Mont Blanc: A Walk in the Clouds

A day in Geneva to visit the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Space Rousseau and the CERN; to enjoy the greenery, the lakes, and to indulge in a gastronomical orgy of cheese and chocolate, before crossing the border t to the French Alps for the real thing.

A ride through green hills and mist covered valleys, we came across rivers of ‘glacial milk’ (thanks to glacial erosion) before the snow-capped peaks finally made themselves unashamingly visible as we approached Chamonix, at the foothill of Mont Blanc. It was something else that we were trying to spot, namely hot air balloons! These air balloons are always good news: no strong wind…climbing is possible.

From Chamonix we took the legendary Aiguille du Midi cable car for a memorable, thrilling climb to the North Peak, where we had a 360-degree view of the entire mountain range including Mont Rose (4638 m), Cervin (4505 m) and the Grand Combin (4317 m). A few, long moments of aesthetic hypnosis at an altitude of over 3800 meters, then we crossed a hanging bridge to the Central Peak where, from different terraces and viewing points, we had stunning views of the French and the Italian Alps, as well as Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe (excluding Turkey).

While the French Alps boast large stretches of immaculate snow and serrated peaks and boulders, their Italian counterparts seem to slowly and comfortably vanish, fading into an ocean of almost liquid clouds. The mountains become shores, the peaks become beacons, and the visual effect is one of breathtaking serenity: we are at the roof of Europe…the kind of realm where only mythical birds could spread their wings. Here -beyond earth, beyond mist, beyond clouds- only spirits can whirl and swirl.

Then came a necessary reality check: the Snow Tunnel leading to the Vallée Blanche. The sign was drastically clear and grim: ‘High mountain itinerary. No grooming, no trail markers, no avalanche prevention work, no ski patrols.’ In other words: ‘Beyond this point, you go on your own responsibility.’ Exactly the kind of adrenaline rush that makes this trip unforgettable, or so I thought as I made my way to the open sea…I mean the open mountain. Enjoy the photos!

September 11th: The Artistic Icon of Catalonia’s Fall

By the gothic Church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona’s iconic El Born neighborhood, a memorial stands next to a cemetery of profound sentimental value to most Catalan people: the Fossar de les Moreres, a mass grave where many defenders and civilians who died during the 1714 siege of Barcelona were buried. A huge painting covers an entire building at one corner of the Fossar de les Moreres; a reproduction of an epic painting by Antoni Estruch titled ‘September 11th, 1714’. September 11th is the day on which the Bourbon troops finally took Barcelona, thus bringing the War of Succession to an end and sealing the fate of Catalonia forever. It is also the Catalan National Day.

The original painting is now on show at the Museum of Catalan History in Barcelona as part of the city’s cultural program to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the ‘fall’ (the program includes signposted itineraries, lectures, documentaries, exhibitions, marches of protest, etc.). Politics apart, my interest in this painting is purely aesthetic.

The painting, produced between 1907 and 1909, is a monumental work (4 meters x 2.5 meters) by the Catalan painter Antoni Estruch. Hailed as the new ‘Fortuny’ (after Catalonia’s genius painter, Marià Fortuny), Estruch developed an interest in history painting with a particular skill for capturing anecdotal moments. The painting captures the moment in which Rafael Casanova, one of the great heroes that defended Barcelona in 1714, falls dead, surrounded by his ‘brothers in arms’ and holding the flag of St Eulàlia, a 4th century Christian martyr from Barcelona. An adequate and suggestive choice: Casanova and his companions are understood to be martyrs too, fighting against the ‘secular’ French troops.

There is a Goyesque quality in this artwork. One can only think of Goya’s ‘Third of May’ when we contemplate the body language of the figures to the right, and the contrast between the spontaneity of the Catalan fighters to the right and the organized march of the ghastly French troops that seem to advance like a killing machine, springing out from the smoke to the left. Rafael Casanova occupies centre stage: his death seems to mark a turning point as everything crumbles down around him. Still, his raised arm seems to mark the way in agony: his body has been fatally wounded, his spirit never crushed. The fact that he and his fellow Catalans were defending the city from an elevated place (Bastion of St Pere, whose massive wall can be seen in the bottom) and the smoke that shrouds the entire group lend a sense of awe to the scene: they become saintly freedom fighters belonging to the realm of Heaven, as the smoke turns into clouds.

