Isle of Intrigue

Special to The Times

I was lost. Again. Signs for Malta’s police headquarters in Floriana, which heretofore pointed right, now inexplicably pointed left, meaning that between the sign in front of me and the last one I passed, there should have been a police station. But unless officers hang their laundry from the second-floor balcony and sell fruit and vegetables out front, I had missed it.

Help, however, was at hand. “Yoohoo, dearie,” a nearby voice called.

I turned and saw a cheerful group of elderly Maltese resting in the shade of a pink-blossomed oleander bush.

“Are you engaged, dearie?” one of the women asked.

Being of an age and coming from a place where this question is not usually the first, I was nonplused, but when she asked a second time, I told her I wasn’t. Smiles disappeared. One of the women fumbled for a hanky and wiped away a tear. Surely it was not polite to make the octogenarians on the island weep.

“I’m almost engaged,” I lied.

Smiles broke out all around. I asked for directions, and before I knew it and despite my protestations, we were moving, very slowly, canes and all, toward an imposing structure a block away.

When we got there, I didn’t want to go in. I was in Malta to research and write a murder mystery, you see, and although I needed to know the location of the police headquarters, I didn’t have to get up close and personal with the sullen officer inside the gate. Mumbling my thanks, I turned tail and ran, leaving them standing there. For all I know, they’re still telling their grandchildren about the peculiar tourist who changed her mind about needing the police and was unclear about her marital status.

Or maybe not. The Maltese are more than accustomed to visitors, strange or otherwise, 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, lured by one of the world’s great natural harbors and a location smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia. Some of the towering figures of history—St. Paul, Napoleon, Count Roger the Norman—have set foot on Malta’s rocky shores. All have left their stamp on the island’s landscape, and as a result, Malta is a living, breathing museum, a place where the sweep of Mediterranean history, thousands of years worth, can be seen and touched and smelled.

For a writer, Malta’s particular blend of history is irresistible. For an author like me who writes archeological mysteries, there are enough crypts, caves and catacombs to hide a hundred bodies. But even for a writer, it’s difficult to capture the essence of the place.

The Maltese are fond of food analogies to define themselves. They will say their culture is, like their food, a mélange, referring to the fact that until recently Maltese housewives took the family supper to the local bakery, where it joined everyone else’s in the brick oven, the food acquiring the aromas and tastes of all the other meals. They will tell you their personality is like Maltese bread: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.

Whether the food analogy works or not, it takes a certain kind of people to endure what the Maltese have. They have suffered in conflicts not of their making, most recently almost starved and bombed to near extinction during World War II. Conquered but never truly subjugated, overrun but not assimilated, the almost 400,000 people of the Maltese islands are stubbornly, happily and, occasionally, infuriatingly Maltese.

I’ve been coming here for 25 years, 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. I know where everything is—I just can’t necessarily find it. I blame this partly on an approach to road signage that, despite recent improvements, is essentially whimsical. To my mind, both the signs and Maltese, a language the rest of us can neither comprehend nor pronounce correctly, are designed to keep invaders on their toes. We modern-day invaders are fortunate, indeed, that almost everyone speaks English.

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.

When I made a nostalgic return for a week last spring, I was determined not to get lost again. The plan, therefore, was this: To keep myself in line, archeologically speaking, I would start at the beginning, or at least at the dawn of human habitation, and work my way forward through the major eras in the island’s history. That is one of the wonders of Malta: You can cover several millenniums in just a few days. As to my geographic ineptitude, I would travel by public bus.

To facilitate the plan, I found a hotel an easy walk from the central terminal just outside the main gate of the capital, Valletta. The bus I optimistically boarded the first morning looked almost as old as the prehistoric sites I planned to visit: a rotund little number with custom grille work and two shrines on the dashboard—one to the Virgin Mary, the other to an Italian football team. The man beside me explained that buses are privately owned, often by their drivers, and operate on a hub-and-spoke model. There is a posted schedule, he added, but drivers leave when they feel like it.

“You can’t get lost,” he assured me as we pulled out of the terminal with a macho honking of the horn and a belch of black exhaust. “Stay on the bus long enough, and you’ll come back here.”

Freed from the terror that driving in Malta instills—they drive on the left, roundabouts are scary and there is never, ever a parking spot—I sat back to enjoy the ride to my destination, the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. We made our way through a string of little towns, with the buttery yellow tint of the local stone. I peered into storefronts where bakers, bankers, cobblers and coffin makers plied 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 gave way to countryside, tiny plots of red-tinged farmland marked off by stone walls. The terrain is remarkably varied considering the island’s mere 120 square miles, with rugged ridges, deep valleys and a coastline that varies from beach to sheer cliffs. Dusty roads are lined with oleander, bougainvillea and hibiscus, bright contrasts to the stony ground. I was too entranced to notice the sign for my destination until it receded into the distance. Fortunately, the walk back was not too long.

Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are ancient stone temples on Malta’s south coast: Hagar Qim high atop a slope overlooking the sea, Mnajdra nestled on a promontory more than 500 yards downhill. About 3600 BC, or about 1,500 years after the island’s first inhabitants arrived (probably from Sicily), something extraordinary happened. Using only stone implements, they began to carve circular, multichambered temples from the island’s limestone, structures so large that 17th century travelers thought they were the work of giants. The ruins of several dot Malta and its sister island, Gozo.

“Unique” is an overused word, but Malta’s megalithic temples are just that. There was nothing like them before and, despite the odd theory to the contrary, there has never been anything like them since. Predating Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza by more than 1,000 years, they are the world’s oldest free-standing stone architecture—powerful, evocative places that seem to grow out of the rock.

These two are my favorites: Hagar Qim is the more imposing of the two, with huge yellow stone blocks and standing stones 15 feet high evoking its former grandeur; Mnajdra is a complex of three temples with an impressive concave façade and entranceway through which the rising sun shines on the altar stone at the equinoxes.

It was here that several statuettes of voluptuous women, including one called the Venus of Malta, were found. What the temples represented was once a subject of intense speculation. Several years ago the idea that they were dedicated to a great goddess was posited, and it has stuck. According to this view, a peace-loving, agrarian people built the temples to represent the body of the goddess. To enter the temple was to enter her womb. It is an attractive theory, easy to believe when you’re here.

Not everyone agrees, however. Witness a fellow tourist at Mnajdra who pointed first to pit marks carved in a stone, then to the tiny island of Filfla just off the coast.

“Pretty clear what this is about,” he pronounced.

It wasn’t clear to me, and perhaps it showed.

“Tracking stars,” he explained.

Better a man with a theory than one with a proposition. On a previous visit a man had sidled up to unsuspecting female tourists and suggested that sex on the altar stone was life’s ultimate experience. “Maybe,” he had murmured seductively, “you will meet me after the temple closes.”

Or maybe not. Sex on the altar may no longer be an option given the security guard now on-site. Three years ago some unprincipled louts—kindred spirits of those who killed the last two Maltese falcons in 1982—vandalized Mnajdra, toppling many of its massive stones. It has been restored, and it is now more beautiful than ever.

Time was short, and I had several centuries to cover and only five more days to do it in, so it was back into the bus terminal and out again for my next stop: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground temple for the dead once filled with the bones of thousands of people.

The hub-and-spoke method of transportation is essentially inefficient and requires a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. It did, however, provide me with ample opportunity to indulge in my favorite Maltese foods: flaky pastry pockets filled with ricotta called pastizzi; hot date-filled pastries called imqaret; and gbejniet, small, round peppered cheeses, all readily available from the many food stalls that ring the terminal. Thus fortified but still chastened by my earlier inattention, I was ready to go.

To get to the hypogeum and the nearby temples of Tarxien, guidebooks advise disembarking at the church in Tarxien. This is roughly equivalent to telling someone in downtown Los Angeles to take the bus to Santa Monica and get off at Starbucks. There are no appreciable boundaries between towns; it is difficult to know when you’ve left one and entered the next. There are also a lot of churches. Every town has at least one and usually several. Despite a valiant effort, I missed my stop.

Worried that I also would miss my tour—because of the fragility of the site, visits to the hypogeum are limited and must be booked in advance—I asked for help. Maltese take pride in their politesse and will often ask if you think they’re nice. Except for the odd cantankerous bus driver, most are. A very pleasant couple walked me right to the door of the hypogeum. They said they were going my way, but they weren’t. I watched them circle back when we parted company.

The hypogeum, built about 3600 BC, is astounding. Similar in form to the temples I had visited earlier, it is an eerie place, dark and damp and vaguely disorienting. Sounds carry in the dimly lighted passageways, the shapes seem out of kilter, the curve to the walls slightly distorted. The people who built this must have been remarkable, but 1,600 years after the first temple was built they disappeared. No one is sure why. Malta remained mostly uninhabited for a long time.

Over the centuries, people gradually returned, by accident or design, and the island became a satellite of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Angevins, Aragonese and Castilians—the imperial powers of Europe handing it back and forth as their fortunes waxed and waned.

Vestiges of all remain, and one of the most pleasant places to experience them is Mdina and its conjoined neighbor, Rabat.

