Week 12 in Malta

This week began with a delay! Our friends, Martin and Carolyn from New Zealand, were due to arrive late morning but the plane from Heathrow was overbooked and they were transferred to a flight not arriving till 1.30 am on Tuesday. We felt sorry for them until we heard that they had been very well treated to a hotel, reimbursement, dinner and other treats.

Upper Barraka Gardens

So, the week with our friends began on Tuesday morning. Lawrence conducted them on the obligatory tour of fabulous Valletta travelling in on the bus. I had somehow damaged my achilles tendon and had to stay at home, as Valletta is a very hilly city. I was pleased they got the “Malta Bus” experience as on 3rd July – imminent now – they will all be taken off the road and replaced by new modern, air-conditioned, spacious, eco-buses. Very necessary, but sad nonetheless. The “tour” begins at the Upper Barraka Gardens looking out over  the bastions to Grand Harbour, thence to The Malta Experience, an audiovisual presentation cum orientation on the history of Malta stressing the Knights of St John period, which puts everything in context very well, then to the Co-Cathedral, Grand Masters Palace and across the harbour on the ferry to Sliema and the no 65 bus to Rabat and home.

Part of the View from Upper Barraka Gardens

We used Martin and Carolyn as an excuse to investigate yet another restaurant, this time “Essence” in the Radisson, which lived up to its reputation for excellent seafood. We asked the waitress about the various fish on the menu and were led to a glass case in which they were displayed whole! I really could have missed that bit out. She also introduced us to another Maltese red wine which is now on the Porter list of “house” wines.

On Wednesday, Martin was giving a dermatology talk to a group of the local doctors, so after a leisurely lie-in, he decided he really should look at his notes! He had made contact with a previous colleague of his, now a consultant here in Malta, and whose rooms turned out to be in the clinic we are registered with our GP. Small world indeed.

In the evening we introduced them to Mdina and our trattoria for supper and a lively discussion on so many subjects I lost count.

On Thursday we took them to the ferry to Gozo. They are keen cyclists and I thought one of the options they had was to hire bikes there, but the hills were too steep and narrow, the turns were too tight and Carolyn rebelled! For the same reason they did not hire a car although the native driving habits also contributed to that decision! At the last minute we decided to cross with them, not having been to Gozo for years. It is a relatively small island and buses and Shanks’s pony will get you pleasantly to most of the major attractions. Their hotel was situated close to many of them anyway. We parted company and made our way back to the ferry. You pay on the way back, not on the way going, unlike Wales which is the other way round.

That night we met up with another group of friends who had in fact come from Wales to see the Knights island, inspired by “Blood Rock”,  a novel I always recommend to anyone visiting. Back to Mdina with its stunning purple bougainvillea and again to the trattoria, whose menu I am steadily working my way through – all in the interests of future visitors of course.

Saturday saw the return of the wanderers from Gozo, who had the journey from hell! Their mobile had run out of juice and they were unable to contact us to pick them up as we had arranged, so many hot smelly bus rides later, they made their way to our apartment, where after a recharging of all batteries they spent the afternoon chilling out by the pool and just generally winding down.

No-one was in the mood for a heavy supper so I cooked a shrimp/coriander pesto pasta with salad and we went out on the town to the local festa (Feast of Corpus Christi) which was in full swing. The streets were heavily garlanded, flags flew from every balcony, the village brass band played in the square and we watched the procession of the saint carried on a podium on the shoulders of six men who staggered under the weight. The statue was then transferred to a tower with an elevating platform which was raised level with the floor of an elaborately decorated niche about 15 feet off the ground, where it stayed until the next day.

The interesting thing was that it was moved (by hugging!) easily by a single man, so a lot of the staggering was either for effect or due to other influences – unlikely, given the reverence these events are held in here. In fact, we discovered that many of the statues are made of papier mache and are feather light!

