Art, a Silent City and the problem of history

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

Cisk and chips

Cisk and chips

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

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

3D mosaic

3D mosaic

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

Old and often repaired

Old and often repaired

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

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

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

Mdina city gate

Mdina city gate

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

Silent streets

Silent streets

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

View from Mdina walls

View from Mdina walls

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

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

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

Making a swan

Making a swan

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

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

The remains of my first attempt

The remains of my first attempt

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

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

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A glimpse of old lives

I should start by saying that I feel very lucky that my partner knows me as well as he does. I know this because his present to me was a private tour around Rome.

The day of the tour didn’t start well, with rain threatening, but it being our last full day in Rome we couldn’t change the date so decided to take the risk. Thus we ended up running through the streets, avoiding (most of the) puddles and umbrella salesmen (who were legion) and arriving at the Baths of Caracalla only 5 minutes late. Our guide, Marisa, met us there, and after the introductions we got started on our exploration of everyday ancient Rome.

One of the things that had appealed to us about the tour guide was the option of a special tour entitled ‘Daily Life in Ancient Rome’. As my previous post about Ostia may have hinted, I am most fascinated by the traces of everyday life left by people going about their lives, from local bath houses to apartment buildings and bars. Yes, the basilicas would have been grand and imposing, but what about the little stalls in the shadows of the columns? The lawyers shilling for work from all comers, and the teachers trying to drum grammar into the heads of distracted children over the bustle of the crowds? If you look closely at the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Forum, you can see circles carved into the marble, the remnants of game boards made thousands of years ago. Perhaps someone had been bored, while waiting for an appointment, or while watching a speech from the rostrum? We’ll never know I suppose, but that’s why we write stories.

Paintings, perhaps from someone's dining room

Paintings, perhaps from someone’s dining room

The Baths of Caracalla are massive, and were apparently not even the largest complex in ancient Rome. The whole site would have covered 25 hectares, and the closest approximation I can imagine would be a massive luxury gym that was open for all members of the public, the sort of building I can’t really imagine existing now. The fact that anyone could go there for a low fee, and sometimes for free, was one of the things I liked about it, but it’s dimensions and the beauty of the remaining art and the construction are also amazing. Much of the roof has now collapsed, leaving arches and towering walls where domes and mosaic laden ceilings were once suspended over glittering mosaics and bathing pools brimming with the multitudes of Rome. As we walked through the halls and corridors, Marisa explained what it would have been like to visit, and about the engineering and labour that went on behind the scenes to keep the caldariums hot and the frigidariums chilly.

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla

From the Baths we headed to the Caelian Hill, which I hadn’t even really noticed before. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, to the south of the Capitoline, and is dominated by churches. We went into one of the churches, under which lies part of an ancient neighbourhood. We entered a small domus, with paintings still intact, and proceeded to explore. Connecting rooms also featured paintings, figures and beasts, some of the figures censored by ancient monks. Then we were out on an ancient street, descending to another level, softly lit but for the dim corners and deep wells.

A garden feature

A garden feature

The houses and streets had been preserved as the foundations of the church, as with many other sites around the city. These particular ruins were of interest because of a theory about 2 skeletons that had been discovered there. They were found buried in what had been a garden, which was very strange for ancient Rome, where everyone was cremated or buried outside the city walls. It had been assumed by Christians that the bodies were those of two martyrs who were known to have been buried in a garden in Rome. Whether or not the skeletons really were John and Paul (though not that John and Paul), it was wonderful to be able to walk through ancient streets and ancient houses, only a few metres below the living city.

Part of an ancient street

Part of an ancient street

The final stop was the museum that accompanied the houses, and then we were out and walking together to the Colosseum, where we sadly farewelled Marisa and went off the have lunch.

I thoroughly recommend her tours, to anyone who is considering visiting Rome and it’s environs. She was able to answer all of our questions and give us endless reams of information and a sense of what it is like to live and breath Rome, both ancient and modern. If I ever visit again, and I reeeally hope I will, I’m definitely going to look her up again. Well, after following her recommendation of an early morning visit to the Pantheon.

