Malta – Għar Dalam Cave and Hiking the Marfa Peninsula

Our Malta trip was winding down, but we still had one item left on the sightseeing list: Għar Dalam Cave. I get the impression that this cave was probably always known to the inhabitants of Malta, but the first recorded mention of it was in 1647 in a text compiled by the historian of the Knights of St. John.

The place didn’t really get excavated until the 19th century, when paleontologists dug into the floor of the cave and discovered incredible numbers of fossils in it, of things like pygmy elephants, hippopotami, and deer, all of which have been extinct on the island for thousands of years. This cave and the fossils contained therein show that Malta was once attached to Europe via a land bridge to Sicily, since the animals found are European types. Thousands upon thousands of bones and teeth are neatly mounted in Victorian-style display cases, also giving a fascinating glimpse into what it was like to visit a museum a hundred odd years ago.

The cave itself is quite dramatic. It has a wide mouth, and immediately opens into an atmospheric red-tinted cave, easy to walk into and see. In the middle of the space, they’ve left and labeled the different layers of the cave so that you can see where the fossils were found. And in fact, there are still fossils strewn about and in piles throughout the cave.

The back of the cave is cordoned off so as not to disturb a woodlouse with extremely limited range. Several areas in the cave are also reinforced by various methods from the past few hundred years, including some sandbags that look like they might actually be Victorian. Here’s a view from the inside of the cave, looking outward.

One of the first scientists to study fossils from the cave was Giuseppe Despott, who besides heading up the project to build the museum and excavating numerous remains from the cave, “achieved great fame after unearthing the two taurodont molars”, indicating the presence of Neanderthals in Malta.

Evidently the fame went to his head (he does look like a bit of a rascal in the photo, doesn’t he?), and visible to this day (upper right corner of the photo) are his initials, which he carved into the wall of the cave.

Our final outdoor activity in Malta was another beautiful hike, this time around the coast of the Marfa Peninsula, which is the northernmost tip of the island of Malta.

Axa disparaged this hike as more of a walk (during the previous hike my free-range parenting tendencies had been somewhat at war with my desire for my offspring to make it to adulthood, and as a result the kids had scampered like mountain goats on craggy rocks). But it was a beautiful walk. Both of the hikes we took came out of one of the guidebooks we purchased for our trip: Cicerone’s Walking on Malta, which contains 33 different walks on the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino. We were rather casual walkers on this trip, and aiming for 5-8 kilometres rather than the 12-16 (or more) covered by most of the walks in the book. And we also had a car rather than relying on public transport, so we tended to gravitate towards the walks that made a circle to avoid having to backtrack on the way back.

I originally thought we could walk to the trail head from our apartment. It really didn’t look that far on the map! But wiser heads prevailed, and we drove. The trail started on the north side, on low-lying tide pools and rocks, with a spectacular view toward Comino, the little wild island just to the north of Malta, population 6, according to our guidebook. Malta is actually an archipelago, although only the three largest islands are inhabited.

Malta has some small sandy beaches, but most of the coastline is rocks dropping off into crystalline aquamarine water.

Lest you think our vacation was all sun and smiles, and our kids are robotic Stepford children, here is a verifiable instance of grumpiness. Raj is not quite as enthused about hiking as the rest of us.

Our budding biologist was always finding something interesting to show me, although I confess that I included this photo mostly to show off my amazing collapsible sun hat from Albert Cuypmarkt in Amsterdam. This was its maiden voyage, and also the trip on which it was chewed by my dog. She’s fairly non-destructive on the whole, but she does occasionally remind us that she’s not 100% angel puppy.

Once we got round to the outside edge of the peninsula, the ground went steeply up, so that there were cliffs on one side and a little forest of Aloe vera on the other.

And when we circled around to the far side, you could see where a huge chunk of the island had just cracked off, and left a chasm.

In fact, the whole side of the peninsula that faced in towards the mainland looked like it was crumbling, rock by rock, into the sea, creating picturesque little rocky inlets.

We finished off our hike at a café with panoramic views of the coastline and Comino, and a little low wall that the children hopped over while we were waiting for our food, to get back to the tidepools.

A gloriously sunny day, tired out from hiking, head full of beautiful scenery, a glass of Maltese wine, sitting with Tony as Lyra slept in his lap and watching our happy kids–it was one of those moments that you remember as a little slice of perfection. Especially as I type this in cold, dark, grey Amsterdam, which despite its weather challenges really somehow now feels like home. Here’s to sunny winter vacations, recharging for the new year, and being just as happy to return as to leave.