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Part 2 - Travels round Malta
We had paid in advance for a small car from Avis, and we were allocated an upgrade, which was nice. As an alternative, the Hotel has a car hire firm in the foyer, Drifter Auto Rentals. It was a beautiful morning and the first priority was to find a nice sandy beach. We had already explored Mellieha Bay, so we decided to go to Golden Bay, only a short drive away on the west coast. We did not leave until 1100 and found that the large car park was already full, but then a car left from outside the cafe and we grabbed the empty slot. It was just a few minutes walk down to the beach. The sand was a glorious golden colour, although the beach was not very clean. Everyone in Malta must stub out their cigarettes in the sand. There is a 5* hotel, Radisson SAS Golden Sands Resort and Spa, perched on the top of the cliff and overlooking the beach. We had only brought a small towel with us, so we had to share that. If we had been staying on the beach for the day then it was possible to rent sunshades and sunbeds. Pete went for a swim, and pronounced the water nice and warm and clean, which persuaded Pauline to go swimming too. We spent an hour enjoying the sunshine, until we got too hot and it was time to go and find some shade and an ice cream. We were pleased to get back into the car and turn on the air con. After a short stop at the tower above Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, another sandy beach next door, we were ready to travel.
Marsaxlokk is about the furthest place you can go from Selmun and the journey there from Golden Bay was our first experience of serious driving in Malta. The route went from Golden Bay, past Mdina and Luqa, which in theory were main roads. Pauline said several times that she wished we had brought our GPS for following our route. Sometimes we stopped and looked up to see where the sun was. Eventually we found the turning off to Marsaxlokk and it became peaceful. Marsaxlokk has the largest fishing fleet in the Maltese islands, and it has a very colourful harbour. All fishing boats have an eye painted on each side of the bows. This is to allow the boat to see danger, and to ward off any evil spirits. Every spring, before the fishermen put their boats in the water for the summer, they paint the eye afresh.
There was plenty of parking, in spite of a local market selling lace, local delicasies and souvenirs. The first stall was selling large beach towels at LM1.50 and we did not hesitate; the only question was which pattern. Then we saw one which had the famous colouful luzzu fishing boats, and the decision was instantaneous.
It was only 1400 and we were in no rush to get back into the car and face the journey back, so we ambled gently along the waterfront, admiring the fishing boats. There were several pavement restaurants, all advertising fish meals, including the local lampuki. It was all a very good price and we sat at a table at the last one in the row, Mr Fitz, had a late lunch, and watched the world go by. In this area there were few cats, but we saw several abandonned dogs who were fed scraps from the restaurant.
There are a lot of important historic temples in Malta, and the most important are on the south coast at Hagar Qim and Mnajdri. We thought they would be easy to find, because there are coach trips and the roads must be wide enough for buses. And it was easy as far as the outskirts of the town of Siggiewi. Then Pauline misread the road sign and we turned into the town centre, down nasty narrow streets, not always one way, and totally lost our sense of direction. By a miracle we eventually came out of the south end of the town, and after some confusion, found a sign to Ghar Lapsi. This was not our intended destination but at least it was in the right direction and enabled us to find other signs for Hagar Qim. We joined highway 117 which was very wide, concrete, but not in good condition. Later we found that the road was along the edge of the old Qrendl airfield, and guessed it might have been part of their taxiing system. We wondered what had happened to all the tourist buses, and turned into the parking for Hagar Qim. We were grateful to arrive and paid a small tip of 25c (45p) to the parking attendant and put cameras, water and suntan lotion into our rucksack. We knew that there was going to be a lot of walking to visit both Temples, and on rough ground. For LM3 we bought a ticket to visit both Hagar Qim and Mnajdri. If we had been over 60 then it would have been LM2.