If you think of the painting as a storyline, the painting can also be read from left to right, following an emotional crescendo: The French advance decisively, the guns point at them and then shift sideways, the arms are raised and faces turn away, and the defeat is embodied in the image of the man covering his face with his hand (bottom right).


Malta & Gozo: The Mediterranean Intensely Experienced

These are some reflections on my visit to Malta and Gozo. Scroll down for photos and click any photo to enlarge.

I. Intro: An Ode to Malta
It’s barely visible on the map, but Malta has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and enough cultural and natural baggage to keep you wandering and wondering for weeks.

Malta offers everything with a twist of its own, one that makes it unlike any other place in the Mediterranean: temples can be visited in tens of countries, but Malta has the world’s oldest…fish is eaten in every corner of the Mediterranean, but how about lampuki (dolphin fish) in caper sauce or swordfish carpaccio? You go to an island expecting nice beaches, but Malta gives you the luxury of choice between spectacular grottos, turquoise lagoons and even an inland sea!

Then you ride a bus and you listen to people talking. You recognize Italian, French and English words, but mostly Arabic with a Tunisian flavor…a vivid reminder of Malta’s rich history and the mosaic of cultures that helped weave a unique identity ‘made in Malta’: Mysterious temple builders, Sicilian farmers, Phoenician seafarers, Roman soldiers, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, Ottomans, Frenchmen, Brits, Knights and peasants, sinners and saints…they all walked this land and left their imprint as the tides returned forever.

It could be a wooden balcony in Valletta, a colorful boat in Marsaxlokk, a megalith in Ħaġar Qim, a forgetten alley in Mdina, a sunset at Dwejra, a night stroll in Sliema, a seaside dinner in Xlendi…there are so many ways and reasons to fall in love with Malta.

II. Noble Cities: Valletta – Mdina – Victoria
You can never fully capture the charm of Valletta until you cross the harbor and contemplate the city from Vittoriosa. Only then can you get to see the city unfold, and understand the horrors inflicted on Malta by the Ottomans during the infamous –yet failed- Siege of Malta: everything is walled, fortified and ready to withstand similar crises (even though Valletta did not exist at the time of the Siege). Such was the vision of the city’s founder, the Grand Master (la Valette) of the Knights of St. John, who lent his name to the city, and who planned ‘a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’.

The compact elegance of this small capital leaves almost no place for spontaneous surprises: the grandeur of the Baroque St John Co-Cathedral is crowned with two Caravaggios, the National Museum of Archaeology offers a tour-de-force of Malta’s extensive history (and Prehistory), and the Upper Barakka Gardens command fascinating views of the Grand Harbor and the nearby Three Cities (of which Vittoriosa is the most interesting).

We grabbed hot pastizzi (traditional ricotta-filled flakey pastry), scanned the neat and colorful Maltese wooden balconies, and zigzagged the alleys leading to the sea before finally relaxing at the emblematic Cordina Café to unwind and watch the people come and go. It was time for another city, namely Mdina and its neighboring Rabat.

Mdina, founded by the Phoenicians (who called it Malet, meaning refuge or shelter) received its current name from the Arabs (and so did Rabat). There are many sites and monuments to visit, but probably the best activity here is to stroll aimlessly and enjoy the facades, balconies and patios of Palazzo Falson, the Carmelite Priory and other iconic buildings. It’s impossible to get lost here.

One site that should not be missed is that of Saint Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs. The Crypt features frescoes painted as early as the 1200 AD, while the labyrinthine catacombs date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. A couple of skeletons only add to the sinister air of the site.

Victoria is the capital of Gozo, Malta’s other island. The highlight here is, undoubtedly, the old town known as Il-Borgo, extending around Pjazza San Ġorġ. The serpentine alleys, pastel-colored facades, and the statues of saints embedded in niches around every other corner…they all lend charm of Victoria. The city is also a perfect place to try some Gozitan delicacies like hard white cheese, carob marmalade and prickly pear jam.

III. Wonders of Nature: Blue Grotto – Comino – Dwejra
We arrived early at the Blue Grotto. We were told it was the best time of the day to enjoy a boat trip in the area. They were right! As we approached one cavern after another, all carved in the cliffs by the sea and the wind, we were mesmerized by the cobalt blue water which seemed to glow against the sandy seabed.

