Saturday, November 1, 2014

A week in Malta - 1

(Je ferais un autre article en français)
This is a special trip for us. Paul and I met at the Pierwige Hotel (it no longer exists -- it's private apartments with a bank on the ground floor, now) in 1970. Paul was an engineering student in a program at the school next door. Other students at that school were also living at the hotel. J-P, already engaged to R, who lived with her parents but who spent most of her free time with the Pierwige group; F, who was already engaged to C, but she was not living in Paris, yet; G, and Y. They were not the only ones, but they were the core and they've kept in touch with one another, while we lost contact until a year or so ago, when I was scanning our negatives and came across a trove of Paul's photos from that time, before I came on the scene. I googled and found a phone number for one of J-P and R's sons and we were able to reconnect with J-P and R. At a dinner at their home, we saw with F and C for the first time in 40 years. So, it was decided we'd all go on a trip together: 5 couples.
From the rampart near the hotel. (Look at the photos in the wikipedia links below for better pictures than mine.)
We decided to go to Malta. October is an ideal time to visit Malta. It's hot, but not as hot as in summer. There are far fewer tourists, although there are enough to keep restaurants full. Y and M arrived separately from Lyons; the rest of us met up at Orly for the flight from Paris. It was a late flight, so it was already dark when we arrived. Y and M had arrived early and had already cased out Valletta and found a restaurant for our first dinner all together.
We made some elementary tourist mistakes. We are 5 couples, 10 individuals, not a group of 10 with a tour guide. We decided to buy 2-day tickets for one of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours, but the receptionist at our hotel sold us one ticket for 10, which meant we all had to hop on and hop off together. Of course, in a group of 10, not everyone wants to do the same thing at the same time, and discussions about where to eat and what to do can drag on, but on the whole, we all got along and there was a lot of give and take. It wasn't a problem, but it would have been easier on me, the ticket holder, if each couple were responsible for its ticket. For any readers planning on visiting Malta, if you want to take the hop-on, hop-off tour, don't get the tickets from the hotel; there are at least two competitors, so you may want to choose which company you take, and if you're traveling with friends, you might want to be more independent so that you don't wait around or make them wait for you. Then again, you might consider not taking the tourist bus and getting a day ticket for the public bus service -- much, much less expensive (only €1,50). Since distances are so short, you can always find a bus to get you to the same sites as the tourist bus, and not have to wait so long for the next bus to come by.
The first day, Monday, we took the southern tour. Malta is tiny; there's not much distance to cover, but you can't hop-off at each stop because you won't really be able to visit. We didn't get off at the Tarxien ("x" is pronounce "sh") temples, which we thought we'd visit later, nor at Marsaxlokk, a beautiful little port known for its fish menus, which were not really calling us at 10 something in the morning. We got off at the blue grotto, not to visit the grotto, but to just to get off, walk around, and have a drink, which meant getting the next bus, or maybe the one after. I don't remember. We got off, again, at the next stop to visit the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples.
These two temples date from about 3600 BC, with evidence that the site was used for some rites even as far back as 4000 BC; that's almost 6000 years. That's about 1500 to 2000 years older than Stonehenge! They are definitely structures that were built for religious rite; the main doors and inner openings line up with the summer solstice and other openings with the equinoxes. They are made of huge blocs of stone that seem to have been transported by placing them on round stones that are found around the sites. Other stones are rutted and seem to show that the round stones rolled somewhat, like ball bearings. The temple layout is the same all over Malta and Gozo -- a main entrance with two round inner chambers, then another passage and two more round inner chambers. The stones that mark the doorways have handles carved into them that probably held rope for cloth to close off the passage. The decoration is simple, dots, but sometimes these dots form spirals. In other instances, the dots seem to form a counting system, maybe a calendar. There are altars and indications of fire, perhaps for animal sacrifice (they found animal bones, too). There are indentations for the feet, where there were once large statues of women -- Botero-like women, very buxom and hefty (we saw them, later, at the Archeology Museum). At the site of the older of the two temples, Mnajdra, the one down the hill, closer to the sea, the archaeologists found the evidence of bones, even dwarf elephant bones, going back to 4000 BC. So, Hagar Qim is deemed the more recent site.
Needless to say, this was a long and interesting visit. By the time we all finished, it was well past lunch time, but just across the parking lot was a restaurant and, for a place where you feel you are a captive customer having no choice to go elsewhere, it was very good! We managed to hop on the next to last bus back to town. Just remember that if you want to visit, you can get a public transport bus from Valletta to the site. They only thing you'll miss out on is the commentary.
Once back in Valletta, we cleaned up, rested, and met later for dinner.
Links to Wikipedia articles that might be of interest to you:
Malta, general article
Valletta
Hagar Qim
Mnajdra

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