Towns / Cities Visited: 173
Countries Visited: 30
Steps Taken Today: 8,794
Steps Taken Around the World: 4,210,148
Awaking and turning off the thunderstorm soundtrack I sleep with, I had to do a squinting double take to make sure I had actually achieved the task, as the sound of rain continued. Alas I had not faltered, and as I drew back the curtain, I was met with a downpour outside. It was officially the first day of winter and Mother Nature was determined to remind us of that fact. Today was going to be a soggy one by the looks of things. Still, not to be deterred, we fixed ourselves some toast, wrapped our rain jackets snuggly around us, and ducked outside and into the car. A bit of rain had never stopped us before, and today was not going to be the day; we had places to go and things to see, and we fully intended on doing all of it.
An easy drive saw us back outside the tall stone walls of Malta’s former capital. It has gone by many names over the millennia, from Maleth by its 8th century BC Phoenician settlers, to Melite by the Romans. Under Byzantine rule though, it shrank to its now compact size and was called medina, which in Arabic simply refers to a city or town, generally walled and filled with narrow maze-like streets; it is from here that it gained its current name, Mdina. It remained the capital of the country until the arrival of the Order of St. John when the administrative centre was moved to Birgu, and later to the newly constructed Valletta. Due to its abandonment as the nation’s chief city, it has remained relatively unchanged since the 15th century, still sporting its gorgeous stone architecture, reminiscent of other historic Mediterranean cities like Dubrovnik and Palermo.
Parking the car and pulling our hoods up, we hotfooted it within the walls, glad that the rain had eased a little, although it continued enough to be an annoyance. Winding through the streets of this tiny stronghold, which is now only home to around three hundred residents, we admired the golden hue of the sandstone buildings and the bright pops of colours delivered by thoughtfully painted shutters, and flowering plants clinging to the building facades.
Our journey through the labyrinth of streets eventually deposited us outside our destination of choice, Palazzo Falson. Despite its name, it is not actually a palace, but rather a swanky medieval townhouse built in the late 15th century as a family residence for Maltese nobility, and claiming the spot of second oldest building in Mdina. Records about the early ownership of the palazzo are not entirely clear, but the house was owned for some time by the Falson family, hence its current name . In 1927 and 1938 Maltese art collector Olaf Gollcher purchased the property’s two halves which had been split and went about restoring it, using it to house much of his collection. After his death in 1962 it fell under the care of a foundation set up in his name, and in 2007 it was opened to the public as a museum, set out as a home and displayed as such.
Glad to be out of the rain, we bought our tickets, picked up our nifty little audio guides which are infrared activated when you walk into each room, and began our exploration. The rooms of the house are, for the most part, set out as you would expect a lush noble house to be, with additions of art and artefacts at every turn. The place is dripping in history and Captain Gollcher’s passion for the arts is evident in every careful addition. The centrepiece of the house, and arguably its most endearing feature is the whimsically picturesque inner courtyard with its playfully trickling fountain, deep green foliage, delicate stonework, and stoic staircase. So alluring is this courtyard that a group of amateur painters sat at their easels, palettes in hand, capturing its likeness on their respective canvases.
The lower floor rooms present the less luxurious but nonetheless intriguing of the sights here, with a kitchen filled with shining copper cookware, sturdy iron chandeliers, a gorgeous tiled stove, and a backsplash of tiles donned in skilfully painted figures; and an armoury with all manner of weapons, armour, and other medieval military accoutrements. The piece de resistance of the lower level though, is Gollcher’s art studio, decked with a good swathe of paintings hung on the walls or sitting to attention on easels, and a rather stunning fresco of an art supply cupboard in all its three-dimensional glory.
The upper level houses the more homely rooms: the bedrooms, study, parlour, dining room, and even an impressive library. Gollcher’s collection really shines in the rooms here, with everything from portraits, to silverware, globes, furniture, coins, jewellery, books, papal missives, knickknacks, and curiosities. There is so much to see it almost becomes overwhelmingly difficult to concentrate. Amongst it all though, there are a few shining additions to his extensive collection, none more so than the ten-hour French Revolution era timepiece on display. Now as we discussed many blogs ago, the French revolution gave us many things of importance, but arguably the most notable of these is the metric system. Now, although we have happily kept the easy to use system for weights and distance, there was one place of measurement it never really caught on, and this is in timekeeping. You see, there was a short blip there where the French revolutionaries tried to transition time to a ten-hour system where each hour was divided into one hundred minutes, in keeping with the principles of the decimal based system. Obviously, this never really caught on, probably because the existing system of time was perfectly functional as it was already, and thus the new idea was abandoned. As a result, very few of these timepieces still exist. In fact, the one held within Palazzo Falson is one of only three still left in existence. An oddity we had not expected to find but were very glad we did.
