All posts by xmundifer

A walk around the oldest buildings in the world

Note: This post was originally written before the covers were erected over the temples.

The Maltese Islands are rich in Neolithic sites. Ggantija in Gozo, Tarxien, and the Hagar Qim/Mnajdra complex here on Malta’s south coast are perhaps the most well known. These piles of stones are some of the earliest known man made structures in the world. They are showing their age a bit but what would you expect for buildings that are five and and a half thousand years old. My house was built in the year 2000 and is already looking a little frayed round the edges. These temples are older than the pyramids!

Mnajdra and Hagar Qim are currently being covered by new canopies that will minimise further damage by the elements. Of course this is the right thing to do but it is likely to destroy some of the atmosphere of this incredible, wild and atmospheric place.

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In my opinion the temples are best seen after the visitors have left. Come with me for a late afternoon walk down the hill past Hagar Qim towards the Mnajdra complex. There are chain link fences around the temples now but we can ignore those and try to image why Malta’s earliest inhabitants went to the trouble of building these structures on this windy and barren hillside.

The sun is setting over Africa 200 hundred miles away. When we reach Mnajdra, let’s sit down and wait for that ‘plop’ when the sun and the sea merge in a soft orange haze. The rocks are still warm and the dusty wild thyme smells the same as it did to our distant ancestors that built this place.

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Of course the temples would have looked rather different in their heyday. They may have been decorated with pigments and possibly even roofed with animal hides or other materials. Who knows? We do know that they were a altered and added to over a 1000 or so year period. Watch this short YouTube clip from my ‘Malta by Microlight’ DVD and imagine…

From Mnajdra, you can see the small flat-topped island of Filfla. It is rather tatty round the edges having been damaged by an earthquake in 1856 and (probably more seriously) by having been used as target practice by the Royal Airforce and the Navy. Despite this, Filfla is now a nature reserve and home to many interesting species.

Getting to Mnajdra and Hagar Qim is easiest if you have a car. Alternatively, if you don’t mind a hike, you could get a bus to Qrendi (3 km away) or Zurrieq (5 km away) and walk from there. Warning: although the distances are not too great, walking several kilometers in the Maltese sun can be very strenuous and possibly dangerous. Take water and sunscreen.

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Consult the map below for details. If you click on the ‘Google’ logo on the bottom left of the map, Google Maps will open in a new window and you can work out how to get to the temples from your specific location.

Tracking down the old Malta Railway – Part Two

In an earlier post I described a walk along the first mile or so of the Malta Railway from Valletta to Floriana. Recently I had the chance to explore the other end of the line at Mdina where it terminated. Armed with a printed copy of Don Gaunt’s guide to walking the old Malta Railway, I got off the bus in Rabat and followed Don’s directions through Mdina to the ‘hole in the wall’ and the ramp that leads down towards Museum Station. Actually I had expected the station to be right outside the city wall but in fact it was a couple of hundred meters down the road towards Mtarfa.

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On the way to the station, I came across a fantastic derelict and crumbling public washhouse. I have seen a similar building in Gozo on the road between Victoria and Xlendi and I guess that there must have been others back in the days before mains water and automatic washing machines. A sign outside warned in English and Maltese that the building was unsafe and should not be entered. Large cracks in the walls lent credibility to this assertion but, the presence of a group of small children splashing around in the stone basins inside suggested that the locals were either fearless or unable to read.

Mdina Station

 

Mdina Wash house

Continuing down the hill, I came to Museum Station, totally deserted, boarded up and bearing the scars of recent vandalism. A few years ago the station building was used as a restaurant. It has a great location – perhaps one day it will reopen.

Update: Summer 2014. Restoration works on the the station building are well advanced and it looks like a new restaurant will indeed be opened on the site.

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Just to the east of the station building is a fenced off compound. From here you can see (just) the arch where the tunnel exits from underneath the city of Mdina.

Mdina railway tunnel

After mooching around Museum Staion for a bit longer and taking lots more photos I refered once again to Don’s notes and continued my exploration at Notabile station – only a kilometer away (as the train chuffs) but a stiff walk for me in the hot June sun.

