A Gradual Transition Back to Europe

The cheap hotel in Kairouan where we stayed, which became much more pleasant by taking the bed off its saggy frame and putting it on the floor, was located next to the town’s main food marketplace. When we had driven up to the hotel, it was easy to drive around some empty stands. When we got up, the car was entirely blocked in by food carts and stands of plywood on milk crates and the accoutrements of souqs everywhere. After evaluating and rejecting a few other escape routes which almost-work except for at one crucial turn your rear wheel has to be up on a boulder, we realized that we’d have to drive directly through the market. It was easy enough for a few vendors with carts to move them a few feet, but there was one point where the car would fit between two tables of pomegranates only if it were pointed a slightly different direction and there was no room for it to maneuver to get there. So about five guys picked up the back end and moved it to the left about a foot. It was quite an exhilirating experience overall. Meeting the locals and all. What must they think of us and our planning capabilities?

We went to the tourist office and hired an Official Guide, who charged only $7 for a tour of the town’s main sites; the large Aghlabite Basins, which were constructed to hold water for the town of half a million Kairouan had been in the past; various mosques, some in use, some not; a little mausoleum; and ending up, of course, with a visit to an artisanat where we saw carpet being made and had several different types of carpets rolled out for us. It was pointed out how easy it was to have them shipped to the USA or how they weren’t too heavy to carry, but we weren’t biting at that bait, and they gave up quickly. All of the mosques had the usual wonderful Islamic decorative touches, with layers of tile, intricate designs in plaster, and ceilings made from cedar of Lebanon. It was interesting that the large mosque’s prayer room had a layer of wood in each of its many columns to serve as expansion joints.

We drove back to Tunis, stopping on the way to see a picturesque place where a hot spring empties into the sea — the normal road there was closed just like Devil’s Slide and we had to approach from the other direction. The roads back were filled with honking, flashing cars with huge Tunisian flags attached — obviously there was a soccer game somewhere. We returned the car and took a taxi to the ferry terminal — the taxi driver had the Tunisia vs. Morocco game on the radio and honked the taxi horn excitedly when Tunisia scored; we didn’t find out how it ultimately ended up. The ferry was a nice place to spend the night, with wonderful in-room showers and nice foam beds.

Around noon on Sunday (oops, one; it’s still daylight savings time here) we arrived in Malta. The short taxi ride to the hotel was pretty stupidly expensive, but the little guest house where we’re staying and the rental car seem like reasonable deals. There is some kind of a rule about the first taxi in a new country being a complete ripoff. How do they sense that? I didn’t know much about Malta before arriving — the GPS didn’t seem to know about it either (and it included Pitcairn, for goodness sake) Malta has had people on it for a very long time, since 5200 BC. Those people seem to have vanished. After that, just about everyone that owned Sicily spent time here, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Hospitallers, a bunch of other Christian franchises, Napoleon, British, and tourists. The Maltese people seem to have been imported by the Aghlabites and Malti is a Semitic language although written left to right in Roman script. The people seem to be largely Roman Catholic. The Insight Guide says that the people were instructed to believe in Christ by Roger the First (well, originally by St. Paul, who converted the Roman ruler of Malta after the usual Christian fashion, and let the ruler tell the rest of the island what’s what) and the ones who still believed in Mohammed were deported to Calabria or someplace. It is a characteristic of surviving populations that they can believe what they are told to believe. How many fingers, Winston?

The place we’re staying, the Asti Guest House on St. Ursula Street 18, is a delightful little B&B run by an old lady and her sister. The house has been in the family for generations. The lady’s husband, who died a few years ago, had been an electrician who liked collecting crystal from broken chandeliers; he assembled a massive beautiful chandelier out of them which hangs from the stone arches in the breakfast room.

We set out with the little that remained of Sunday afternoon to see some of the ancient temples nearby. We discovered that the roads in Malta have notoriously bad signs to tell you either where you are or how to get to where you want to go. Somehow we found the Tarxien Temple which dates to around 3000 BC. We went to a few other places which turned out to be either permanently closed, temporarily closed, or just closed after 4:30. The guidebook recommended a restaurant in Marsascala which turned out to have a stupid menu; the next one we stumbled on was a wonderful little place called Tal-Familja which basically made us a Maltese tasting menu with fish soup, pumpkin soup, octopus stew, fried cheese, and lampuki, their favorite fish which is in season only in September and October. The wine was also quite good, and they were very nice, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Monday we set out to explore Valletta, the capital city where we’re staying. We went to the Museum of Archaeology, where the best artifacts from the prehistoric sites around the island are collected. In addition to spiral designs on rocks much like at Bend of the Boyne in Ireland, there are many representations of animals and humans. There was even a tiny model of a temple. Then we went to St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a large church which, though rather plain on the outside, had every square inch of floor, wall, and ceiling decorated on the inside. It was also packed with people. The floor was essentially a mortuary in which the person buried beneath each 1 x 3 meter plot had an inlaid stone picture in which he was illustrated as a skeleton in some context. The walls and ceilings had typical gaudy Catholic cathedral decoration — paintings, sculptures, etc. There was also a museum featuring Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist”.

In the afternoon we set back out to see some of the prehistoric places which had been closed late on Sunday. There was a cave called Ghar Dalam in which many, many bones from European hippopotami, elephants, deer, and other animals had been found: these were exhibited in the “old museum” sorted by bone type — all the molars here, all the toe bones there, etc. A “new museum” room was a little more explanatory, showing where everything fit in in the timeine of the Earth. The Hagar Qim and Mnadrja temple sites were similar to the Tarxien temple we saw on Sunday, but on closer inspection revealed even more in common with the Boyne site, including alignment with the sun (it would shine in particular places on equinoxes and solstices), and corbelled roofs (slabs gradually inset over each other).

Ray had hoped to get to Gozo, the other island, but with only two days here it seems wrong to spend half a day driving/ferrying there and back, so we’ll spend our second day looking at catacombs and churches on the main island. We’ll just have to come back some other time (and we’ll reserve a tour spot in the Hypogeum, an ancient underground tomb, before we leave — it was fully booked for the next 10 days when we arrived).