Category Archives: Malta

• City of Valletta

 Visit: 31st December 2014 – 4th January 2015

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By Tom

After booking a last-minute trip, less than a week before departure, Natalie and I visited Valletta over New Year 2014/15. The weather wasn’t nearly as hot as it was when Ross and Louise visited in August 2013 – in fact we spent January 1st huddled up indoors as it poured with rain outside. Fortunately it brightened up on the following days, and you can see some blue skies in the pictures from the other post I wrote about the island, dealing with the Megalithic Temples.

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The City of Valletta held a public fireworks display at midnight which was well-attended. I was pleased to hear the familiar strains of Auld Lang Syne as the Mediterranean night sky was filled with a riot of colour. Malta is south of two African capitals: Tunis and Algiers – making it one of the most southerly reaches of Europe.

Louise’s comment about Valletta being a sepia-toned city is an apt description. I would further characterise it as being Italian in feel with a distinct British twist. I took particular pleasure in all of the ‘Britishisms’ that dot the urban landscape. As well as the distinctive red post and telephone boxes pictured below, I spotted zebra crossings and traffic light buttons the same as ours. We hired a car for the temple tourism and it was a slight relief to find that they still drive on the left there.

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We visited St John’s Co-Cathedral, which is notable for housing two of the finest paintings from Caravaggio’s oevre. He was the original ‘bad boy’ of painting – in fact the reason he was in Malta when he painted these works was because he had fled from Italy after having killed a man in a duel (he was also accused of a second murder, as well as pederasty – which seems a not unreasonable proposition, given some of his other paintings). The finest is The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – which is the only extant signed painting by Caravaggio, and is said to be the first depiction of a ‘tragedy’ in modern (meaning post-Classical) art. It would appear Ross is perhaps the ‘bad boy’ of World Heritage Site blogging because I recall photography being forbidden in the Oratory of St John’s, but the picture he took is below.

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Whilst we stayed in an Airbnb-sourced apartment in the centre of Valletta, we did coincidentally dine on our final evening at the Phoenicia (the hotel Ross and Louise stayed at). Whilst the place does exude a certain cachet, I am sad to report that the food was disappointing.

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In contrast, we ate at a wonderful restaurant set inside Valletta’s great bastions – or casements – called Rampila. It was here that I had far and away the best risotto I have ever eaten, and the service was impeccable too. The experience was made all the more satisfying by the fact that we found it by chance on New Year’s Day after tramping round the whole city in the rain only to find that all of the other restaurants that were open (not many!) were fully booked.

Malta became part of the British Empire back in 1814 but its proudest moment was during the Second World War. Despite fears that Mussolini would gas the island Malta played an important role in the war due to its proximity to Axis shipping lanes. They had a rough time but showed exceptional bravery, so much so that King George VI awarded the whole island the George Cross which is still on the Maltese flag to this day.

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One other thing worth mentioning, whilst not in Valletta, is a visit we made to Mdina. This walled city feels worthy of a WHS nomination of its own, reminding me of a better-kept version of Kotor in Montenegro. Built on the top of a hill in the centre of Malta island, the city has the dubious honour of having been a location used in Game of Thrones (as was the Azure Window on Gozo). Natalie was pleased as punch to see it in person, and I have to say I was just as impressed at the imposing grandeur of Mdina’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

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Malta’s rich history was another of my favourite aspects of the visit (I note Ross missed out Napoleon’s France in his list of the island’s conquerors, which was booted out by yours truly [plural], the British). Just roving around the island you come across manifestations of the myriad of different civilisations who have called the place home.

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• Megalithic Temples of Malta

Visit: 2nd/3rd January 2015

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Ta’ Ħaġrat

By Tom

The Megalithic Temples of Malta WHS consists of six sites dotted around the country of Malta’s two main islands: the islands of Malta and Gozo. From the Greek for ‘great stones’, these megalithic structures are some of the oldest in the world, all of them pre-dating Stonehenge.

Natalie and I went to Malta for New Year’s Eve and for the first few days of 2015. We stayed in an apartment in Valletta (also a WHS in its own right), using it as a base to explore the island. Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit all six of the Temples, but we managed four – which will do for now. Malta actually has three WHS in total – the third is the Hypogeum, which is an underground temple. The Hypogeum, however, is known to be one of the most restrictive WHS in the world in terms of numbers of visitors it lets in. Only 80 visitors per day are allowed into the site, and places are booked up weeks in advance. Since I planned this Malta trip at the last minute there was no way we were getting into the Hypogeum, so I’ll be saving that for a future visit, along with the two temples we didn’t see.

