“…but they will never take our freedom!”

UK

We covered three Scottish castles in three days – Urquhart, Stirling and Edinburgh. The castles were all cool, and there is a massive amount of information, but I found myself focussing on cannons, fireplaces and William Wallace.

I’ll keep this blog short (Em just laughed) and give you my favourites of each, although it was hard to decide with the fireplaces (Em laughing again).

The best cannon was undoubtedly Mons Meg at Edinburgh, a gorilla of a siege cannon presented to King James II in 1457 and used in war against the English. She could fire a 150kg gunstone up to two miles (as it did in 1558). But it was highly impractical, requiring 100 men to haul it and they could only achieve three miles in a day. Glorious.

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Mons Meg

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Cannons at Stirling

In my opinion, the best fireplace was also at Edinburgh and I have taken notes of this one for my dream home with a medieval grand hall and armour collection / man pad. Here it is – I have many more photos of other examples if anyone is interested.

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And finally William Wallace. The best bit of Stirling Castle is where you stand at the edge of the fortified walls overlooking the river below. The audio guide describes the Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11 September 1297, where Wallace and Andrew Moray strategically defeated the Earl of Surrey and his 3,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry.

From the Castle you stare across to the Wallace Monument in remembrance of Scotland’s favorite son.

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Unfortunately for us, central Edinburgh is a bit of a bomb site at present, as they have ripped up the main roads to build tram lines. It will be great when it’s finished though (2014) – trams from the city centre to the airport.

Goodbye to Scotland today. We have arrived in London and picked up our Olympics tickets. The atmosphere in London is pretty incredible. We had a curry near Piccadilly Circus tonight and everyone in the restaurant was here for the Olympics. Staying with Jeremy (an old rowing mate) in Fulham for the night and heading to Banbury (near Oxford) tomorrow afternoon to stay with family friends.

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Stirling Castle

“They may take our lives…”

UK

We’re ticking off the list of all things Scottish:
– climb a mountain
– see a man in a kilt
– eat black pudding
– go to a castle
– see Loch Ness (and look in vain for the monster)
– go on a whiskey distillery tour and drink single malt whiskey
– go to a pub (or two)
– freeze your ninnies off
– listen to bagpipey highland music

After driving along Loch Lomond (very pretty), we headed just north east of there to a very small town called Killin.

20120730-115017.jpg Blink and you’d miss it
We dragged ourselves up early in the morning and climbed to the top of Sron A’Chlachain (‘the peak that resembles a nose above the village’). It was a few k’s straight up to 1400ft. Good way to start the day before some warm Scottish porridge.

20120730-120049.jpg Chilly looking out to Loch Tay

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Later that morning we headed up to Inverness. Apparently Inverness was “as good as it gets” on the evening we arrived, with glimpses of sun and weather just warm enough to get our pasty legs out. The following day, however, we were graced with a freezing wind and blustery spells of rain as we tried to explore the mystical Ness underdressed. There were some pretty substantial waves rolling through the Loch as we drove down it, diminishing our chance of spotting any ‘irregularities’. We opted out of the monster exhibition and, shamefully enough, we voted the tiny bakery with amazing super-cheap cupcakes the best thing about this famous spot.

Our first castle visit was on the edge of the water – Urquhart – which is more ruins than castle. It was abandoned after numerous attacks on it (mostly by a greedy clan of MacDonalds), and was then pillaged by locals for materials before the state took it over. What’s left looks cool with the Loch as backdrop but, like most of these places, they’ve had to stabilize and ‘edit’ it somewhat for the tourist machine. Looking forward to comparing it to the couple of others we’re visiting soon.

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Despite never having drunk whiskey (in my case at least), the tour of Glen Ord Distillery was a highlight. ‘Grant’ our very Scottish tour guide was most informative and had answers to all our additional questions. Some of the smells were putrid (think silage) and some were awesome (the very old barrels which had once held bourbon and sherry), but it was a fascinating process.

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Looking inside the enormous vats in the fermentation phase was cool – though if you sniffed it in too much the carbon dioxide level was killer to the nose. Unfortunately no photos allowed at this point.

