternative to the bread and snacks and would otherwise make the birds sick, and they clearly knew the drill, warbling to bring in the whole gang as soon as the seeds appeared.

The local gang

The local gang

They also knew where the seed was coming from, and had a go at opening the plastic container with the seeds before I hid it, then watching me with eyes that were a bit too knowing. When no more seeds appeared, they moved on to the next sucker with a final squawk and beady stare.

Can I have another?

Can I have another?

Our own dinner was a more civilized affair with less mess, and without wifi or internet connection we were able to relax and enjoy the scenery and peace of the lake. All too soon we had to leave, with a hot, filling breakfast in our bellies and a few hundred kms of road ahead of us.

Morning view

Morning view

Before turning north, however, we couldn’t leave without properly seeing the karri trees and so I had my first go at proper off-road driving, albeit in an old Volvo.

Old growth by the river

Old growth by the river

A karri valley

A karri valley

Going off-road among the karri

Going off-road among the karri

The track wound down to a river, and through magnificent old growth forest, ending at the 75 metre tall Bicentennial Tree. It can be climbed with metal spikes covered by a net, which I didn’t attempt, despite what must have been an amazing view.

The Bicentennial Tree

The Bicentennial Tree

Leaving the beautiful trees and ancient forest behind, we went north, stopping for lunch, and an ice-cream at a lavender farm. We of course visited one final winery, an old favourite that didn’t disappoint, and so it was that we arrived home satisfied, laden with wine and chocolate and dreaming of the forest that awaits the next holiday.

* By strange coincidence, the distance between Göteborg and Oslo, and my home and Margaret River is exactly 293 kms.
** Cabernet Sauvignon, for non-Australians

Places visited:
House of Cards Wines
Gabriel’s Chocolate
John Miller Design
Ashbrook Wines
Cape Grace Wines
The Beer Farm
The Cheeky Monkey Brewery
Wardan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Thompson Brook Wines
Balingup Lavender farm

Ancient caves, a whiff of lavender

In the valleys and hills of Ardèche, about an hours drive from Avignon, lies a cave. The entrance to the cave has been blocked by many years of erosion and rockslides, and the road roped off, but once it was full of life. Cave bears, cave lions and other animals that we don’t know the names of rested and bred there, and in time people moved in, leaving behind foot and hand prints, and images of the animals around them that seemed to climb off the walls. The bears left traces behind too, deep gouges from their claws as they stretched after a long hibernation, paw prints and bones. The cave was untouched for thousands of years, silently holding its secrets, until careful candles in the dark brought the images of long dead and extinct creatures back to life.

It wasn’t this cave that we saw.

Driving up from Avignon, fresh bread and cheese in our bags, we saw farms, mountains, villages and lavender fields. Though I stuck my head out of the window as we passed, I only caught the barest whiff. Reaching Ardèche we followed the GPS directions to a rope off road, around the corner from the majestic Pont d’Arc. Some stressing and confusion later, we zigzagged our way up sparse hills to a large car park and tourist area. Tickets in hand we wandered around the site, then waited with our assigned group, taking the English translation headsets and after being told that photography was not allowed, we walked into cool, humid darkness.

What they have done is create a complete replica of the Chauvet cave system, right down to the human and animal footprints still preserved in the soft sand. If this sounds at all tacky (and the thought did cross my mind) go and prepare to have your breath taken away. We were lead through by a guide, talking in French, and shown handprints, claw marks high up on the walls, soft craters that held sleeping bears, a lion skull on a rock pedestal and seemingly endless paintings. They have been recreated by artists and are as stunning now as they would have been 35-20 000 years ago when first painted. Woolly rhinos butt horns, cave bears tower, horses prance and gallop and cave lions prowl. An owl even sits upright, staring at us across the millennia. We twisted our way around the cave, along the raised platforms, losing our bearings amidst the shadows and rippling cave structures. It did feel a little dissonant sometimes, when I was staring at a row of horses tossing their heads, to imagine the people painting these thousands of years ago and then remember that it was only completed in 2015. It was a matter of intentionally forgetting when it was made, and instead seeing it as a recreation, and enjoying the experience of being as close to art from pre-history as I’m ever going to get.

A dreadlocked mammoth

A dreadlocked mammoth

Out in the blinding sunlight and spring heat we went to the museum, which had a video showing the history of the cave, and then a room full of interactive displays (I utterly failed at cave painting) and recreations of a mammoth with realistic dreadlocks, lions, deer and humans. The detail on the small family of pre-historic people was amazing, and I could imagine how they must have lived, constantly on the move across the tundra and grasslands, returning to sacred places to carry out rituals that we’ll never know about.

