Romans and Rocks

After my encounter with the mummified crocodile, the universe was back in balance. As promised, my ticket to the museum of Saint Agatha’s did, in fact, include a tour. The tour was of the catacombs! And luckily, there were  no alphabetized minerals or unlabeled milestones to decipher. They were, in fact, really good catacombs.

The guide began with a warning for those who are claustrophobic or asthmatic, emphasizing that he could only take 15 people for 15 minutes, tops, and cheerfully added that the lights would go off automatically as incentive to get out because of CO2 issues. No one mentioned that our group was over 20 in number, so I just tried to stay near the front.

His talk was played up for effect, of course, but he had some good stories. After giving us a brief summary of the Life of Agatha (a medieval Sicilian saint who fled to Malta for haven against persecution before she was martyred) he took us deeper underground. This catacomb area was pretty well-excavated but had a much grittier, more accessible feel than the slick, touristy ones in Rome. For one thing, we could touch the walls and when he stopped in certain corridors to lecture, we were invited to sit on the rock ledges, the very ones that early Christians used for prayer and rituals. Some of the spaces still contain skeletal remains, a highly unusual “museum” practice. At one point, the teenage boy beside me and I realized that we were sitting in a niche that was actually an empty burial chamber. We silently met each other’s wide-eyed gaze and got out of there as soon as possible. The way we react to catacombs–their history as well as their present incarnation as museum/thrill provider–is quite a study in human nature. Toward the end, the lights flickered off for a second and the yelped, truncated “Jeez…” from the woman behind me was followed with her triumphant, “but I didn’t curse!” as her family chided her for the outburst. The thought of hanging out in a pitch-dark catacomb with CO2 issues was a momentarily terrifying and thrilling sensation, one that made me think of what it must have been like in the light of oil lamps two thousand years ago when the Christian, Jewish, pagan, Finnish, and Punic burials were taking place there.

The guide pointed out stone tables carved into the ground, mentioning that others like these had been destroyed in Rome because Gregory the Great and other popes wanted to put a stop to the meal of remembrance that Christians held at the graves. He claimed it was because drunkenness and orgies had become to common at these events. Obviously, I haven’t fact-checked these statements, but hey, it’s great theater. I can say that the meal at the grave was common in late Roman times and that he correctly pointed out that catacombs were not used for hiding from persecution as is often insisted by dramatic tour guides everywhere. What’s fascinating about these is that Maltese residents did use them for bomb shelters during World War II. Imagine being whisked away from daylight into a centuries-old series of tombs, wondering if it will be your own resting place.

There are still subtle traces like that of the war on this island.

After the catacombs, I got a snack at a patisserie and found the grotto of St. Paul, another underground niche, this one decorated with a sculpture and votive candles, commemorating where Paul used to escape the crowds and come to pray in peace and quiet. I explored the church above which was nice, but Lonely Planet had promised a fantastic shipwreck fresco and the only one I could find was merely adequate.

It seemed like I’d squeezed all the fun and culture I could out of the town, so I headed back to the bus stop where I was told that I actually needed to go to the bus depot which turned out to be a parking lot down the street. As usual, the bus took forever. Drivers from other buses hung out, smoked, slept on the park bench, possibly explaining the public transportation system quite well.

But waiting for the bus gave me time to rally, so I decided to follow a road sign to the Roman Domus and see what fate would bring me. The guard/ticket seller in the sleepy little museum there made my day. The domus is a museum built on the plan of an excavated Roman townhouse.  when I showed him my student ID for a discount, he asked what I was studying and insisted I go next to see the Durers at the Cathedral Museum (which I somehow missed) and the National Gallery. Before handing me a laminated brochure, he insisted I finish the phrase, “a thing of beauty is…”.

The museum itself was nicely laid out. Along the cobalt walls there were samples of Islamic graves found over the Roman site as well as Roman sculptures, household items, and clay vessels. But as I breezed through these, my Keats-quoting guide shuffled over, tapped me on the shoulder, and lead me to the area that overlooks the mosaics on the floor below. “It would be a shame for you to miss this,” he murmured before launching into an explanation of the three-dimensional effects that the ancient mosaic artists were able to achieve. Sure enough, there’s a labyrinth design in the flat tiles that makes it look like a prototype of an M.C. Escher drawing. The mosaics were beautiful, “… a joy forever,” certainly. On my way out, he gave me a brochure of a popular film about Malta, pointing to a postage-stamp sized photo of a mosaic on the inside. “A souvenir of your trip.” Lovely. It will be taped into my scrapbook.

On the way home it occurred to me that Assisi, the shining, Tolkein-esque white beacon on an Umbrian hill seems rather preppy compared with Valletta, the quirky, against-the-grain time capsule rising above the cliffs.

Today’s only goal was to read a book at the beach. Surely I could succeed at that without any weird encounters! Last night at dinner I met a lovely English couple who have been vacationing here for 60 years. They suggested Paradise Bay, a tiny cove at the top of the island, with a small, sandy beach and a large jellyfish net. Today’s bus made me realize that each one is decorated like a cubicle–slightly personalized by the driver. This one had a much nicer post-baroque icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ holding hearts with “In God We Trust” hand-lettered at the bottom. I supposed it would be weird to people in other countries that I associate those words with George Washington and money. There was also a sticker that said, “You don’t have to be Mad to work here, BUT IT HELPS!” I had come prepared by picking up a couple of pastizzi (Maltese empanadas) and a Coke.

After about an hour, the driver pulled over beside the highway and announced we’d made it to Paradise Bay. A nice German couple I’d exchanged pleasantries with on the bus were my only company. The man decided the driver had cheated by putting us out too soon and it did seem that we’d have to walk on the side of the road a few more yards before hitting the path to the ocean. I asked if I could join them and we took off down an unpaved path in the general direction of some water but away from moving traffic. There was a ramshakle building, a camper trailer, two dogs within a fence, and an old couple sitting outside asking us what on earth we were doing there in a heavy, heavy accent and (in his case) without a shirt. When we explained he generously offered to let us through his back yard, “a short cut” toward the paved path, and we took off. The land was full of porous moon rocks (or possibly limestone), dried brambles, and hot sand. There were a few visible cacti, occasional strands of barbed wire, and more than a few large boulders to navigate. I was once again wearing the eternally inappropriate flip-flops. The husband announced cheerfully, “our 372nd adventure of the day!” Ah, kindred spirits. Then, by way of explanation, he mentioned they’d been taking the bus a lot. If it weren’t for the jovial Germans I would have pondered whether there was a Maltese version of Deliverance, but luckily the actual paved path (and the many tourists thereon) were visible just over the hill.

And at the end of the trek, we found ourselves gazing down into a bay of cool, toothpaste-colored water and rocky ledges surrounding a sandy beach lined with festive blue umbrellas. There was a hazy castle of some sort on the horizon, and I half expected the Goonies’ pirate ship to sail into view. Paradise Bay. So worth the journey.

All I needed was a good book and an afternoon at the Paradise Bay lido.

Valletta, a pearly white city on the blue sea, the capital city of Malta.

The church above Saint Paul's grotto, commemorating his shipwreck on the island with a timeline in red: "AD 60-2010."

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