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So what did we see? First off, we walked out through the sprawling urban area that flows out from Valletta and includes most of the country’s population. We were heading for Tarxien temples – a site which is very close to the Hypogeum and is nowadays in the middle of a built-up area, which somewhat detracts from the pre-historic atmosphere.

We were struck by the number of Africans loitering about the streets in the dockside areas, presumably looking for work. The EU has a migration problem that it seems unable to address, and one of the highest profile manifestations of that is the regularity with which ships full of prospective migrants are reported to be sinking off the coast of Italy. Malta is situated in between Sicily and Lampedusa – the Italian island which saw a ship sink off its coast in 2013 with the loss of 366 lives – and has presumably taken in more than its fair share of migrants fleeing desperate situations. Whether they are legally recognised or their present is simply overlooked by the authorities I do not know.

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Tarxien

At Tarxien the structure consists of three separate, but attached, temples. Founded some time between 3250 & 2800 BC, they are thought to have been used for animal sacrifice and cremation of the dead. There is a raised walkway that takes you around the site, then the trail takes you into the temples themselves. It is thought they used to be roofed, but today they are open-air.

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Tarxien

The next day I rented a car and – after a slow start thanks to the hire company’s incompetence – we drove to the north of the island until we reached Mosta, where there are two temples within a kilometre of one another. One of the pleasant aspects of Malta is the frequency with which you come across magnificent church buildings – in Mosta their local church just happens to have the third largest unsupported dome in the world, according to Wikipedia.

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St Marija Assunta Church, Mosta

Just a few metres from this church is a temple of a different era – the Megaliths of Ta’ Ħaġrat. The temple dates from 3600-3200 BC, and its distinctive feature is the striking doorway shown in the photograph at the top of this page.

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Ta’ Ħaġrat

Not far away lies the least visually impressive of the temples we saw. However, do not let its ruined state deceive you – this is made up for by the fact that the Skorba temple is almost 7000 years old, dating from 4850-3600 BC! To put this in perspective, Stonehenge is a sprightly 5000 years old (archaeologists have dated construction to 3000-2000 BC).

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Skorba

Following Skorba we continued to drive north, all the way to the tip of the island of Malta, at Ċirkewwa harbour. After enjoying some impressive views along the way, we drove our car onto a roll-on, roll-off ferry for the 30 minute voyage to Gozo.

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The island of Gozo is rich in history and culture of its own. We didn’t have much time there, so limited ourselves to visiting the single Megalithic temple there and going to see the ‘Azure Window’, of Game of Thrones fame.

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Ġgantija

Ġgantija temple is the largest and most visually impressive of the four temples we saw. Similar in magnitude to Stonehenge – though less refined – it was founded around 3600 BC. When it was originally inscribed in 1980, the WHS covered only this temple. The other five were added in a 1992 extension of the inscription.

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Ġgantija, looking out of the eastern apse

 

The temple contains two main apses, and you can walk around inside them. In the pictures above and below you can clearly see the circular holes that have been drilled through the megaliths, perhaps to allow a beam to be fitted for some kind of door. Since the temples on Malta were constructed prior to the Bronze Age the builders would have had no metal tools, and apparently the wheel had not yet been introduced to the island either! This lack of technology only highlights what an achievement it was to have built a temple that rises to as much as six metres in height.

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The temple stayed in use for about a thousand years, before being abruptly and mysteriously abandoned in the third millennium BC. Eventually Bronze Age people re-adopted it as a cremation site. The name of the site comes from the Maltese word ġgant, meaning ‘giant’. This is because before the British arrived in the early 19th century the locals believe it was the remains of a defensive tower built by a race of giants in the distant past.

Finally, we headed over to the western end of the island for a non-WHS sight – the Azure Window. Featured in Game of Thrones as the location of a first series wedding scene, it is a limestone arch that struts out over the sea.

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Azure Window, Gozo

I found it remarkably similar to Durdle Door – part of the WHS-inscribed Jurassic Coast – which I visited in December 2013 with Ross (although the weather in Malta was a little calmer, as you can see!).

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Durdle Door, Dorset