Friday, October 24, 2014

A week in Malta - 3

M'dina, peeking into a courtyard
Wednesday we did the "northern" tour of our hop-on, hop-off ticket. It's not really north. Mdina is due west of Valletta and that was our destination. Mdina is the historic capital of the island before Valletta was built up by the Knights. It's a walled citadel, which is how it got its Arabic name "Medina". It's lovely. We stopped for coffee and tea, walked around the town, peeked into courtyards and then walked into the modern town of Rabat where there is a roman villa. The structure is from 1920 and is over the remains of a 4th century Roman villa's mosaic floors. It's interesting and well-preserved. The mosaic tiles are tiny. It was noon and we stopped for lunch in a hole-in-the-wall pastizzerija where we had ftira (sandwich of Maltese bread, hobz) and pastizza (cheese pastry). Just what we needed and very good. From there, we continued down the street to the St. Paul Catacombs, named as such because they are near the St. Paul church. These are early catacombs. The visit is difficult because the lighting is poor and the floor very uneven. The loculi in the walls were for children and the tombs were carved into the stone. It's really a man-made cave. Paul, R, and I continued on to the St. Agatha's crypt and catacombs, which I found more interesting. First of all, there is a crypt because tradition is that St. Agatha took refuge here to escape an unwanted marriage in Sicily, but she did return home and had her breasts cut off as punishment. She is the patron saint for breast cancer patients. (I do hate gore -- there is a chapel to St. Agatha we passed by in Mdina, and wouldn't you know, there was a painting of the poor woman, bleeding, with her breasts on a platter. Ugh!). Back to the crypt. It's a small chamber with saints painted al freso all around, an altar, a couple of statues and that's it. From there, you enter the catacombs, which pre-date St. Agatha, and were really several separate burial chambers with their individual entrances once upon a time. On the whole, it's the same as the other, but better lit. There is a larger chamber with the table and seating area carved into the stone floor for the ceremonial farewell meal. Also, many of the sarcophages still have the bones in them so you can see that some couples died at the same time -- a double sarcophage -- while others died at different times. They are family tombs, basically: children in loculi around the wall and parents in the "floor" base. And there is an early Christian church. It has the round "table" for the farewell meal and there is an altar with a scallop-shell fresco painted above. This is the original fresco from about the 4th century.
The others were patiently waiting for us at the bus stop in front of the Roman villa. We hopped on for the return trip to Valletta.

Gozo -- all the guidebooks say you must go to Gozo. We had booked a guided tour with a French-speaking guide for Thursday. We had to get our bus from the Phonecia Hotel at 8:00. We were there; the bus finally came at 8:30. This was a bus that only took us to the ferry. At the ferry terminal there were lots of buses unloading and all the passengers were being divided into language groups for their guided tours. Ahh. We thought we were a group of 10; instead we were part of a group of 52 French and Dutch speakers! Our guide was fantastic, in my opinion. Not only did she flow from one language to the other, she really knew her stuff. There were so many groups visiting the same sites, I think it would be hard to visit Gozo on your own. You'd always be fighting the group traffic. The Ggantija site, which is the very, very oldest discovered -- older than the Tarxien or Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples -- is also made of the biggest stones. These temples all have, with an occasional exception, the same layout, the same orientation, but each one has something marvelous to admire. There's an exterior wall, like an outer shell. The temple apses are built within that shell, and when discovered, the space between the outer wall and the apse walls was filled with dirt. The temple entrance is to the south, with a threshold and door; there are two apses on each side of the passage way followed by another door and two more apses. Each apse has its structure of altar, shelves, or other. The doorpost stones have handle like holes bored into them, apparently to hold rope for cloth doors to close off the area. The main decoration is dots pitted into the stone. There are altars with spirals and there were gigantic Botero-like statues of women. At the exit of the Ggantija temple, there was a farmer selling his jams, capers, and onions. I bought a couple of jams and a pack of olives. He told me that this year had been a very bad year for olives.
From the temple, we went straight to lunch, canteen style: salad, chicken or fish, very colorful pink ice-cream for dessert. The site was beautiful. We went on for a stop at an artisan shop where one could see lace work in the making and, of course, buy it. It is beautiful, but what would I do with lace, now? Even as souvenirs, I can't see anyone I would give a gift to actually setting out the lace. There were some beautiful knitwear.. I don't know if the wool is from local sheep or it's just the knitting. They were selling liqueurs, jams, and other local produce. There were some old village wash basins nearby, fed by natural spring water, the only spring water on the island. After our short obligatory stop at this shop, we went on to a window rock. It was just too hot; I didn't go up to get a close look for once. Paul and I settled for a cold drink at one of the little cafés around the parking lot.
Victoria is the capital of Gozo. Gozo's total population is about 30,000 and yet Victoria is a big city! The city is also known as Rabat. It has developed around the old citadel, which is not quite as picturesque as Mdina, but from which there is a fantastic view of the other major towns on the island. On a clear day, one can see Malta and even as far as Sicily, according to our guide. Our view was hampered by a smoggy haze, but we could see these towns near the coast. When the wind is from the south, that's what you get, although I think the light smog is a local production. When you get up in the morning, there is a distinct diesel odor over Malta. It was getting late and we had to get the bus back to the ferry and then back to Valletta. Upon return, we stopped at the Ordinance Pub, not far from our hotel, and had a fine dinner, with a very attentive waitress. I was surprised because the guidebooks were full of recommendations to stay away from these pubs that catered to the British tourists.
Links to Wikipedia articles that might be of interest to you:
Malta, general article
Valletta
Hagar Qim
Mnajdra
Co-cathedral St. John
Museum of Fine Art
National Museum of Archeology
Mdina
St.. Paul Catacombs
Gozo
Ggantija

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