Malta is one wacky place. Valletta, the capital city, is beautiful and shabby and boring and altogether too much excitement for a beach vacation. The language and food taste north African while the temperament is decidedly British. The city itself looks like an eccentric Mediterranean baroque sculptor chiseled it out of a single piece of yellowish white limestone and placed it on the rocks above a deep blue body of water. The hills are steep like San Francisco and in some places, steps are actually carved into the sidewalks, each about three inches high and a foot and a half wide. They’re exactly the wrong shape for someone my height and I have to be careful not to stumble.
Yesterday I watched Maltese kids in floaties jump off a limestone “beach” in the city, literally a carved, flat piece of land that juts out into the water and serves as a large diving board. I watched sailboats in the harbor and went to see the swoon-worthy, larger-than-life Caravaggio painting of The Beheading of John the Baptist in the very room where he was ceremoniously kicked out of the Order. (For the record the underestimated Saint Jerome on the back wall of that chapel is just as beautiful). I paid homage in the War Museum and talked to some tourists and locals and walked almost every inch of the city before dinnertime which is super early in this town. Obviously, today I needed an excursion of some sort.
So I broke out the Lonely Planet guidebook and hopped on the bus to Mdina (a medieval walled city) and Rabat (its outside-the-walls extension) in order to see the lovely frescoes, early Christian spiritual havens, and charming architecture. I should start by commenting that every time you ask directions here you get an explanation that makes it seem terribly simple to get from point A to point B until you get out the door and the cityscape is a giant dollhouse of hilly white limestone. Some maps have English street names and others have Maltese, so basic navigation makes a simple grid-based city into a multi-layered project.
From this lovely melting pot of civilized complexity, I encountered the bus system and promptly set foot in a third world country. I had forgotten there were places on earth that make the NYC MTA look efficient. After much honking and yelling in the circular bus park, the trip began. The orange buses look like elongated VW vans from the 1970s and seem to have lost their shocks in that decade as well. Behind the driver is a sign with hand-painted flowers and the bus number. Beside that is a glass case built above the driver to house a vintage polychromed plastic bust of the Virgin Mary who has, unfortunately, seen better days. The information booth man had told me the trip would take about 25 minutes, (“depends on your driver”) and the cowboys behind the wheel do work hard to tame the orange beast as it swerves through the countryside, a bleak but humid desert with the bland limestone made into rock walls and fences instead of baroque churches and homes. I gave the driver my 50-cent piece, got change, and sat on the second row. The old man behind me tapped my shoulder and murmured “just give him exact change next time,” in a hushed, urgent tone. Um, thank you. At the next stop, a boy with a backpack got on the bus, offered 50 cents, got three back. No one said anything to him about it.
I got off the bus with a few other tourists and followed road signs and arrows through a crumbling town and a gas station and over narrow sidewalks near cars that were driving on both sides of the road. By that point I was actually missing Rome’s dart-and-dash strategy. The first store clerk I met was quite quizzical when I asked about a city map. Perhaps some other store had one to sell, she suggested. Eventually I stumbled upon St. Paul’s catacombs, paid my 3 euro and read the posters on the walls detailing how many types of burials were in the catacombs below.
The catacombs themselves were weird, weird, weird. No labels except signs with numbers which apparently corresponded with an audio guide available in town. What town? The catacomb itself was a complex maze of rows and cut-out spaces that I was the doofus trying to navigate it in flip-flops. There were no guides or chaperones and very few lights. There were few steps and fewer handrails built to accommodate tourists. The Romans were normally so precise and organized that I found it baffling they would have constructed a labyrinth with so little rhyme or reason to it. Equally baffling was the amount of freedom the tourists had down there. It was a little scary when I pulled out my tiny flashlight keyring and its beam didn’t even pierce the darkness.
My next stop was at St. Agatha’s catacombs, reported to have some unique frescoes and a well-preserved maze of burial sites. I bought a ticket and was told I could see the museum before the tour. What tour? But I did as I was told and went upstairs to the museum. I was totally unprepared. The first floor consisted of geological finds–sea creatures and stones in glasses cases. There was an entire alphabet of minerals in boxes–Bonenite; Brandisite; Calcite; my favorite, Vesuvianite; Zaratite–all with stick-on plastic labels with a letter-punch label maker. Okay, but where was the church? Where were the fantastic finds that are supposed to help me write a dissertation? Where was the art? The room above that one had archaeological finds which were pretty interesting and more in keeping with a church museum, clay oil lamps from the second and third centuries, medieval marble slabs. All of this was stored in a series of dusty glass cases like the ones in Indiana Jones where the Arc is stored. In fact, the Holy Grail is probably somewhere underneath those ancient incense burners. But moving on to the third room, there was a wider variety of objects that seemed like a holy rummage sale run amok–a baby doll in a glass case set up to look like baby Jesus, an urn covered in sea shells, a Northern European baroque oil painting, a plastic sculpture of John the Baptist’s head (and only the head) mounted sideways on a pillar. And holy cow–no one in the guide books mentioned that the largest case in the church museum was reserved for a mummified crocodile, smiling like he’d just swallowed Captain Hook’s hand. If I’d known my afternoon’s epiphany would be in the form of a reptile mummy housed in a religious instutition, I would been in a better mindset for the treasure hunt of randomness that became my afternoon.
From that point on, with the mummy as my talisman, I rallied and thought of my Maltese field trip as more of a jambalaya-style mingling of elements than a prim art history excursion and my travel karma improved accordingly.
[More on Malta tomorrow. Good night!]