Well, we chose the wrong year to move to Malta if we were looking for a mild winter. This one was the worst for 40 years with rain, wind, cold and hail! February was the wettest on record for 90 years, and there were very few full days of sunshine although it did cheer us ocasionally. When we arrived here last April, I never thought that I would need to buy an electric blanket, but it has been a necessary luxury.
Another climatic feature I was not prepared for was the winter humidity. I have always associated humidity with warm rainy climes and steamy vegetation, but the limestone blocks, of which most of the older and many of the new buildings are constructed, act like sponges for the ambient damp and exude it into the rooms, which are often frigidly cold. We are fortunate to live in a modern building with good air-conditioning units which have a heating and a dehumidifying setting, and once we realised this, our lives became a lot more comfortable. The Maltese are a hardy people who seem to tolerate the cold better than us, but even they brought out the fur coats and boots this season amid statements that this is the worst it has been in living memory!
However, instead of snuggling down into the electric blanket, we braved the conditions and continued our bridge and social whirl, often ploughing through torrential rain and into puddles hiding gigantic potholes to reach our destination. The road from our apartment block to the main road had more pothole than flat surface, which our german car’s suspension did nothing to alleviate! Every time there is a heavy rainfall, there appears another tranche of potholes, sunken tarmac and long linear cracks in the roads here. I have come to the conclusion that this is not due to poor filling in of the defects, although road repairs are of the patching variety. The bedrock on which the roads are built is the same porous limestone described above. When the water table is high the pockets in the rock get eroded and when it drops the thin walls of the pockets collapse, taking the road structure down into smooth hollows which later break down into large potholes. I stress that this is only my theory, and not necessarily scientific fact. The biggest pothole I have seen was two feet deep and three across, with linear cracks spreading from it. This was on a hillside road and a full repair was done to the whole stretch of road to avert half of one carriageway falling off the side of the hill. The local authorities are very quick to repair the damage, thank goodness.
January and February saw us continue our exploration, mostly through Lawrence’s walks with the Harrison Lewis walking group and his walking circumnavigation of the entire coast of Malta.
There were several archaeological finds to engage us, as usual. Lawrence visits/discovers the sites with the group or on his walk, and later brings me to see the parts that are easily reached by car.
The first very interesting site was that of six neolithic tombs cut into the rocky (limestone obviously) hills above Xemxija. These each comprised a shallow entrance tunnel about a metre across leading to a more extensive oval or lobed cavernous space. The ones we saw were about 4×3 metres in floor area and had low ceilings, in which it was impossible to stand upright. One had steps cut in the floor of the sloping entrance tunnel to aid the portage of the bodies into the tombs.
Pot sherds and restorable vessels were found in them dating from the Ġgigantja phase (3500BC). We saw these at their best in bright sunlight with spring flowers emerging from the hardy evergreen groundcovering. Made a note to myself to dig out my plant book when I got home.
The second interesting monument dates from the days of the Knights of St John. It is the Red Tower on the Marfa Ridge, which is the northernmost ridge in Malta. It was built by Grand Master Lascaris to watch and guard the straits between Malta and Gozo. Today it is managed by the National Trust of Malta – Din l-Art Helwa.
It is also known as St Agatha’s tower, she of the catacombs of Rabat, whose refusal to marry a non-christian Roman governor resulted in her being burned as a martyr, having had both breasts cut off. Brutal times for those of an unfavored faith. A small chapel was housed in the tower dedicated to her.
There are several theories about why it was painted red, but the accepted one is that the tower was easier to see from the other watchtowers before and beyond it in the chain of lookout posts around the coast.
It was accessed by a drawbridge originally, but the restoration has endowed it with a fixed wooden bridge for safety and ease of access. In troubled times there was a garrison of 49 composed of knights, their sergeants and servants. Five cannon were stationed on the roof, which was accessed by a spiral staircase. I expect the cannon were winched up to the flat roof on pulleys, although they could have been taken up piecemeal and assembled there, I suppose.
Unlike many of the other fortifications, this tower had an 8-pointed dry stone wall built around it for defensive purposes.
Inside it has vaulted ceilings and the National Trust of Malta man it with volunteers. There are many coats of arms of the Knights and an internal well together with beautiful vaulting in the ceilings make it an aesthetic visit as well as an informative one. There are glimpses of old beauty, such as the window below. Thanks to Dave Thursfield for the photo.
In the period of British occupation, it continued its defensive purpose, being manned during both world wars. In more recent times it was used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta, but now it is run and maintained as a national monument.
It is a prominent landmark in the north of the island, being visible for miles around, thanks to its elevated position. At €2 admission, it is great value. Also, the road that goes past the Red Tower is a small little used road, but leads to one of the most beautiful parts of the island, where there is a faultline in the bedrock, and the terminal headland is called Ras il-Qammieh (Jumper’s Head!)
As well as our explorations, we attended various social events. Two memorable ones were in the Manoel theatre which I shall describe fully in a later post. The first was a harpsichord concert performed on the Manoel’s specially commissioned instrument. The programme was baroque and was performed by a most virtuosic frenchwoman, Beatrice Martin. It was unfortunate that the theatre was only quarter-full, but this was no reflection on the quality of the performance, rather that it was St Valentine’s night and the coldest night of the year here. Despite being well wrapped up and being in a box’s more confined therefore warmer space, you could still see our breath in front of us. It did not seem to phase Ms Martin, though, whose fingers sped over the keys in the final virtuosic piece, in a veritable blur. From our vantage point we could see her music but our eyes could not follow as fast as she was playing. Despite the cold, none of us would have missed it for anything.
On a warmer – just – night we saw a fabulous Argentinian Tango performance, by a trio of dancers who played out through dance the age-old love triangle of two men and a woman. We knew the performance would be sizzling and dramatic and were not disappointed. The real surprise, a wonderful one, was the “five piece band” backing them, as described in the advertising. This turned out to be a Balkan group consisting of illustrious professors of music, playing a bandoneon (Argentinian/Uraguayan accordion-type instrument), an electric guitar, a grand piano, a violin and a double bass. Every one of those instruments swept brilliantly from poignancy to exhuberance, and the musicians’ sheer skill created such atmoshere that on occasion the band rather than the dancers were the focus of the audience. The pianist was the wife of the bandoneon player and she was dressed in a long shimmering golden gown which was hidden by her grand piano until she stood to sing the sultry songs of the tango culture. It was a stunning performance and thanks to more clement weather and a fanatical tango following here, the house was full and sold out.
A final treat was a baroque double flute and cello concert in the Palazzo de Piro in nearby Mdina. It was part of Carnival and the musicians dressed in period costume. On arrival on a cold and wet, windy night we were greeted by a glass of chilled (delicious) white wine and ushered into the salon, where we were treated to lovely music and colourful performers. The flautists were a husband and wife we had heard before – he has studied with Sir James Galway – and the cellist was the head of the cello department here in the Johann Strauss School of Music.
So, once again this great island has stimulated my historical and musical tastebuds. It really is a great place!