Our next stop was to have been a lavender farm, where I could skip around and breath deeply, then stock up on soap for the rest of the holiday. It was not to be. As we passed through a quiet village one of the tyres on our hire car went flat. Long story short, we were able to get back to Avignon on side streets and slowly on freeways, which I suppose meant we got a more scenic trip.

An imposing tollgate

An imposing tollgate

The next day we said goodbye to Avignon, swapped our car and headed along the coast. We passed through immense toll gates, saw stunning hills and cliffs in the distance and listened to many podcasts. Finally we reached Nice. Continuing the trend in Paris, there was a train strike, plus the Euro Cup was coming up soon, so parking was a bit scarce in town, including where we were staying. We then had some difficulty returning the car (in the sense that understatements mean the opposite), so by the time we were out and strolling the streets, I was feeling a little bruised and not entirely impressed with the city.

A beachside in Nice

A beachside in Nice

Reaching the waterside and taking in the view lifted our spirits though, and so it was with relief and relaxation that we shared a bottle of wine on the balcony that night, and cheered for our final night in France. The glasses were the only ones we could find.

Celebratory wine

Celebratory wine

Writing this I can’t help thinking of the sight along that palm lined and broad boulevard not many weeks later. It’s hard to imagine the lively, cheerful and bustling city that we saw so torn by hatred.

Provence, part 1

It’s hard to play favourites with places that you visit on holiday; each one stands out in its own way, bringing you find memories and tastes that keep calling you back. One such place is Provence, a region in the south east of France. It was once the first area taken over by the Romans outside of Italy, their first province, thus its name. They no doubt had to bash through hordes of Celts and Gauls to establish their neat little towns, and on our journey we were faced with similarly obstreperous natives; the French rail network.

A quick search to confirm the name shows that there is another strike underway, though I imagine that the many people who are staring at timetables in stations and angrily calling helplines won’t be as lucky as we turned out to be. We found out our pre-booked tickets had been refunded on the morning of our departure, and as she had to rush off for work and say her goodbyes, our host advised us to just turn up at the station and see if another train turns up, or in the worst case hire a car and drive down. So off we went, and lo and behold there was a train leaving in 5 minutes, so a sprint and a scramble around later and we were in first class, on seats left open by friends of travellers who had not turned up. We left a few hours earlier than intended on a faster train, for free, so in all, the strike worked out pretty well for us.

Avignon in the evening

Avignon in the evening

Upon our arrival in Avignon, the temperature rose from the foggy, jumper-needing 15 in Paris to shorts and t-shirt weather. Driving through the twisting streets, past the warm coloured walls and wide river, it felt almost like another country. Our accommodation itself was also very different. For a bit of a difference, we’d rented a gypsy caravan for our stay, which sat in someone’s chicken-ful yard and was bright yellow and purple. It had everything we needed, though in a reduced size and was definitely the most unique Airbnb place we’ve stayed in so far.

That afternoon we wandered around Avignon, admiring the Papal palace and views of the hills and valleys in the distance, as the sun set. For dinner we went to a restaurant that had been recommended online, which should serve as an example to not always believe what you read. After being told they were booked out, we were grudgingly taken to one of the empty tables almost on the street, left for ages, given different menus to the rest of the guests who gradually arrived, not offered anything to drink other than water and generally ignored. I’d have been less annoyed if the food had been decent, but I wasn’t, and on top of that felt disappointed that the stereotype for rudeness was true in at least one occasion.

The bridge of Avignon

The bridge of Avignon

So how do you follow such a day of ups and downs? You have a Roman holiday.

Our first stop was the well deservedly famous Pont du Gard. Since my partner’s last visit years ago, tourism around it had taken off, so it was only after crossing a huge carpark, paying a fee, getting through the shops and a walk through paths and gardens that we got our first glimpse of the aqueduct. It was awe inspiring, both in the size and craftsmanship, and purpose.

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

The Romans built menuments such as this to work, for a functional purpose, but also to impose themselves on the landscape so that wherever you were in the Empire, you knew that Rome was there. It was impressive from every angle, and dwarfed all of the tourists and staff and little shops built nearby, as it had no doubt dwarfed the slaves who built it, the legions who marched past it and the people centuries later who wondered if it had been built by giants.

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Next we visited Nîmes, which is a gorgeous town that I think puts Avignon in the shade in regards to elegance. Walking along its tree lined boulevards and past fountains, we saw the arena, which seemed almost entirely intact. Inside we saw that it was being set up to host a concert, the original seating, walkways and arena floor still serving the purpose they had been built for.