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My palate still doesn’t seem ready to enjoy the flavours of a fine whiskey yet, and to me it still just tasted like spicy icky rubbing alcohol or something… But one day if I happen to recognize the dried fruits, vanilla and ginger, then I’ll be knowledgable as to how they achieved it! Alex was stoked with the second variety he tried, which left a flavor in his mouth of having just licked an old piece of rustic wood. Yum?! He’ll give a more educational blog spiel on request.

Quintessential English countryside

UK

We were super lucky to have the use of some family friends’ cottage in Troutbeck (near Windermere) in the Lakes District for three nights. If you’re familiar with England, you’ll know how popular the Lakes District is at this time of year.

Fortunately, Troutbeck is tucked away from the busy lakeside towns and hoards of holiday goers. The cottage itself is 300 years old and we could’ve quite happily stayed for weeks there. As you can imagine, it was a pleasant change to have the use of a house, and not a hostel. We loved the way the cottage has been kept really simple. Em found it novel washing her hair in a bath for the first time since she was a kid. I found it novel banging my head on the doorway every time I walked through it (seriously – did it 5 times, but luckily don’t need the brain cells for the next few months).

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Unfortunately, the rain started when we arrived and didn’t stop until we left. But this added to the charm. Driving along the narrow lanes lined with old stone walls, you often feel as if you’re on the set of an old movie. I can’t think of a good example, but this is Postman Pat territory.

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We often comment how the landscape is so similar to NZ. The difference for me is that the manmade additions (houses, walls, bridges etc) in the English landscape generally blend better with the natural landscape because everything is so time-worn and the building materials were originally sourced from what was available all those centuries ago. For the most part, the present-day locals in these parts seem very keen to preserve the history and natural beauty around them.

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Night one was spent down the road at the Mortal Man, a seriously cool pub established in sixteen-hundred-and-something. Being a Sunday, we couldn’t go past the Sunday roast. Sunday night meant the pub was full and the floor was dotted with sleeping pooches, exhausted from a day walking the hills. Live folk music (which got better as the night went on) started from nine. Splashed out on sticky toffee pudding. We knew we would have to come back there.

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Spent the next day catching up on some chores (laundromat in Ambleside with soaked campers trying to dry their stuff) and wandering around some of the towns, before we had enough of the rain and sought refuge at the movies. Movies are always better when seen in small cinemas in small towns. Plus we thought Ambleside would be a safe place to watch Dark Knight Rises.

That night we tried the other pub/hotel down the road in Troutbeck, The Queen’s Head. Slightly flasher than the Mortal Man, but with plenty of character and excellent food. Budget broken again. Fish pie was fantastic (picture below). Nothing better than a comfortable pub with a local Cumbrian Ale and a hearty pub meal when it’s dark and raining outside.

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Next day I had planned to do a free guided walk (avoiding the need to get out a map and compass). Thinking it started at 10:30 instead of 10:20 and that the meeting point was closer than it actually was, I totally stuffed this up and we arrived at the meeting point 20 minutes late with all our gear and packed lunch etc, ready for a seven hour hike. Needless to say, we missed it. Lucky it was free.

So we drove home and studied the walking books on the bookshelf. Couldn't go past one of the books on "pub walks" and planned a shorter (4 hour) circular route from home to Ambleside, finishing at the Mortal Man.

Still raining, this turned out to be an excellent walk through a mixture of hillside track overlooking picturesque Lake Windermere, and forest. In this photo, I have just spotted a vampire from Twilight in the forest and Em was getting very excited about this.

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Em dressed as Batman after seeing the movie

The climax of the hike was climbing to the top of Wansfell Pike (straight up, no stuffing around zigzagging). Em was like a mountain goat (but prettier). I am NOT an athlete anymore. On a clear day, this is the view we would’ve had from the summit.

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This was the view we had instead, so we used our imaginations (again) as to what the view would be (I swear we weren’t smoking anything except fresh air).

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We did see some great views lower down.

