A Travellerspoint blog

Temples, Temples, Everywhere

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Malta is steeped in history. And not just your run of the mill history, but cool, mysterious history. The kind of history that the Egyptian pyramid builders should have been studying in school - and hey, maybe they were, but I know of no evidence to corroborate that - but you gotta think that they got their techniques for moving massive stones from somewhere. Well, the ancient Maltese temple builders figured it out, about 2500 years before the Egyptians. Not only had they figured out how to move massive limestone blocks (some weighing up to 4 tonnes), but they mastered their placement and the art of constructing intricate structures used for every-day religious purposes. There is also some evidence that they were using the temples they built to track the seasons and maybe even the heavens. Pretty impressive when you consider how simply our ancestors were living, not that long ago.

We were fortunate to visit three different temple complexes during our stay in Malta. They all followed the same basic plan, using monolithic slabs in various orientations to create walls and alters. Each temple featured central hall ways with opposing semi-circular apses, but the roofs were long gone. The Maltese government has undertaken various efforts to preserve the temples, ranging from scaffolding to massive tents to shield them from the elements. In some cases, they had removed some of the really important archaeological pieces (for protection in local museums) and replaced them with cast replicas. This was expertly done, though, so you really couldn't tell the difference. For me, the best part was the fact that you could get really close to these structures. Perhaps there is more risk to them given the throngs of poking and prodding tourists, but it allows you to get up close and personal, and perhaps experience a little bit of what these were like in their hey days.

Ggantija

This was the first temple that we visited. It is located in the heart of Xaghra, the village we called home-base for the first ten days of our trip, on the Island of Gozo. Perhaps it was because it was the first one we visited, or maybe it was the fact that it was uncovered, but this is the one that resonated with me the most. The sheer size of the stones, the precarious way in which they were arranged and the locale with a sweeping view of the country side to the south made a lasting impression.
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Tarxien

This was the second temple we visited. It is located in a residential area about 20 minutes or so south of the Maltese capitol of Valletta. This one was covered with an elaborate tent. This was also the temple where most of the really significant artifacts were found, shedding some light on who these people were, and the rituals they followed. Make no mistake, though, their daily lives and sudden disappearance remain shrouded in mystery.
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Hgar Qim and Mnajdra

These last two temples are located on a seaside bluff, overlooking the Mediterranean on the west side of the island of Malta, about half an hour west of Valletta. These temples have some interesting features that suggested the temple builders used them to track the sun in the sky, and mark the seasons through the equinoxes and solstices. There is also some marking to suggest they tracked constellations from this location as well. These temples, in particular, are very accessible. You can stroll through them as if they were nothing more than an elaborate limestone play structure, but the overhead protection and the diligent oversight of the site staff remind you just how important these temples are to the Maltese.
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There are other temples scattered about Malta that we did not get the chance to see. However, these three sites impressed us greatly with their magnitude, complexity and peacefulness. It is unfortunate that we do not know what happened to the temple builders, but at least these sites have been discovered and steps are being taken to preserve them for future generations. And, they inspired Jamie to make his own version of the "lady legs" from the Tarxien temple for his ancient history project.

Posted by atw41year 17:46 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Marsaxlokk

sunny 18 °C
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So - Marsaxlokk (Mar-sa-shlock) is a pretty little natural harbor located about a 20 minute bus ride south of Valletta.

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Marsaxlokk has been a major port of commerce since the Roman times. The Ottomans used it to stage their attack on St. Elmo's Fort (in Valletta) because of its protection and ease of access. George Bush Senior and Gorbachev even signed the document officially ending the cold war on a warship docked here. Now, as before, however, the primary purpose for this port is fishing and associated commerce.

The boats here a very colorful and most have eyes painted on them. One wonders why they don't paint these on the cars here too - it might help....
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There are restaurants lining the port selling catch of the day, and we made sure to stop, soak up the sunshine and sample some of the sea-fare during our visit. The baby octopi were a real hit.
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Every manner of seafood conceivable is fresh and available for sale from the vendors. The sights, smells and sounds of this market are unforgettable. The fishmongers are flanked on either side by others seeking to capitalize on the tourist traffic, but the real stars here are the locals selling their hard-won daily catch, along with some fresh local fruits and vegetables, and Maltese baked sweets (especially the traditional Maltese honey rings with fennel - yum!!)
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The views from either end of the harbor are spectacular, and dominated by, you guessed it, the church in the square at the center of town:
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All in all a picturesque locale, well worth the minimal effort to get here and a pleasant place to pass a few hours, and chow down on some fresh seafood!

