We chose Malta before we researched it on account of it being really fucking tiny. Seriously, you could stand on one side and spit to the other. I mean, don’t, because that would be gross. But you could. We wanted an entire country that we could potentially see in a week and given that the island of Malta is only about 17 miles long, we figured it was doable. I mean, how much can you pack into a space that small? So we booked our flights and accommodation, bought a Lonely Planet and yeah so it turns out that Malta has quite a lot of history going on, and when I say history I mean over 5000 years of the shit, and as we’re ancient history nerds we probably wouldn’t have much time to rest.
Our flight from Gatwick was uneventful which is exactly how I like my flights to be, it took the expected hundreds of years to get through passport control, then we collected our rental car from Avis and commenced battle with the Maltese roads. They’re a little bit mental. I mean, yeah they drive on the left which is what my British self is used to, but undertaking is most definitely a thing here and everyone just seems to drive that little bit too fast. Indicators appeared to be optional. Pretty much as soon as we left the airport we were nearly t-boned by a car I definitely didn’t see careering round a roundabout at speeds you physically shouldn’t be able to corner at without incurring a G-force that’d tear your fucking face off.
Anyway, we made it to Boho Hostel, checked in and promptly went in search of beer. We’re staying in St Julians, strolling distance (because strolling is the only appropriate form of walking on the first day of your holidays) from the bay itself. So it was there we strolled to, grabbing food as we went and getting ourselves nicely acquainted with the beer of Malta; Cisk. Which seems to be pronounced “chisk.” Which is probably how I’d pronounce it after a few of them anyway.
The following morning we headed down to St Peter’s Pool on the east coast at an hour generally considered unseemly when you’re on a one week holiday. Well we were there for the sunrise even if the sunrise wasn’t. That coastline though! There are some epic rock formations here it seems, but someone has seen fit to carve “PELE” into the rock literally hundreds of times. Humans are seriously the worst. I believe this area is popular for swimming and sunbathing in the summer, it’s just rock though. No sand, which suits me just fine because I fucking hate the tiny little particles of evil. It’s not quite the time of year for swimming though unless you wanted to inadvertently cryogenically freeze all of your vital organs so once it became apparently that the fiery skyball was quite happy behind its cloud thankyouverymuch we headed to Marsaxlokk in search of some manner of hot liquid laced with socially acceptable drugs to jump start our brains.
Now this place is pretty. I think it’s what a lot of people think of when they think of Malta, with its brightly painted fishing boats. It was just starting to wake up as we arrived, we joined several local blokes at a little cafe where we drank tea and coffee and watched the world go by, then wandered around the harbour for a bit. It was probably around this point that I realised I’d forgotten our Heritage Malta Multisite Pass and we’d have to go back and get it. It shouldn’t have been too bad because, as previously mentioned, Malta is tiny. But it was also rush hour.
There are few things more stressful than trying to negotiate Maltese roads during rush hour. I shit you not. Cutting up seems pretty standard. Right of way is a myth. At least there was no way actual way anyone could go too fast, we barely got out of second gear all the way back, then we had to do it all again to get to Għar Dalam which is a small cave. There’s a car park nearby so we utilised that and shuffled in, brandishing our pass on an A4 piece of paper. They just scan it and in you go. So this place is super interesting albeit just a tiny little thing. The first thing you see (aside from the fridge in reception selling all manner of cold drinks including Cisk) are display cases stocked with bones, and hundreds and hundreds of perfectly lined-up… are they… are they really fucking huge teeth?
They are too, they’re hippopotamus teeth, it turns out that around 180,000 years ago this area was home to dwarf elephants and five species of hippo, as well as micro-mammals. They know this on account of the layers the excavated in the cave. There’s also a deer layer, on account of the metric fuck tonne of deer remains they found there, then on top of that is evidence of the first human settlers on Malta, about 7400 years ago. Then there’s the bees. You’ll see a sign as you approach the entrance to the cave advising you that bees will occur, and they encourage native plant growth to provide for the bees. The you round the corner and yep, bees. Thousands of them. They made Tarrant a bit uneasy but they’re just bees, not wasps. I don’t mind bees, they just buzz around, minding their own business. Wasps, however, will replace all of your blood with venom in an attempt to relieve you of anything with a sugar content you may be in possession of.
The cave itself it really, really tiny and you can only go so far before a chain barrier stops you, advising you that you can’t go any further in order to protect the Għar Dalam woodlouse, which is apparently a real thing which lives only in this cave and another nearby cave, and literally nowhere else in the world. They’re ultra rare. I’ve no idea what they look like but it’s quite possible they resemble the woodlice that scurry across the living room floor whilst my Gran swipes at them, muttering something about armadillos. I think if you’d made a special trip for this cave you’d be a bit disappointed, it’ll only take up about half an hour of your time, but I have a massive nerd-on for caves so I really enjoyed it.