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Finished up at the Mortal Man for a few Sally Birkett’s ales. After the hike, any pub meal would’ve been good, but the chef outdid himself tonight and served up a hearty bangers and mash. This wasn’t any ordinary bangers and mash – the sausage of the week was pheasant, honey and mustard. Delicious.

Could’ve certainly spent lots more time in this part of England. If I ever wanted to write a book, I’d do it there. It’s not surprising that Wordsworth lived there and wrote most of his masterful poetry. Very grateful to our family friends for their generosity in letting us use the cottage. A great few days.

Have just arrived in Scotland and spending the night in the small town of Killin (North East of Loch Lomond) in another pub / hotel.

Northward

UK

We drove north of the middle of nowhere to park ourselves in Bala, a small (kind of middle of nowhere) town in the Snowdonia National Park, North Wales.

Accommodation here was an interesting little hostel where the matronly proprietor set out her expectations of us on arrival. (We were lucky to avoid the lessons on making your bed, which are apparently common.) The thing with these hostels is that they don’t actually save you much. This one was still £49 for a double room with shared bathroom. That’s not much of a saving on some of the excellent B&B’s which might be £60 or £70, but with a full breakfast and nicer rooms. The advantage of the hostel of course is that you can cook your own meals in the kitchen, so you do save there. Either way, Britain ain’t cheap.

We spent most of our time in Bala at the pub and lying by the lake not in the sun, while people pretended it was summer. It was actually quite entertaining watching the holiday makers trying to do all their summer activities (sailing, swimming, cricket on the lawn and ice cream) when it was clearly too cold for all of that.

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Highlight of the pub was listening to an old Welshman speaking Welsh and dipping into English in the most heavy of accents. Born and bred in Bala.

On departing Bala the hostel boss suggested we stop in Chester on our drive north, so we did. The sun was shining in Chester and we really enjoyed our few hours there. Another walled city like Bath, the shopping seemed better (we were only looking) and it seemed a little less fancy and a little more friendly than Bath.

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Next stop – the Lakes District.

Magical middle of nowhere

UK

Further up into the Pembrokeshire National Park was our even more middle-of-nowhere youth hostel (also our first one). This spot coincidentally made the cover of our ‘Best Places to Stay in Britain on a Budget’ book, it has an Eagle’s Nest (Bay of Islands) view at YHA price. Amazing. We’re sleeping in squeaky bunk beds in the smallest room, but it’s a very tidy, comfortable place with friendly, chatty ‘wardens’.

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The best thing about this location is that the 299km long Pembrokeshire Coastal Path comes right past the driveway. Today we donned our hiking shoes once again and headed out on a 10km walk to a lighthouse on Stumble Head and back.

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It was perfect – we were so lucky with the day we had for it, as the fog had been completely shrouding the house the day before we arrived. Wales seems much drier than England, and we understand that while we are basking in sun and dry underfoot, a lot of England is wet (as usual?) This meant no mud to clean up this time, and was a better test for the capabilities of the new shoes before big hikes in Italy. We also spotted a number of seals hanging out around the rocks along the way – apparently it’s the best stretch of the walk for whales and dolphins as well, but not today.

20120722-211232.jpg Lunch on a cliff

20120722-211559.jpg In case you’ve forgotten our ugly mugs…

While this spot is absolutely stunning, and possibly some of the cheapest accommodation you’d find with this sort of view (Stu will say otherwise!), we really don’t feel like we’re in a foreign country. The sea, cliffs and farmland all serve to remind us that we’re pretty lucky in NZ too.

Our couple of nights perched on the coast were great, and I think we could have happily stayed a bit longer. Being able to cook our own dinner, then eat and blog with the cliffs, coast and sunset…waxing lyrical! We’ll let photos cover it…

20120722-204733.jpg Concentrating blog face

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Wales

UK

There are two bridges which cross from England into South Wales, with quite possibly the world’s highest toll. NZ $12 for a car and $37 for a truck. Maybe they spent too much painting the cool spans through the middle in baby blue. We passed through much of South Wales without stopping, conscious of having been held up with the attempted windscreen repair and the distance we needed to cover.