Posted by atw41year 23:30 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

12,000 Steps Around Valletta

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So our time on Gozo had come to an end and it was time to take the ferry back to Malta. The wind that had been building from the south for the last couple of days had become a full force of nature of between 50 and 75 km/hr with gusts of up to 100 km/hr. The deck hand assured me that they had navigated through worse, and they adjusted our route to the leeward side of Comino (the small island between Gozo and Malta) for protection, but it was Gravol all around for the O'Pachs on this one. Sara and I stayed up on the top deck with an American family on break from teaching in Tunisia (Sara makes instant friends with any kids she can), Erin and Gerry stuck to the lower, slightly more stable, deck while Jamie and Grandma Cheetah huddled in the cabin area below. This was one white knuckle ferry ride - it was kinda like one of those fair rides that looked like fun from the ground, but took on a much less entertaining dimension once you got on and started going. Check out my FB if you haven't seen the video. When we finally arrived at the other side, the waves were crashing on and over the breakwater some 30 feet into the air:
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Valletta, which is a major tourist attraction, is quite a contrast from the peaceful solitude of Gozo but has managed to maintained its medieval charm. This historic city is absolutely beautiful and it is no wonder that this, the smallest capital city in the EU, has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. We were lucky enough to find a really cool apartment is right in the heart of the old walled city, tucked away in a quiet alley near Fort St. Elmo. This is the street where our apartment is located:
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There is a surprising amount to see and do in pint-sized Valletta but it would be folly to try and describe all of it in this blog. It would also be folly to think that anyone would be patient enough to read my inaccurate musings on this place or its history. Briefly, Valletta was built after the great siege of 1565 during which the Ottoman Empire threw everything it had (~40,000 Turks) at 8000 Maltese and about 600 Knights of the Order of St. John. The original St. Elmo's Fort withstood every Turkish advance over a period of a couple of months, save for the last one. However, reinforcements arrived from Spain and ultimately sent the Turks on their merry way. Valletta was built in behind St. Elmo's Fort and battlements were erected all around this peninsula to further fortify the area. It makes for some interesting walking and sites to see. There are amazing views all around this place:
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We have a number of in-Valletta museum and church visits, Easter parades, as well as some excursions (artfully lead by my much better half) to other ancient cities, temples and harbours so stay tuned!

Posted by atw41year 12:37 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Wied Il-Ghasri and Xlendi to Ta Cenc

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The last few days on Gozo have been a little on the windy side. On the upside, the wind has been from the south, so it was a little warmer, however; the Saharan source of the wind meant a noticeable amount of grit in the air. Kinda neat, actually, making it feel more like an Indiana Jones movie set. A fine red dust accumulates on everything, and the nuns at the local church were hard at work keeping it at bay in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations.

Our first windy trek was from the Shrine at Ta Pinu northward towards Wied Il-Ghasri and along the north coast back to the salt pans near Marsalforn. Ta Pinu is an important shrine for Catholics here on Gozo and around the world. Pilgrams come here from all over to ask for miracles ranging from help with birth defects to a little divine intervention on nursing exams. There are walls covered with pictures, postcards and discarded assisted mobility devices and braces - hey, whatever works, says Joe the Heathen. They are currently raising funds to finish a hotel for pilgrims:
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The walk down to the coast and Wied Il-Ghasri was through typical Gozitan countryside. Lots of wheat fields "blowin' in the wind". This light house is on a plateau that also served as a WWII observation post for the RAF:
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Wied Il-Ghasri

Otherwise known as the Ghasri Valley, Wied Il-Ghasri was carved by a river (currently dry, thanks to the Maltese state of drought) which terminates in an idyllic fjord-like bay on the north coast of Gozo. Travelers come here to dip (sometimes skinny, but thankfully not on the day of our visit), or just hang out. We chose to keep our clothes on this time - a bit chilly, thanks to the wind, to go swimming in the good ol' Mediterranean:
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After spending some time exploring, skipping stones into the Mediterranean, and finding what Jamie referred to as "the perfect rock" (do we have another geologist in the making?!?!?) we continued along the cliff-line to the east back towards the salt pans and the previously visited tourist town of Marsalforn. I have to say that the salt pans are ingenious - we couldn't get enough of them (as evidenced by the repeat visit - something that rarely happens for us) and they are very photogenic.
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Xlendi and the Ta Cenc Cliffs

Xlendi Bay (pronounced "ssssshlendy" - like you would say it after about 5 scotches) is a pretty little spot located on the SW corner of Gozo. It has been an important port since Roman times and has a really nifty tower (referred to as Tower B) that was built in the mid 17th century. Its now a happenin' tourist spot with tons of restaurants and hotels. It was the starting point for our windy hike along the coast to the ultimate goal - the Ta Cenc (pronounced "chench" - although that's open to debate by Erin....) Cliffs. There's a neat little stairway carved out of the north side of the bay (accessible through the restaurant in the bay) that was originally put there by a rich "spinster" to afford the nuns of the area private access to caves and a secluded bathing area.
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The tower, at the southern side of the entrance to the bay, had a geocache that Erin and the kids were able to find. Geocaching on this trip has led us to some pretty amazing, out of the way, places that we might not have found otherwise. Highly recommended. The Xlendi tower is currently closed, but the area around it made the perfect spot for a picnic. And guess what? Moar salt pans (not to mention some pretty cool geology)!
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From here, we headed south along the coast toward the Ta Cenc Cliffs and headlong into the southern wind bringing warm sandy air from the Sahara. Its a good thing the wind was blowing us back away from the cliffs and not towards them. It's a 120 m drop to the ocean below and Erin, who has a healthy respect (others might say crippling fear) of heights, spent most of the hike clinging to what little vegetation was available along the paths for added security.
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We were not successful at locating ancient cart tracks gouged into the limestone on top of the plateau overlooking the cliffs at Ta Cenc. Unfortunately, there is now a 5 star hotel in the way, and they weren't willing to let us walk through to access the site. Let's hope this isn't a sign of the times for Gozo.