Panorama of the Colisseum

Panorama of the Colisseum

After lunch we joined the queues for the Colosseum, eventually making our way in and then spending about an hour wandering around the huge ruins. It sometimes doesn’t feel like a ruin, with so much still intact and the scale still discernible, if diminished. Sadly the lower floors were closed due to flooding, and the upper floors were closed for an unspecified reason, but we were able to join the crowds for the full circumference, admiring the spectacle around us, and exhibits of the toothpicks, plum pits and knuckle bones that had been left behind by visitors thousands of years ago.

The new city through the old

The new city through the old

The last attraction was the Museum of the Imperial Forums, the highlight of which was yet more ancient streets, this time flanked by mostly intact rooms that once held shops, that tower over the street in multiple stories.
From the top stories we had a very good view over the Forum as dusk was approaching, and after a final stroll along the streets, imagining the area in the midst of ancient bustle, we went out onto the street.

A street from the Imperial Forums

A street from the Imperial Forums

Dinner that night was at the Tavern of the Imperial Forum, just around the corner from the museum, which not only featured an ancient Roman wall along one side of the room, but excellent food and wine. If there was only one thing I would take away from the tour with Marisa, it would be an ability to recognise ancient Roman brickwork. Perhaps a specialist skills, but I hope to put it to use.

Charioteer mosaic

Charioteer mosaic

The next day was the last one, spent packing and then whiling away the last of our time at the Palazzo Museum, which contained the most astounding mosaics and wall paintings that I have ever seen.

Mosaic of a girl

Mosaic of a girl

The triclineum of Livia was especially wonderful, featuring a riot of trees and shrubs, housing birds that seemed as though they would fly off at any moment. The room was lit in such a way that every hour it would cycle through the changes of light in a day, and I wish I could have experienced all of them.

A tree in Livia's triclinium

A tree in Livia’s triclinium

We also found remnants from the ships of Nemi, rudder clasps, railings and a face of Medusa in bronze, and some extremely fine sculptures. Next time I visit I hope to go to the museum again to give the items the time they deserve.

The beaten boxer

The beaten boxer

Then we went to the airport, said goodbye to the Italian sun and in a few hours stepped out into the wet chill of a Swedish afternoon, memories of warmth and sunlight on ancient stones still clear in our minds.

Goodbye to Rome

Goodbye to Rome

Downtown Ostia

On the 5th day of our Rome trip, we headed out of the city again, this time to the sea.
Our destination was Ostia, the ancient city that used to sit as the mouth of the Tiber and through which flowed all shipments to Rome (since writing this I discovered that Ostia comes from the Latin word for ‘mouth’. I swear I didn’t know this before I wrote the previous sentence). Even though the coast and the river have since moved, the ancient streets, shops, warehouses, apartments and temples remain, worn but in many cases amazingly intact.

A mosaic floor in the bath house

A mosaic floor in the bath house

Our journey to the coast took us through parts of Rome that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, the outer edges beyond the suburbs, even including what looked like a bayou, complete with rotting trees and similarly decaying shacks. The trains themselves also got more graffitied as we went further from the city, until at last we pulled into the Ostia Antica stop and stepped out among a crowd of other tourists heading for the ruins.

Remnants of the Forum temple

Remnants of the Forum temple

Appropriately, the approach to the ruins is via the ancient road, which still has clusters of graves and memorials, more intact than the ones I’d seen on the Appia, though on a smaller scale. The paving stones throughout the town were the same that I’d seen in the Forum, along the Via Appia and around the Colosseum, and I wonder now whether that’s due to some more modern preservation work rather than all being ancient remnants. In any case, it does make it all nicely Roman and orderly.

The theatre

The theatre

We were soon wandering along the main street, with ruins of warehouses and a huge public bath complex on either side. Enough remains that we could imagine how it would have looked, as a visitor entered through the gates and peered around at the bustling hub of commerce. Not very far up the road we took a right and found the Forum of the Corporations, a large rectangular area with the base and pillars of a temple in the middle, with the ruins of arcades surrounding it. Along the ground of the arcades are intricate mosaics, mostly in black and white, with fix, ships, wheat and amphorae, perhaps illustrating the stalls that once stood there. Facing onto the Forum was the theatre, which is very well preserved, though sadly closed at time. It was interesting to see for myself the real heart of a Roman town, commerce and business gazing up to a temple and with a theatre backing onto it.

