Trip 27 -- Malta and Gozo Walks
Malta day 3: Birżebbuġa to Baħrija via Mdina
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Today: 41864 steps/31.81 km/19.77 mi/6h 9m
Total: 80920 steps/61.81 km/38.41 mi/11h 50m
The tap water at Water's Edge did taste funny. But it wasn't awful.
Malta and Gozo are the first Abecedarian Walks to demand a visit to the islands' middles. For previous islands, walking close to the circumference was sufficient to see the main attractions. But it would be senseless to see Malta and not wander the old capital of Mdina, so today's walk involved some detouring.
The Vela was still loading freight -- perhaps it had continued through the night, perhaps it had taken a break -- when I left at eight in the morning. I wound my way away from Birżebbuġa's port facilities and headed toward the Blue Grotto along a busy road with a fantastic sidewalk that gave me false hope for the afternoon. The cave, created by a large arch of rock resembling an elephant's foot, contained delightfully deep-blue seawater. I observed it from above; with more time and the desire to hike back up the tremendously steep access road after the excursion, I might have descended for a boat trip among the Blue and other nearby grottoes.
Instead, I continued along to a pair of megalithic complexes built around 5000 years ago. ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra are thought to be temple clusters, but no one knows their purpose for sure. ħaġar Qim stands on a hill and was clearly intended to take advantage of the view over the countryside, the sea, and the tiny island of Filfla just offshore; Mnajdra is a few minutes' walk downhill and is more at one with the earth.
The durable limestone of the presumed temples was designed to last forever; the homes of the era were built of less durable material and didn't last, and as a result we know little about their inhabitants. One of the megaliths at ħaġar Qim is 21 feet long and weighs 20 tons. How did they move it into place? The presence of round stones suggests that they may have slid the giant slabs on rollers.
The builders were clearly aware of their relationship to the sun and the stars. In several apses, elliptical openings line up with the rising sun on the summer solstice, allowing a crescent to be shined within that gradually increases to a full ball. In other places, dotted patterns are believed to imply a link to the stars.
There are other mysteries, such as holes in the floor near the entrances and niches in the walls. What could have been their purpose: functional or spiritual?
The main exit was out the way I had come, but a secondary exit led me west, toward the Dingli Cliffs. The temperature was in the 90s and there was no shade, but it was blissfully breezy. The trail led me back to the main road, which I followed for a few minutes until I took a highland shortcut. A few minutes later I reached a disused aqueduct and turned left onto a side road.
The road passed a couple of chapels and became a rocky pedestrian footpath. It was hard on the feet, but the reward from a promontory was the fantastic view of Filfla and the cliffs on either side of me, the ones at Dingli with layer-cake stratifications. Nearby were the remains of a stone wall believed to be from the Bronze Age.
The path intersected with the road, I turned left toward Dingli, and the beauty and peace of the day were immediately erased by the procession of noisy trucks stirring up packages of dirt and sand as they passed. There was no sidewalk or shoulder, and the slight curves kept me switching sides to give myself maximum visibility. When I finally reached the main Dingli viewpoint, it was disappointing, as the cliffs were under me. The view had been much better at the promontory.
I took the slightly longer way around toward Dingli village, as it veered away from the highway and gave me a respite from the trucks. It was a little after two and time for lunch, and my mood improved as I approached the highly regarded Diar il-Bniet restaurant, whose menu featured ingredients from nearby farms.
My mood soured when I found out they had closed early for a private function. It soured further when I found no open convenience stores in Dingli; I was nearing the end of my second liter of water of the day, and what remained was hot enough to please a Jacuzzi-goer. And then came the trucks. I cursed every one.
Mdina's suburb, Rabat, was a long 20-plus minutes away. I found more water, guzzled at least a liter of it, and plopped down at Ta'doni. It was almost three o'clock and I hadn't eaten anything today, but I wasn't very hungry. I ordered a ftira (sandwich on soft bread) with three sheep's-milk cheeses, arugula, and tomato. It was twice as much food as I needed, but it was tasty and nourishing.
I continued inland up to Mdina, a Phoenician citadel from 3000 years ago and properly developed by the Arabs in the month century, and entered through the main gate. I meandered through the narrow alleys and popped in at the Baroque cathedral, with its fine paintings, gilding, and chandeliers, and, still parched, had a smoothie at Fontanella, which had dramatic views to the north.
Leaving Mdina I found plaques marking "The Old Jewish Silk Market" and, next door, "The Old Greek Bord..lo" -- clearly writing out the whole word would have been an affront to society. I exited through Greeks Gate and picked my way across a construction site to put me on the road to Baħrija. I bought my third two-liter bottle of water of the day and was happy to be on the final stretch.
And then the road climbed, and I along with it. I'd thought Mdina had been built to oversee the region, and would therefore be the highest town in the area, but now I encountered a rise of almost a half-hour that steepened as it continued. My eyes stang from a cocktail of sunscreen, sweat, sand, and dust, and I let out loud grunts as I plodded on, rousing the objection of dogs. And still, there were trucks.
Finally the road leveled off, descended, ascended briefly, leveled off again, and brought me to Baħrija. I was dripping and blinking furiously. Nancy, the owner of Mamina's House, welcomed me.
Her mouth gaped when I said I had walked from Birżebbuġa and explained my walk around Malta. Then she began explaining all of the features of the house: which key was for what, how to lower the window screen to keep mosquitoes out, how the kitchen was shared with the other guests, how to pay one euro per four hours of air conditioning.
At the moment I didn't care about any of it except, maybe, the air conditioning. "I'm sorry," I said. "But I need to wash my face immediately."
To my surprise, she followed me into the bathroom, but I didn't care much about that, either. She explained that the bathroom was also shared and that she had left soap and shampoo. Then I got the air conditioning going, one of the best euros I've ever spent.
"And where will you go tomorrow?"
"Ah. You can take the bus to the ferry." she said, not quite understanding my plans.
"Thanks, but I'll walk to the ferry."
"All the way to Ċirkewwa!"
"It's just two hours." Three, I later realized.
I rested briefly and then waddled toward the west to see the sun set, but the sun melted into the haze long before it stopped shining.
I walked back toward the Baħrija center. It was an ugly town, with boxy houses, all the same tan limestone, with trim and iron balconies that were perfectly fine but not the least bit imaginative. At the town square, two sides had restaurants, one a playground, and one a bus stop. In the middle of it all, blighting any hope of peace, was parking.
But Baħrija was a good place to try some Maltese country food, which I did at the bizarrely named North Country restaurant -- Baħrija isn't in the north, and it isn't particularly in the countryside, either. The
€18 set menu was a fantastic deal: First came bruschetta with giant capers, tomatoes, and onions, and a honey-tinted glass of white wine, and then I chose the snails stewed in tomatoes (bebbux in Maltese).
The main dish of cubed horsemeat, alas, was disappointing: It was tough and got tougher as the meal went on, and there was way too much of it. I'd have shared it with the hopeful cat that approached me, but I didn't want to offend or encourage future visits.
The chocolate ice cream, however, was heavenly.
Go on to Malta day 4/Gozo day 1