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Travel Articles by David Bear
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The melting pot of Malta


David Bear
Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk harbor on Malta.

 See related articles - Isolated, strategic location is key to Malta's history

                                       Malta's Popeye village is strong to the finish

ST. JULIAN'S, Malta -- She is just 5 inches tall and 2 inches wide at the shoulders, but the corpulent, headless, hard-fired clay figurine known as the Venus of Malta has celebrated at least 5,000 birthdays, making her among the oldest sculptured human artifacts found anywhere.

Unearthed in 1839 at the megalithic ruins of Hagar Qim on a steep bluff high over the Mediterranean on the island of Malta, this Venus is a legacy from the first distinct civilization to take root in this stony soil, a people about which precious little else is known. At least a dozen other cultures have come and gone on Malta since then, each leaving traces of its culture and genetics.

David Bear,

Just 5 inches tall and 2 inches wide at the shoulders, the corpulent, headless, hard-fired clay figurine known as the Venus of Malta has celebrated at least 5,000 birthdays. She was unearthed at a neolithic temple on the island of Malta.


The independent nation of Malta, situated in the mid-Mediterranean 55 miles south of Sicily and 150 miles north of Africa, consists of two inhabited islands: Malta, which measures about 7 by 17 miles, and Gozo, roughly a quarter as big, along with several other unpopulated specks of rock that jut from the blue sea.

As my wife, Sari, and I discovered during a too-brief visit at the completion of a late-September cruise, the Maltese islands may be small, but they are remarkably well endowed with ancient history as well as modern amenities.

The vast majority of the country's 400,000 inhabitants live on Malta's northwest corner in the walled city of Valletta and the ring of satellite towns that blend seamlessly around it. Called "a city for gentlemen built by gentlemen," the whole of baroque Valletta has been declared a World Heritage City. Settlements to the east across the harbor, Vittorioso, Senglia and Cospicua, are more working-class, while Gwardamangia, Ta' Xbiex, Gezira, and Sliema to the west are a more fashionable district. Farther west, the former fishing villages of St. Julian's and Paceville have become tourism centers, with high hotels, restaurants and lots of other leisure amenities fitted in tight ranks along the slopes and shoreline of the small bays.

Because we had only two days to explore, we decided to rent a car. Based on the 20-minute, early Sunday morning cab ride from the ship's pier in the city of Valletta to the small hotel by the bay in the village of St. Julian's, we realized that taxis can be expensive. And although public buses on Malta are cheap, colorful and relatively convenient, we knew they wouldn't be the most efficient way to make the most of our Sunday and Monday.

David Bear

These rows of standing limestone blocks are the main corridor of Mnajdra, one of two neolithic temple complexes perched high on Malta's southern coast. They predate the Great Pyramids of Egypt by at least 1,000 years.

After we checked in, the desk clerk at the Hotel Juliani helped us to arrange a rental of a red Ford Fiesta for two days. Costing 37.5 Maltese lire (2.88 Ml to the dollar or about $107 including taxes) plus 10 more Ml for gas ($30), the car proved both a convenience and a bargain. The fact that the Juliani had a free indoor parking garage also helped.

And though compact, the islands are not simple to negotiate. Driving on Malta is a challenge because of the left-hand drive roads, standard-transmission cars, difficult-to-read directional signs, and tangle of narrow, poorly maintained roads. Don't forget the high stone walls that line every back lane, making it impossible to see around the next corner, or Maltese drivers who also seem to be very aggressive. Judging by the care the young man who delivered the vehicle took in cataloging the dents and dings, minor damage is a familiar factor.

Fortunately, in a perverse way, driving challenges such as these only added to my enjoyment.

Having arrived with no itinerary, we took the advice of the desk clerk, grabbed our guidebook and a map and headed out to see what Malta had to offer.

The first stop at 11:30 a.m. was the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, with its Sunday open-air market situated around the small harbor at Malta's eastern end. We strolled through the crowds that thronged in the narrow stall ways set up on the quay. Fishermen were selling their catch with their colorful luzzu boats that bobbed in the harbor. Marked by brilliant Eyes of Osiris, these characteristic vessels are direct descendants of a lineage that extends back to Malta's Phoenician origins.