Our lodgings for the night was a great B&B (our first) in the middle of nowhere, near Freshwater East in South Wales. After getting settled in we drove to the one inn nearby, which was another perfect dinner spot looking out to the water. Very quiet, just a few locals, and a great steak and ale pastie (served of course with peas!)

We backtracked a little the next day, so that we could see the cool wee town of Tenby. With an awesome beach and streets lined with good shops and colorful houses, we really enjoyed it here. It was the first time we felt like it could be summer, though the water was an ice bath vs the spa of the Med!

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20120721-191243.jpg Chilly waters of Tenby beach

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The roads in Wales off the A-highways are somewhat comical. Largely one way, it means lodging yourself into the side of the grass bank or reversing a few miles when you come across oncoming traffic. The high bordering sides also impede vision of both other vehicles and the view out to surrounding land and sea unfortunately.

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We went off the beaten track down such a road to see a more remote spot, Marloes Sands. Isolated, vast and unique, it is one of two Wales beaches popular with movie makers. It certainly leant itself to some awesome photographic potential, and after the hike down to it we enjoyed some lunch taking it all in. I loved it.

20120721-194035.jpgMarloes Sands – photos don’t do it justice

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Bath time

UK

After leaving the Isle of Wight via an alternate ferry from East Cowes to Southampton, we made fairly easy progress towards Bath via Stonehenge.

Travel on a budget certainly means making a few sacrifices, and the cheat’s version of Stonehenge was one of them – aka Stonehenge-through-the-fence. It was still cool to see it in person, though we’ll have to wiki some more of the facts and history given we didn’t get the audio tour! The commercialisation of some of these places is often surprising, when the images we have in mind include not a soul, barrier or signpost in them, yet the real thing is smack next to a roadway and surrounded by a path full of disinterested children. Still, a pretty fascinating place.

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Unfortunately, Bath would be somewhat bad luck for us. En route the tiniest of tiny stones caused a big crack on the driver’s side of Cee-apostrophe-d’s windscreen. A huge bugger given it means an insurance claim, and we spent a bit of time in Bath and Bristol trying to get it replaced before we carried on. It seems Hertz have a fair amount of bureaucracy to prevent customers making their job easier, and their approval was going to take too long. The helpful team at National Windscreens assured us it was fine to leave until we drop it back, and that with the state of their roads it could just happen again! So the crack stays…

Our accommodation in Bath was a hard to find Travelodge with no parking – something we will be more careful of when choosing future places, especially after the whopping parking ticket we got and the cost of city parking spots. Another mark on the stupidity/bad luck board, which we’re intent to end at that!

Bath itself was fab. Like much of the UK seems to be, it was hideously expensive, apart from the rare gem we found in a free walking tour. It was hosted by a lovely old lady who lead us around the streets, stopping at various points to narrate the history of the area and point out things we otherwise would have missed. The stories behind the springs that give Bath its name were quite neat, centered around the amazing Roman Baths in the middle of town. Cost would prohibit us going inside this time, but maybe on another visit.

20120721-183823.jpg This building still operates as a medical facility today

Our guide enthusiastically told stories of Ralph Allen who came to Bath in the Georgian period. At 27, Ralph had taken over the postal office and made a fortune by using Bath (rather than London) as a postal hub, making the service more efficient. He spent his new fortune acquiring the land next to the town, which contained heaps of stone, and was able to build a bigger fortune by building Bath – with the help of the architects John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger. The Woods are responsible for architectural creations around the city including The Circus.

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There was mention also of Jane Austen, who lived in Bath with her parents and based two of her novels there. We would later find her books for £2 each in Wales – perhaps I should be persuaded to pick up a few more of the classics?

Possibly most fascinating was the architecture and town hierarchy centuries ago. The street fronts of all the buildings are uniform and smart at instruction of the architect, but the individual builders who bought rights to sections of the buildings could do as they wished with the rest. The walking tour was just over two hours and was definitely the best use of our short time.

