A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

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A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

A hot August morning on Comino. The rising sun’s heat is tempered by the occasional straggling cloud providing a few overcast seconds of relief and a stiff breeze of Majjistral, Malta’s prevailing north west wind which is nature’s alternative to refreshing air conditioning.

We are on our annual pilgrimage to this desolate little island. Arid, but full of life. Ruggedly beautiful with ever changing scenery. A two and a half square kilometre island. One tiny corner of which, its Blue Lagoon, is over-run by up to five thousand visitors daily. Leaving the rest to people like us. A fair deal, I think. Amazing how even on such a small landmass, you can just climb the small hill overlooking Cominotto Island and all evidence of the crowds dissipates into thin air. No sight, no sound. Nothing.

We have climbed from the inlet of San Niklaw and walked across Comino’s main thoroughfare, Triq Kemmunett. At the location of the old Bakery building we take a sharp right and climb steeply up Triq il-Gvernatur, the road leading to the imposing Santa Maria Tower, part of a network of coastal watchtowers built by the Knights of St. John.

Our final destination today is the small mooring place at Wied Ernu, a tiny cleft in the island’s southern coast which used to serve as the landing for boats from Malta during the time of the twentieth century agricultural colony on Comino.

The colony is long gone, but its remains, mostly in ruins and disrepair are spread all over the island.

On the way back, a small sign of human activity. One of the handful of people which stayed behind when the colony disbanded in the late 1960s. True Comino-born and bred. Hanging clothes to dry on a line. Surrounded by stalks of wild fennel.

A beautiful sight. A sign of humanity’s resilience and adaptability. And oneness with nature.

The fresh breeze, the aromatic smell of ripening fennel seeds and the slight waft of damp, clean laundry hanging out to dry in the wind. Elements which make me return to Comino year after year.

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The Roman Catacombs of Salina

DSCN9531_Creative pixlr signedThe Roman Catacombs of Salina.

I have known about the small Christian Catacombs of Salina for a very long time but never had the opportunity to visit them. Finally, an opportunity to go to the site arose and I took my trusted Nikon with me to explore this relatively unknown, small but nevertheless impressive legacy from Malta’s early Christian period.

Salina Bay today is a small inlet within whose inner waters one finds the salt-pans which give it its name. Centuries ago, however, Salina was Malta’s biggest Roman harbour, extending as far inland as the village of Burmarrad. Centuries of silting by soil and sediment carried by storm-water draining from the huge watercourses of Wied il-Ghasel and Wied Rihana eventually choked this once-great harbour, first converting it into marshland and eventually into the fertile agricultural land there is today.

Proof of Salina Harbour’s historical importance and relevance is evidenced by numerous archaeological finds including anchor stocks and amphorae found underwater (suggesting the unfortunate remains of ships caught in storms and which did not make safe harbour), walls of Roman ashlar masonry indicating the presence of jetties now located inland, the huge agricultural estate over which the Chapel of San Pawl Milqi was eventually constructed and, of course, the Salina Catacombs.

The area where the catacombs lie is behind the Chapel of the Annunciation near the Ta’ Cassia Restaurant. The complex consists of a main catacomb which is inaccessible and protected by a locked metal gate and a number of smaller tomb groups clustered around a rectangular court cut in the rock in what must have been an ancient coralline limestone quarry.

DSCN9505 pixlr signedIt is in fact the smaller tombs that I managed to visit and photograph. You can get to them through a signposted public footpath which passes through private agricultural land. The land is characterised by a grey lower coralline limestone outcrop showing clear evidence of ancient quarrying. Eventually you get to a small rectangular space in which five portals are cut into the vertical rock-face although the remains of tombs outside these entrances suggests that more recent quarrying may have destroyed parts of this catacomb complex.

The catacombs are well maintained, clean and navigable. Since these small hypogea are almost at surface level and do not penetrate deep underground, they are reasonably well illuminated with natural light. Mosses and ferns grow on their damp walls and floors. Their ceilings are not very high and care needs to be taken to avoid painful encounters with the hard coralline limestone!

DSCN9542_Monochrome 2 pixlr signedThe catacombs contain different types and shapes of graves including canopied graves and others which are arched recesses in the wall (called arcosolium graves). Some of the grave pits are wide enough to have held the remains of two individuals lying side by side. Until at least the eighteenth century a number of the graves still contained intact skeletons pertaining to the late Roman or Byzantine periods.

