Our last full day in Malta begins like the previous two: raining. The clouds make a nice backdrop for the Grand Harbor, which I am shooting at sunrise. But before the sun can light the Harbor, a dark band rolls over the rough stone edges of Valletta and gives me a soaking. According to my climate research, Malta only averages 40mm of rainfall in September. Apparently this happens in one seventy-two hour period. Nevertheless, we have had a long run of sunshine on the Euro2008 tour, and the rain feels good.
It is also the last day we will have the services of our car, so we elect to make a final drive. We're heading for the south coast, a worrisome prospect. I am not impressed by Malta's signage: it is very difficult for the visitor to navigate poorly designated routes. Roads are marked as an afterthought, and the few signs we see tend to mix and match their destinations at random. For instance, when we drove to Mdina, we tried to follow the signs that (when available) pointed toward that city. Halfway there, however, Mdina mysteriously dropped off the road signs. Had we passed it? Had we missed a turn? Or did we have to know that you could reach Mdina by going to Rabat, which now was proudly featured on the signs (when available).
It is frustrating and gray-hair-making. I recommend a tour bus.
The Ghar Dalam museum and caves, home to fossilized, prehistoric animals, was supposed to be the first stop on our itinerary. We followed the signs (ha!) south until we reached the village of Birzebugga, which spreads around the evocatively named “Pretty Bay.” Across the water from the town is a huge cargo ship unloading facility. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Having passed through the town, we were pleased to see a road sign, indicating a direction and distance (three kilometers) to Ghar Dalam. With a flutter in our hearts, we drove in the indicated direction, the tires of our car chewing up the kilometers, our eyes scanning for the next sign.
Several minutes passed. “Did we miss it?” We reversed around a roundabout and nearly immediately saw a sign, Ghar Dalam 3km. Back down the road, all the way to Birzebugga and Pretty Bay. There we stumbled across yet a third sign (pointing back the way we'd just come: Ghar Dalam, 3 km). Well you read about this sort of thing in science fiction novels: destinations that drift through the space time continuum with the protagonists, always maintaining a constant 3km distance, no matter how fast or far you drive. Ghar Dalam ― and doesn't that name just sound like a bad part of the galaxy? ― was evidently one of these places.
Fortunately, an alternate diversion had caught our attention. Twice, on the long road to Ghar Dan, we had seen signs for the Playmobil factory, and so when we passed again, we decided to exchange fossilized remains for brightly colored plastic people. It was much easier to find the Playmobile Fun Park, and we felt optimistic about our chances. Imagine our dismay when, upon arriving, we were told that the factory tour was all booked up today (and there was only one spot remaining on tomorrow's tour). Moral of the story: book ahead at the Playmobile Fun Park to avoid disappointment.
So, with tears in our eyes we set off in search of the next item on our itinerary of failure, the world renowned Blue Grotto. The Blue Grotto is a series of sea caves, wave-blasted out of the limestone cliffs of the southwestern shore. When sunlight strikes the clear water, a bottle-blue glow is said to rise off the white sand bottom.
The only approach to the Blue Grotto is by sea, so we joined six other people in the bottom of a Maltese fishing boat and set off for the tour. There was a fair sea running, white mares tossing their heads offshore. Since the cliffs come right down to the water, I wondered if we'd get banged against the boat-cracking, limestone spine. I shouldn't have been concerned. Our skipper was a professional and he managed to ease us in and out of the wave-slapped caves without a single touch. The Blue Grotto was very interesting, but as with most tours, there was no chance to linger. Dart in, spin the boat around, admire the blue glowing water, and then on to the next cave. It was quickly over, but at least we'd succeeded in checking something off the list.
After lunch, it was on to the Hagar Qim temple complex. The Temple is one of the oldest freestanding Neolithic structures in the world (built ca. 3,600-3,200 BC). Great slabs of yellow limestone were cut and then arrayed to create an enclosure. Archaeological investigation suggests that it was once used for animal sacrifices by the Neolithic people. Animal bones and stone carvings have been found at the site, and a number of rooms have been excavated.
Well, flushed with success, we decided to follow one more sign, to the Limestone Heritage Museum. Malta is mostly made of limestone, both under the ground and in the buildings. I had been very curious about this material, especially how it was quarried. It seemed like there was a chance that all mysteries could be resolved at the Limestone Heritage Museum.
And indeed they were. The museum is built in an old limestone quarry, and you can still see the vertical and horizontal slashes of the saws in the yellow walls. Back when Valletta was being built, limestone was quarried by manually chipping out the rough blocks with a pick. Now electric saws cut the layers of the stone vertically, and then a second type of saw separates the layer from the underlying stratum. It was all very interesting and informative. We learned, for instance, that the stone in Valletta's walls had come from its moats, which were quarried out.
Cement and cinder block are becoming the preferred building material in Malta, but with older buildings made exclusively of limestone, there will always be a need for fresh material. It was an interesting and well executed museum, certainly the highlight of my day.
We dropped our rental car back off at the airport and caught one of the Maltese buses back to Valletta. Malta uses a fleet of old English Routemaster buses. These antique dinosaurs, in their yellow and green livery, lumber through the streets and alleys of the island. I found the seats were too close together for comfort, but I was glad that we had the chance to ride on one.
Home, dinner in, and then to bed early. We have an early departure to Sicily scheduled for the morning.