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Swing Low, Sweet Chariot…

UK

After only two weeks of dusty, arid lands, we were quite comfortable in seeing the green pastures of England as we flew into Gatwick. Not so comfortable was the temperature after the 38-41 degrees of Malta. We’d heard about the summer-less UK, but it was still a shock to feel it for ourselves. Road atlas in hand we got going in our Cee-apostrophe-d: our black Kia station wagon which we remembered being ridiculed on Top Gear – fortunately for the stupid name, as the car itself is great, surprisingly.

The first route was to head south and drive through Brighton. It was teeming with people and we didn’t stop there, but was good to see the familiar scenes for ourselves. There is always something rather comical about beach chairs and umbrellas on a beach where people are in beanies, puffer jackets and trousers, without a chance of sun breaking through. This is a sight we have seen a lot in England already!

We covered the ground fairly quickly and found ourselves at the Portsmouth ferry in time for the 4.30pm crossing to the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately this would see our first mistake of the trip – investigating pre-booking the ferry then not actually doing it, meaning we paid double what we needed to. Fortunately, our enjoyment of Wight would help us forget this. Lots of photos ahead…

Isle of Wight is the largest island in England and in the English Channel. You can see it off the south coast, and it’s a popular holiday spot for mainland Poms. It holds plenty of its own history, having been home to Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria (who married her first cousin – ew), as well as usage in the Second World War due to its proximity to France. On top of that, it’s ‘an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ meaning our travels around the 92km of coastline were marked with quaint village after quaint village, mixed with stunning cliffs and rolling hills.

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Our accommodation was in Ryde to the north – a perfectly comfy room above a quirky pub, which served a great English breakfast. The first night we found dinner at one of the last true pubs on the island – no redecorated interior and the like, just locals, kids playing darts, and dinner served with an old wooden placemat. The food was great, and as they were all out of Sunday roast we went with fresh fish and chups. Perfect start to our English dining experience.

20120719-090553.jpg No doubt we’ll see a bit of this on the menu…

20120719-091454.jpg Looking back at Ryde from the pier

We were keen to break in our hiking shoes with one of the hundreds of walking routes on the Island. Naturally we chose one of the longest – made more so by the fact that we couldn’t find the start point, so extended it somewhat. Rugged up in double merinos and rain jackets, we covered around 11kms of trail, boggy farmland and grassy cliff top.

Perfect day for a stroll!

20120719-094519.jpg Looking back to the tiniest glimpse of the monument – the half way point

On the route we stopped at the Tennyson Monument – a sizable cross on its lonesome on the coast. Pretty eerie when the low misty cloud was sweeping around it in the furious winds as it was for us. There wasn’t a single barrier or marker for the edge, and a bloody long drop to the seas and rocks below. Despite the gale, we proceeded on across the very middle of the cliff top, keen to see the Needles which lay at the end of the cliffs. We were literally nearly blown over, but the view was well worth it.

The needles are a natural rock formation just off the end of the land in the south west corner of the Isle. The tallest, narrowest piece which gave them their name collapsed in a storm, but it’s still pretty spectacular. Maybe it was just the satisfaction from getting to the right spot on our walk directions! There were also the remnants of a rocket test site and battery from around World War II.

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20120719-095434.jpg Long way down…

We capped off the day with a wicked spot for dinner in Ventnor, on the way back to Ryde. Tucked in the corner of the bay there is the “world famous” Spyglass Inn. It had awesome character with low ceilings and ship-related items all over the walls, with the windows looking out over the waves. We were kept entertained by all the surfers trying to catch a break, and more so by the really skilled kite surfer weaving between them. A hearty chowder of local crab and good English curry warmed us up!

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Other than a bee sting on my finger from a giant bumble bee at Queen Vic’s gift shop, our Isle of Wight experience was awesome. It should be a must-do place on more foreigner’s itineraries, as it really does capture the best of England in an easily covered area. We’d definitely go back (pre-purchased ferry ticket in hand!)

Farewell to Malta

Malta

We have departed Malta and are now on our way to London sipping our final Kinnies.

Before we left, Marisa and her sister Marianne took us out for a great dinner by the marina in Ta’ Xbiex. Marisa brought some really old photos that Grandfather had sent to his sisters over the years. There was Grandfather in his military uniform aged 19 and photos of Dad and Lorraine as babies, plus photos from Charles and Emily’s last trip to Malta. Also a good one of Grandfather taking a call from his sisters on his 70th birthday, which bought back memories of that night 21 years ago.