The prehistoric temples of Malta are unique in all the world. Hagar Qim and neighbouring Mnajdri are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are the oldest free-standing stone structures ever discovered, dating back to 3600 BC. The older parts of the Hagar Qim Temple are said to date from this period, although later additions are more recent, between 3000 BC and 2500 BC. They are therefore older than Stonehenge and older than the Pyramids. Excellently preserved, they were covered with soil from early times and only rediscovered in 1839 and restored by European and native Maltese archaeologists in the 19th century. Hagar Qim means standing stones. Hagar Qim stands on a hilltop overlooking the sea and the islet of Filfla. Unfortunately, some of the limestone has been badly eroded, but the site still retains very large megaliths. Originally thought to be built as four main areas, or apses, it was then extended and has six large circular rooms which are connected by an interior passage. Most of the rooms also have outside entrances, and an open-air shrine is set into the outer wall. Hagar Qim is notable for its impressive entrance, for the huge stone blocks used in its construction, for its windows and low doorways carved into solid stone, and for its associated artifacts: for example the fragments of decorated stonework, and the "Venus of Malta" and other fat female statuettes. The original artifacts are safely stored in the National Museum of Archaeology at Valletta, but copies are on show at the site.
Mnajdri is a short walk from Hagar Qim, and lies below it. There is a wide concrete footpath which could be used by wheelchairs and cars, and when we visited there were vehicles parked at the entrance, doing electrical work. The temples are located closer to the sea than the temples of Hagar Qim. Surprisingly, they are better preserved than the Hagar Qim temples. Although they suffer from the elements they are surrounded by an outer wall of limestone which is of a variety harder than that of the Hagar Qim temples. Seeing the two temples together, it is obvious that there are many similarities including altars, pitted decoration of some stones, and corbelling whereby the upper courses of stone draw inwards, towards a ceiling.
On the walk down from Hagar Qim to Mnajdri we had passed a number of interesting information boards. The area had been used extensively for trapping birds and a photograph was provided to show how a set of lines were arranged, leading back to a little stone hide. We found several of these, well camouflaged in the rough ground. It looked as if there was food put out on tables, and then this tempted the birds into the target area. Since Malta joined the EU there is controversy about hunting and trapping, especially if the clearing of ground for the traps disturbs rare local plants. The bird traps between Hagar Qim and Mnajdri were not in use when we walked through the area; presumably like the shooting of the Palombe in France, it is a seasonal activity.
The Congreve memorial commemorates General Sir Walter Norris Congreve V.C. Governor of Malta, who died in office in 1927. Congreve was buried at sea between this point and the island of Filfla.
The Hamrija Tower was built in 1659 and a plaque states "Fr Don Martinus de Redin MMR. Melitae Gaulos Princeps. Potens consilio et opere. Suas cruces duodecimae. Huic speculae confixit quae hostibus perpetuu terrorem, subditis salutem pouiceantur. An 1659" There were originally 23 such watch towers built, mainly around the coast, to guard the island from enemy landing and incursion. By day, large red flags were hoisted while by night bonfires were lit on the flat roofs as a warning of an imminent danger. Fr Don Martinus de Redin was the Grand Master in 1657 and he commissioned 13 of these towers, each in sight of the next.
We retraced our steps to Hagar Qim and the car park. From above Mnajdri we had noticed the pretty cove at Ghar Lapsi, and it was only a short detour off the direct route back, so we set off. There was quite a lot of local traffic, and we passed a large industrial plant, marked on our map as a Reverse Osmosis Plant. We had guessed that it was from this type of desalination process that the daily deliveries of water are produced for the Hotel. There was a small car park and a path down to a swimming cove. There was no beach, but lots of local families were enjoying a splash in the water. We spotted a little waterfront cafe with an ice cream sign, and lingered for a few minutes. Pauline had slipped and cut her knee at Hagar Qim so we were keen to get back to the Hotel and clean it up properly, else it was tempting to go swimming. As we left people carrying chilly bins and BBQs were still arriving, getting ready for a Saturday night out.
We knew that on Sunday petrol stations were closed, so we had already topped up the car with another gallon of petrol. Yes, the units in Malta are still the old fashioned gallon, not the modern litre. Having found some nice beaches we wanted to explore the Top End, and heading west beyond Mellieha the first beach was Anchor Bay. We had expected it to be a small beach, rather like Golden Bay since it is on the same side of the island. Instead we found that it was totally incorporated into the Sweethaven Village, which was the film set for Popeye. We didn't want ot pay to visit the film set, so parked on a rough patch of land above to get a better view and take a photo. It was not suitable for a quick swim so we moved on.
