Last night when we got back, we started piecing together today’s adventures. We knew we wanted to go to the capital, Valleta, and had a walking tour booked there for 5. We also wanted to go to the Hypogeum. Other than that, no plans. Brian found a place called the Ghar Dalam cave that had the remains of prehistoric animals in it. That sounded super cool, so we added it to the list, and decided to head down there first. Pulled into the parking lot and walked down to the little museum. 5 euros each to get in. Honestly, I had zero idea what to expect here (one of the joys of not really putting any research into something!). We went into a little museum. Now, I’ve been in all kinds of museums- super huge ones, like the Louvre, super fancy video based ones like Epic in Dublin. But this is really MY kind of museum!! It’s literally the type of museum I remember from when I was a kid, circa 1979. Simple presentation, highly informative in a few words- think a couple of steps up from a science fair type of presentation! I’m teaching Earth Science next semester, and this museum was literally a WEALTH of information!! That 5 euro investment will be returned 1000 fold… I took pictures of every single sign! Let me just give you the basics, because even just the basics are fascinating! So during the last Ice Age, all kinds of weird animals lived in Europe that don’t now. Many of those animals were forced further and further south by the advancing glaciation (cold temps). Because so much water was freezing, sea levels dropped, creating a land bridge between mainland Italy, Sicily, and Malta. Animals could then get from the mainland to Malta, where there was no ice age because it was too far south.
Now here’s where it gets crazy….what kinds of animals?? Oh, how about ELEPHANTS AND HIPPOS!! 🐘😲 Eventually, water levels rose again, trapping the animals on the island. And as we should know from places such as Australia and the Galapagos, evolution gets a little cray-cray when populations are isolated. And in this case, something happened that I had never heard about before. Nanism. It’s basically evolutionary dwarfism in response to a population having limited resources (an island as small as Malta couldn’t possibly sustain huge grazing animals like elephants for very long- so if you’re smaller, you need less food = better chance of survival), a lack of predators (you don’t need to be as big if nothing is really bothering you), and interbreeding (because no new animals are entering the gene pool, making mutations more abundant- survival of the fittest in action!!). Check out these size comparisons!!! It totally blew my mind!! I will admit, I was totally science/history teacher GEEKING OUT in this place. I can’t imagine anyone who has ever come here was ever that engrossed!! 🤓
The other half of the museum was an exhibit of about a gazillion fossils that have been extracted from the cave. Amazing!! Just look at all those hippo teeth! And there were even more display cases with them!
Now it was time to head into the cave. This is where I took off my biology teacher hat and put on my earth science one! The cave is an excellent example of the deposits of different sedimentary layers (stratification). There are 6 main layers in the cave. By calculating the age of the fossils found in each layer, we can calculate the age of the layers themselves. For example, there is one layer that has all of the hippo bones (called the hippopotamus layer). It’s the 2nd deepest layer. Below it is a clay layer where no fossils are found. Above the hippo layer is a layer of pebbles. Then the deer layer (where, shockingly enough, lots of ancient deer fossils are found!). Then a layer of calcium. And finally, on top, a layer where the remains of domestic animals and humans (bones and pottery) are found. FASCINATING!! This cave is really worth the trip if you are into this kind of thing. It was one of my favorite things in Malta (this and Blue Grotto from yesterday- the two completely unexpected, unplanned things- go figure!)
Next stop on the list, Hypogeum. We didn’t really know what it was, other than underground temples that were on UNESCO. The map took us into a city….huh? Temples in a city?? It literally showed them just on some city block. We saw the building with the sign on it. SO WEIRD! We drove around for a bit trying to find a spot to park, and finally did. Walked to the building, and….there was a sign….it said that all tickets were booked until August 29. Um, that’s like a month and a half way. And the entrance fee was 40 FUCKING EUROS EACH (that’s like $50)?? What the hell was down there? Jesus’ tomb, the aliens from area 51, and an amusement park??? Even if we could have gone in, I can’t imagine paying that kind of money. Apparently you have to book way in advance. Oh well, adios Hypogeum. I’ll google you. Cheaper.
