Friday, November 30, 2012

Malta: the Hypogeum, Tarxien Temples and Marsaxlokk

Well, I made it into the Circle of Moms Top 25 European Blogs - just - the roller door hit me on the backside as it came down. Thank you so much to everyone who voted for this blog over the three weeks - you're the best!

Back to Malta. The Maltese Islands may be small but they're attraction-packed. We did a lot while we were there and still could've done more if we'd had the time. And that's without all the summery activities (beach, boats, diving, etc) given it was November.

Here's a quick outline of one of our days where we managed to fit in three great visits.

First up, we hit the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum - an example of the amazing megalithic temples dotted all over Malta.

The Hypogeum is fascinating. It was an underground burial chamber built somewhere between 3600 and 3000BC (1000 years before the pyramids!) by some of the earliest inhabitants of the Islands, who were thought to have come from neighbouring Sicily. It was discovered by accident in 1902 when workmen broke a hole through the ceiling while trying to install a cistern under a house.

The necropolis is huge - some 500 square metres, probably holding around 7000 bodies. It has three levels, the deepest being over 10 metres (33 ft) below ground. The whole thing - passages with separate chambers, stairs, columns and beams, were chipped out of rock (with basic tools). Generation after generation (for a thousand years) continued with construction, adding new chambers as required.

Bodies were put to rest in the chambers closer to the surface and the bones were then moved to chambers further in the back once the meaty bits had decomposed. Eeww. Speaking of eeww - can you imagine being on the construction crew? Sitting down there in the dark chipping away at the rock with an antler, the fetid particles of a thousand decaying bodies in the air around you? Sure makes cremation look good.

There are many unanswered questions about the Hypogeum and the mystery is part of the appeal. Why did the original builders start these traditions which are nothing like those followed in Sicily? How did they get light into the necropolis when archaeologists haven't found a single scorch mark indicating the use of flames? And most of all - why did they one day just stop using it? There is no explanation as to why it was abandoned after hundreds of years of work to build it and the interring of generations. Gah! I want to know!!

Some useful stuff:
  • Photos are not allowed in the facility (the whole thing is located inside a building in a residential area). 
  • The tour is about an hour and kids under 6 are not allowed (the mister and I took our two big kids in shifts). 
  • The tour is via audio guide over a walkway constructed through the Hypogeum so as to protect the rock. It's actually quite roomy down there now they've taken all the bodies out (for those who get antsy in enclosed spaces like me) and although I've lingered on the grim details, the tour won't frighten the kids. Our two loved it. 
  • Most important point: you must book your tickets in advance. We booked ours online a good month and a half ahead. In the high season you'd want to try earlier. Only 80 people a day are allowed in the Hypogeum to protect the temple from carbon dioxide damage.  
  • There is no dedicated parking, you have to find a spot on the street. 
We parked down there on the left. 

Just a few blocks over from the Hypogeum are the Tarxien Temples.

Seen on the walk to the Temples:

Most excellent door knocker

Back to the Temples:


The complex was discovered by a ploughing farmer in 1913 and was later excavated by the same fellow who oversaw the works at the Hypogeum.


The Tarxien Temples are a grouping of three temples (known as East, South and Central Temples) and were built at different times, the oldest in the same era as the Hypogeum.

New walkways being constructed while the 3 yr old strolls 

It's not really known what exactly they were used for (religious, political, economical reasons?) but they were communal centres. Relics have shown there were also most likely animal sacrifices in the South Temple. 

Altar depicting animals near where sacrifice remains/tools were found

The temple culture ended abruptly (as I mentioned with the Hypogeum's creators) however the Tarxien complex saw further use in the Bronze Age when it was turned into a crematory/cemetery.

She's got legs (and not much else)

After our morning among the ruins we headed further south for lunch in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk.


It's only a small spot but perfect for a seafood lunch by the ocean.


The bay is full of traditional, brightly-coloured Maltese fishing boats, called luzzu.


Parents - you know when you nag your kids not to do something and they don't listen you?


Honey, please don't x, you might y
Sweetie, if you keep xing, you're gonna end up ying. 
Listen up kid: if you y, don't come crying to me. 

x = stand on the boat ramp runners
y = fall in the water


Well, y did indeed occur. The adjacent diners enjoyed the lunchtime show much more than a certain child enjoyed eating her meal in wet clothes.

Getting wet in 3...2...

Lesson learned?


We can only hope so.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

An Introduction to Malta

We spent the second week of November in Malta.

turquoise door in Malta

Look. I'll admit it. I had to get the atlas out:

The Maltese Islands - right below Sicily (Italy) in the Mediterranean Sea. 