We also needed to get back to Xaghra, as Sara had arranged a playdate with her new friend Hannah from Scouts later that afternoon. It was so lovely to watch the girls walking hand in hand through the Gozitan countryside and goofing around like the best of friends. Thanks to Hannah and the rest of the Vella family for showing us around, for cramming 8 of us into the C-Max for the exciting ride back up to Xaghra, and for the truly amazing homemade cookies (we need that recipe!). If you or the Saliba family are ever in Ottawa, please get in touch so that we can reciprocate your kindness.

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We absolutely loved our stay here in Gozo and would highly recommend this pleasant little island to anyone looking for adventure, history and breath-taking landscapes. The people are very friendly and the pace of life here is slow and steady. Let's see how it compares to our time in Valletta - up next!

Posted by atw41year 00:51 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Nadur, the Azure Window and Xerri's Grotto

Nadur is another, slightly larger town to the east of our home base of Xaghra. According to Gramma's Fitbit, it is an approximately 10,000 step hike across the picturesque valley overlooking Ramla Bay. Due to the geography and the climate, these valleys are the principal location for agriculture for the island. It makes sense since this is where the limited fertile soil exists and it is the best place to capture and utilize the meagre rainfall. This year in particular has been quite dry - Malta has received less than 20% of its average winter/spring rainfall. Every drop counts and the farms are set up to maximize effectiveness. Notwithstanding the drought, there are still lots of orange and lemon groves, wheat, strawberries and other vegetables. The olive trees have not started to produce yet.
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Once we climbed back up out of the valley, we continued south through Nadur and came across an unexpected and thoroughly breathtaking panoramic view of Comino and the island of Malta further to the south. This is also the port where we will catch the ferry to return to Malta from Gozo later this week:
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Its comforting to see that some things never change, no matter where in the world you are. These images speak for themselves:
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If you find yourself in Nadur, you must stop for pizza at Mekren Bakery adjacent to the bus stop. 5 Euros gets you a sizeable pie that fed the 6 of us. We had the aptly named "bacon feast". It was delicious and easy to understand how the bus driver later got quite frustrated given the congestion caused at this spot on a Friday night.

The Azure Window
A short bus ride west of Rabat takes you to Dwerja (Dway-rah), the home of the Azure Window and the Inland Sea (more like a pond, really, but more on that later). This is also the home of Fungus Rock and a 17th century tower built to protect the mushrooms that grew there. The Knights were convinced that the mushrooms had "medicinal" value (as an aphrodisiac) and felt it necessary to keep the locals away from this precious resource. Fungus Rock was accessed from a removable rope bridge. The fungus in question is referred to as the Maltese mushroom: Maltese Mushrooms

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The Azure Window itself, is quite spectacular, and one of the more popular tourist spots on the island. This was the first time we encountered "crowds" and peddlers - ok, just a couple - a young boy selling post cards and an older guy selling photo ops with the owl on his shoulder. The best views of the arch are from up close - we actually didn't quite get close enough (D'oh) so our pictures all have a little rock in them. This is also one of the top diving spots in the Mediterranean. People come from all over to dive the seabed here. There is also a neat little interpretive centre on the way down to the "inland sea", which is worth a visit.
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If you come here, the 4 Euro boat ride from the inland sea, through a narrow cave out into the bay is very worthwhile. The ride takes about 20 minutes, but affords the opportunity to see the coastline up close, get a slightly different view of the Azure Window and explore a handful of caves carved by millennia of wave action. The water is a stunning colour of blue that leaves a lasting impression.
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Xerri's Grotto
Back in Xaghra is Xerri's Grotto. This is a diminutive cavern in the limestone some 10 m or so below a residence just north west of the main square. You wouldn't know it was there, save for the signs. The story goes that Xerri found this while digging a well looking for water about a hundred years ago. The family still owns the site and the tour is given by his grand daughter. A very elaborate spiral limestone staircase descends down into the grotto where cool stalactities and stalagmites await. A neat little spot and unexpected treasure.
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Up next, another visit to the salt pans, but from a different direction and a trip to the cliffs near Xlendi. Stay tuned.

Posted by atw41year 13:37 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

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