Last stop, the capital city of Valleta. But it was going to be a long stop with- the rest of the day. We knew we wanted to be there for the firing of the cannons at noon, so we pulled in about 11:30 and parked outside the city gates. Made our way up to the rampart, and found a spot on the high wall, crammed in with a ton of people who all had the same idea! The view was AMAZING! Across the grand harbor, you could see the “Three Cities”…Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua- all medieval. At noon, a person came out and loaded the canon. So glad we saw it!
Next on our list were the war tunnels. Malta was an extremely integral part of WW2, because of their position in the Mediterranean next to Italy. And they were under British rule at the time. Spoiler alert: Italy was the enemy of Britain. We bought our ticket, and then realized we bought a ticket to the Lascaris War Rooms– not the tunnel. But by the time we realized it we had already climbed down a billion stairs and were not interested in climbing back up in the heat, so we decided to stay. Here’s where I have to say this fact- on a tour, the guide is EVERYTHING. Our guide, bless his heart, you could tell was knowledgeable about the place. But his delivery…oh my god. So monotone. And the tour didn’t “move” enough. We would spend literally 15 minutes in one room with a monotone lecture, then move to the next. It was not enjoyable. Brian was literally falling asleep. Like to the point I was nudging him because I thought he was going to fall over. (Remember, I make the poor guy hit the ground running- no time for jet lag!!) It’s really a shame, because the rooms themselves were quite interesting! They were kept hidden and secret so they wouldn’t be bombed- because did you know Malta was the most bombed place on EARTH during WW2??!! 💣😱 DAMN!! From these rooms, information would come in about bombers flying in, their positions would be tracked, and defensive measures would be ordered. It was all so low tech. I mean, my phone in my pocket is 1000 times more advanced than what they were using to fight an entire war! Craziness! Just how important was Malta? Well, Eisenhower and Churchill themselves were here…
fourteen hour one hour tour was over (I wish we had just opted for the audio guide), we headed out on the streets. We had found a little Maltese restaurant online that had good reviews, so we went and made reservations for 7:30- right after our walking tour would end. The streets were all decorated for the patron saint’s day that was being celebrated. Had we been here for the weekend, we would have been able to see parades and fireworks!! And not just in Valleta. Every city in Malta has their own patron saint and this is festival week!
Then, we headed to the next stop on our list- the palace armory. This was more for Brian, because I know how much he loves weapons (such a boy!). You had to buy a combination ticket for the armory AND the palace, and I really didn’t want to go into the palace. But there was no choice. ☹ I went begrudgingly. They were out of audio guides (sigh). We’re walking through and it’s ok. I kept telling Brian how this was no Versailles (if you knew me, you would know the snotty attitude tone that came with that statement!), and how Louis XIV wouldn’t even keep his horses in here (sorry if you’re a fan of the Malta palace, but it really isn’t a palace!!!). Once you’ve seen Versailles, it’s hard to get impressed… Anyway, we get to kind of the end and there’s this big red room. It’s really dark inside, but I see a painting that catches my eye. I told Brian, “That looks like Louis XVI!” For those of you who don’t teach French history, are not staunch French royalists, and cannot recognize Henry IV, Louis XIV, and Louis XVI (my 3 favorite kings) in any setting, let me explain who Louis XVI is- he’s the last real king of France…the one who lost his head… In my eyes, that’s when French history ends (well, actually when that stanky Robespierre dies, but this is Malta, not France, so I’ll shut up). Anywho, I use the camera to zoom in on the sign under it. I can read the word Roi (French for King). I zoomed up to the face, and it WAS Louis XVI!!! WOW!! One of my kings!! Then, I looked at the painting next to it. It was really dark and really hard to see, but damn if it didn’t look like Louis XIV (my sun king who built Versailles). I zoomed in, and it WAS him!! Oh my god! I was so excited!! You don’t understand how ridiculous I get about my kings!! Had I not come in here, I would have missed them! And it was so funny that I had just been talking about them…
Of course, now I’m on cloud nine, practically skipping to the armory with Brian in tow, blathering on about the kings. Again, the armory is his thing, so I turned the camera over to him. 😊