But I'm so glad we went there and here are a few reasons why:

1. The history of Malta is AMAZING. From Stone Age temples to invading Turks to medieval knights to Napoleon to WWII bombings... the Maltese have seen it all and bought the t-shirt.

2. The Maltese Islands are small but they pack a punch - there is easily enough to fill two weeks of intense touristy behaviour.

3. Malta is cheaper than mainland Europe.

4. Maltese is the national language, but everyone also speaks English. Everyone (almost) is also friendly.

5. It's warmer than mainland Europe.


We caught a cheap Ryan Air flight into Valletta (the capital), arriving at midnight. Accommodation is less expensive than what we'd pay in France so we decided to  spend our usual amount to get a fancier apartment (being our last holiday in Europe and all). By fancy, I mean we woke up to this view the next morning:

View over the harbour from Vittoriosa, Malta
We were pretty happy. To say the least.

Some thoughts:

I loved these boxed in balconies that were all over the place, whether new:


Or old:


The Maltese have been through a lot and are fiercely proud of their heritage. I loved how the Maltese Cross was incorporated into design everywhere you looked:


The local beer is very drinkable (especially on a warm day):


The doorknobs are adorable:


History is everywhere. 500 year old sandstone walls:


Other reminders of the incredible things that came to pass right where we were staying:


The language, Maltese, although not cyrillic, was greatly shaped by Turkish occupation:


And unlike French, you can't kind of guess your way. It's nothing like English. (Rarely a problem except for street names, which for the majority seemed to be only in Maltese.)


Malta is a very Catholic state. St Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on the island in 60 AD and it all started from there.


I'd say 2 out of every 3 houses had statuettes such as these next to the front door:


The roads are a little crazy - lots of potholes and a maximum speed limit of 70 km/hr (45 mph) which isn't always obeyed. Our cosseted children's eyes nearly popped out of their heads when they saw this:

Seat belts optional? 

Malta has a slightly less finished feel about it - not rough, just rustic. That is a huge part of its charm:


We had a wonderful time there.


I won't lie. I did think about it:


But of course we didn't. Our loss, huh?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley

This post outlines some of our adventures on our Spring Trip in April/May 2012.

The Circle of Moms Top 25 European Blogs voting ends tomorrow (Nov 21st). I'm not sure if I'm going to make it so if you've ever enjoyed a tutorial or photo on this blog I sure would appreciate your support with a vote. It only takes two clicks!

I was going to delve into Malta but thought I should wrap up our Spring Trip with this final post on the Château de Villandry in the Loire Valley.

Chateau de Villandry in the Loire Valley, France

Villandry was built in 1536 by King Francois I's finance minister, Jean Le Breton.


Monsieur Le Breton had an existing medieval castle demolished to make way for the château.

View over the gardens at Chateau de Villandry in the Loire Valley

Entrance courtyard from two perspectives:


The Le Breton family owned the château until 1754, when it became the property of the Marquis de Castellane, a nobleman from Provence.

Dining room inside the castle at Chateau de Villandry in the Loire Valley, France

He had the castle renovated to bring in some 18th century comforts.

Something special hiding beside the table in this alcove.

One of the outbuildings constructed under the Marquis:


We saw these hungry fish in the moat; they freaked us out:

Death by a thousand hickies

The château changed hands again in 1906 when Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor and art collector, purchased the property.

Moorish craftsmen built this mosaic ceiling in Spain in the 15th century; after purchase it took a year to reassemble in Villandry (3600 pieces!)

Carvallo restored the castle and undertook the huge project of returning the gardens to their original Renaissance glory.


The gardens...oh, the gardens. They are the star of this château.


Very well tended:

Fact: Tractors are sexy

And 10 points for the loveliest use of lettuce I have ever seen:


The grounds are quite large, including a labyrinth, ponds, fountains and a kids' playground - all in separate garden 'rooms' to explore.


As you'd expect, our children had a ball.

The (then) 2 yr old in trouble for trying to jump in the pond with the swans.


In summary: go there! The castle is lovely but the gardens are spectacular. Don't miss it.

And just to wrap up, here's the all-in-one speed meal we had at the restaurant just outside the castle:

Slow-cooked duck with sweet potato mash, quinoa salad, strawbs with Chantilly crème. 'Twas good.

That ends the Spring Trip 2012 series. If you are looking for other posts from this trip, here they all are:

Giverny (Monet's home and gardens)
Château du Clos Lucé (Leonardo da Vinci's last home)

See you soon with Malta photos or a quilt -whichever I finish first!


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