Island of Intrigue
December 25, 2006 7:56pm CST
I was lost. Again. I've been here times, and yet I confess that I spend much of my time in Malta hopelessly lost, an embarrassing admission considering the island is only about 17 miles at its longest point, nine at the widest. But, I am not alone in my directional dyslexia. Nearly all independent travelers to Malta spend part of the time wondering where they are, a source of mirth for the locals. A Canadian friend who worked here discovered an office tradition of placing bets on how late newcomers would arrive on their first day at work. The Maltese are used to strange visitors invading their homeland. Almost every nation with interests in the Mediterranean, from the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC to the British in the 20th century, has claimed Malta as its own. It has one of the world's great natural harbors and a location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia. Some of the greatest figures of history - St. Paul, Napoleon, Count Roger the Norman - have set foot on Malta's rocky shores. All have left their mark on the island's landscape, and as a result, Malta is a living, breathing museum, a place where all of Mediterranean history, thousands of years' worth, can be seen and touched and smelled. The Maltese are fond of using the language of food to describe themselves. They will say their culture is, like their food, a mixture of all that's around them. They will tell you their personality is like Maltese bread: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. One of the wonders of Malta is that you can cover several thousand years in just a few days. I planned to travel by public bus. I sat back to enjoy the ride to the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. As we made our way through little towns I could see into storefronts where bakers, bankers, and cobblers worked their trade as they had for centuries. I watched children in their smart uniforms playing in the schoolyards, the priest greeting his parishioners, women lining up to buy bread, and men in the cafes arguing loudly, probably over politics. Soon the towns became countryside, farmland marked off by stone walls. The terrain is varied considering the island is only 120 square miles. It has rugged ridges, deep valleys and a coastline that varies from beach to sheer cliffs. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are ancient stone temples on Malta's south coast: Hagar Qim high atop a cliff overlooking the sea, Mnajdra is more than 500 yards downhill. About 1,500 years after the island's first people arrived (probably from Sicily), using only stone tools, they began to carve temples with many circular chambers from the island's limestone, structures very large. Malta's temples are unique. There was nothing like them before and there has never been anything like them since. Created before Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt by more than 1,000 years, they are the world's oldest free-standing stone architecture. My next stop: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground temple for the dead once filled with the bones of thousands of people. The people who built it must have been remarkable but 1,600 years after the first temple was built they disappeared. No one is sure why. To protect the site, visits are limited and must be booked in advance - I asked for help. Fortunately for the tourists, almost everyone on the island speaks English. Maltese take pride in their politesse and will often ask if you think they're nice. Over the next few days I continued to explore and enjoy Malta's long rich history. There is something about this dry, rocky island and its people that unexpectedly enchants, no matter why or how you first arrived. I think it's because no matter how often you visit, there will be something that surprises, something that will make you smile.