Malta – Days Four and Five

For the first time in this holiday, I was on a deadline. Admittedly, I’d set it for myself, but there it was nonetheless. The dawn chorus of the builders accompanied my waking as before, but even between that and the deadline I was able to enjoy lazing in bed for a while after the world was determined for me to get up. Eventually I showered, shaved, had a quick breakfast and was off to catch a bus to Valletta with one eye on the clock.

Now, normally I’m pretty good at leaving myself enough time to get from A to B, but things got a bit more tricky with the bus from Valletta to the nearby town/suburb of Paola, which took longer than planned. I didn’t help things much by continuing my newfound habit of getting off before my stop. There then followed what might have been a humorous chase through poorly signposted streets in search of my destination, were it not cut short by the common sense manoeuvre of asking for directions (twice) in order to get there with only moments to spare.

That destination? The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. They only let eight groups of ten people in every day, and during the summer you have to book months in advance. In December? A week was enough. I found the plain-looking building that housed it only a couple of minutes before 10am – if I’d been much later, I would have missed the best hour of the whole holiday.

The Hypogeum was built by the Temple Builders of Malta’s megalithic past, but it’s not like the other temples that have been found. It’s a subterranean site of burial and worship, built to resemble those temples and extending down ten metres below street level. The crowd that I formed a tenth of was treated to an atmospheric introductory movie, and then we were ushered down into the Hypogeum itself on a series of steel walkways.

We descended into 5,000 years of history delved into the hillside overlooking the modern Grand Harbour, the audio guide explaining the nature of the various chambers and the items that the archaeologists found there, all as atmospheric music played all around us. Water dripped from the ceiling as we were shown through chambers carved to resemble altars and sanctums from the overground temples the Hypogeum was made to accompany. You can still see the red ochre paint in spiral patterns on the ceilings of some chambers, almost as if the original priests had only just left. There’s no place on the island where you can get closer to the stone-age builders of the Temple Period, long disappeared and mysterious, only remaining in the bodies and the traces of paint left ten metres down in this underworld of the dead.

When I emerged blinking into the light, I headed for another temple nearby. Once again I had to navigate through the narrow streets of to suburb of Tarxien to find my destination, and once again I had to ask for directions (just once) to get where I was going. This time though, there was no deadline, and in comparison to the moist darkness of the Hypogeum, the sun was shining down on the pale weathered stones of the Tarxien Temple, which was less imposing than the Ggantija Temple of the day before but also more open to the public, with more opportunity to wander around. There was plenty in the stones of Tarxien to remind me of both Ggantija and the Hypogeum. The only drawback was the sheer urbanity of the site, surrounded as it is by houses and shops, which can’t help but detract from the spectacle of its ancient stones.

Leaving Tarxien proved easier than getting in, and a bus back to Valletta dropped me off just in time to grab another over the the twin towns of Mdina, the ancient, fortified capital of the island, and Rabat, with its many holy sites. The bus dawdled on its way out of Valletta, but the road straightened for a while, following an old aqueduct now mostly buried beneath the years of building and development, and it wasn’t long after that part of the road was reached before the bus was winding up the road to Mdina itself and I was walking through those ancient gates, older than those of Valletta but hardly less imposing.

Unlike Valletta, Mdina has barely been touched by the passage of the centuries. Its streets are narrow and winding and the walls of the buildings are tall. I had to evade a shouting match between some locals and the British inside the gates, but beyond that my only company was the occasional horse-drawn carriage and small family groups of tourists.

The view from the walls of Mdina is stunning – every bit the equal of that from the walls of Victoria’s citadel on Gozo, though there’s much more in the way of settlement and development to be seen. A fair portion of northern Malta can be seen stretching away, as far as the sea and Valletta in the northeast. Even though the breeze had picked up while I looked out, I stayed there for a while before diving back into the narrow streets. On my way, I got lured into a multimedia tour about the Knights Hospitaller, which is comprehensive, but most amusing for the array of waxwork models, with their often exaggerated expressions and gore.

Outside the walls of Mdina, there’s a museum that offers a look into a side of Malta that hasn’t been mentioned much in my travels thus far. The Domus Romanum is a town house from the time when the Romans ruled Malta. Although only remaining in fragments, its mosaics and statues are genuine remnants of the town life of the better off people of the day. I strolled through and enjoyed it, and although I was feeling hungry even at that point, I had to journey onwards and southwards. Having missed seeing the Ta’Cenc cliffs on Gozo the day before, I wasn’t about to let the same thing happen here on Malta.