The Phoenicians built Malta’s first urban center almost exactly in the middle of the island. Next the Byzantines fortified the town, as the Arabs did later. The Arab wall is still here, but the town itself, Mdina, is now a medieval citadel with sweeping views from its bastions. It’s easy to find: The cathedral dome is visible for miles, and at less than 500 yards from end to end, it is difficult, even for me, to get lost, although its architects tried to confound invaders with narrow, angled streets and blind alleys.

A city of particularly beautiful houses, from Norman to Baroque, it oozes atmosphere. At street level the houses are windowless, with balconies on the upper floors. There are tales of great treasures, of secrets hidden by the walls, and when walking the cobblestones, particularly at night, one is convinced that the stories are true.

Mdina was important to Rome as well, because the island, laced with villas and farms, supplied the empire. Just outside Mdina, on the outskirts of Rabat, is the Museum of Roman Antiquities. The building, unfortunately closed for renovations last spring, is neoclassical but built on the remains of a Roman villa from 50 BC, and the original mosaic floors, some of its columns and many artifacts are there.

The Roman era’s most important visitor was St. Paul, allegedly shipwrecked here in AD 60. The Maltese will object to my saying so, but evidence to support the apostle’s actual presence is inconclusive. Other places, such as Crete, dispute Malta’s claim. Nonetheless, the Maltese trace their conversion to him, and virtually all Maltese are Catholic, most devoutly so. St. Paul’s name is attached to some of the most exquisite architecture on the island, places one could happily spend days visiting. In Mdina, you’ll find the 17th century cathedral, with its frescoes showing the apostle preaching to the islanders. In Rabat, there’s St. Paul’s Church, built over a grotto in which he is said to have taken refuge, and catacombs named for him are nearby. Farther afield, two churches mark the event itself: St. Paul Shipwreck in Valletta and St. Paul’s Bay.

If St. Paul most influenced the psyche of the Maltese people, the visitors who made the most significant impact on the landscape were the Knights of Malta. These wandering knights, expelled from Jerusalem, Acre, Cyprus and finally Rhodes—endlessly fleeing the rising tide of Islam—needed a home. Although they had something more luxe in mind, they didn’t have much choice. The price was right: the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V would cede the island for one prized Maltese falcon a year for his hunting estates. In 1530, the Sovereign Military and Hospitaler Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta took possession of the island and began, as had so many civilizations before it—and as the French and British would afterward—to mold Malta to its whim.

The knights were pursued to Malta by the Ottomans, but they emerged victorious after a particularly bloody siege in 1565. Now the heroes of Europe, they had the wherewithal to build whatever they wanted and the help of Pope Pius IV’s architect.

Their masterpiece is Valletta, a fortified city on a wedge of land between Marsamxett Harbour and the Grand Harbour. Valletta is in many ways a modern city, chockablock with government offices and the usual complement of fast-food chains and souvenir shops.

I spent a pleasant half-hour in a tiny cobbler’s shop having the kind of conversation you can have in small towns anywhere. Proudly showing photos of his grandchildren, the shoemaker told me the shop had been in the family for generations, but his well-educated children had no interest in it. He opposed joining the European Union, although Malta did so this spring. To his mind, it was just the latest foreign onslaught.

Modern though it may be, Valletta is still very much the city of the knights. I spent two days walking its streets, looking for them. They are easy to find—sometimes literally, their faces set in stone in their sarcophagi. More than that, nearly every street and alley bears witness to them. The knights originally ministered to the sick on the Crusades, but were prepared to fight. There are enough battlements, ramparts, bastions, armories and forts to keep a military historian happy forever, and the fortified Grand Harbour is a formidable sight.

They were capable of creating great beauty too. Led by a Grand Master, the knights were organized into langues, or tongues, each langue with its own residence, or auberge. One of the most appealing buildings in Valletta is the Auberge de Castille et Léon, now the prime minister’s office. Many of the knights’ buildings remain and have been put to good use, all worth a visit: The Auberge de Provence is the attractive National Museum of Archaeology, the Holy Infirmary is the Mediterranean Conference Centre and the Grand Master’s palace is now the parliament.

It is not just in the buildings that the ghosts of the knights can be found. Mt. Sceberras, on which the city rests, was not leveled, and streets slope down in all directions from the main artery, Republic Street. The steepest were stepped, and some still are, the rises only 2 or 3 inches, which is about all that a knight in full armor could manage. In the evening, after the shops and offices closed, I could almost hear the clank of their armor in the empty streets.