When we had been looking for a hotel, one of our short list had been the Paradise Bay Hotel, which we expected to be alongside the beach in Paradise Bay. We had not expected it to be perched on a rocky shore adjacent to the ferry from Malta to Gozo. It was a busy spot, and would cetainly be noisy with all the ferry traffic. The golden sandy beach at Paradise Bay was about 1 km away, and had a series of enormous parkings with lots of empty spaces. It was obviously very popular in the summer. We climbed down to the beach and looked for a vacant plot of dry sand. Given there were not many cars, it was surprisingly very busy, and when we arrived local families were already packing to go back home for a late lunch. There was a buoyed net surrounding the swimming area and we weren't sure if it was to keep the people and their rubbish in, or to protect everyone from rubbish coming ashore. Pete went swimming anyway and came back complaining about the rubbish in the water. It was a popular spot and the cafe and BBQ restaurant were doing well. We both sat in the cafe with ice creams.
From our Hotel balcony we got a good view of the most northern part of Malta. It is an area with a number of fortifications: two Towers, three Redoubts and two Batteries are marked on the map. We set off along Marfa Ridge to get to the far end, and then explore. This was an area which was not often visited by tourists, but was used a lot by locals. We saw a number of cars who turned off towards the bays on the Gozo and Comino side, and there were some cars parked at the side of the road or hidden under a shelter of bushes. We presume they were either fishing or cooking lunch on the coast. At the end of the road is the statue of Our Lady, erected in 1870, and the chapel of the Immaculate Conception nearby.
There was not much of interest so we retraced our steps and then turned off towards the White Tower. It was one of the line of de Redin towers, dating from 1657, and is now a private residence. We drove to the end of the road up to the White Tower and found a large painted sign saying "Dogs. Private". We found space to turn in the parking of the Adventure Campsite, and then settled at the beach of Ramla tat-Torri for another swim. The area was full of local beach huts and boat houses and Comino felt so close it could almost be touched. We also visited another little beach next door, at Armier Bay, which had two cafes, one at each end of the beach.
Heading back towards Mellieha we passed the Red Tower, named because of its colour. This was not one of the de Redin towers, but was earlier and built by Lascaris in 1649. It was also known as St Agatha's Tower. It is looked after by Heritage Malta, and is open to visitors for a small entrance fee. Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time; from memory I think it is only open in the morning. We found there was a large car park just beyond the tower and this is better than parking on the narrow road by the entrance.
Everyone we met said that it was essential to visit the Silent City of Mdina. Perched on the top of a hill, the walled city can be seen from a great distance, and looks very attractive. We parked between Rabat and Mdina, on a rough patch of ground opposite the Howard Gardens, encouraged by a local parking attendant. There was no charge but we tipped him 50c and he said we could stay all day. Our priority was to visit Mdina, and then Rabat if we had time. We entered Mdina through the Mdina Gate. Everywhere there were polite drivers of the local taxi carriages, the karrozzin, trying to entice us to take a trip around Mdina and Rabat with them. There were not many tourists and business was slow. It was also early in the morning.
Beyond the Mdina Gate we passed the National Museum of Natural History, a Palace built by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena in the 1720s in Baroque style. Attached to the Palace were dungeons that used to incarcerate and torture prisoners. It looked interesting but the weather was good and we decided we preferred to walk about the town, not disappear indoors into museums or dungeons. The Tower of the Standard was opposite, and is the Police Station. We came to a T-junction and because there was a guided group ahead who turned left, we turned right. Mdina is very small and we quickly reached the Corte Capitanale which is the old Law Courts, built in 1725. The building was open and we looked inside, although the offices were closed to tourists.
Opposite was a beautiful Palace with a pavement cafe, and we saw the sign Relais and Chateaux. This was the Xara Palace, one of the smallest of the Relais and Chateaux establishments. It has just 17 rooms. The hotel, which was originally a residence for the noble family of Moscati Parisio, and most recently a guest house, has been completely restored and such features as the Piano Nobile, the Atrium, and the Facade were reconstructed to be as close to the original designs as possible. The guest rooms were taken back to their original height, some of which are over 6 metres high. This allowed the architects to include an innovative mezzanine floor in some of the suites. We went inside, asked for a brochure and were invited to have a look around. Obviously it is a lot more expensive than the Selmun Palace hotel, although it would be an excellent, peaceful alternative. The rooftop Mondion restaurant overflows onto the ramparts and has a spectacular view across towards Valletta. The food, from reports on the Web, sounds wonderful too. With hindsight we should have gone back for lunch. The only problem we could see was their lack of guest parking. A hire car would have to be kept outside the walls, and luggage transferred by porter or karrozzin.