The only remaining evidence of Notabile Station is the ticket office on Triq it Tigrija. Unfortunately I had some problems with my camera so photos will have to wait until my next visit. Behind the ticket office, a rubble strewn path leads towards the place where the railway line would have disappeared under Mdina. I followed it for 20 – 30 metres and got a tantalising glimpse of the fenced off tunnel entrance. Whilst I was trying to sort out my camera a couple of barking dogs started up and I decided to back off.

What sort of state is the 1000 metre tunnel under Mdina in today? If anybody knows, I would love to hear from them.

Check out Google maps to get to

Museum Station……

…and Notabile ticket office….

Tracking down the old Malta Railway – Part One

UPDATE: This post was originally written several years ago – before the construction work on the new City Gate in Valletta. The tunnel exit from Valletta station, and bridge across the ditch, now look very different.

I first read about the Malta Railway in Nicholas Monserrats book, “The Kapillan of Malta”. This book was mostly set during the second world war and manages to weave a great deal of Maltese history into the story of ‘Dun Salv’ and his troglodyte parishioners.

The steam railway was opened in 1883 and ran from Valletta to Mdina. It lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis for the next 48 years and was almost forgotten by Dun Salv’s day. At the time of writing this, 78 years after the railway ceased to exist, there are still traces if you know where to look.

I didn’t know where to look but luckily a bit of googling turned up an excellent guide to “Walking the old Malta Railway” by Don Gaunt. Armed with a printed copy of this, I set out to walk the first few kilometers of the railway. I was only in Malta for a weekend so the rest of the route would have to wait for my next visit.

Crossing the bridge in front of Valletta’s city gate you can look down to your right and see the low arches of another bridge, emerging from a tunnel and crossing the Great Ditch that was part of Valletta’s ancient fortifications. Access to this level is via an unmarked door and a steep set of steps close to the tourist information office, just inside the city gate. Try to ignore the strong smell of urine and make your way down to the bottom of the steps. A garage now occupies the site of the original station.

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Cross the bridge to the other side of the ditch and you will find the tunnel entrance has been sealed with limestone blocks and an iron gate.

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When I visited, the gate was loosely secured with a chain and padlock. If I had been considerably thinner and armed with a powerful flashlight, I might have been tempted to squeeze betwen the gates and investigate further.

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As it was, I retraced my steps up to the Valletta bus terminus and followed Mr Gaunt’s directions to Floriana.

The path of the tunnel is apparently interupted by the large underground car park next to the RAF memorial. It continues underneath the narrow gardens next to the square in front of Floriana’s parish church. Who knows what state the tunnels are in these days. I would love to find out!

Gardens in Floriana

Don Gaunt’s guide locates the remains of Floriana railway staion close to the end of these gardens. He notes that in 1995 there was a demolition order posted. I was unable to find the station so presumably the order has been carred out. From here, I wandered down to the left and joined the main road into Valletta. Not far along this busy road is the Porte de Bombes, and to the right of this is the Notre Dame Ditch where, after about a kilometer of inky blackness, the tunnel finally emerges into the Maltese sunlight. Of course, this entrance is also sealed.

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Now we are at the last row of Valletta’s defences, the so-called “Fausse Bray” Here the little trains passed through one more set of ramparts before crossing the low ditch on a stone viaduct to continue their journey towards Hamrun. My journey stopped here this evening in this beautiful, overgrown, secluded place, a stonesthrow from Malta’s capital city. I will come back soon and resume my walk.

Old Malta railway viaduct

The Blue Lagoon at Comino

Comino is the small island in the channel between Malta and Gozo. It has one solitary hotel, no roads to speak of, and probably the  most beautiful bathing beach in all of Malta. Comino’s famous Blue Lagoon, seen here from the cabin of a tiny microlight aircraft, attracts hundreds of day visitors.

Comino and Gozo - aerial view

Getting to the Blue Lagoon inevitably involves a 20 minute trip in a small boat. If you are coming from Malta you will find a number of operators offering trips from the Ċirkewwa ferry terminal and from the jetty opposite the Riviera Resort Hotel.  On the other side of the Gozo channel, you will find boats leaving from Mgarr harbour. Just follow the signs.

Make a day of it and get an early start, especially if your visit is in the high season. It can get pretty crowded. Reserve couple of square meters to dump your belongings (nothing valuable please) and jump into the amazing crystal clear waters of the lagoon.

