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Part 3 - Travels round Malta
We had booked a wine tour - covered in part 1 - at Meridiana this morning, from 1100 to 1200, and by the time we had chatted and bought some wine it was lunchtime. Pete had promised Pauline a piece of Maltese jewelry for her birthday but in spite of visiting several shops she had not seen anything which appealed. From Meridiana it was only half a mile to the Ta' Qali Craft Village. We did not know what to expect - our image of a craft centre is a large modern building with lots of little cubby holes, each overpriced for the tourist coaches. But this was different. Of course, Ta' Qali had been an important airfield in WWII and so there were a lot of old hangers. These had been used for the Craft Village, and it was full of real craftsmen and reasonable prices because you were buying directly from the manufacturer. Each manufacturer, cafe or shop was in an old airfield building. We looked inside two or three of these, including some interesting lacework and pottery, before Pauline finally saw a Maltese silver cross which she wanted. We were able to watch the typical silver filigree work being made, and she was tempted by some of that too, but it was very light and fine and we wondered whether it was too fragile. Maybe that will be something to buy on our next visit.
We usually take the St Paul's Bay bypass road to get back to the Selmun Palace Hotel, but we had some spare time and thought we would have a look instead at the bright lights of the resorts of Qawra, Bugibba and St Paul's Bay. This began by taking the coastal road along the Salt Pans and aptly named Salina Bay until we reached Qawra and the Qawra Tower. There were two hotels on the coast road, but it was mainly nice local houses.
We were then able to follow the coast until Bugibba when we were forced inland by the one way system. Bugibba is a much busier resort town with lots of hotels. The roads were narrow, hence mostly one way, and we navigated more by instinct than using the map.
Eventually we escaped to rejoin the coast near St Paul's chapel. There was a large car park, next to a swimming pool, and with relief we parked. Then we noticed the Wignacourt Tower just ahead of us, and walked up to take a photo. This Tower was the first of a number of coastal defence towers built round Malta. It was built at the expense of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt in 1610 and designed by Vittorio Cassar. From 1610 to 1649, Wignacourt Tower was Malta's northernmost defensive outpost until St Agatha's Tower, the Red Tower, was built in Mellieha. We continued along the coast, the road soon improved, and we joined our usual route home on the edge of Xemxija.
Today was Pauline's birthday and she had the choice of where to go. We had booked lunch at the Palazzo Santa Rosa in Miastra Bay, so we had just the morning to explore. The Belleair holiday had given us a free entrance ticket to one of eight tourist sites, and we decided to use it to visit The Limestone Heritage. It is set in a disused quarry on the outskirts of Siggiewi, and offers an insight into the ancient crafts of quarrying and masonry. This time we did not make the mistake of going through Siggiewi town centre. We knew that it opened at 0900, so we arrived at 0915. To our surprise the carpark was almost empty, and there were no other visitors in sight. Their tour normally started with a video and we were asked if we minded waiting 10 minutes until a coach party arrived, so we could all see the video together. This gave the chance for us to wander around their souvenir shop, purchase a little limestone souvenir and a book on walks in the area.
The site was opened as a tourist attraction in 2002 and everything is clean and new. Visitors are given audio sets which match their own language. This worked well for the video but we found that the audio track used to explain the technology and displays outdoors ran too fast. Indeed the Dutch tour group obviously had a much slower audio track, as we watched their progress from display to display. Pauline found she had only got to display number 3 when the audio was at number 7 and then decided to ignore her audio whereas Pete was more practical and took out the batteries when he wanted to pause the tape. We mentioned this to the guides when we finished our tour and they said that the English tape was shorter. I supposed it is because our language is more efficient. We suggested to the guides that they walk around the site with the english tape, and hear the problem themselves.
Malta has a lot of limestone quarries and it is the standard material for building work. Limestone was originally quarried by hand, as shown by their displays, and then mechanised in the 1950s onwards. The marks from the cutting machines could be seen on the quarry walls. There was always a lot of rubble, and this was used to make walls and small huts. The quarrying on the site had exposed a water drainage system, where water had drained into an underground cistern, for collection by bucket.