A short walk alongside the Xara Palace, along the Trio San Pawl, brought us to St Paul's Square and the cathedral. It was at this site that Publius, the leading citizen, welcomed St Paul in AD 60 and was later made the first bishop of Malta. According to tradition, there has been a church here, said to be on the site of his house, since the 4th century. This church was enlarged and then it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. The new cathedral of St Paul, designed by Lorenzo Gafa, was said to have been built in just 5 years, between 1697 and 1702, to take its place. It houses many paintings and carvings illustrating scenes from the life of St. Paul including Mattia Pretis The Shipwreck of St. Paul (one of the few treasures of the old church to have survived). We were fascinated by the funerary slabs in multi-coloured marble commemorating bishops, prelates and various members of Maltese aristocracy, set into the cathedral floor. One had motto "Dominus Illuminatio Mea", which is also the Oxford University motto.
Our exploration had been in an anti-clockwise direction around the outside of Mdina and we continued this, along the top of the ramparts, until we reached the viewpoint at Pjazza Tas-Sur. This is the most northern corner of Mdina and has an excellent view across towards Mosta, with its domed church, and we could see a large area of green which looked like it was planted with grape vines. This must surely be the Meridiana winery. We checked against our map and the vines were on the old Ta' Qali airfield, and there was a little stone building in the centre, presumably the winery, although it looked like an extension to a control tower. We vowed to go and find it on our way back.
The next highlight was to be a visit to the Palazzo Felzon, the Norman House, but it was closed for repairs and reconstruction. We ambled through the narrow streets, passing the Greek Gate, until we arrived back at our entrance. The area of Mdina is only 300 yards square, so it does not take very long to explore all the streets.
As well as being in sight of the entrance to the Silent City of Mdina, our parking spot was also near the Roman Villa and Museum and on the edge of Rabat. Rabat, an Arab word meaning village, grew outside Mdina's walls as a residential suburb in the 8th century. St Paul's Church, the parish church of Rabat, was founded in 1575 and remodeled in 1692. It is built over one of Malta's earliest Christian chapels. We were able to visit the Grotto of St. Paul, which is below the adjoining chapel of St. Publius. Our guide explained that its main importance is that it is said that St. Paul spent a few weeks preaching Christianity here.
It is a place of pilgrimage; on 27 May 1990 Pope John Paul II visited Rabat and came to pray at the grotto. His visit is remembered by a plaque on the church wall which quotes his parting wish as he left Malta:
"Beloved people of Malta. Earlier today, at Rabat, I was priviledged to spend a few moments in silent prayer at the ancient grotto venerated as Saint Paul's dwelling during his stay in Malta. In that holy place I gave thanks to God for the rich harvest of faith and good works which he has brought forth among you since the Apostle of the Gentiles first proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to your forebears. I also thanked the Lord for the "unusual kindness" with which, nineteen centuries later, another visitor, the successor of Peter, was welcomed to Malta as he came to preach the same gospel and to confirm his Maltese brothers and sisters in the same faith.....God Bless Malta. God Bless you all."
From St Paul's Church we followed an underground passage and emerged in the Wignacourt College Complex, comprising catacombs, war shelters and a museum. The building was the former residence of the Chaplains of the Knights of Malta, and was converted into a museum in 1981. The building is a baroque palace dating from the 17th and 18th century. On the ground floor we found a long corridor with rooms of modern art. There was a pleasant internal courtyard garden and hidden away at the end of the corridor was the bishop's vintage car. We climbed upstairs and found more pictures, a baroque chapel, antique furniture, and embroidered vestments. The main interest in the building for us was the extensive Phoenician, Roman and Christian catacoms. In common with the other catacombs, these were used as War Shelters and there are some 50 rooms.
