Monday, October 6, 2014

Ancient underground burial site is a 'must see'

The next morning started with a lovely espresso and another delicious marmaletta croissant. Then it was off to Valletta’s main bus terminal for a 30-minute ride to the Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground  burial site. Discovered in 1902 during construction work, the site was first excavated by a priest between 1904 and 1906. It is a complex made up of interconnecting rock-cut chambers set on three distinct levels. Earliest remains at the site date back to about 4000 BC, and the complex was used over a span of many centuries, up to around 2500 BC.

The Hypogeum was first opened to visitors in 1908 and since then has been visited by many thousands of people. Unfortunately, this has taken a toll on the delicate microclimate of the site affecting preservation, especially of the unique red ochre paintings. Consequently, the site was closed for conservation between 1990 and 2000 and visitors are now limited to 80 per day in groups of ten. So you need to order your tickets in advance, which luckily I had done.

Our bus took us through densely populated areas of largely unattractive shops and housing until we got to Paola. We had arrived early, so as not to miss our time slot, and so we had time to wander around. Being Sunday, most shops and bars were closed. Some men's clubs, that is small bars for men only, were open and quite busy.

At the appointed time we joined our group and the tour began. The uppermost level consisted of a large hollow with burial chambers on its sides. This hollow was probably originally exposed to the sky and excavations in the early 1990s indicate that there might also have been a monumental structure marking the entrance. A doorway led to the Middle Level, which contained some of the best known features of the Hypogeum such as the intricate red ochre wall paintings and the beautifully carved features in imitation of architectural elements common in Megalithic Temples. The deepest of the three levels, the Lower Level was accessed down seven steps in the chamber popularly known as the ‘Holy of Holies’. As we were listening to the history in a  rather cramped space a huge drop of something went down my back. It gave me a bit of a fright but was only water from the condensation on the ceiling.

It was fascinating seeing the Hypogeum but now it was back on the bus to Valletta. The bus service was quite frequent and for just over €6 we got a pass to ride on any bus for a week. What excellent value for money.

Once again it was extremely hot with temperatures approaching 38 degrees. We walked through one of the big main pedestrian streets stopping at a grocery store to stock up on food for our apartment. We saw very few grocery stores in Valletta. I'm not sure where the locals shopped.

By now it was lunchtime and we found a lovely little bistro down a narrow side street. Like many of the restaurants in Malta it had rabbit on the menu but this time it was rabbit stew cooked in white wine, rosemary and some other herbs. It was so tender and just fell off the bone. The local Maltese beer made a lovely accompaniment.


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