Although Valletta was originally austere, befitting knights who espoused vows of poverty, European Baroque fashion reached Malta in the 1650s and changed the face of the island forever. There must be something about overstatement or the grand gesture that appeals to the Maltese sensibility, because Valletta remains an excellent example of Baroque architecture. Its most opulent expression is the church of the knights, St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Although it appears dowdy on the outside, inside it is a paean to glorious excess, every inch carved, gilded or painted.

In its way, the cathedral’s transformation mirrored that of the knights, who, ignoring their vows, enriched themselves exceedingly. When Napoleon suggested that it was time for them to go, they did so with profound regret, having fallen under the island’s spell for 268 years.

Falling under Malta’s spell is remarkably easy to do. There is something about this parched, rocky isle and its people that unexpectedly enchants, no matter why or how reluctantly 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.

I eventually saw the inside of a Maltese police station. The station was not unfriendly, merely chaotic—the sergeant, in what may have been a conference call, held a phone to each ear and yelled. I went to report my misplaced passport. (In Malta, passports are neither lost nor stolen, merely misplaced.)

It seemed appropriate, somehow, given how much time I was lost myself, that my passport should do the same. As I filled out the forms, it occurred to me that what I really lost in Malta was my heart.


Losing Yourself in Malta

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Malta is 356. All prices are approximate and calculated at an exchange rate of one Maltese lira to $2.90. Room rates, which change frequently, are for a double for one night. Meal prices are for dinner entrées, unless otherwise noted.

Getting there: From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Malta is offered on KLM, British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and United. Most connect to Air Malta. No visas are required for U.S. citizens for stays up to 90 days.

Where to stay: Le Meridien Phoenicia, The Mall, Floriana; 21-22-52-41 or (800) 543-4300, fax 21-23-52-54, A luxury hotel with splendid gardens and a pool overlooking the harbor. Starting at $327.

The Xara Palace, Misrah il-Kunsill, Mdina; 21-45-05-60, fax 21-45-26-12, . Located in a 17th century villa within the walls of ancient Mdina, this deluxe hotel is a member of the Relais & Châteaux group. Starting at $242.

The Victoria Hotel, Gorg Borg Olivier St., Sliema; 21-33-47-11, fax 21-33-47-71, . This is a pleasant hotel with a good restaurant. Service is erratic. Starting at $136.

Osborne Hotel, 50 South St., Valletta; 21-24-36-56, fax 21-24-72-93, . Well-situated in the center of Valletta, the hotel boasts a roof terrace with terrific views. Starting at $80.

Asti Guest House, 18 St. Ursula St., Valletta; 21-23-95-06, This clean, family-run establishment with eight rooms is in a 350-year-old converted convent on a stepped street. Sinks are in the rooms, showers and toilets are down the hall. Beds are $17.40 per person.

Where to eat: Christopher’s, Marina Street, Ta’Xbiex; 21-23-71-01. Some of Malta’s finest food is served here, with a lovely view across the harbor to Valletta. $20 to $27.50.

La Dolce Vita, 159 St. Georges Road, St. Julians; 21-33-70-36, is known for its seafood and the view of lovely Spinola Bay. Open for dinner only. $5.55 to $10.

Ambrosia, 137 Archbishop St., Valletta; 21-22-59-23. A small sophisticated spot for lunch during the week; dinner only on weekends. Next door is the Pub, now a cult destination, where actor Oliver Reed had his last drink. $13 to $21.75.

A.D. 1530, Xara Palace, Misrah il-Kunsill, Mdina; 21-45-05-60. A comfortable and casual trattoria in a pleasant square opposite the former Inquisitor’s Palace. $13.50 to $18.55.

Da Pippo, 136 Melita St., Valletta; 21-24-80-29, is a crowded, friendly and informal place, open for lunch only. Reservations are essential. Complimentary appetizers. Entrées change daily and start at about $12.

The Lantern, 20 Sappers St., Valletta; 21-23-75-21. This cozy spot is popular with ex-pats who meet in the bar. $7.25 to $16.75. Regular pasta nights, with half a bottle of local wine: $8.55.

Trabuxu, No. 1d, Strait St., Valletta; 21-22-30-36. The name means “corkscrew,” and here you’ll find a pleasant wine bar. Open only in the evenings. Cheese platters, cheese fondue, pâté and soups: $5 to $7.25.

Fontanella Tea Garden, 1st Bastion St., Mdina; 21-45-42-64. This restaurant, built right on bastion walls, serves sandwiches and pizza ($6), but everyone goes for the cakes ($2.20) and the excellent view.

For more information: Malta Tourism Authority, Auberge D’Italie, Merchants Street, Valletta, CMR 02; 22-91-58-00, fax 22-91-58-93, . Also visit and