Stalls also peddled fresh baked breads and pastries, a wide range of foods, spices, sweets, household goods, as well as cheap clothes, local handicrafts and jewelry. Nearby, the bells in the church tower began to peal. We watched the bell pullers waving down to the crowds below.

The sun was blazing, and after an hour we'd had enough. Consulting the map, we headed around the island's southern corner to find the Neolithic ruins of Hagar Quim and Mnajdra. Skirting the airport runway, we somehow found our way through a maze of one-way streets that is the village of Zurrieq, and began passing signs to the Blue Grotto. Being open to discovery, we decided to check it out.

The access road led down the rocky cliffs to a narrow cove, where wet-suited scuba divers and snorkelers were exploring the deep blue water. Malta's mid-sea location and its abundance of sunken ships off-shore make it a delight for divers, but these folks simply seemed to be frolicking in the rocky cleft like seals.

We couldn't resist taking the boat trip out to the grotto, a half-hour excursion in an outboard-powered skiff along the cliff edge to where the sea had cut a series of small caves into the limestone walls. About a half-mile to sea, the uninhabited rocky island of Fifla shimmered in the sunshine.

Back in the car, we continued five minutes further to the Neolithic sites. Perched on the brushy slope above the sea cliffs are the standing ruins of two smallish, circular "temples" dated to be between 3800 and 3400 BC.

Hagar Qim, the nearest ruin to the parking lot, was erected from limestone blocks, the largest of which measures 9 by 21 feet. It was here during excavations in the 1830s that archaeologists found seven statues, including the aforementioned Venus of ample proportions. The temple's facades, mushroom-shaped tables, shrines, and pitted decorations are interesting to examine, although explanations for their purpose seem largely speculative.

The other complex, Mnajdra, is set 200 yards closer to the sea down a raised stone causeway. Built with stronger limestone, its circular rooms are better preserved than Hagar Qim. Heritage Malta, the organization that maintains these and other significant sites on the islands, charges 2.50 Ml to tour the grounds.

Although we were carrying water bottles, after wandering around ancient rubble for an hour in the hot sun, we were parched, and we stopped in the small, shady cafe adjacent to the parking lot. The cold draft beers tasted like ambrosia.

Then it was on to Rabat, Malta's pre-Norman capital on a hilltop in the island's center, with its Arabian name and architecture and Roman catacombs. It's adjacent to the M'dina, a walled fortress enclosing a 2,000-year old maze of streets.

The history of the M'dina is as old as civilization on Malta. Originally built as a fortified settlement in the Bronze Age, the Phoenicians added a wall and called the settlement Malet, which means shelter. During six centuries of Roman rule, the city grew to four times the size it is today, and its name was changed to Melita. In 870 A.D., Saracens took over and erected walls and bastions and changed the name to M'dina, which roughly translated means "city surrounded by walls." M'dina's importance stemmed from its right of internal autonomy via the universita, the group of nobles who ruled Malta back then.

That late in the afternoon, the streets of the "Silent City" were quiet, and we found our way into the great, gaudy Cathedral and the Xara Palace. This later edifice, once a lord's residence, has been converted into a Relais & Chateau Inn. It's where Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, then still a couple, stayed while much of the movie "Troy" was filmed in the valley below M'dina's walls.

Worn out by so much history and sunshine, we drove back to St. Julian's and dinner at La Dolce Vita, a very nice fish restaurant across the street. The meal was good, but the view from the high balcony was better, a constellation of twinkling lights in the bay and the azure light of dusk. Sari was exhausted, but after dinner, I took a long walk along the bay side promenade, licking a superb gelato and feeling very European.

The next morning, we rose refreshed and eager for more Malta. After the most enjoyable continental breakfast at the hotel, we drove along the seaside in the boardwalk and found our way into Valletta. It took 40 minutes slowly trolling the steep and narrow streets to find a parking spot.

Then we hiked up and checked out St. John's Cathedral. Easily the most impressive structure in this city of impressive structures, the cathedral was built between 1573 and 1577 by the Knights of Malta.

