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Trip 27 -- Malta and Gozo Walks

Malta day 2: Senglea to Birżebbuġa
Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Today: 31440 steps/24.16 km/15.01 mi/4h 34m
Total: 39056 steps/30.00 km/18.64 mi/5h 41m

One of the Snop House's owners, Manuel, welcomed me to breakfast: a plate of deli meats and cheese; a basket containing wonderfully dark and chewy bread, half a French baguette, a miniature croissant, and a sweet custard pastry; and an apricot and a nectarine.

"Are there fireworks every morning?" I asked. They had mercifully woken me at eight; otherwise I might have slept long past my desired departure time.

He laughed. "No. The fireworks last night and this morning are because today is the feast day of St. Lawrence."

"In Valletta?"

"No. In Vittoriosa." That excited me; I was heading in that direction.

"Sometimes they start at five in the morning!" a woman at the next table said. She was half of a couple from near Oxford.


"Are you the one who walked from the airport?" she asked.

"Wow, I have a reputation already."

"Is there a club for people who do that?" her husband asked.

"Not to my knowledge."

"Then the club is just one person."

"It seems like the kind of thing men do," she said. Gesturing toward her husband, she explained, "His buddy is climbing seven volcanoes."

I'd taken tea with breakfast; before I checked out, I downed some of the water provided in my room. "There's no problem drinking the tap water here," David had said. "But it doesn't taste good." The Snop House had provided me with a bottle each of still and sparkling water, and refills were available on the main floor.

"Do you need a taxi?" Manuel joked, aware of my intentions. "Would you mind putting something in the guest book?"

I obliged.

"If you come through here again," he said, "please stop in and have a coffee."

The odds of my drinking coffee are about the same as the likelihood that I ever need a taxi, but it's hard to imagine friendlier lodging.

David had been right about the heat wave, but in the alleys of the Three Cities, hemmed in by buildings, I didn't find it oppressive. I crossed the pedestrian bridge over to Vittoriosa and climbed up the ramp overlooking the zillions of boats in the marina, most of them small yachts -- the kind of vessels whose price I always estimate with one digit fewer than would be correct.

At the 17th-century Collegiate Parish Church of St. Lawrence, I wouldn't have had room to enter even I'd been dressed properly. The pews were packed, and a processional with a giant silver cross was accompanied by a choir singing in lovely harmony. The ceiling was richly gilded, the candelabra were lit, and the velvet hangings were inviting. People crowded the entrance, celebrating the day as closely as they could.

Vittoriosa ("victorious"), still known sometimes by its pre-siege name, Birgu, is livelier than Senglea and has more history, the latter's having been heavily bombed during World War II and rebuilt. In Vittoriosa's alleys I found arched windows from the 13th century and buildings constructed by the Knights of St. John. Their infirmary, now a convent, received patients brought by boat secretly at night to a landing below.

Fort St. Angelo, at the tip of Vittoriosa facing Valletta, is normally open daily, but in these pandemic times I managed to arrive on the one day a week when it's closed to the public. A half-hour's walk away, Fort Rinella is now open only three days weekly, not including Tuesdays. This one I had tried to check online, and their Web site helpfully mentioned that "you may be approached by a member of staff" for wearing "offensive slogans or other clothing items deemed to be inappropriate" but nowhere bothered to indicate the fort's opening hours.

St. Angelo had posted the updated timing for all Heritage Malta sites, and I realized I'd better examine it carefully. Apart from the forts, the next few days lined up well: The cave I was headed to today was open and wouldn't be tomorrow, and I'd get to see a few megalithic temples this week. Now I donned sunscreen and headed up through the unshaded farms of northeast Malta, in silence save for the percussion of the cannon fire at St. Angelo and the singing of church bells on the opposite side of the island.

I descended at the fishing town of Marsaskala, followed the promenade around its harbor, then rounded the next peninsula and continued along St. Thomas Bay. The cliff path along the third peninsula was closed to cars; it was a scruffy dirt trail overlooking impossibly clear water.

I soon reached Marsaxlokk -- "marsa-schlock"; "marsa" means "harbor" and this one was crammed with Malta's signature fishing boats, bright blue with red stripes and sporting the eye of Osiris for protection, in the Phoenician tradition. Here I took a break and enjoyed a sea bream that I hoped had been recently unloaded from one of the vessels before me.

As I left Marsaxlokk, Google Maps led me down a dirt path that dead-ended, so I retraced my path and sped my pace to reach Għar Dalam an hour before its closing time.

This beautiful limestone cave was created two million years ago. During Europe's Ice Age, 150,000 years ago, animals fled to Malta across a land bridge that at that time linked Malta with Sicily. Malta received rain rather than ice, and the resultant torrents carved out Malta's valleys, enlarged and breached the cave, and carried into it the bones of deer, foxes, bears, hippopotamuses, small elephants, and other mammals. Starting in the 19th century, people began to excavate the cave and put together the colossal collection of bones now on display in the museum.

Other history is abundant in the area: the ruins of a Roman villa, a watchtower from around 1700, cart tracks from Bronze Age times, and rusted barbed wire from World War II, when airplane fuel was stored in the cave. The area is now used for beekeeping.

A few minutes down the road, I glimpsed through the fence what's left of the megalithic temples known as Borg In-Nadur, a sort of sloppy, miniature Stonehenge, which kept the same opening hours as the cave and thus closed while I was on my way over. I continued on to Birżebbuġa and checked in at the Water's Edge, overlooking Pretty Bay.

Both names were justified. The hotel was across from the beach, and I put on my swimsuit, left my key at the reception, and headed out with just my shirt and walking shoes to leave on the sand, reasonably certain that no one would want to steal a green T-shirt streaked and blotched with white patterns that bore no relationship to where I had applied sunscreen, and shoes that could barely be identified as such through the day's dust.

The water was cooler than I expected considering the recent stretch of heat, but it was gloriously refreshing. The sounds of the bay were the sounds of happy children: a daughter begging "Do it again!" every time her father tossed her into the water, kids riding piggyback on their siblings, kids playing ball. Even the shipping port that served as a backdrop was agreeable: The lifts were in operation, hoisting containers diagonally through the air like an amusement-park ride and depositing them gently onto the containership CMA CGM Vela. The ship was almost full. How many containers were aboard? Eighteen wide, nine high, and how many deep -- twenty? Forty? I couldn't tell from my vantage point in the water or from my balcony at Water's Edge, which overlooked the ship, the beach, and the outdoor bingo game going on below.

Dinner was a fresh sea bass and Maltese chardonnay. It seemed silly not to get a bottle when it was cheaper than a glass usually is in New York. But I must get an early start tomorrow, so matching it with water will be imperative. The convenience store has closed, so I hope the output from the faucet doesn't taste too bad.

Go on to Malta day 3