Today was Easter Sunday and we spent a quiet day at sea. We went to an Easter egg hunt before trivia this morning and lost at both [What female singer had 3 hit singles on her first album? What American flag is never raised or lowered? What country used to be called East Pakistan?]. It was also formal night and we looked just lovely, thank you.
Monday, April 13, 2009
We were up and at’em, Atom Ant, and on the dock by 8:30 to meet our guide, Joan. The weather was like something out of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with winds approaching Force 7 on the Beaufort Scale [near gale] and light rain. Joan explained the itinerary for our day in Malta but assured us that she and the schedule were flexible.
Our tour today covered three different periods in the history of Malta – prehistoric, Medieval and more recent. We went to the ancient walled city of Mdina first. This Medieval city is now a World Heritage site, protected from the intrusions of anything “modern.” Even the few streets are closed to traffic at 10:30 every morning; after that time, only residents are permitted to drive into the protected area. Mdina was built on the highest point in the area of what is now Valetta, site of the main harbor on the island. Height gave Mdina the advantage of being easier to defend since the residents could see in all directions and attackers would have to come up a hill to reach it.
For many years, Mdina was the capital of Malta, but it was eventually superseded by Valetta when later rulers felt Mdina was too small to afford them the grandeur they thought they deserved. It was also the center of Islam in Malta although there are no longer any mosques or other religious edifices. Basically, all of the buildings were built right onto the street and those that weren’t are surrounded by walls which are. Of course, sidewalks have been added since. There are no front yards but we were told by Joan that all of the houses have gardens and courtyards. The properties are now so valuable that they are not sold on the open market but are auctioned off.
We walked through the rain and fierce wind looking at the exteriors of homes, churches, monasteries and cloisters. Like the rest of Malta, these buildings were made from the native limestone and are all a uniform beige. Buildings were three stories tall and had a fairly uniform exterior architecture. Some of the facades seem out of place because they were added when buildings needed work after earthquakes. The Cathedral is Baroque and really stands out; because Baroque buildings were meant to be seen, the Church cleared everyone out of the houses in front, then razed the houses. This small area had several churches in addition to the Cathedral. Because of the narrow streets, it was difficult to see the facades clearly and looking up at them was tricky because of the rain.
Mdina was enclosed by fortifications and a dry moat, a common defensive feature on Malta. The city was surrounded by Rabat, which means “outside.” Rabat is not restricted in its development and is just another neighborhood now.
It was time to change eras and we drove over badly surfaced roads to Hagar Qim. The ruins here are presumed to be a six-thousand-year-old temple. It is reminiscent of Stonehenge on a miniaturized scale. There are monoliths, doorways and altars still discernible, all of it just sitting on a small plain. There was a map near the entrance indicating that there are other ruins within walking distance, but we didn’t explore them. Many relics, now housed in the Museum of Archeology, have been found here and at other excavations. The wind was still horrific so we headed back to the van after Joan finished her explanation.
Staying with the pre-historic, we went to the Ghar Dalam cave. The cave has been the object of much research and restoration over the years and it, too, was a treasure trove of bones and artifacts. Here, however, the materials were not retrieved from a hillside but from a naturally occurring cavern. Because Malta is mostly limestone, it was not difficult for rain water to seep down and eventually create a cave by eroding the softer stone and leaving the hardier variety behind. Much later, a river created a valley which cut through the cave leaving it exposed on both sides of the resultant valley.
One enters the cave by first passing through a museum building. The left-hand room contains graphics describing the action of the water in creating the cave and also shows how some species of animal came to Malta over land bridges or shallows to escape the Ice Age in Europe. As a result of this migration, Malta was host to elephants, hippopotamus, voles and other four-footed friends. Some adapted by becoming smaller and more efficient while others survived by becoming larger. The right-hand room of the museum contained teeth and bones from these animals as well as recreations of skeletons to show their eventual size. Imagine an elephant the size of a St. Bernard.
The museum, naturally, is at the top of the hill and the cave is near the bottom. We slogged down endless outdoor stairways, in the rain and wind, to get to the cave itself [Sharon stayed in the van because she was leery of both the steps and the cave]. Once we entered, we were awe-struck. Only a small portion of the cavern is available to the paying public because officials are worried that that the roof or walls could collapse on faults in the rock; they must not care about paid staff and researchers. What is visible has been dimly lighted with electric lights which stretch away in the distance. Here we saw stalactites and stalagmites and fossilized bones which had not been removed. We also saw areas where items had been retrieved and sent to the Museum. It was obvious, even without Joan’s narration, to see that early humans had lived here. There were unmistakable signs that not all of the structure was made by nature; instead, some “alterations” had been made by early inhabitants who used rocks and bones to decorate and improve the place. The few extant wall paintings sealed the deal. We enjoyed the peace and quiet of the cavern, as well as the dryness.