Marisa has been so good to us during our stay and we are hopeful that she will one day make the journey to NZ so that we can reciprocate.

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Yesterday we had a coffee with Doreen Mangion who has also been very good to us. It was a shame that we didn’t get a chance to see Mary and some of the other Mangions, but they are all quite busy with a wedding next week and Mary’s birthday today.

The Maltese are now officially calling the last two weeks a heat wave, though the temperature yesterday had dropped by three or four degrees, which was far more pleasant. Heading to 14 in the UK will be a bit of a shock.

It was only right that we returned to our St Julian’s restaurant Gululus for our last night in Malta. Em had the traditional rabbit pie and my pasta was the best pasta yet. Traditional date fritters and ice cream turned out to be incredibly good.

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My highlights from Malta = diving in Gozo with Mike the Maltese, seeing the family, eating lamb Ftira and drinking lots of Cisk.

Em’s highlights = swimming in the Med, finding great Maltese food and the first time we saw Valletta at twilight (awwww).

We definitely think St Julian’s was the best place to stay – it had the best feel about it as an area, plenty of great restaurants and easy access to anywhere you’d want to go.

Black Friday in an ancient tomb

Malta

It probably wasn’t coincidence that the only tickets we could get to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum were on Friday the 13th. After all, it is estimated that 7000 people were buried at this site.

The Hypogeum is an ancient temple or tomb which dates back to 6000 years ago. It was discovered in 1902 when a new cistern was being installed for new houses to be built above. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and has been the subject of much archaeological study.

One of the things we found so bizarre was that the Hypogeum sits in the middle of residential Paola and, at street level, the building which has now been constructed above it blends in with the rest of the suburb. There used to be four houses above the Hypogeum which have now been removed and replaced with a more modern structure protecting the tomb below.

The tomb is climate controlled in terms of temperature, CO2 and light to minimise the degradation of the ancient stone. Only 80 people per day are allowed (to keep CO2 to a controlled level) – eight groups of 10 people every hour.

The tour begins with a short background film before you move down to the top level of the tomb. There is an audio guide which is synchronised with the dim lighting as you move through.

The top level is what would have been ground level (or slightly below ground level) all those years ago. Large boulders are scattered around the entrance to make it look more inconspicuous. There are some small compartmental spaces where it is thought that the dead were first put to decompose before the corpses were buried.

You then descend gradually through another three levels, stopping to observe the entrances to the smaller tombs where the dead were buried. Many ancient artifacts were recovered from inside the Hypogeum such as sacrificial sculptures, weapons and other everyday objects. There are also original paintings in red ochre (resembling blood) on some of the walls and ceilings. The red pigment and some of the materials of the sacrificial sculptures are from neighboring islands and Sicily, so it is fairly certain that these people were seafaring.

The most remarkable thing about the structure is that it was built entirely by the use of bone picks and chisels. The entire Hypogeum is one big sculpture and it would have been built progressively over hundreds of years. Small holes were bored into the rock to make the rock easier to chip away. Even more incredible is the fact that some of the larger domed rooms were sculpted to look like they had been built by placing large boulders on top of each other. The main chamber was designed with outward sloped pillars and doors to make the room seem larger than it actually was.

Little is known of the people that built this tomb and you inevitably end up with more questions than can be answered. Using the research into the Hypogeum and the other ancient temples and other sites scattered around Malta and Gozo, archeologists have been able to make some assumptions about how they lived. In the Hypogeum itself, it seems that people were buried on a hierarchical basis and there is evidence of human and animal sacrifice.

Our concerns of being buried alive were probably unfounded given the number of earthquakes the structure has survived undamaged. We were surprised at how moisty it was down there, with water droplets pooling on the ceiling and dripping heard echoing throughout (Em wrote this bit). The Hypogeum was fascinating and well worth the €20 ticket price. For anyone heading to Malta, this is a must see, and is booked out months in advance.

Cameras weren’t allowed, but here are some Google photos.

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