We were told that Borġ in-Nadur, the ruins of a stone age temple, was just up the road, walking distance, and it probably is but bugger that when we had the car. Also it appears to be pronounced Borj-in-Nadur. Something like that. Again, there’s a car park nearby. You can’t buy your tickets here, you need to grab them from Għar Dalam or have the pass, but there’s a woman who’ll check your ticket and given that she’s alone in a box for twelve hours a day she’s very keen to chat. She’s lovely though. We were handed a laminated map which we couldn’t make head nor tail of and we had a look around. Despite the map we still had no idea what we were looking at. It just looked like a pile of rubble. We learned that they refer to the time that the temple was built as the “Temple Age”, but they also found Bronze Age remains here. Apparently it’s common to see Bronze Age re-purposing of the Temple Age sites.
We chatted to the lady in the box for a while and learned that our next stop, Ħaġar Qim, is pronounced more like Hajar Im. The G with a dot over the top seems to be said like a soft J, like the J in Beijing. The Q is apparently silent. Apologies if you’re an actual Maltese person reading this and I’m butchering your language here, I suck at this but I do try. But Ħaġar Qim, guys, this is where shit gets real. Our pass got us in and an extra €1 each got us an audio guide. This beast has been partially reconstructed and they’ve built a huge cover over it to protect it from the elements. You start with a short film with a bit of an in-a-nutshell timeline. It was built in 3600BC they reckon, and around 2500BC the Temple Culture abruptly disappeared. We were given no more information on that. It just vanished. The temple was first excavated in 1839 and started rapidly weathering. You can see differences between the stones now and when the first photos were taken which is why they’ve covered it over.
Basically they have no idea about what any of this was used for. They know that the homes of the people were made from much less permanent stuff and no longer exist, so this shit must have been important, especially if you consider the sheer size of the megaliths, the effort it must have taken to just get the stones into position and then upright, then the carving of the rock which was done by hand with stone tools. You don’t do shit like that if you just want a garage extension. The audio guide is fantastic and I highly recommend it but instead of just staring at rocks with no fucking clue what you’re looking at, you’re staring at rocks whilst a disembodied voice agrees; yeah nah, we’ve no fucking clue either.
They know there’s a certain amount of alignment with the sun and the Pleiades star cluster but they don’t know why. A calendar perhaps? As you wander through the structure, certain features are pointed out to you. Two opposite rooms, or apses, are deliberately misaligned, perhaps to stop someone in one apse looking through to the other apse. There are also holes opposite each other in doorways which could have been used to hold a door, or a screen, for privacy. There’s even evidence in the form of holes through the rock by the doorway that these door coverings were lockable. But again, they don’t know what they were used for. Tarrant went straight to human sacrifice. I was wondering if it was perhaps medical or holistic treatments.
You can see where south facing walls have weathered more than north facing walls. There are megaliths decorated with a dimpled pattern all over. There’s a hole carved at an angle into one wall which aligns with the sunrise at Solstice. There’s even a huge fucking rock which they estimate to weigh about twenty tonnes and they don’t know why they’d go to all the effort of carting a rock that size up a hill when a series of smaller rocks would do exactly the same job. I reckon I know the answer to this one. Because men. I once saw three blokes carry half a fucking tree onto the bus on a tour I was on because they wanted to use it as firewood. Several smaller logs would have sufficed and wood was in abundance. The smaller logs would have been easier to carry and transport and would have done the exact same job as the massive log. But no. They wanted the trunk. Because men. rolls eyes
They think the roofs were done using a technique called corbelling, whereby the slab above sticks out over the slab underneath it. Several slabs later and they’ll meet in the middle to form a roof. Fuck knows how they got the slabs up there to begin with though. At the Mnajdra Temples which are part of the complex we learned about the flooring. Some of it was paved, some of it was torba, soft limestone which is pounded and watered repeatedly until it forms a hard floor. It sounds like a lot of effort and again, they don’t know why some rooms have one type of flooring and others another. Could it have simply been the fashion of the day?
