So because I have to take a Covid test on Thursday morning in order to get back on the plane to the U.S. on Saturday, Joan reworked my schedule so that we would visit the Maltese island of Gozo today, rather than Thursday.
By 8:00 a.m. we were off on the “fast” ferry to Gozo and quickly reached Mgarr Harbor in less than 25 minutes. Now that was fast!
Our driver, Rowana, was at the ferry to meet us and we were soon driving north on the very narrow road to the Rotunda St. John Baptist Church, the landmark church you can see from all over the island. But … uh oh. The Church was closed. Well that sort of screwed up our plans.
However, in times of COVID you have to adapt so next up was Calypso’s Cave. Now the cave is the legendary quarters of the nymph Calypso from Homer’s The Odyssy. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to the cave and there really was not a lot to see cave wise.
Nevertheless, the view to the red sands of Ramla Bay were fantastic. There had been a recent brush fire in the area and some of the palms were scarred, but given some of the damage I have seen from forest fires on the west coast, the damage did not look, quite frankly, too bad.
We spent a few minutes admiring the views before heading inland to one of the highlights of the trip: the Ggantija temples and the figurines founds at the Xaghra Circle. (We would not be visiting the circle as there was not much left to see beyond some random stones.)
Anyway, we wound our way down the hill and inland on yet another narrow little road and reached Xaghra in short order. First up were the figurines and relics found at the Xaghra Circle that were now located in the brand new museum at the Ggantija Temples’ entrance. And lucky for us … we reached the site just as it opened so no tour buses. We had the site virtually all to ourselves.
Now a little bit about Xaghra Circle and the Ggantija Temples. The Xaghra Circle is a Neolithic burial ground and the Ggantija Temples are believed to be sacrificial (animals only) places of worship dedicated to some sort of fertility god. The two sites date back to 4100 to 2500 BC. The temples are older than the pyramids and are the second oldest man made religious structures in the world.
After paying our entrance fee, we walked into the really well organized museum where we were able to take in the incredible 5,000 year old figurines found at the Xagrha Circle. There were figurines carved out of limestone, figurines carved out of cow toe bone and figurines made out of clay.
And the level of detail on the figurines was extraordinary with lines marking the hair and ochre color still visible on the legs of the “Xaghra Twins”, a remarkable figurine depicting two adjoining women (one missing her head).
Now the interesting thing about many of the figurines is that the women were depicted with wide hips and rather pudgy arms. It is not known exactly why, but it is believed to be tied to the idea of fertility.
Anyway, after wandering around and marveling at the incredible condition of these 5,000 year old figurines, we walked to a ramp to the outdoors and through a beautiful garden to catch the first glimpse of the two megalithic (prehistoric stone) temples.
Now the two temples, like so many other temples found around the world, face the equinox sunrise. And the two temples share a wall with the southerly temple being older and larger, dating back to approximately 3600 BC. Archeologists have found the remains of animal bones at the site leading to the conclusion that there were animal sacrifices and perhaps communal feasting.
As we walked into the south temple (protected by walkways and scaffolding), we passed four semicircular rooms or apses, most likely used for ceremonial purposes. At the end of the temple on the left side there were three niches that had been constructed and were in fabulous shape. There are also stone hearths in the both temples, which likely means prehistoric man was using fire at the site.
The second temple to the north was smaller, but also contained a number of semi-circular apses for worship.
Now the real question was how the heck did prehistoric man figure out how to move these massive blocks of stone. Well, archeologists have found small, spherical stones which are believed to have been used to help roll the enormous stone blocks to the site. Genius.
After wandering around the site for about a half hour, we walked back to the car just as the first tour bus arrived. (Happy Dance!)
Anyway, for our next stop we drove north to a viewpoint where we could see Qolla l-Bajda, a hill on which a former Knights of St. John battery was located dating to 1715. The view was pretty cool.
And in the opposite direction we were able to take in the Marsalforn salt pans where the owner of the salt pans pumps sea water into holes dug into the rock. The water is left to evaporate leaving salt to be cultivated and sold throughout the region. The salt pans reminded me of the salt pans I saw in Peru back in 2010. Really unforgettable.
Our next stop took us west towards the coast for a quick visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu. Now this church is a national shrine and is considered the church of miracles. One of the walls in the church is filled with stories of people who have recovered from illnesses or have been saved from certain death (including a fellow who was on the 30th floor of one of the twin towers when the planes hit) following prayer to Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu. Popes have even visited the site.
Anyway, we spent a few minutes wandering the site and taking in the interior before jumping back in the car and driving to Victoria aka Rabat and the site of the Cittadella, which dates to the late medieval period (1250 t0 1500 AD) when Arabs controlled Malta. The Citadel grew over the years into a sanctuary from attack and then to a city within a city, which included homes, churches, law courts, a palace, a prison and, of course, fortified walls.
And like the main island, Gozo came under the rule of the Knights of St. John, was captured and ruled by the Ottamans, was occupied by the French and finally ruled by the Brits. During the time, the Citadel was a refuge for the people of Gozo, a fortress and a home.
As we started our hike up the hill (0f course) to the entrance, Joan pointed out newly excavated areas of the Citadel (its original stone walkways were a lot further down below ground than previously thought). We then wandered through the original entrance and took in the Law Courts and the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption.
After a quick stop for coffee, we made our way down various narrow alleys past an old medieval palazzo complete with spectacular Norman windows and through the oldest part of the Citadel, three archways dating back to medieval times.
We then hiked up the little hill (of course) to the top of the citadel for magnificent views over the valley and across the top of the citadel.
We then walked down past the graineries that had been by the Knights into converted into water storage facilities before heading out of the Citadel and down the hill to the main town square of Victoria.
After wandering into a small shop to take a look, we made our way down a narrow alley past old homes to our waiting driver. Time for lunch.
For lunch, we drove south to the coast and to the little town of Xlendi (Schlendi) where we had lunch on the water. The meal was terrific and included an awesome burrata salad (home made burrata cheese, pine nuts, greens, red berries, tomatoes and spicy dressing) and bruschetta. Joan then ordered clams linguine and I ordered grilled calamari. Fantastic!
After lunch we stopped for gelato (salted peanut carmel – ahhhhh – insert angels singing). We then had time for a quick stop high up the hill to take in the Blue Lagoon and Mgarr Harbor before heading down the hill to catch the 3:00 boat back to the Malta.
Tomorrow we are off to see more megalithic stone temples dating back 5,000 years. YAY!