We knew that there were two other sets of catacombs which could be visited in Rabat: the St Paul's catacombs and the St Agatha's catacombs. They were both in the same area and we reached the St Paul's catacombs first. We could see an extensive area of underground tunnels, and lots of ventilation periscopes. It was on the tourist bus route and visitors were offerred an audio guided tour. It looked too commercial for us, and we really had to choose between the two different catacombs. Our guide book recommended the St Agatha's catacombs because it had chambers decorated with frscoes dating from the 12th century, which sounded more interesting. St Agatha, a native of Sicily, took refuge in Malta in the year 251 and spent some time at Rabat. She returned to Sicily, and died in prison as a martyr. The crypt where she used to pray was named after her, as were the nearby catacombs, and later on the church was built over the crypt. The catacombs and crypt are accessed by steps at the front of the church. At the bottom of the steps we found the beautiful small chapel, hewn into the rock, with the walls painted with frecoes. Many of the paintings on the walls depicted St Agatha. The main catcombs from here are accessed on the right, at the bottom of the steps.
The catacombs are underground cemeteries consisting of long narrow corridors with tombs on each side and vaults. There were many different shapes and sizes for the graves. Some were small side graves cut into the side walls, others are larger, with space for several people. Several chambers had frescos and one is said to date from the 3rd century. We were surprised that there still were skulls and bones in the graves, and wondered whether they were original. We took no photographs inside because it was not allowed, but there are some available at http://karsbo.tripod.com/catacombs.html.
On our way back we went looking for the Meridiana winery, and eventually found the entrance. Meridiana vineyard was planted on Ta' Qali airfield, and that area also contains the National Park. When we saw the roadsigns we immediately thought of countryside, but in Malta the National Park is a large modern sports stadium, and visible from some distance. We booked for a tour and tasting the following day and then headed onwards to the Malta Aviation Museum. The museum aims to record all historical aspects associated with aviation in Malta from the very first biplane flight over the island, throughout its colourful and valiant aviation history, to the modern age. Ta' Qali was Malta's first civilian aerodrome. The museum has many old aircraft rescued or donated and waiting for refurbishment, and some which have been restored to display or taxiing condition. For example, an airworthy fuselage of a Tiger Moth had been purchased, and three (out of four) wings were donated from England. Their plans are to refurbish the Tiger Moth, re-spar and build the wings and eventually fly the aircraft. There is also a Fairey Swordfish II waiting to be restored to taxiing condition. There is a complete Dakota in storage elsewhere, which had been donated, as well as a Vampire obtained from the UK which has been restored. Outside there was the cockpit, just a cockpit, of a BAC 1-11. First registered with charter company Court line as Halcyon Sun, it moved to several other airlines before it was broken up when no market was found for it. Pauline remembered a holiday to Italy, flying with Court line, when she was still at school.
The Air Battle of Malta lasted for almost 2 and a half years during WWII, and on 28 September 2005 a new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar was opened, part financed by the European Union, to cover Malta's role during WWII. We had purchased from the museum shop a video of the old black and white film "Malta Story". One of the stars, Muriel Pavlov, was part of the Merlins over Malta project which successfully brought to Malta a Supermarine Spitfire and a Hurricane from the Historic Aircraft Collection at Duxford to celebrate the opening of the hangar and to take part in the Malta International Airshow over the previous weekend. At 1730 precisely they both flew over the Hangar and then gave an air display.
The Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar presently houses the Hawker Hurricane Z3055 and the Spitfire EN199. Both are local. The Hurricane crashed into the sea off Malta and was discovered by a diver off the Blue Grotto after 54 years underwater. It is being restored to taxiing condition, which means it can move under its own power but not fly. When we saw it there was one wing in position and the other under construction. Nevertheless it had already taken part in a number of events. The Spitfire Mk IX (EN199) also fought in Malta. After WWII it sustained slight damage in a storm and in 1947 was struck off charge, then later scrapped. It was the first aircraft to be restored and signalled the birth of the museum. It made its first appearance, presumably in 1992, at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the George Cross award to Malta.
It is an excellent museum, with lots to see, and we will definitely return. Tony Spiteri had just completed a good guide book, published in 2005, and we were able to meet him and say how much we liked the book.