There’s so much more I can tell you about these temples but I fear I’ve bored the shit out of you enough already and I’ve already got more questions now than I fucking started with. We reluctantly tore ourselves away and headed off to the towns of Rabat and Mdina (pronounced Em-dina) and found a little car park sort of between the two. We wanted to see the St Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat but Rabat is actually just a delight to walk through. It’s absolutely beautiful. But these catacombs then. They’re from the Roman era (Mdina, known as Melite under Roman rule, used to be the capital) and are mostly Christian, but there are Pagan and Jewish tombs too. There is disappointingly little dead shit, that’s all gone bar a few bones in one of the Pagan tombs.
To be fair they’ve been used for everything since they were abandoned from a kids’ playground to a rubbish tip to a place to keep your livestock. They were even used as air raid shelters during the war. Of course they were also heavily looted too, licences used to be granted to people to raid the tombs for silver and gold. The fact that they’re in any condition to be shown to the public is a miracle. The first tomb is the biggest, everything after that is more of a set of stairs which you walk down, turn around in a circle then walk back up. Yeah so I always forget that I’m a little bit claustrophobic until I find myself underground, sweating a little bit.
The Christian tombs all have this sort of circle which apparently could have been a table. It resembles something usually found in Roman homes where they’d lie around it and stuff their faces. They reckon they probably had a feast down there to celebrate their dead which doesn’t sound very sanitary even by my slightly gross standards. I’m quite sure the stench of decaying flesh would put me off my burger. It didn’t take us long to get catacombed out though, I think once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. We didn’t look at all of them in the end, instead buggering off in favour of locating somewhere to have a cup of tea before heading into Mdina. I really don’t think we spent long enough here to do it justice.
Known as the silent city you can be fined for honking your horn, that’s even if you’re allowed to bring your car in. You can just wander around the narrow streets, trying not to get lost (or actually trying to get lost?), or you can enjoy the view from the wall. There’s a cathedral you can visit which was built by the Knights of Malta after an earthquake levelled the old one, but there’s a cathedral in Valetta we wanted to visit and there are only so many elaborate Catholic buildings I need in my heathen eyeholes on one trip.
There are several restaurants promising excellent views with your slightly expensive meal, we ended up at one I forget the name of for a sandwich. This whole city though, it oozes history, we were dying to know some of it so we headed to the Mdina Experience which is a short film which throws Mdina’s 2700 year history at you in a rapid nutshell. It was founded around 700BC by the Phoenicians and ever since then it’s been fought over and ruled by a plethora of civilisations including the Romans, the Moors, the Normans and the Byzantines to name but a few.
The island was eventually gifted to the Order of St John and the Knights of Malta ruled for a couple of centuries, fighting off the likes of the mighty Ottomans, before actually just handing Mdina over to Napolean without a fucking fight. Seriously, he just wandered in and asked for it and the then Grand Master was like, yup, all yours. The Maltese weren’t happy under French rule and they turned to Britain for help. The British rocked up, expelled the French and ruled for about 160 years until 1964. No wonder they drive on the left and use the sensible three pronged plugs which hurt on another fucking level if you stand on them.
I think the done thing is to stay in Mdina until it’s dark and wander around looking at the city all lit up but I was touristed out and still had to get us back to St. Julian’s in one piece. That wasn’t a bad start to the trip though. I was fucking knackered, the kind of knackered whereby you just have to look at beer and the part of your brain responsible for coherent speech and keeping your eyes open just shuts down. I crawled into bed whilst my legs still worked.
Stayed at: Boho Hostel
Useful shit to know…
- We hired our car online through Avis and it cost two tenths of fuck all. Maybe £45 for Sunday to Sunday. However, I’d read so may horror stories of crashes and damage to cars (as well as being ripped off by the rental agencies, even the reputable ones) that we forked out an extra €136.50 on the day for collision and theft insurance to take the terrifyingly obscene €1000 excess down to zero if we have an accident. For an extra €5 a day you can get it fully comp, but that was just getting stupid expensive.
- We bought the €50 Heritage Malta Multisite pass online and printed it out. I’m not sure if you can buy them at the sites themselves (where ticketing is available) but I would imagine you can.
- You can buy your tickets to Għar Dalam there and it’s €5 if you don’t have the pass or €6.50 to see Borġ in-Nadur too. If you only want to see Borġ in-Nadur it’s €3, but you can’t buy tickets at the site itself, you need to either have the pass or get your ticket from a site which has ticketing facilities such as Għar Dalam.
- Ħaġar Qim is €10 if you don’t have the pass and includes the Mnajdra Temples. They’re linked and you can’t see one without the other. You can buy your ticket onsite.
- You can use you pass if you have one to get into St. Paul’s Catacombs, otherwise it’s €5.
- The Mdina Experience is €6, it’s not part of Heritage Malta so your pass won’t work here.