Reaching the rooftop we took a moment to admire the unique view over the rooftops of the city, before we descended back down onto the street to continue our day. Cutting a loop through the streets we came to the square which sits at the entrance of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, but with an entry fee being charged, and a number of other destinations for the day we settled on just snapping a few photos of the looming façade before darting off towards the main gate as the rain grew heavy again.
By the time we reached the protection of the arched entryway, the rain was hammering down, and we hunkered in with the swill of other tourists sheltering from the deluge. Spying the little bakery we had lunched at the previous day a moderate jolt from us, we eventually steeled ourselves and agreed that we should run the gauntlet and get something to eat while we waited for the clouds to finish their business, or at least tire themselves out a little.
Hoods up, we scurried like startled rats across a few roads and into the unsurprisingly crowded eatery, where the staff hustled to deliver their freshly baked pastizz to the hungry shivering masses. The ravenous crowd meant that by the time we ordered they were out of chicken ones completely, but we still happily settled on the cheese and pea varieties. Lucky for us, we managed to snag a trio of freshly vacated seats, and peeling off our dripping hoods, we tucked into the piping hot, crisp, yielding delicacies before us. As we tucked in, the rain thundered down even harder, the wind whipping until the drops seemed to be coming in almost horizontal. As with most downpours though, it was relatively short lived, and it had eased to a drizzle by the time we wrestled our way back outside.
Much akin to most old towns, Mdina and its surrounding suburb of Rabat are not the most well equipped when it comes to drainage, and we were forced to edge around giant puddles, and leap over impromptu streams which seemed to have appeared in the streets as the water sought lower ground. Making it back to the car with somewhat wetter feet than we desired, we trundled off to our next destination, another of Malta’s plethora of ancient temples, Skorba. Much like its sister sites across the island, this one also dates back to around 3600 BC. Unlike its sisters though, it is far more ruined and indistinguishable. So small and hidden is this place that we almost walked past it completely. The tumble of rocks here looks less like a temple and more like the disused by-products of a quarry, and will little information around to denote its former layout or to point out distinguishable features, it takes a bit of imagination to piece things together. Luckily, we had already visited several similar but better preserved temples in the previous few days, so we managed to figure out which bit was likely the entrance, and such things.
A little underwhelmed, we moved on pretty quickly, jumping back in the car and driving to a subsequent temple a short drive away, Ta Hagrat. Following the signs, we seemed to be on track to arrive right near the site until we turned down a small road in its direction only to find a lazy truck driver had haphazardly parked his vehicle in such a way as to block off the entire thoroughfare. Performing an almost comical seventeen-point turn, we made our way back out of the street and parked nearby, resigning ourselves to the fact we would be forced to walk the remainder of the way. Much to our joy, when we arrived, we were presented with a far more pleasurable temple ruin, with the remnants of its stone walls still stacked to around waist height, and the trilithon which stands at its entrance still complete with its capstone. That’s not to say that this site is any more significant than the former, but it certainly offered more to work with in terms of recreating its entirety in one’s mind.
Temples done and dusted, we had but one more destination on the day’s official agenda, the Dingli Cliffs. Unfortunately, Google is not the best for directing you to vague geological landmarks, and often just puts a random marker on the map: a point at which you generally reach to be met by a dead end or vast expanse of nothingness, and as it proudly announces, ‘You have reached your destination’, you snidely reply ‘No we fucking haven’t, Google’. To be fair, its kind of hard to direct people to a stretch of plunging sea cliffs, still, it probably would have made more sense if Google’s marker was at least on the edge of the island. Moving on, we managed to reach what we could only assume was a decent view of the cliffs, if only because there was a number of other tourists who had pulled over and were out snapping photos like the distant horizon was posing purely for them. The spot turned out to not actually be the cliffs themselves, but an steep, almost clifflike, embankment a hundred metres or so back from the edge which offered a particularly nice view down to them.
