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Ghar Dalam Cave and Museum

Just outside Birzebugga you can find the Ghar Dalam cave, Malta’s oldest prehistoric site.  Evidence of human habitation dating back more than 7,000 years was found here, as well as the fossilised bones of extinct creatures such as pygmy elephants and hippos.

The museum is basically a large collection of bones and skeletons of deceased animals.  For me, one ancient femur starts to look pretty much like another after a while, but the skeletons of baby hippos and elephants are pretty impressive.

ghar dalam

As is the cave itself, when you make your way down there from the museum.  Only about 50 metres is accessible for visitors, but that is enough to give you a real sense of the place, especially if you are lucky enough – as we were – to have the place to yourself in between coach-tours.

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Wignacourt Tower, St Paul’s Bay

Built in 1610, this impressive tower occupies a prominent position along the coast of St Paul’s Bay.  Despite that, and despite the fact that I’ve lived in the area for a couple of years, we had never ventured inside before now even though we’ve walked past the place countless times.

The tower underwent some refurbishment recently, but now it is open for business, and at only €2 a head it’s well worth popping inside to take a look.  When the tower was constructed this would have been regarded as a remote and dangerous posting for any soldiers sent out here to guard against the ever-present threat of raiding pirates.

 

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In order to make this life-threatening post rather more appealing to the average soldier, the fort was kitted out with all the mod-cons that only the wealthiest of early seventeenth century householders could imagine.  An indoor latrine!  (well, a hole).  Indoor cooking facilities!  Beds!

 

 

wignacourt tower st pauls bay

Hopefully such swanky accommodation did not turn the guards too soft, as they were still expected to be on guard against those pesky pirates, who had a habit of swooping down to Malta to nab an unsuspecting farmer or two and sell them into slavery.  From the roof the soldiers would have had a good view of any advancing corsairs and the cannons would act as something of a deterrent too.

 

wignacourt tower malta

 

There is a small display on the ground floor featuring an overview of Maltese history, and the gentleman manning the desk really knew his stuff.  After a quick look around you then go up a rather tight spiral staircase to the soldiers’ living quarters.  Up another flight and you are on the roof, from where you get a very nice view of the surrounding area.  Like I said earlier, you can’t go far wrong for €2 in this day and age so take 20 minutes to pop in and have a look.

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Top 5 Historical Sites in Valletta

Valletta is the smallest capital city in the European Union, but it manages to pack a surprising amount inside of those sturdy city walls. Good things in small packages, that sort of thing. And Valletta crams a whole lot of culture and history into very little space. I mean, the entire city has been designated a World Heritage site. So other than the fact you won’t have to wear out too much shoe leather traversing the 0.8 km2, what else does Malta’s capital offer the discerning traveller?
I’ve picked out five different locations which allow you to take a step back in time and appreciate the rich and varied history of Valletta.

fort st angelo

Caravaggio Was Here

On one of his not infrequent diversions to avoid the long arm of the law, master painter Caravaggio ended up spending a few years in Malta, under the protection of the local knights. He paid for his protection with paintings for his benefactors, and today St John’s Co-Cathedral hosts the stunning ‘Beheading of St John’ on one wall of its incredibly ornate interior.  He was also held prisoner in Fort St Angelo in Birgu, which you can get a great view of from the Barakka gardens although I don’t think you are allowed to go inside the fort yet.

http://stjohnscocathedral.com – St John Street

 

 

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St Paul’s Grotto and Catacombs (Rabat)

 It is not unreasonable to describe St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat as Malta’s most sacred location – at least if you are of the Christian persuasion.
Certainly this humble cave is held in such esteem in the Christian world at large that the last two Popes who came to Malta (Benedict and John Paul) both paid a visit to this shrine.
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Xemxija Heritage Trail.

Let’s get that tricky pronunciation out of the way first. Xemxija is pronounced ‘shem-she-ya’.  X’s and Q’s are just thrown into place-names in Malta to confuse the foreigners.  The town is in the North of the island, just next to St Paul’s Bay, so buses 11, 37, 41, 42, 49, 221, 222, 250 and X1 will all get you there.

Malta is a small and massively overcrowded country, so from time to time you may yearn for proximity with nature and open spaces.  You may also feel that all this restaurant food and cheap wine is not doing much for your waistline.  So to kill two birds with one stone, I recommend you take a morning to go and wander along the Xemxija Heritage Trail.  There is a little bit of uphill to negotiate, and some scrabbly ground underfoot, but it’s a nice little walk and you are tripping over ancient history at every turn.  Here are just a few of the sights to be seen:

Roman Road:


So what were you expecting, the Appian Way?  Considering people have been tramping along this road for the past two thousand years, it’s really in surprisingly decent shape, especially at the edges.  The ancient Romans used roads like this to transport salt and farm produce around the place, and this also forms part of the route taken by pilgrims on the way to Mellieha to worship at the shrine to Our Lady.  You can see crosses carved into the rock walls where generations of pilgrims have made their mark.


Burial Cave:


There are other caves in the area in which people lived, but this particular one was for those who had passed from the land of the living.  It is believed that this cave dates back to prehistoric times, before the front wall collapsed to give us the view above.  Previously the only way to get inside was via steps hewn out of the rock around the other side.

 Cart Ruts:


Nobody seems to know exactly who or what created these grooves out of the rock.  Personally I think it is safe to assume that they were lasered into the stone by the alien race which inhabited the (now sadly lost) city of Atlantis, and used Malta as a throughway.  Less plausible theories are also in circulation.

Apiary:


An apiary is a place where bees are kept, by the way, just in case you thought you were looking at a picture of some sort of monkey prison.  Anyway, here we are in the 21st century, candy coming out of our ears, and people still love honey.   So just imagine how prized it was back in Roman times, when a fig was just about the last word in sweet-toothed treats.  Presumably this apiary was a tightly-guarded place in those days.

These are only a few of the sites you can visit on the trail.  Others include Roman baths, a troglodyte cave, neolithic tombs, and plenty more.  It’s a nice way to stimulate your body and your brain, if you have been spending too much of your time in Malta laying on beaches reading Danielle Steele novels.