DSCN9524_Balanced pixlr signedIn one of the small catacombs there is a perfectly preserved Stibadium, the c-shaped dining table also called the agape table on which relatives of the deceased shared a meal after the burial. The size of these smaller catacombs suggests that they either belonged to different families or to guilds who interred their departed members in them.

DSCN9539_Soft 3 pixlr signedHaving a complex burial site such as the one at Salina indicates that the area continued to host a sizeable community even during the late Roman period after 500AD when the old harbour was already silting up and turning into unhealthy marshland rife with malaria. The area was eventually abandoned as evidenced by the name of the hamlet of Bûr Marrad which translates from the Semitic into the Marsh of Sickness.

The Salina Catacombs are well worth a visit. Their historical significance, their simple architectural charm, their status as an ancient resting place for our predecessors and their link with Salina’s rich ancient history all make the short sojourn to visit them very worthwhile.

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Sunset over the southern coast

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Sunset over the southern coast

A beautiful Maltese sunset seen from the limits of Qrendi in the south of the island. The broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretches in an uninterrupted direction all the way to the Tunisian coast about five hundred kilometres away.

The minuscule islet of Filfla, the remotest of the uninhabited smaller rocks of the Maltese archipelago lies silhouetted against the ruddy hues of the setting sun, its imposing 60 metre high cliffs like standing sentinel against the approaching darkness.

The exposed hard layer of coralline limestone karst is almost devoid of soil, its thin layer of organic cover washed into the sea ages ago once the trees which originally bound it to the land were cut. This landscape is far from dead however, supporting rich and aromatic Mediterranean garigue vegetation such as thyme, heather, asphodel and sea squill.

At the bottom of the picture, the small and picturesque inlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a tiny and narrow coastal indentation providing shelter to the small fleet of boats which ferry tourists to Zurrieq’s Blue Grotto further down along the coast.

Many call Wied iz-Zurrieq a fjord and superficially it does give the impression of being a mini version of one, but fjords are carved by glacial ice and glaciers have never featured in the Maltese landscape, not even during the ice ages. It is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon caused when a valley that was originally carved by fresh water on land ends up below sea level either due to a rise in sea level or due to land subsidence.

Within a few minutes total darkness will prevail. In the southern Mediterranean latitudes which are ten degrees closer to the Equator than they are to the North Pole, twilight is always brief. Like flicking off a light switch, someone once described it. But until that light switch is flicked off, the ephemeral beauty of the setting sun’s multi-hued light on this beautiful coastal stretch is captured by this picture for all to enjoy.

Everlasting beauty in Dwejra Bay

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Everlasting beauty in Dwejra Bay

Dwejra Bay on the island of Gozo in the Central Mediterranean.  A bay born out of the ancient collapse of a sea cave whose roof disappeared beneath the waves and whose sides survive as cliffs and the solitary Fungus Rock guarding the entrance.

A place of solitude and beauty where the land and the sea combine to form the perfect scene.  Sheer tough coralline limestone cliffs on one side, softer, golden globigerina limestone gently sloping to the water on the other.  Sedimentary rock made of the compressed, fossilised remains of billions of marine creatures which drifted to the bottom of the sea in an age of higher sea levels.  Until the waters receded and the new rock rose and became dry land.  Only to start gradually eroding back into the sea through the action of wind and water.

Dwejra survives as one of the least disturbed areas in the densely populated Maltese Islands.  A protected area, it is considered to be a natural heritage site of international scientific importance owing to its unique geology and botany.  It also hosts a number of rare, endemic plant species, foremost amongst which, the Maltese everlasting, examples of which are visible in the foreground of the picture.

An endemic plant is one which grows in a single place or area only.  Some endemics are common while others are very rare.  The Maltese everlasting – Helichrysum melitense – pertains to this latter category.  It is so rare that it is only to be found on the western cliffs of Gozo and nowhere else in the world.  Formerly present around the Zurrieq coast on mainland Malta it is now thought to be extinct there, surviving only on the Gozo cliffs and the tiny Fungus Rock Nature Reserve at the mouth of Dwejra Bay.

In line with its specificity to Gozo, its Maltese name is sempreviva ta’ Ghawdex and it was only described by botanists for the first time in 1980.  It is recognised as one of the rarest Maltese endemic plant species giving it a very special status.  The plant grows in shrubs which range in height between 20 and 60 centimetres.  Its leaves are covered in white hairs to protect the plant from sea spray and help it retain moisture in the arid Maltese summer.  Between April and June it produces a profusion of beautiful yellow flowers.