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You can spend hours paddling around the shallower parts of the bay, watching the shoals of tiny fish flicker and flash amongst the rocks. My tip for the more adventurous of you is to cross the lagoon to the islet of Cominotto and swim through the tunnel (top center in the picture above) out to the open sea.

The tunnel is dark and cold compared to the tepid waters of the lagoon. Swim through slowly and carefully and as you reach the end you will emerge into a very deep, crystal clear bay. If you are snorkelling, you will see much larger fish many metres below. The water will have much more of a ’swell’ than in the sheltered waters on the other side of Cominotto. No problem if you are a confident swimmer but remember, you won’t be able to climb out of the water on the south side of Cominotto as the rocks are too steep. You will either have to return through the tunnel or swim around the islet.

Eventually you will have had your fill of snorkelling and sun-bathing and it will be time to head back to the mainland. With any luck the skipper of your boat will take the scenic route back to Malta stopping of at some of the tiny inlets and sea caves that pepper the rocky coast of Comino. Keep your camera at the ready.

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Check out the map for the two locations in Cirkewwa where the ferry operates…

 

Dwejra – the Knights’ medicine chest

UPDATE: The Azure Window collapsed during a violent storm on the 8th of March 2017. The entire structure fell into the sea and is no longer visible. 

Dwejra is located on the eastern cost of Gozo and is my favorite place in all of the Maltese Islands. It is a mecca for scuba tourists but even if you are not a diver it is well worth a visit to see the Azure window, Fungus Rock and the Inland Sea.

The Azure Window at Dwejra

 

If you are driving over to Gozo on an day trip from Malta, get an early start and make Dwejra your first stop. Drive from the ferry in Mgarr, through Rabat & San Lawrenz and get here before the busses arrive. Walk carefully across the sharp rocks and start at the Azure window. If the sea is rough, sit for a while and watch the waves crashing through the arch. On a calm day it won’t be long before the scuba divers start to arrive and drop down into the ‘blue hole’ – a circular pool in front of the window. I am not a diver but apparently Dwejra is equally spectacular above and below the water.

You used to be able to climb up the rocks over the blue hole and watch the bubble trails from divers rise to the surface. If you were feling brave (or reckless) you could continue op onto the top of the Azure windows for a spectacular panorama of all of Dwejra bay. Nowadays there are signs warning of the perils of climbing the rocks. Probably sensible advice unless the use of an air ambulance is covered by your holiday insurance.

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If you do fancy a walk, an alternative is to head south and walk round the bay towards Fungus Rock or ‘Il-Ġebla tal-Ġeneral’ to give it it’s Maltese name. The name of this lump of limestone comes from the plant (not fungus) that grows on the top of the rock. Fucus coccineus melitensis was believed by the Knights of Malta to have medicinal properties. It was said to stop bleeding and be a remedy for Dysentery. It was considered so useful that the Knights rigged up a primitive cable car to enable them to get to the top. They also made it known that unauthorised collectors would be rewarded with imprisonment.

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If you don’t mind walking over some very rough ground, you might be tempted to climb around to the top of the cliffs on the south side of the Fungus Rock lagoon. This area is used by the controversial Maltese bird hunting community whos hides are dotted all along the hillside. Before you decide to climb up here, be very sure that there is no hunting going on or be prepared for an angry exchange with a man with a gun. If you do get up to the top, stay away from the edge. Sit down and admire the views. Look how tiny the Azure Window looks from up here. Can you see it in this photograph?

Looking down on Dwejra and fungus rock

Before we leave Dwejra, here is a 360 degree panorama, stitched together from 35mm film frames (remember the days before digital cameras). Click the link and take a look at the larger image in Flickr. Feel free to download and zoom around but beware – the file is about 90 mb in size.

Panorama of Dwejra Bay

And finally, here is the Dwejra as a Google Map. Zoom out to work out how to get there from your location. Take the main road through Rabat (Victoria) going east to west. If you have made an early start, stop briefly at Ta Miema supermarket and get a few things for an improvised breakfast – gbejniet (cheese), olives, capers and some crusty local bread would be my recommendation. Drive on for three or four miles and you will get to the sleepy village of San Lawrenz. From here you will see signs to Dwejra – you can’t go wrong!