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.

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Eyes and stones of the past

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

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

Our view of Tarxien

Our view of Tarxien

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

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

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

A Maltese boat

A Maltese boat

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

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

A room in Hagar Qim

A room in Hagar Qim

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

Following the seasons

Following the seasons

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

Ancient altars

Ancient altars

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

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

Mnajdra, protected from the sky