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Trip 27 -- Malta and Gozo Walks

Malta day 7: Valletta to airport
Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Today: 9805 steps/8.01 km/4.98 mi/1h 21m
Malta grand total: 160157 steps/120.76 km/75.04 mi/23h 40m
Gozo grand total: 66891 steps/48.53 km/30.16 mi/10h 10m
Total for Malta and Gozo: 227048 steps/169.29 km/105.19 mi/33h 50m

Imagine strutting up to the box office of the Super Bowl (or "Hamilton") a few minutes before kickoff (or curtain) and saying, "I'd like one seat for tonight, please. Preferably in the center, just a few rows back."

Such is how I felt approaching the ticket seller at Fort St. Elmo on Monday afternoon and asking for a next-day spot on a tour of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5000-year-old burial chamber discovered by someone digging a cistern in 1902.

The Hypogeum admits 10 people per hour for eight tours per day. Six of the daily tours are booked up online weeks (months, during normal tourist seasons) in advance; tickets for the noon and 4 p.m. tours go on sale the day before at Fort St. Elmo and at Gozo's archeology museum, and people queue for those early in the morning.

Well, I wouldn't be telling you all this if the ticket seller hadn't surprised me by answering, "Yes, there are tickets available for both tours. Which one would you like?"

I picked the later option, since it would conflict less with other sites' opening hours, and it would mean less walking in the midday heat. The Hypogeum is in the suburb of Tarxien, most of the way to the airport -- I'd tried to time a visit after landing my first day in Malta but just as I was on the verge of committing to it, the flight time was pushed too late for me to make it.

But back to Fort St. Elmo, built in 1552 after the Turkish invasion of Gozo and other threats made the need for a proper fort evident. It was built in just six months, a dazzlingly speedy feat even for today. No doubt such a need in modern times would require a $2 million environmental-impact study, meetings and votes by local community boards, and negotiations with residents opposed to the matter, taking decades and resulting in an already obsolete construction in an inferior location and reached via an overpriced AirTrain that doesn't even approach the city center.

The fort's most noteworthy incident came in 1565, when the Turks battled the Knights of St. John for four bloody weeks, taking the fort but eventually losing the war, owing to Grand Master Jean de Valette's ability to unify the people. Now the fort contains a war museum that includes some very moving objects from World War II, such as pieces of parachutes and one of the three outdated Gladiator planes that constituted Malta's air force when the war began.

Adding the Hypogeum tour made for a somewhat rushed day. On my way out of Valletta I joined the queue to visit St. John's Co-Cathedral, the dazzling 16th-century church crammed with paintings, sculpture, tombs, and gold patterns. It also houses two Caravaggio paintings, "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist," clear and macabre to every pixel like a giant movie frame, and "St. Jerome Writing."

Near the Hypogeum are the Tarxien megalithic temples, where a view from above gave me the best sense of their layout of all the temples I visited. These temples were especially rich with spiral patterns and figurines, and an especially noteworthy work of art is the remains of a giant statue of a goddess in a pleated skirt. All over Malta and Gozo there's a gap in history after the period of the megalithic temples; there's no evidence of continuous use for a few hundred years before the Bronze Age. In Tarxien's case, however, some parts of the site were repurposed as a cemetery during the Bronze Age.

The fact that the cavernous three layers of the Hypogeum lay forgotten for almost 4500 years only adds to its mystery. The necropolis likely contained the remains of 7000 people, and its chambers and niches are remarkably well-preserved, even the ocher spirals painted on the walls. It was one thing for me to walk an installed lit pathway with an audio guide to my ear; for maximum effect I should have experienced it as they did in the 3000s BC, with a flickering torch allowing glimpses of the wall patterns, some faint sunlight penetrating through, and the stench of all those bodies.

I walked back to Valletta and, my sightseeing done, I rested at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, looking across the water toward Vittoriosa and Senglea. I'd circled almost the entire island, the only gap being the harbor separating me from the elegant watchtower at the tip of Senglea.

