An Island Christmas with Traces of Rome

Looking for the ruins of a Roman villa…

The highlight of my Christmas Eve was a last minute drive over to Valletta to see the new Star Wars film. Valletta was in full xmas-mode and it seemed like half the island was out for a stroll. Only 15 people in the entire cinema made it feel like a private screening, and Rogue One did not disappoint.

But that’s not the story I wanted to share with you today.

As has become my custom when in Malta for the holidays, the highlight of Christmas Day was a little exploration. I’d heard about the ruins of a Roman villa in the south of the island, and this was the perfect sunny day to check them out.

We drove over to Birzebbuga by the big free port and searched out a narrow alley that ends in a rocky farm track called Triq id-Dar ta’ Pultu.

The track winds its way up one side of a valley called Wied Zemba, past rubble walls that enclose small farm plots, and higher up the ridge, stoney garrigue punctuated by the stark posts of bird trappers.

If you follow this trail all the way to the end, you’ll come to the ruins of the villa that gives it its name.

“Pultu’s House” was a fortified villa built by Baron Ippolito Novantieri in 1664

“Pultu’s House” was a fortified villa built by Baron Ippolito Novantieri in 1664. According to legend, a Sicilian knight called Ippolito lived there, and he fell in love with a Maltese girl. The girl’s father wasn’t terribly happy about this, and as fathers used to do in this part of the world, he expressed his displeasure by shooting and killing the knight.

Uninhabited for more than 100 years, the ruins include several large rooms

The structure has been uninhabited for at least 100 years, and it’s crumbling walls and rooms are worth a little patient exploration.

The typical Maltese arch and stone slab construction in what’s left of the upper storey

But while the villa was interesting, it wasn’t what we’d come to find.

I only had vague idea of where to look, and so it took a lot of scrambling around the hillside, over stone walls, around cultivated fields, and past ugly hunter’s shacks and a surprisingly large number of bird trapping areas. And then I finally spotted a structure that wasn’t the usual rubble wall between fields. It was built differently, and much higher.

The Roman ruins weren’t easy to find — beyond several fields and more than one (legal?) bird trapping site
A bird hunter’s hut — the Maltese shoot everything that flies, and trap everything that sings

The Roman villa at Ta’ Kaccatura was likely constructed early in the second century BC, but remains of earlier structures on the site reveal techniques normally associated with Phoenician or Punic buildings, like those found at Carthage.

Excavations were conducted in 1915, revealing a square peristyle courtyard surrounded by rooms and a corridor, the walls of which can be clearly made out amidst the overgrowth that is now strangling the stones.

Piecing together the floor plan of a Roman villa in an area called Ta’ Kaccatura

Fragments of plaster and coloured marble were also found on the site, along with traces of a staircase, revealing that the villa had an upper floor, and at least some rooms decorated with marble veneer and painted walls.

This extensive villa was likely part of a farm connected with olive pressing

The remains of rock-cut troughs, vats and channels suggest an agricultural establishment connected with olive pressing. And I could easily imagine the hillsides of this valley lush with trees: overgrown with green in the winter rains, and bone dry in summer, when only the cry of the cicada breaks the heavy stillness.

Venturing into the enormous rock cut water cistern

The most distinctive feature of the site is a large water cistern that sits on higher ground. It was cut down into the living rock, and can be accessed by a flight of stone-cut steps. Four rows of stone slabs roof the cistern, supported by stone cross beams which rest on gigantic pillars made from two or three blocks of stone. The linear style is very different than the arches you’ll see in typical Maltese limestone construction. And the Maltese buildings use much smaller slabs and blocks.

The cistern was carved out of the living rock, with stone slab ceiling supported by massive blocks
Those limestone blocks are taller than the average Japanese photographer
I’m not the only fossil in this photo — the pillars are full of them too
The Globigerina limestone is speckled with fossilized shells

We explored the site as daylight gradually faded from the sky. And then we made our way out of the valley, stopping to examine a World War Two pillbox I saw in the distance.

We also found a World War Two pillbox down the side of the valley
Making our way back to the path over rugged garrigue

All this walking was thirsty work, but my pagan gods were with me this Saturnalia. As I turned the corner on the road out of town, I looked across the bay and saw lights at a small pub that sells good English beer. We made a quick u-turn and drove over to find that it was, indeed, open.

Our reward was a proper pint of ale at a spot run by British expats

Even better, the English proprietor was serving a full Sunday roast. And so we had a real Christmas dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding after all.

Ho, ho, ho indeed.

…with views of the free port in the near distance
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2016
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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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