Friday, June 27, 2014

Close to heaven

I wasn't sure I would like it. I grew up surrounded by this:

So I was anticipating not really liking this too much:

All the pics and videos I looked at made me wonder the same thing. Are there any trees at all in this place? I've never lived in an arid or semi-arid climate. My American friend who came with me said that of course, as a Canadian, I would find such a desert-y environment a bit of a shock, and it was. But the photos and videos don't do justice to the place. And yes, there are trees, but not as many as I'm used to, and with so little water they don't grow very tall. The umbrella pines I'm used to seeing here only grow about half the height of their Italian counterparts, but still taller than me and enough to create oases of shade. But it's true that Malta makes even dry Lazio look lush.

But one of the first things that hits you when you land is the colour. At first it strikes you as a bit monochromatic. The entire place, every single thing built by the hand of man, from palazzos to highway retaining walls to garden sheds is made of the local honey-coloured limestone that they quarry in several spots around the islands. It's very soft, coming off on your hands and clothes as a fine dust, that makes everything you expose to the air gritty within minutes.

The lady who gave us the tour of the Knights of Malta hospital told us that when you want to paint on it, either just housepaint or frescoes, you have to treat it with oil to seal it first. And I spent a lot of time wondering how you dealt with the dust at home, which must simply pervade life in Malta. If you wanted to set up a business in Malta, a good venture would probably be a vacuum cleaner repair shop, since I bet the stone dust clogs em up pretty good.

The few things that are painted really stand out because nearly everything is left its native, glowy honey colour. We travelled all over the islands by bus, and I think we saw one green house and one pink house. And the indication that the Maltese really love that stone is that in many cases, when things are painted, they're painted to match the original colour. It's obvious that things often get painted, apparently only with a really heavy, enamel style coating, just to seal it and keep it from coming off on your clothes.

When you first see photos of Malta it seems a bit dull, this single colour for everything. But when you get there, you find immediately that it just makes the whole place glow with a warm light, that it takes the harsh glare of the sun and turns it into a kind of heavenly radiance. Someone needs to do some kind of psychology study on the effect of the Maltese limestone colour on the brain. It can't help but have some kind of calming, cheering effect. There's no way that colour isn't good for you.

And you better get to like it because, especially in Valletta, you are entirely surrounded by it. They make the sidewalks, the buildings and the roads, out of it. All the churches, all the palaces, your hotel room... everything. Walking through the little narrow streets of Valletta, that often terminate in stairs, you are walking along in your glowy golden dream, and glance down the street and get a glimpse of the deep azure of the harbour...

It makes you understand suddenly why gold and azure are used in icons to depict heaven. And when the sun slowly sinks and the light calms, the colour warms your very soul.


Oh yeah, and we went swimming and snorkelling here:

Dwerja and the Azure Window, where the water, directly under that stone arch, is terrifyingly deep.


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