I descended to St. George's Square and found a place for happy-hour drinks. Like everywhere in Valletta, it seemed, it had friendly servers and exhaustingly slow and spotty service. Having waited almost an hour, I left briefly to use the restroom, tipping my chair to show the table was in use. They gave it away anyway, but my server reclaimed it for me.

By the time I was done with drinks it was 8:30 and I was perfectly located to hear two competing performances of live music coming from different directions. From one side it was "Let It Be," good advice for this situation, and from the other it was "Ain't No Sunshine," which had nothing to do with Malta's heat and cloudless skies. (I'd seen one cloud at Tarxien, and it felt like an old friend.)

I'd planned to take a short break at the Vincent before dinner, but instead I followed my ears toward "Let It Be" and sat down for a meal at the King's Own Band Club: a little table directly opposite the singer, with prime stroller-watching in the pedestrian lane between us. Soon all the tables were taken and people were lining up.

The posted menu, with all the Maltese favorites, was what had prompted me to sit down, and my server brought me a menu that was almost completely different. The party next to mine was reading a third menu, which turned out to be the wine list, and upon asking, I received it as well. It contained a page of cocktails different from the cocktails on my original menu. Then there was a list of specials, separately posted under the defunct menu. This all took time to figure out.

Finally my committing to a decision coincided with a waitress's being ready to receive it. "I'd like to start with the spaghetti with sea urchin, the special," I said.

"Sorry, it's all finished. I can bring you this one" -- she pointed to the spaghetti with shellfish.

"Let me think again."

I had another chance to place an order 20 minutes later.

"You didn't order the food yet?" asked the man who had seated me.

"No, but I'm ready!"

"I will take your order!" And he walked away. But he came back shortly.

"I'd like to start with the spaghetti with swordfish."

"We don't have the swordfish. We have the carbonara."

"Let me think again."

"We might have the swordfish. I will check." He returned a couple minutes later. "Yes, we have the swordfish."

I asked for that, the fried rabbit, and, inspired by the church paintings, a bottle of Caravaggio Shiraz. The winery, Marsovin, was just outside the city, near Tarxien. On the bottle was Caravaggio's "Portrait of a Knight of Malta," who looked like the man who had cut in front of me at the church.

The starter came a half-hour later, the main a half-hour after that. In the meantime the young singer, accompanied by a guitarist whose interpretation of the tempi usually coincided with hers, sang through all the cruise-ship favorites: "Valerie," "House of the Rising Sun," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and the creepy "Every Breath You Take." Her voice was sweet and perfectly in tune, her enunciation better than most. The guitarist mercifully was one who didn't end every song with a gratuitous button.

People seated near me were locals who knew each other. The one closest to me was having a rough night; it was the 39th anniversary of his father's death. And all he wanted to hear was "Tell me cuando, cuando, cuando."

I bought him a Heineken and said I had walked around Malta.

"You are joking me," he said, and when the subject came up again later, he repeated it.

Walking out to the Hypogeum was helpful for getting me acquainted with the Marsa interchange on Route 1. I'd climbed over median barriers and done my best to skirt the traffic lanes, only to discover on the way back that underneath all those highways and ramps was a glorious path for pedestrians and bikes. I'd also figured out how to use the pedestrian overpasses.

So when I headed out this morning, I knew just where I was going. I walked along the Valletta waterfront, where the massive MSC Seashore was in port and the passengers were boarding tour buses. I walked through the suburb of Marsa, crossed over the highway, and continued through the suburb of Luqa: one more hill to climb, one more pretty church in a central square. There was construction by the airport and I braced myself for a few tense minutes along a fast roundabout with no shoulder. But just where I needed a pedestrian signal, they had installed one, seemingly just for me. And it changed in my favor as I reached it. Better service than from the restaurants, I must say.