Even more impressive is the turquoise color of the Blue Lagoon at the Island of Comino, which obviously attracts hordes of tourists every day, all dreaming of a picture-perfect beach. The shallow water is warm, clear and safe, thanks to a natural shelter in the form of an islet called Cominotto. The most memorable experience here is to swim to Cominotto, climb all the way to the islet’s highest point, and enjoy a 360-degree view: on one side, the clam waters of the photogenic Lagoon; and on the other, the dark blue of the open sea.

We saved the best for last. At the western edge of Gozo is a place called Dwejra, a wild coastline of exceptional beauty and unearthly landscape, a place almost impossible to describe because only photos can do it justice. The site is famous for the Azure Window, a huge natural arch in the sea cliffs. A stone’s throw from the magnificent arch is the Blue Hole, literally a hole in the coral reef where one can swim, snorkel or dive. The ensemble is a stunning view, and so is the view of the massive sea cliffs and the Fungus Rock down the coast.

Another wonder is just a three-minute walk from here, namely the Inland Sea. This lagoon is bound by huge cliffs, with a 60-meter tunnel connecting it to the open sea. Apart from lazing in the Inland Sea, taking a boat ride through the tunnel and into the caverns and caves in the cliffs is a memorable experience that costs very little (4 euros).

Dwejra was one of the highlights of our stay in Gozo. We went twice, once in the morning to swim, snorkel and go for a boat trip; and once to enjoy a magnificent sunset that casted its warm light on the honey-hued cliffs and the grotto…a scene immortalized by great Impressionist painters in their works.

IV. Mystery Temples: Hagar Qim – Tarxien – Ġgantija – Hypogeum
What stone structure is some 1000 years older than the Pyramids of Egypt? What is the world’s oldest freestanding stone structure? The answer to these two questions is one and the same: Malta’s Megalithic Temples.

It comes as no surprise that people thought the temples in Malta were the work of giants. At Ġgantija Temples for example (Ġgantija means giant’s dwelling), one of the stones used in the structure weighs over 50 tons! How could anyone –or any workforce- erect such a megalith thousands of years ago? (an average stone block in the Giza Pyramids weighs 2.5 tons).

The theories are many, and the abundance of stone spheres around the temples seems to support the theory about using such spheres as bearings to move the stone blocks. Theories apart, one thing remains evident: something extraordinary was taking place in Malta and Gozo over 5000 years ago, and the legacy remains engraved in the memory of stone. Where did these temple builders come from? Sicily maybe? What happened to them? A mystery. Temple building started around 3600 BC and lasted till 2500 BC, before the temple builders disappeared altogether with no trace. Epidemic? War? Natural disaster? No one knows for sure, but we know Malta’s Prehistory was so rich they actually divide it into 7 phases, three of which correspond to temple building activity.

Of the many temples, Ġgantija Temple Complex in Gozo is the oldest and the best preserved, comprising two temple units, encircled by a common boundary wall. Then comes Ħaġar Qim and the neighbouring Mnajdra, the most impressive of temples, complete with monoliths and a concave façade. The most developed and mature is the Tarxien Temples, where one can see some good examples on Bronze Age art (both onsite and at the Archaeological Museum of Malta). The wealth of decorative motives, stone reliefs and statuettes that the temples yielded is impressive, and the extent to which the temples’ plan (aerial view) match the bodies of the female figurines (with their exaggerated hips and breasts) is a clear allusion to the mother goddess. All the temples are built in pairs following a trefoil or five-apse plan, and are mostly located on hills commanding views of the sea or the surroundings. Moreover, almost all of them are aligned with important stars and asterisms, or oriented with the solstices in mind.

As if all the temples were not enough to puzzle you, Malta keeps in store a rather exclusive experience for the history buffs and archaeology fans: The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a unique underground Prehistoric cemetery with no equal in the whole world. Following a great introduction to the site through the visitors’ centre, we were finally guided through the Hypogeum. It was like climbing down to Middle Earth, contemplating the colored spiral motifs in the Oracle Room and wondering about the incredible acoustics of the place! The cemetery is carved in the living rock, and follows the structure of the other megalithic temples above ground, including corbelled roofs. In Earth as in the Underworld, temples for the dead are as perfect as those for the living.