Our itinerary called for an open-air ride on a traditional Malta boat, but we exercised our right to alter the schedule by vetoing that because of the weather. We were sure Joan was happy about our decision. Instead, we headed to a small fishing village for lunch. Once again, we were early by European standards, but we were not the first patrons for a change and Rons was packed by the time we left. Joan recommended the fish [sound familiar?] so D & MA and Scott & Karen ordered fresh fish. Bill & Sharon chose pasta dishes, perhaps leery after the debacle on Santorini. Joan ate with us and ordered a fish platter, too.
Our fish was served for four people. There were five or six pieces of fish of different varieties. The owner told us what they were but we were never sure [one may have been bream]. The fish was served with salads and French fries and, of course, we had Cokes as well as bread and olive oil. We thought the fish was quite good and we enjoyed the family-run restaurant. Scott was less enthusiastic but was relieved when the price per couple was the promised 20 euros. We and Scott & Karen paid for Joan’s whole fish platter, so lunch cost us 30 euros, a bargain, we thought.
The dining room was on the second floor of the building and we had a wonderful view of the fishing harbor and the colorful boats bobbing in the water. Karen and MA also spotted a tent market, so after lunch we all trooped across the street to enrich the local economy. MA found nesting boxes with a Maltese cross and Scott found a Malta polo shirt to add to his world-wide wardrobe. Joan allowed us fifteen minutes, so we were shortly on the road again.
We stopped to look at a U-shaped inlet which featured a different fortified town on each of the three legs of the U. We walked through some of Birgu, marveling at its three defensive gates and dry moat. Emerging from the fortified area through the Provence Gate, we continued through this old section which has become an expensive and trendy area. We spent some time at the Inquisitor’s Palace where we saw not only a private chapel [unusual in the Middle Ages] and religious displays but also the torture rooms and prison cells for alleged heretics and witches. When we left, we passed the neighboring Executioner’s House which had two axes over the doorway. We passed the auberges, hostels for various national groups [Provence, Paris, London, etc.]. The Auberge de Provence was built by the Knights of St. Johnof Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta.
Finally, it was time for our reserved tour of the Hypogeum. We have seen maps and remnants of a necropolis in Varna and catacombs in Rome, so it should be no surprise that the Hypogeum was an ancient burial ground. Unlike the cavern at Ghar Dalam, what is now known as the Hypogeum had been carved out of the rocks by humans around 3500 B.C. It has three levels and contained the remains of as many as 7000 bodies when it was discovered by accident in 1903. Unlike the other ancient monuments we visited today, this one is in the middle of Valletta no more than 15 minutes’ drive from the cruise ship dock.
We watched a video before entering the dig itself, then walked down stairs and followed a catwalk to numbered stations while listening to an explanation of what we were seeing. The most amazing feature of the site was the workmanship which we saw. There were rooms, which had been carved out of rock without the use of metal implements, that looked like they had been sculpted. One room in particular had a ceiling which had been made to resemble a dome. It looked a little like the dome at Monticello. This same room saw “windows” cut into the walls, giving depth to the entire room. All of this work was done in near darkness since researchers have found no evidence of soot to indicate the continued used of torches. The rooms apparently used for mass graves had steps which stopped as much as 2 meters above the floor; either te gangway was this was done to allow space to pile remains or it was a defensive construction designed for attackers to fall into the unknown. The whole visit, including the film, took less than an hour, but it was the highlight of the day.
Joan had us back at the Prinsendam exactly at 4:00, as requested, because the gangway was to be raised at 4:30 and we are nothing if not cautious. The Griswold’s boarded right behind us because at 5:10 Captain Gundersen announced to the whole world that we would be delayed by mechanical troubles. He hoped to leave by 8:00. We thought it would be fun to watch Valletta slide by as we ate supper.
Danger! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson! First, there was the fire alarm, but the captain said that there was only smoke in the engine room and everything was fine. Smoke? Fine? Then, as MA was finishing her shower just before 7:00, the ship lost almost all of its power. The emergency lights and PA worked but nothing else. With an outside cabin, we still had light from the window, so we finished dressing and went to the Ocean Bar. We were hoping that there would be free drinks to calm the anxious masses. There weren’t. We finally got power restored around 8:10 and dutifully trooped in for dinner. The ship had still not left Malta at 11:15 [as this is being written] and the captain has said only that he will tell us tomorrow if and how this delay will affect our arrival in Cadiz, Spain, Thursday.
We are hoping we get stranded in Valletta, have to be flown home, and get a refund and a free trip. We also still believe in the Tooth Fairy, so there you go.
Tomorrow – a sea day, if we’re not still in Malta.