This is Manuel Xerri. His grandfather, Anthony Xerri, discovered a cave beneath their house while digging for a well. Anthony stopped his digging when he hit the impressive system of stalagmites and stalactites - and moved onto another spot, still intent on finding a well. "Water was the most important thing," Manuel told us. Since then, his find has been carved out a bit more to make it walkable and visitable. Manuel, who grew up and continues to live in the house above, acts as guide.
Amazingly, there are two caves inside private homes in the little town of Xaghri on the island of Gozo. We only visited Xerri's. A buzzer at the entrance brought Manuel down and he let us in with all the casualness of someone who listed a washing machine on craigslist which you are there to inspect. Grandfather Xerri's framed portrait hung on an otherwise bare wall. Manuel led us down a very pretty, tightly wound spiral staircase, with his cordless phone in one hand and a laser pointer in the other.
What are you to do when giving a tour of your very own cave? Instead of the lengthy facts about how stalagmites and stalactites are formed and how old certain elements of the cave are, Manuel walked around pointing at formations that resembled animals. Above is a sheep. There was also a turtle, snake head, ostrich "or flamingo." There was a formation that English visitors had told him looked like a castle on a hill and a wall that resembled lava, according to Sicilian tourists who had seen real lava before. Xerri's Grotto was a hoot. You could imagine what it must have been like to grow up with this cave in your basement - carving them into figures like you would clouds. In just two days in Gozo, we've seen a trio of places that are equally impressive as they are quirky - and undeniably memorable.
The first was the village of Gharb's Folklore Museum. Set in a 300 year old farmhouse, it is the private collection (or "brainchild," as they say) of Silvio Felice. A man who seems to have obsessively collected as many tools of any and all trades. When we arrived, Gharb's pretty square was being torn up. They just got a big shipment of tiles from Italy and are in the midst of paving the street. The private museum was closed and, without a cell phone, we couldn't call the number posted on the door. Instead, we hovered, kicked at dirt and moped until the overseer of the construction telephoned Marian Felice - wife of Silvio Felice, whose collection it is. People on Gozo have been incredibly intent on helping us out at every turn.
Still in her gardening shoes, Marian gave us a full tour of the 28 room museum. The old farmhouse was impressive enough, but the stuff inside was remarkable. Each room had a theme, the blacksmiths room, the mill room, the "liquid candle" (wax) room. Above, a display case from the "baby Jesus making" room. Hey, its an age old craft. Not only did she know every nook, cranny and British biscuit maker in the place, she regaled us with stories of what Malta was like when she was growing up. When showing as a traditional black silk għonnella (a black cape with wide stiff brimmed hood) she told us how an old woman wearing one would push a baby carriage full of capers, marjoram and basil through her village every morning. Door to door she would go selling her herbs in Sliema "before all the buildings."
All her sentences ended with 'dear,' and every room was fascinating. From an ornate children's hearse to a room full of paraffin stoves to hundreds of molds used to make toys, the collection was impressive and all over the place. A much hyped Christmas crib (which I only later realized meant 'nativity scene') was given its own little room. There were loads of people at this particular depiction of Jesus' birth- near to a hundred tiny statues. Lights and music came on via a motion detector. As she spoke about the crib, the music and lights would shut off and she'd wave at the sensor. It was a bizarre addition to this awesome house of curios.
Before we left Gharb's Folklore Museum, Mrs. Felice told us where to find her (exact address) if we should need anything. One couple called her for help with medication once, another with a broken down car. We hoped that we'd have no disastrous need to call upon her, but appreciated the offer. When told that we were off next to nearby Ta' Pinu, the national shrine to the Virgin Mary, Marian gave us specific instructions to go the Miracle Room. Difficult to find, its door was pointed out to us in a photo of the interior of the basilica. When we arrived, we bypassed the prayerful visitors and made a b-line to the hallway behind the altar. The Miracle Room was a trip.
Framed letters, photos, casts, prosthetic limbs and locks of hair filled one, two, three hallways from floor to ceiling. A bent bicycle wheel punctuated a wall full of framed onesies. It felt like the inside of a very grim person's locker, lined with newspaper clippings about car accidents and photos of people in hospital beds. Being as this was the Miracle Room, we could assume that everyone shown had survived - which took a little bit of the grave edge off of things. Letters from around the world thanked "Il-Madonna ta' Pinu," to whom they'd prayed during their time of need.
Of course, the word "miracle" is relative. In the photo above, Beverley Bracken from Manchester, England writes : "Thank You Our Lady of Ta Pinu. You answered my prayers. I passed my Nursing Exams." A little bit of a stretch. Still, the rooms were absolutely captivating to walk through. What an amazing hodge-podge. What a quirky island, that Gozo.