After learning about the cutting of the stone we then saw a craftsman making small souvenir items. He had a few tables with chisels to encourage tourists to carve the stone, which was quite soft. There were examples of outdoor stonework, for a well and for water channels. From the heat outdoors we moved undercover and into shade. Slab stones were used to make the flat roofs on top of stone walls, as well as straight and curved staircases, and different types of ceiling arches. Within a typical house there were stone tables, ovens and cupboards.
We completed our tour by visiting the small museum which had a good display of old stone cutting tools. Everything we saw outdoors were only copies.
Prehistoric "cart ruts" are found in several places in Malta, but the most famous location is at Clapham Junction, a site named because of the large number of these parallel tracks which is reminiscent of the criss-crossing of lines at the busy railway junction near London. We had an hour spare and thought it would be fun to go and look at some of the area. Our local walk book showed that it was not far from Siggiewi, between Buskett and the Dingli Cliffs and near Girgenti. We followed signs to Girgenti, but found ourselves on narrow local roads and then reached the end at a car park where a footpath was signed to the shrine of Girgenti. This was not our destination so we retraced our route. We had turned too early, and the view of the huge Laferla Cross on the hill above us showed that we were definitely in the wrong place. Pauline, navigating, muttered something about wishing we had the GPS and we set off again.
This second time we were on a more main road which led past Hardrock Quarries. Then the road deteriorated, but was still reasonable, as it approached the coast and turned along the famous Dingli Cliffs. At which point we reached a junction and there was a road sign pointing towards Cart Ruts. Just before we reached the trees at Buskett there was another sign, off to the right, and we soon found the parking area. For future trips the best direction to approach the area is from Buskett, not from Girgenti. We looked down at the ground and wondered where the cart ruts were, but it was only a short walk before they all became obvious. No-one has any information about the ruts, not even their precise period. The cart ruts are often found in the neighbourhood of quarries of the Phoenician and Roman periods and some experts believe they date from the Bronze Age or even earlier. They could be made by some form of sledge or wheel-less carts, or be intentionally cut into the rock as the basis of a transport system.
Today was 21 September and is Independence Day, so it was a public holiday and most shops were closed. We had been warned to treat it as a extra Sunday in terms of petrol stations, banks and other tourist places. This was also our last day with a hire car, and was going to be our last chance to sit on a golden sandy beach, and go swimming. We started the day by going back to Golden Bay. This time we were much earlier and there was a lot of parking. As time passed the area got more busy and after an hour we moved on. We wondered about going to the next beach south, at Ghajn Tuffieha, but instead went to the next beach after that, at Gnejna Bay. This meant we drove through Mgarr, which was a nice little town, stopped for a few moments to admire the unexpected large church in the centre. The Egg Church in Mgarr was built from proceeds from the sale of eggs and vegetables. Its building commenced in 1912 and was only completed in 1946, and these dates are written on the front of the church. The church is one of the largest dome churches in the world, after Mosta. There is a large oval dome and tiny cupola, resembling an egg in a cup, which serve as reminders of its origins. We drove on and found easy parking by the beach at Gnejna Bay. This was a beach used by the locals, and there were lots of weekend boat houses and people with caravans and tents. As we settled down on the beach a vintage VW pop-up-top camper arrived, disgorged a group of children, set up a tent for shade and started to light a gas barbeque. We envied them for the perfect way to spend a Maltese public holiday: in the sun, on the beach with family, and cooking their BBQ. Swimming here was less good than at Golden Bay because the beach was strewn with underwater rocks. Locals seemed to swim out to a platform which was in deeper water and then swim from there.
Ta Hagrat Neolithic Temple, on the edge of Mgarr, was discovered in 1925. It is just off the main road through Mgarr. We followed the signs but it would be best to park on the main road and walk down. We just had space to turn at the end. Unfortunately it is rarely open, and was not at the time of our visit. The following information was collected from Heritage Malta. It is the earliest standing temple building in Malta. The group consists of two adjacent three-foil temples dating from around 3600 - 2500 B.C. One of the temples has several steps in front of the trilithon entrance, a stone pavement and a stone bench at its faade. Pottery remains found here are older than the temple and seem to indicate a pre-temple settlement in the area.