Think we’ve done everything in Valleta? Not by a long shot! We still had time before our walking tour, so we went to the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Here, we were especially interested in seeing the Caravaggio paintings. Cuz we’re upper crust art lovers like that. Um, yeah, not really, but we did want to see the paintings. Like everything in Malta, from the outside, the cathedral was a bunch of tan stacks of rock blocks. Nothing really stood out. But inside- YOWZA!!!!!!! It looked like the freaking Baroque period- ALL of it- exploded and landed all over the floors, walls, and ceilings!!!!! It was built in the 1570s. No way are any of these pics even coming close to capturing this place… See those 8 arched rooms- 4 on each side? Those are chapels that represent each of the 8 leagues of Knights from the Order of St. John (we’ll learn about them later). Each league basically represented a major European country/region, and each chapel is dedicated to the patron saint of that league. The entire floor of this chapel consists of the decorated tombs of knights of the order. Just….WOW. Do NOT miss this place! I, of course, found the French chapels of the most interest. 🙂
Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Huge and GORGEOUS
It was now time for our free walking tour of Valleta! Which means history lesson time! We could tell immediately that the guide was going to be good- and he was! I didn’t take a lot of pictures, because we had already seen most of the things he showed us. Which was good, because I then I could focus on the history part! So here we go- 500 years of Malta in a few sentences…. So there was this order of knights called the Knights of St. John aka the Hospitallers. They were made up, as I mentioned earlier, of knights from all over Europe- 8 leagues specifically. Their job was to take care of pilgrims who went to the holy city of Jerusalem during the Crusades. Which was great while the Christians could go there. But when the Ottomans put up “No Jesus Freaks” signs all over Jerusalem, the knights had to pack up and head elsewhere. But where? Well, a few places. And it seemed like no where was a good permanent fit, because everywhere they ended up, the Ottomans (aka Muslims) would run them out. Finally, Charles V of Spain, who was the Holy Roman Emperor (and who I have great issues with because #france, but I digress….), gave the knights Malta. Well actually, as per Brian’s research and confirmed by our guide, they rented Malta from the king for the price of one falcon per year. So they get to Malta and were like, “Um, yeah. If real estate is location, location, location, we’re kinda screwed. This place is desolate, isn’t defensible unless we want to throw rocks, and we already constantly have Muslims trying to overtake us. They’ll be here in no time. It’s a nice place to visit, but we don’t want to live here.” Except they really had no other choice, so they just kind of hung out for a few years, biding their time until a better situation came along. Well, something came along, and it wasn’t a better situation. It was that pesky Ottoman Empire!! The Muslims were determined to get themselves into Europe to put up their “No Jesus Freaks” signs. And Malta would be an excellent base from which to invade mainland Europe. Thus began the Great Siege of Malta in the year 1565. I’m not going to go into the details- just the nitty gritty. Those knights, who had been run out of a few other places by these Ottomans already, were OVER. IT. The knights, and their army, with the people of Malta, numbered about 6,000. They ended up kicking ass and taking about 40,000 Muslim names!! Holy jihad, Batman!
After the practically miraculous job the knights did at defeating the Ottomans, Europe was damn impressed. They didn’t want those Muslims coming to the mainland! And the knights seemed to know how to stop them. Money started pouring in from all over Europe to help with the defenses of Malta- the first line against those pesky Ottomans! And with this money, the city of Valleta was built and fortified in 1566 (aka “stacking rocks”). Over the next couple of decades, it grew and grew and more people moved there. And the knights ruled Malta for over 250 years, until that sorry ass stink weasel Napoleon (ugh, I hate even having to type his nasty name), stomped on over with his tiny boots in 1798, and forced the knights to surrender. The Maltese people, much like me, freaking HATED Napoleon, so they invited Britain over to help them out. In typical British fashion, “help” meant “we’ll take your country when we’re done, thank you very much”, and Malta was under British rule until 1964, when it became independent.
After the tour, which we tipped quite nicely for because it was just that awesome, it was dinner time. Thank god, because we were famished. Went back to our restaurant, La Pira, and ordered an appetizer of some kind of bread covered in something that was DAMN TASTY. I ordered the stewed rabbit and Brian ordered the wild boar ravioli. Both were soooooo good!!
After dinner, we strolled through the city, hand in hand, down narrow cobblestone streets as night fell. It was just so lovely. The opera house that had been bombed into ruins during WW2, has been recently brought back to life. The ruins are still there, and now it’s more of an open air theater. I think it’s really cool! They were rehearsing for an upcoming show, so I took a peek. On the way out, the awesome merman fountain was all lit up. Perfect ending to such a lovely day!