The bus from Rabat took me south to the town of Dingli, sheltering behind the cliffs that form the island’s highest point. Once again, I got off the bus too early, but the walk was pleasant under the sun, and I didn’t have to make my way too far through the country lanes to reach my goal. The cliffs descend in one crumbling slope to a series of green, farmed terraces, then in a final vertical drop to the sea, hundreds of feet below the highest point, and they’re all the more enjoyable for my having put a bit of effort into getting to see them.

I strolled along the cliffs for a short while, looking down at a farmer shooting rabbits with his four dogs, before reaching Bobbyland, a clifftop restaurant, where I braved the sea breeze in order to enjoy some excellent bruschetta and a huge helping of rabbit lasagna on the patio. Several finches watched over me as I ate, but despite the size of my meal, I didn’t have much to leave to them when I was done. What I did have was a real need to walk off a fairly massive calorie intake.

The view over the cliffs only got more striking as the sun set and I continued east, but the breeze got more and more biting. I braved the edge a few times for good photo opportunities and passed by a radar station, a perilously perched church and the “cart tracks” of Clapham Junction. Here I had a choice – continue walking along the cliffs to the temples at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra and try to get there before darkness fell or turn north and take the more sensible route back towards Rabat, passing by the Burkett Gardens and the Verdala Palace where the Maltese president makes his home on the way. I somewhat regretfully opted for the latter, but I still enjoyed the solitary stroll through some of the greenest parts of Malta.

Solitary at least until I ran into a fellow lone traveller from Barnstable near the Verdala Gardens, who was trying to figure out the bus timetables. I persuaded him that he was just as well walking it from where he was, but we hadn’t gone too far before a bus actually shows up, coming the other way, so we hop on. I have to stifle a laugh when it covers the majority of my cliffside route – it could have dropped me off right outside Bobbyland if I’d stuck with it a bit longer on the way there a few hours earlier. All the same, my decision not to strike out for Hagr-Qim and Mnajdra does get some justification:  most of the light has gone by the time that we get back to Rabat, and by the time that the bus got all the way back to Valletta, it was completely dark again.

This was my last evening in Malta, so I took my time about it. I wandered around Floriana, just beyond the gates of Valletta, but there’s not much there to be seen other than a large shopping boulevard, the Triq Sant’Anna, and a sizable church. Beyond that, tourist town ends and the locals rule. There’s a circus too on the way back to Valletta, but as it had been since my arrival, it seemed mostly empty and not greatly appealing.

Instead, I headed into Valletta and roam its streets again, taking a break from another day with a lot of walking with an espresso and a momo cake in the courtyard setting of Cafe Geovanni. Even as I sit there, rain begins to trickle down from above. I knew that I would miss Valletta when I left, though what I probably wouldn’t miss is the constant Christmas music, which had been playing in every public place near the two main streets. I don’t think I’ve heard this much Shakin’ Stevens since the 1980s.

When I’d had enough of Valletta for the evening, it was back onto the buses for St. Julian’s and more farewells. First of all to the cosy Dubliner pub, which may have been a bit too safe and convenient but was still a lot better than it had any right to be and a very nice place to rest with a pint. The rain finally started in earnest as I left there and headed to the hotel, from which I made one last trip out, for another pint in the Native Bar in Paceville, before bed finally beckoned.

Day Five

There’s not too much to say about my last day in Malta. Once again I was up early, and thanks to my minimal luggage, I’m swiftly packed and out the door, checking out without fuss. When the bus dropped me back to Valletta, I had enough time to wander around picking up trinkets as gifts for friends and pause at the Upper Barakka Gardens for a last view of the Grand Harbour. After that, I was on one last bus to the airport, which is a little more crowded than it had been when I arrived, but relaxed enough that I could take my time and read as I wait for the plane

All Ryanair’s best efforts can’t manage to annoy me, and I got some great views on the way back. First of the three islands of the Maltese archipelago, one after another. Almost my last view of them was of Ramla Bay in Gozo, where I stood only two days before, washing my muddy feet. After that comes the Alps again, and beyond that is the fields of France, just as snow-covered as the mountains. As the sun set, Ireland awaited.

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