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

From a vantage point in the top tier, there was a wonderful view over the city, with pigeons soaring and cathedrals and ancient towers rising up and beyond them the hills.

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Not imagining this could be topped, we next found the Maison Carrée. Though long since stripped of the bright paint and gold, it looked almost intact, a beautiful temple that glowed in the afternoon light. It has been a house, a church, a stable and a granary, and still stands as if it had never been touched. Exquisite is a good word for it. If you think I’m waxing a bit too lyrical, I urge you to visit it, and then say I’m wrong.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

It also made me wonder what else had been lost to history, what other beauty had been torn down and the sorts of people and situations that bring that about.

The ceiling of the outer collonade

The ceiling of the outer collonade

Out next stop was Arles, but as we drove I noticed something on the map that had inexplicably escaped my notice before. With a slight change of direction we went off the main road, and arrived at our destination as thunder began to roll on the horizon. Our destination was a replica Roman winery, built on and around an ancient winery, and which was still in production. We were left to explore the centre ourselves, taking in the info about amphorae, wine production and the history of the site. We then found the pressing room, which has a massive tree beam hung above a press, with winches and pulleys, basins for the wine and grape mush and huge amphorae buried in the ground. Every year there is a harvest on the site, with workers and volunteers in costume, who then press the grapes by foot, operate the equipment and create wine following ancient recipes.

The press at Mas des Tourelles

The press at Mas des Tourelles

It was all fascinating and I was giddy with the reality of it, even more so when we were offered tasting, which were included in all visits. Obviously tastes have changed over the millenia, but the herbs, spices, sweetness and saltiness were marvelous to experience, and we left with smiles and bottles of our own, glad we had the opportunity to try this completely unique experience.

Then to finish off our day, we had dinner in Arles, which for my was a plate full of crustacea. Though my partner’s face went white as I offered him meaty lumps of sea snail, I got through the whole thing – and the whole experience far exceeded our first night in Provence.

Seafood extravaganza

Seafood extravaganza

Walking through the town we saw another arena, a bit smaller but still imposing and many cobbled streets and a busker. What overlaid everything was the scent of jasmine, which hung heavily in the evening air, the flowers themselves growing around and into houses and walls.

Jasmine in Arles

Jasmine in Arles

The faces of Berlin

In between leaving Sweden and arriving in Australia, we spent 3 weeks crossing Europe. Our journey lead us through familiar places like Paris, stunningly beautiful areas in Switzerland and Provence and a last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. Before sinking into the sun and warmth of southern France and Northern Italy however, we visiting a city more marked by history than most others we’ve seen, and absolutely unlike any other: Berlin.

What do you think of when you picture Berlin? The Wall? Checkpoint Charlie? The alternative scene? The crumbling Reichstag with a flag waving from the ruins? These aspects can all be found, in fact it can be difficult to avoid the ambulance chaser view of history, gawking at the scars and horrors that are left on show, for the benefit of locals and visitors. At least that was the impression I got as we spent our days on the streets, and I’ll get into some of those literal scars later.
Much of our first impression was formed by the place we stayed, and the neighbourhood we were based. The lovely, high ceilinged and artistically decorated apartment in Neukölln (breakfast included!) was an example of the two-faced feeling of Berlin. The creaky stairs, moulded cornices and antique furniture seemed to be from a pre-War world, but the graffiti, hipsters and constant feeling of newness and change told a different story. We didn’t spend much time in Neukölln, but it seemed as though gentrifiction was well under way, the formerly lawless borough sheddding gangs for hipster cafes and bars.

From the trendy outskirts of the city, it was an easy metro ride to the centre, and a short walk down Unter den Linden to one of the symbols of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, sitting between banks and embassies, is the only remnant of the old monuments in the square that it dominates. Under the eyes of the foreign embassies and behind the endless selfying crowds it’s still tall and imposing, the quadriga with the goddess of Peace posing defiantly on top. Displays showed the wreckage after the War, with only the Gate standing and in photos from later years it peeped over the top of the Wall, part of a no man’s land. Either because of what it is or what it symbolises, it’s become enmeshed in the history of the city. Which also makes it a great place to start free tours.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

We joined one of these on our second day, following a former tourist turned local like ducklings around the city. After a history of the Gate, we were taken to the Michael Jackson Baby Dangling Hotel (do a quick google if you’ve forgotten this sadly historic moment), and then continued the theme of tragedy, triumph and contemplation. We went to the carpark that now stands over the bunker where Hitler died, past a former Third Reich ministry building turned Gestapo headquarters and now tax office, graffiti strewn remnants of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a large area full of concrete pylons, the ground sloping down as they grow taller, and you feel as though you are lost in a forest of concrete, while at the same time able to see a way out.