The rain had stopped, but the wind charging up the cliffs and over the grasslands along its top were offering a wind chill factor far below the ambient temperature. Rugged up, we braved the elements, if only for a fairly brief jaunt, to capture the beauty in a less fallible medium than our memories. Funnily enough, it was not the cliffs themselves which provided the most striking image, but rather the almost ethereal beams of light peeking out through the dark storm clouds, illuminating the sea as though some aquatic angel was about to ascend to heaven.
Braving the cold as long as we could, we eventually had to pack it in and fold our damp selves back into the sanctuary of the car. With a little daylight still up our sleeve, we decided to heed the suggestion of a pamphlet we had found at our Airbnb, and make a trip to the west coast of the island and the town of Bugibba. The drive was painless, and parking was easy enough, and before long we were wandering down to the seaside, naturally stopping at a gelateria on the way to pick up a treat. I don’t care what anyone says, cold weather is never a deterrent from frozen delights. Hell, historically speaking, the depths of winter was often the only time you could enjoy them, unless you were rich enough to have an ice house underground.
As pleasant as the seaside was, we began to feel the chill again and wandered off to visit the place we had actually come for, Malta Chocolate Factory. Walking in, the alluring smell of chocolate swept over us, and it was with great restraint that we made our way around the store, only picking out a few treats to take with us. We still needed something to warm our insides with though, and soon thereafter we were being presented a perfect example of a well-executed hot chocolate. They were everything we wanted them to be, thick, luscious, and almost offensively chocolatey; as though someone had added just enough milk to make the chocolate drinkable. Frozen fingers thawing as I snuggled my mug close, I savoured every last drop.
Our exploration of Malta the island was finally at an end, but fear not, our exploration of the country was not, for tomorrow we would brave the sea for the short ferry ride across to the homeland of my friend, Josmael, who had so inspired me to visit in the first place, the island of Gozo. Driving back to our accommodation, we settled in for the night with a home cooked dinner and a little tipple of one of Malta’s specialities. Now, anyone who has ever been to Malta will tell you that the landscape is dotted with cacti bearing the blushing fruit fingers which are prickly pears, so it is no surprise that prickly pear liqueur in all of its bright pink glory, is a staple here, and one I had promised my friend I would try. Its sweetness and flavour somehow both similar yet different to an actual pear, was a complex finish to an equally complex day.
As I nestled down into the couch with my nip, I thought about the amateur artists sitting at their easels in the courtyard of Palazzo Falson. I pondered how photography has changed our relationship with not only the art of painting, but more specifically portraiture. For millennia, painting was our only way of capturing the likeness of things, but where photos in their raw form show things simply as they are, painting has always allowed for more personal expression; the highlighting of beauty and blurring of flaws. Portraits of our ancestors do not show them as they were, in all their imperfect glory, but rather how the artist perceived them, or how the subject themselves desired to be perceived; free of pockmarks, wrinkles, blemishes or flaws which may have defined them in life but have been consigned to oblivion with the stroke of a brush. That’s not to say we do not use filters and tools to achieve the same with our photographic likeness today, but the result is not quite the same.
There is something truly magical about a palette and brush wielded by a talented hand, and yet it is a skill which has lost much of its desirability in a world so hellbent on instant gratification on the cheap. To own any depiction of oneself or one’s family was once a luxury reserved only for the wealthy; a fact starkly juxtapose to the reality of the now, where we are able to snap selfies at an alarming rate and an almost negligible cost. We have lost the desire to invest in months of waiting for a single image when we can take hundreds every day with the simple press of a button. The time needed to capture our image has gone from months to milliseconds, and the ability to do so is no longer reserved for the learned and practiced. Point and shoot has replaced pose and paint, and yet there is still something undeniably more sentimental about the latter.
Perhaps it is that in the brushstrokes we can see the time and skill taken to produce such a work, that within the art lies the evidence of a hand which followed every curve, delved into every shadow, and spent an eternity trying to perfect the colour of the glint in the eye of the subject. Each detail reminds us that thought went into every strand of hair and every fold of fabric; that thousands of hours of practice resulted in the expertly captured turned lips of a smile and creased lines and soulful shine of joyful eyes. If you ask me though, the true value of a painted portrait is in the simple fact that in the furrows of the paint sits the reminder that the artist once studied the person depicted closer than many of us ever will anyone, and in doing so it reminds us all that we should take the time to view those we love with the adoration and discernment of a painter studying their muse.