So I trust that you will excuse the pun in the title of today’s post, for not only is the beauty of the image and the location everlasting in its value but it is made even more special by the presence of the everlasting plant.  I have to confess that I am always humbled when in the presence of rare and endangered species, in awe at the opportunity of witnessing the last remaining specimens of what might have once been a thriving species.  Add a magically beautiful location such as Gozo’s Dwejra Bay and the picture is complete.

The smell of the sea

L1310840_tonemapped pixlr signed lores The smell of the sea

A friend of mine recently commented on a photo of rough seas during a north-easterly gale which I had uploaded on my facebook page.  He is Maltese and currently based somewhere in the internal depths of continental Europe: very, very far away from the sea.  His comment on my photo, which I am including above with this story, was that he could smell the sea from 2,200 kilometres away!  I immediately understood what he was saying and empathized with his feelings.

The smell of the sea, particularly the salty Mediterranean Sea.  Never quite so distinct as during a storm.  When the spray rushes non-stop past you, tangible enough to be felt but so fine as not to actually feel damp.  The bracing aroma of salt and seaweed.  Toxically saline and not potable, yet paradoxically refreshing and life-giving.  Exhilarating and pleasant.  Particularly when combined with the other senses.  The sound of the rolling waves crashing against the solid rocks, the awe-inspiring sight of monumental splashes where a wave disintegrates against the unyielding coast.  The salty taste of the sea in one’s mouth and the subsequent wet feeling when the accumulated spray soaks your clothes and hair.

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The refreshing smell which blows away the cobwebs, unblocks the nasal cavities and rushes straight down to the lungs, leaving a trail in its wake, like in the adverts!  And available for free rather than encapsulated in plastic phials.

Not the kind of hydrotherapy that one goes to thermal sources and spas to benefit from, but just as healthy and invigorating.  With the savage beauty of unrestrained nature thrown in for free!

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When the Greek Wind blows…..

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When the Greek Wind blows…..

Visualise the Mediterranean: the sea almost completely surrounded by land, the sea lying in between the lands of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  The Middle Sea.

Now place yourself in its centre.  A point on two fine, perpendicular cross-hairs, intersecting somewhere south of Sicily, north of Libya.  The point?  Malta and its Islands.  In the middle of the Middle Sea.

To Malta’s north: Sicily, to its south: the massive Libyan coastline.  To its west: Linosa, Pantelleria and Tunisia, to its east: the island of Crete.  Now continue imagining the points of the compass.  To Malta’s north-west: the island of Sardinia and to its south-west: the islands of Lampedusa and Djerba.  The south-east also faces Libya while the north-east points directly to the Greek mainland.

The north-east.  Source of Malta’s most feared wind, the Grigal.  The word Grigal derived from the Maltese word for Greek: Grieg, meaning the Greek Wind.  A wind of undisputed ferocity which occasionally hits the archipelago with a force that scares even the most hardened of seafarers.  Turning the sea into a no-go area and whipping up a frenzy of churning waters which smash against the exposed coastline.

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Thankfully a relatively rare wind which is recorded during only 10% of the days of the year.  Generally mild but occasionally wild to the point of being frightening.  That’s when it gains the title of Grigallata, the mother of all Greek Winds!  The Grigallata blows with strong gale force, reaching Wind Force 9 to 10 at its worst: slightly short of hurricane force.  Stirring the sea into a maelstrom, a violently churning liquid mass: beautiful but scary at the same time.  Detaching boats from their moorings, uprooting trees, collapsing walls and flooding low lying areas as the incessant waves batter the land with a forceful impact.  Creating the sort of stormy seas for which we have the perfect Maltese description: bahar jibla’ l-art which translates into  “when the sea wants to swallow the land” such is the power of the waves’ assault on the coast.

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The grigal strikes the Maltese coast at its most vulnerable.  Given the island’s natural west-east tilt, with high western cliffs and a gently sloping, indented shoreline to the east, this vengeful wind strikes where the harbours, bays and coastal settlements lie.  Where the sea is relatively shallow, allowing the waves to accumulate into huge rollers before smashing against the rocky foreshore.  The only wind which penetrates into the inner reaches of Valletta’s two marvellous harbours: the reason why the Grand Harbour breakwater was deemed necessary a hundred years ago.

I have to confess a love-hate relationship with the grigal.  A love of the unfettered power of this wind in conjunction with the normally placid sea, an appreciation of the untamed force of nature in the face of man’s puny claim to be the master of all around him.  But also a hate borne out of its wantonly destructive powers: its capacity to uproot decades-old trees and topple stone buildings as if they were mere haystacks.