The sign of a businessman

The sign of a businessman

Further down the road, we managed to get lost among ancient streets, finding ourselves suddenly in the residential areas among fancier villas and street-side shops. Many still had mosaic floors and enough of the walls remained to make out the rooms and imagine what it must have been like living in them.

Lunch, when our hunger finally overcame our curiosity to explore every single house we came across, was basic and carby, just the sort of food that had been keeping us on our feet all day for the past week. Fortunately the carbs and exercise balanced out, else we would have returned significantly more spherical.

Re-energised and slightly heavier we headed back out, and soon found another eatery. It had an impressive marble bar, a nice area around the back to sit and enjoy a meal in the sun and some nice paintings on the wall. It would also have gone out of service about 1.5 thousand years ago. It was astonishing how intact it was, from the mosaic flooring, arched ceiling and broad bar, including a little shelving unit and even a fountain in the courtyard. We spent a bit of time posing on the bar as helpful and pushy bar-keeps, and then even longer just staring about at the place, as the space under the bar for washing dishes and the cosiness of it all.

The bar interior

The bar interior

It was a perfect example of what I love about exploring historical sites; an everyday place where people lived, relaxed and that we can recognise today. In the corner perhaps three labourers from the harbour, having enjoyed a show at the theatre, would have sat at a table snacking on olives and pastries. A barmaid brings them a top-up of wine and then continues to the next table, where a young couple sit close together, flirting and too preoccupied to notice the offer of a top-up. The bar-keep is watching from the bar, checking that a particularly rough looking customer, a slave extending the time given for an errand, doesn’t make off with the bowl he’s furtively emptying of lentil soup.
All imaginary lives, obviously, but standing there I could feel the echoes of lives like them, still chattering on amid the ruins.

A shelf in the bar

A shelf in the bar

Across the street from the bar stands an apartment building, which to my delight was intact enough to explore and climb. Three floors remain, each floor getting slightly less neat as you climb the stairs, until you find yourself on the open space at the top. From there we could see out over the whole town and beyond. We also had a good view of the bar. Perhaps someone living here could have watched the customers coming and going, smelt the food on sale and yelled down an order before descending down to the street. I suppose once more floors would have stood above, getting still more crowded but with better views if you could afford the rooms by the windows.

View from the apartment

View from the apartment

After this we tried to head towards the exit, with a brief attempt to enter a part of the city that was closed off, and much sidetracking into interesting sites we’d missed. As with Pompeii, or the Villa of the Quintilli, you need at least a day to properly explore Ostia.

A panorama of downtown Ostia

A panorama of downtown Ostia

Back in Rome we headed to the Museum of the Ara Pacis, the altar built by Augustus the celebrate the peace of his principate. I’d somehow missed it the last time I was in Rome and was looking forward to rectifying that. The museum building itself is grand and open, with glass walls and spotless white floors. The building almost seemed to dwarf the monument, huge though it is. It’s made of beautifully carved, white marble (the bright paint has long since gone), with details of tiny lizards among lush vines and processions of ancient VIPs.

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

Elsewhere around the museum there were other fragments of statues and altars, and reconstructions of the altar. It was all very grand and well presented, with a loop of an Einaudi tune giving the room a sense of mystery, but the sense I got was more related to the intention of the construction, rather than the beauty of the art. Both the altar and the museum that housed it emanated self-aggrandisement, the first of Augustus and the second Mussolini. Yes, pretty much all Roman monuments are a testament to someone, but the open, white space of the museum seemed somehow less graceful than the Pantheon and less laced with history than the Forum.

Menu or decoration?

Menu or decoration?

This isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine piece of art and history, but for me, there is no comparison between a masterpiece of marble and a bar in downtown Ostia.