Our guide book had also marked some Roman Baths on the road between Mgarr and Ghajn Tuffieha, and we turned onto a narrow rough track in search of them. Again they were not open, and it was just possible to see the outline of the baths; the area was very overgrown with weeds. The information board explained that the Roman Baths were discovered in 1929 by accident by workmen from the Water Works Department who were doing routine work at the Ghajn Tuffieha Gardens. Excavations revealed that the site was a Roman bathing complex, built in the early 2nd century AD. The preservation and conservation of the mosaics is a serious challenge, and the information board stated that it was planned to build a walkway, so that the mosaics could be viewed without damaging them. Meanwhile the site was closed.
Finally we were almost back to the Hotel, but there was just time for a short stop in Xemxija. We had driven through the village every time we were heading south, but never stopped, and the waterfront at Pwales Beach was so very pretty. A few luzzu trip boats are moored here, to add colour.
As well as the local shuttle bus service to Mellieha and Mellieha Bay the Selmun Palace Hotel offers a bus to Mdina and Valletta. This is not free and costs LM3 per person. The schedule is that you depart from the Hotel at 1000 and return from Valletta at 1600, and from Mdina at 1615. It was necessary to book and we had put our names on the list. When we arrived at the reception desk we were told that the bus had a problem and would be one hour late. There were groans by everyone, and we suggested that since it departed one hour late then it should come back one hour later. This was agreed. So at 1100 a nice new Drifter Rentals bus arrived. The journey to Mdina took about 20 minutes, then it was normally an extra 20 minutes to Valletta, although the traffic on the outskirts was quite slow. We noticed that parking was metered and there were not many free spaces. We were glad that we had not come by hire car. The first stone of the city of Valletta was ceremonially laid by Grand Master Jean Valette on 29 March 1566. It was intended as a fortress town able to withstand any future Ottoman assault. Streets were laid on a strict grid-plan and the town was "embellished" with palaces, auberges, churches and other fine buildings. We had already spent several hours in the Palace of Grand Masters, and the Armoury, when we visited Valletta on board QE2, so we wanted to see other places. Our bus deposited us in front of the Auberge of Castille and Leon at 11.45. Built in 1574 it is a superb example of Baroque architecture. Since 1972 it has been the offices of the Prime Minister, and previously it was the British Army Headquarters. The British Fleet had arrived in Malta under Admiral Nelson in 1800, and the British had stayed until independence in 1964.
We saw a yellow funnel and headed across to look down at Costa Concordia, moored in the harbour, beneath the rampart walls. The Upper Barrakka Gardens have a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour, one of the finest harbours in Europe. From its terrace we could enjoy the unique view of Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo, Senglea, Vittoriosa and Kalkara and Marsa Creek. We wonderd why there were so many people standing on the terrace, looking down, then we realised that it was the time of the firing of the Noon Day Gun. The old Saluting Battery stands on the lower part of the St Peter and St Paul Bastion. It was originally built in the 16th century and remained in continuous use up to 1960. The battery functioned as a master time keeper. The gun shots at sunrise and sunset marked the beginning and end of the working day, and the opening or closing of the town gates. The noon gun was fired to signal to mariners in the harbour the exact hour of mid-day which was necessary for the the regulation of watches on board ships for accurate navigation. In May 2005 it was decided to restore the Saluting Battery, complete with eleven original British 24-pounder cannon from the mid-late 19th century, and with volunteers dressed in uniforms of that time representing the Royal Malta Artillery. If we had arrived an hour earlier we would have been able to join the 1100 guided tour and then stay in the Battery throughout the Noon-day gun firing proceedings.
Valletta is a small town with narrow streets, and there were swarms of tourists. We had visited the National War Museum previously, but we wanted to have another look at the exhibits. The National War Museum is next to Fort St. Elmo, and is at the end of the Trio Ir Repubblika. The direct route passed by St John's co-Cathedral and we wanted to go in, but there was a queue and you had to pay. Further along we looked inside the House of Representatives and got a glimpse of the Grand Master's Palace. If this had been our fist visit to Malta then we would have stopped and visited both. The numbers of people suddenly reduced and we passed a number of local shops and cafes and then were confronted with the wall of Fort St Elmo ahead.