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The guide prompted a surprisingly serious discussion for a free tour, which seemed to me a part of the weight that Germany has carried for all these years. The tour ended at Bebelplatz, somewhere that I have had in my mind to visit for as long as I’ve known about it. It was where 20,000 books were burned in May 1933, and for me is always associated with the Heinrich Heine quote,

“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”

Under the square is a memorial, a room of empty bookshelves to symbolise those destroyed that day, as fitting a memorial to the death of ideas as I can think of.

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

The tour also opened our eyes to signs of history that had been before us the whole time. At every street crossing, the shape of the green/amber/red men differed depending on what side of the wall the crossing had been on while the Wall had stood. Politics aside, I think the one of the East side looked more fun. The dividing line and occasionally remnants of the Wall also became more obvious, appearing as a brick line running across streets and through pavements, so easy to miss that it was hard to imagine the size and disruption it caused.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

No doubt there were other signs, but these were the only ones I saw that showed where the city had been divided not so many years ago.

As so much of the city had been destroyed in the War, there are many areas that have an almost sterile feeling, a newness that seemed strange in such an old place where people were trying to look ahead rather than backwards. One place where this was not the case was the Museum island, where we went as soon as possible. I’d been looking forward to seeing the Pergamon Altar for a while, but due to renovations it was closed. As we walked around the island we saw why renovations might be needed. Along one column lined walkway, round holes had been chipped out of the stone, and on the wall behind, similar holes dotted the wall, with clear spaces in the shadows of the columns. Elsewhere holes covered entire huge walls and columns had been replaced with new stone. Even in this place war had come, perhaps not surprising when you think of the buildings in terms of survival and defense rather than refuges for antiques and history.

Inside I noticed that plaster and paint had given way to brick and stone in patches, and frescoes were partly destroyed. I asked a guard why this was, and he matter of factly told me that the museum had stood open to the elements for many years, without a roof, so snow and rain had cracked and peeled at the beautiful paintings and fine decorations.

What's left of Baldur

What’s left of Baldur

Rather than replicate how it had looked, the museum now stands as its own exhibit, an example of the destruction of war.

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

While the bombs had been falling and the War was drawing closer, many of the most treasured artifacts were hidden away while others were taken by the victors. Some of those that haven’t returned are the pieces found by Heinrich Schliemann at the site of Troy, and are apparently still being held in Russia. What does remain includes the famous jewelry modeled by his wife, which is just as stunning as the old photos showed. There was some irony in the fact that the pieces now listed as stolen by Soviets were originally stolen from Turkey, but maybe not that the people at the museum enjoy.

The big diadem

The big diadem

Elsewhere there were mysterious Celtic golden hats, an exhibition about beards, heaps of wonderful ancient Greek and Roman stuff and one particular item from Egypt. You will have seen her, even if you don’t know her name. There is no picture here because photography was not allowed in her private room where, apart from a model for the vision impaired that you can touch, she stands alone. Even after more than 3000 years, Nefertiti is serene and breathtakingly beautiful. Even with only one eye, she seems supremely confident to stare down the millennia to come as she has stared down the last 3, hopefully without losing a single perfect line or blemish that gives her so much personality.
It’s fair to say I’m a little bit in love with her, but who can blame me.

We visited another museum the next day, this one looking forward rather than back at the losses of the past. The Berlin Technology Museum is wonderful, and we spent hours poking and exploring, and being far too amused by the section about jewelry production (Schmuckproduktion).
On our last day, rather than spend time in museums and galleries, we went for a long walk in Tiergarten, a huge area of forest just outside the Brandenburg gate. It was filled with joggers, picnickers, people walking their dogs and intricate gardens, following a maze of paths that twist around the forest.

Peace in Tiergarten

Peace in Tiergarten

In the centre, in the middle of a roundabout that lines up with the Gate, is the Victory Column, built to commemorate a Prussian victory in the 1860s.

The Victory Column

The Victory Column

The gold statue of Victory still stands, and the bronze reliefs that had been removed in 1945 have been restored. They are riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, the horseback soldiers missing arms, heads and legs, and the grieving or celebrating women with holes in their heads, in a sort of parody of war. It was comical, if it was not for the deaths that would have taken place there.

A war damaged soldier

A war damaged soldier

Elsewhere in Tiergarten is a statue of a queen, standing on a platform amid well tended gardens. Nearby is a photo of the same place in the 1940s. The statue is there, looking down, but the ground around her is a morass of mud and scraps of trees, a wasteland that standing amid the trees and peace of today seems impossible. Only 60 or so years stand between us, but if not for the shrapnel pits in the base of the statue, it would seem a different world.