Festas are always an occasion accompanied by fireworks, and we decided to wait for them to erupt. So off for a coffee, then back to the square. The fireworks themselves were a bit disappointing, but the bangs were prodigious and great hilarity ensued when one of the Catherine Wheels escaped from its perch and chased several of the audience around the park. On a more serious note, several people are killed each year trying to make fireworks at home in Malta, despite it being illegal. But so ingrained is the tradition that the practice persists.

The following day, Martin and Carolyn were to go out on their friend’s boat at 11am, which I thought was very valiant as Carolyn always suffers from seasickness! However, there is no resting on a Porter tour and we were very keen that they should see the fish market at Marsaxlokk, which only occurs on a Sunday and commences at 7am. Troopers that they were, they agreed and were not disappointed. Carolyn got splashed by an ugly red fish while trying to work out what it was and a grouper was as scary as any shark! There were eels, huge octopus, fish of all sorts and sizes, whole squid, sea urchins, an unbelievable array of things marine!

We left in time to take them to meet their friend for the boat ride, Kwells in hand, and the day felt really quiet without them. They had a great time, and Carolyn made it through unscathed. The best bit apparently was the “ice-cream boat” that toured the anchorage dishing out cooling sustenance. Imagine!

No-one wanted to do very much that night so I inflicted my rabbit stew on them and they did a bit of packing, preparatory to their afternoon flight the next day.

Sunday dawned sunny – no surprise there – and true to Porter tour rules we decided to see the catacombs here in Rabat before lunch. There are two sets in Rabat, but we went to those of St Agatha. She was a 16year old Christian girl who was martyred around AD 250 when she fended off the attentions of a Roman governor who proposed marriage, because she said she would not marry a pagan. The catacombs are accessed by a crypt-like Church of St Agatha where there are many original brightly coloured original frescoes around a shrine to the saint.

St Agathas altar

These frescoes were created between the 12th and 15th centuries by devotees. The original church was a cave hewn from rock which was first embellished in the 4th and 5th centuries. The recent restoration in the 1980s was funded by the Lions club of Sliema.

The catacombs are very much older, and date to the time of St Agatha herself. the Christians did not believe in cremation and as there was very little soil cover, they hewed the labyrinth of tombs out of the underlying rock. These underground cemeteries were long narrow corridors with tombs on each side. There were various types of grave, but always for more than one person. 500 graves in all with remains of 1700 skeletons were found here. The labyrinth contains 4 kilometres of corridor.

The “window” graves were chiselled out through a small square aperture and a vertical slab was replaced in the opening after the interment was completed.

Window Grave

There were other kinds of graves too. Family graves had two layers each holding two bodies, and there were tiny alcoves for infants and babies. The life expectancy of the diggers who worked the stone was 25 yrs due to the dust and infection risks of their jobs. They were very well paid but had no light and were in effect stone miners.

Some of the wealthier families decorated large tombs with fresco-style paintings. Here is an example with the scallop representing the heavens, the cross, doves of peace and flowers representing eternal life. It is stunning in its location, a thing of antiquity and beauty in an otherwise grim setting.

Catacomb Fresco

Our guide who was one of the archaeologists involved in the restoration of the tombs told us that we then had 2 minutes to get out or the lights would go out. We had been fortunate to see the fresco as larger groups could not get there in time and the lighting was restricted to optimise conservation of the painting. Needless to say, we all moved very quickly!

We had a lovely lunch at Ciappetti in Mdina and then Carolyn and Martin went off to the airport leaving us to get ready for a drinks do at a neighbour’s later on that evening.

We had a great time there meeting many interesting people but the coincidence was that one of the guests told us how his father – a german and italian speaker – had been incarcerated as a collaborator in St Agatha’s tombs for 2 years with prisoners of war, despite protesting his innocence all that time. Sometimes he was not allowed out into the open air for days on end. After the two years he was believed, released and told that he was now a member of the British Army and he spent the rest of the war years as an interpreter for the British Forces in Malta. According to his son, he bore no grudge!

So, that brings us to the end of the week. More soon.

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