The permanent exhibition at the National War Museum contains an ever-increasing collection of war relics which range from one of the three historic Gladiator aircraft, named "Faith", the George Cross awarded to the island for bravery by King George VI in World War II, to various weapons, uniforms and service vehicles. Some of the areas were closed this time, although the main exhibits were still on display. The naval casualties during WWII were each described, and it helped us understand the context of the old film "Malta Story". We spent a lot of time reading about the various ships, and what happened to them.
Continuing around the walls we began to get a view across to Sliema. Pauline wanted to visit Sliema because her father had played football for Sliema Wanderers while he was posted to Malta in the Army in 1936. Looking across, it seemed to be a building site and fast becoming a concrete jungle. A Captain Morgan Harbour Cruise was heading out to sea, and then we saw a ferry crossing from Valletta to Sliema. It seemed that we should be able to have a short boat ride, and spend an hour walking around Sliema.
Looking down searching for the ferry wharf we saw a sign painted on a wall saying Ferry with an arrow. The Marsamxetto Steamferry service operates from Valletta to Sliema from 0745 to 1815. It costs 40c (65p) each way. We had plenty of time before we were due to collect our bus, so we embarked on the next ferry. There was a lot of construction work in the Tigne Fort area, and Pauline admired the Fortina Hotel on the waterfront with its private Lido. This is not a beach resort. The coast is rocky and because of the ships the water is not clean enough for swimming. We strolled along the seafront promenade and were approached by a series of people selling boat trips and harbour cruises. Circumnavigating Malta would be a good excursion but we had no time left now. We headed inland, trying to find the town of Sliema and we found shops, mostly closed for lunch, and the church of Stella Maris, Our Lady Star of the Sea. It is the mother parish of all the parish churches in Sliema and was built so that it could be seen from every ship leaving the harbour. It is on a corner and hemmed in by houses and narrow streets, so was difficult to photograph.
We knew that the next ferry back to Valletta went at 1500 and we just missed it, so had plenty of time to stroll along the Sliema Front towards Tigne Point. Just before reaching the construction zone we spotted a building dated 1881, and built for Sea Water Distilling, but no longer used for that purpose.
We had returned to Valletta with half an hour to spare, so went into the Museum of Archaeology. It is housed in the Auberge de Provence, and was one of the earliest buildings to be constructed. The building suffered many changes, until in the 1990s it was totally refurbished and restored. Entering the lobby the vaulted ceiling is decorated by a stunning trompe l'oeil. Original artefacts collected from the historic sites are kept here, and there a number of examples of "Fat Lady" statuettes, as well as stone carving from Hagar Qim, Mnajdri and many other places. We realised there was still a lot more historic sites in Malta to visit.
We were very lucky with this holiday. September is a good time of year to visit, although some days can be too hot. Nevertheless, visiting earlier in September, to include Victory Day on 8 September, would be fun. We flew back on the Saturday of the Malta International Air Show, which was a mistake. Luqa airport was closed while the aerobatic displays took place at the end of the runway, so our Air Malta flight to London Heathrow left late. We would have liked to watch the Air Show instead of sitting in the terminal building.
The Selmun Palace Hotel suited us well and we were able to explore the local food and wine. Having a good restaurant, Palazzo Santa Rosa, just 20 minutes walk away is an attraction for us, and we still have a lot to learn about the local wine. We also liked the Xara Palace Hotel in Mdina.
Having a hire car is essential, although many tourists save money by catching the local buses. There is a lot of traffic and the roads are of varying quality, although there is EU money being spent now on repairs. Speed limits vary enormously and are not well signed. We were often too slow, because we thought there was a speed limit and there was not. Locals drive hard to get past a foreign tourist in a hire car.
We enjoyed the excellent golden sandy beaches, and in September and October it is possible to park without too much trouble. Our preference of them all for swimming was Golden Bay, although we have only visited a selection. We only saw a small proportion of the historical monuments and sites, and explored just a small part of Valletta. There were many place, particularly in the Valletta area which we did not visit, partly because of concerns about parking and navigation. We did not get to go across on the ferry to Gozo, or take a boat trip to visit Comino. So there is a lot more to do, and we are definitely thinking of going back another year.
It was only a 3 hour flight, although door-to-door it took us 9 hours on our return, and we both swear that we will never again fly into Heathrow Terminal 4.
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