A queen in Tiergarten

A queen in Tiergarten

This was the impression that I left Berlin with, a city that acknowledges and bears its history, both awful and proud and is looking to the future. Which seems to be a good way to live.

Carpe diem in Palma

Months ago, it seems now to have been very many months ago, my partner and I noticed that there was a long weekend coming up. This raised exciting possibilities and as any sensible travel-fancying folk is wont to do, we hopped onto the net for cheap flights. After winnowing away Rome (been there), Berlin (too expensive) and Edinburgh (we could get the same weather here) we settled on Mallorca. I was a bit hesitant, images of Magaluf and incessant club music lurking in my mind, but the more we investigated, the larger we found the island was, and the larger the distance between us and them.

Mallorca, for those who have not been or have only been to the hotels, bars and beaches around Palma, is an island full of stunning scenery. Mountain ranges split the island, their steep sides covered in pines and ancient olive terraces and wildernesses crowding on cliffs overlooking the sea. Considering the thousands of years that humans have been living on the island, it’s surprising how tracts of wilderness still exist, whether because it’s too beautiful to inhabit or too difficult to reach.

An ancient olive tree

An ancient olive tree

Our journey began in Palma, and a little Airbnb apartment that we rented for our stay. To have a home in the old town, with the tourist carriage horses clopping past in the afternoons and twisting cobbled streets almost leaving us lost more than once, was exactly how we like to experience a new place. The bottle of wonderful home-made wine was a nice bonus.

Palma Cathedral close up

Palma Cathedral close up

Our first stop was the cathedral, which we would return to again and again, drawn to it’s towers and changeable, squatting silhuette. You can’t view the cathedral only from it’s feet; it has to been seen from afar. Only then do the pillars and buttresses that look so blockish and clumsy up close soar upwards, and the curves and arches can be seen. It’s fair to say that we both fell a little in love with the cathedral, or at least developed a crush.

Palma Cathedral at night

Palma Cathedral at night

It would take till the 3rd day before we made our way inside, but it was certainly worth the wait and the ticket. Much seems at first to be a typical European cathedral, with pillars, buttresses, windows etc… On a closer look the colours and cacophony of shapes in the windows gave a hint that they had been designed by Gaudi, as was the gigantic canopy that loomed above the altar. Plate sized iron leaves held candles, sheaves of wheat seemed to sway above them, and above that was a dove in a splash of colour. This and the wall behind, palms on a gold background, could have been a chaotic frenzy but instead spoke of, or rather shouted about, life and nature. Live! Wander in the fields! Sleep between the roots of an old olive tree! Don’t wait for tomorrow!

Gaudi's canopy

Gaudi’s canopy

An even more urgent display spread up the walls of a chapel to the right, intended to celebrate aspects of Jesus with a marine theme. In impression of Jesus was there, pressing through the clay on the wall, surrounded by symbols of his life, all in painted clay hung on the walls. Loaves of bread overflowed on amphorae of wine, and on either side wall racing down from froth topped waves were hundreds of fish. There were sharks, jellies, salmon, at least one ray and other un-namables seeming to skim just under the surface of the clay, with a fin or a fisherman’s hook occasionally poking through. Again, chaos and life.

A wall of fish

A wall of fish

Other days spent in the capital revealed shopping districts and a restaurant area full of tourists, and beyond that the sprawl of everyday life. Though apparently prettified within the last few decades, the new sheen on the elegant boulevards being a bit of a giveaway, Palma gave the impression of being once a centre of commerce and movement, but having in more recent centuries faded a little. One of the finest signs of this, and vying with the cathedral as my favourite building, was the 15th century hall of the merchant guilds or Llotja de la Seda.

A pillar in Llotja de la Seda

A pillar in Llotja de la Seda

Very rarely are there secular buildings that seem built with the same care and thought for a long future as this hall was, even now bare of the banners, paintings and colours that must once have filled its bare walls and floor. It does still have the 6 pillars holding up the vaulted ceiling, and large lattice worked windows letting in the afternoon sun. It felt, somehow, comfortable and peaceful, though I can imagine that hundreds of years ago it would have been full of shouts, chatter and the crash and shuffle of goods for all hours of the day and probably the night as well.

Hall of pillars

Hall of pillars

This then is my memories of the city, snatched from the few days we were there. The next post will tell about our journeys further away, to hill towns and Roman ruins beside Medieval walls, plus wonderful the scenery in between.

A window in the merchant's hall

A window in the merchant’s hall

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.

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.

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