Its austere exterior offers no hint of the lavishly decorated interior. Every surface is painted, gilded or hung with artistic treasures. Marble tombstones line the floors, well-preserved frescoes that pay homage to the different patrons cover the walls, and its side chapels dedicated to different langues (languages or groups of Knights) are richly decorated. Two Caravaggio paintings executed when the artist lived here in 1607 and 1608, "St. Jerome" and "The Beheading of St. John," are the main attractions, and for Sari one of the trip's high points.

We left the Cathedral and walked two blocks to the Auberge de Provence, or the palace of the French Knights of Provence. During the British reign, this mansion became the Union Club and a hive of social activity. Today, it is the National Museum of Archaeology that houses prehistoric pottery and treasures from the early Neolithic period, including the Venus of Malta. We spent a very interesting hour inspecting its impressive collections, which included an excellent selection of Maltese antiquities, featuring one of the coins of the Crusaders and the World of Islam.

We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon in Valletta, but I wanted to see Malta's other populated island, Gozo. So we fetched the car and headed west along Route 1, Malta's primary coastal artery, to the island's most northwestern tip, from where we would catch the ferry (The round-trip fare for car and two passengers was 8 Ml or $23) for the half-hour voyage to Gozo.

With the afternoon growing short, we headed up from the pier toward Victoria, the island's commercial center. Always seeking the high points, we headed up into the 17th-century citadel around which the city evolved. The view from its ramparts offered a 360-degree panorama of the entire island. Then we happened on the wonderful wine bar down the street, where we were pleasantly distracted and refreshed for nearly an hour. Sari particularly appreciated the local lace, which she pronounced to be of excellent quality.

But we couldn't linger. There was so much still to see and so little daylight remaining. We decided to head off in search of two points of interest near the village of Xaghra, Calypso's cave and Ggantija.

In writing his epic tale "The Odyssey," the Greek poet Homer cast Gozo as a realm of spirits, where the nymph Calypso captured the shipwrecked hero Odysseus and kept him an enchanted captive in a cave for seven years. This was billed as that very cave, although documentation was questionable. It turned out to be, well, a small hole reached by climbing a short flight of steep steps into the cliff edge. While its view of red-sand Ramla Bay below was wonderful, I found it hard to imagine anyone being sufficiently enchanted by the accommodations to live there seven years.

Ggantija is the oldest and most impressive of Malta's Neolithic ruins, a multi-ringed complex with walls 20 feet high. Unfortunately, it was 3:45 p.m. before we figured out how to get there.

Although the sign in the parking lot noted the site would be open until 4:30, the gate was already locked. We had to settle for a peek through the high chain-link fence at the high gray stones and the aerial shot on the billboard at the parking lot entrance.

Well worn and facing the drive back to Valletta, we decided to catch the 5:30 ferry back to Malta. Once again, the connections went smoothly and, despite somehow getting slightly lost, we were back at the hotel about 6:30. We dined at Zest, the pan-Asian restaurant in the Juliani, which turned out to be the perfect way to end a long trip.

Despite a night of anxiety wondering whether we'd get all our luggage in the car and an early morning thunderstorm that flooded several key traffic circles, we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Looking through the plane's window as we took off two hours later, the two islands seemed tiny, but I realized we hadn't seen all Malta had to offer. In fact, we had barely made a dent.


Check out these related pieces: Isolated, strategic location is key to Malta's history Malta's Popeye village is strong to the finish


If you go: Malta

Getting there:
Air connections to Malta are available from London, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome and other European gateways.
A valid passport is all the documentation necessary for U.S. citizens.

Two centuries of British influence and culture have made English Malta's primary spoken language, but the traditional tongue is also strong and proud.
Thought to date back to Phoenician times, Maltese incorporates elements of the many cultures that have ruled here. For example, its alphabet uses familiar Roman characters, but they are transliterated with Semitic sounds and grammar.
Many words and place names are of Arabic origin. Maltese itself favors combinations of double consonants that can seem strange to English speakers, such as villages of Marsaxlokk or Cirkewwa. And simple phrases can be perplexing. For example, to explain to someone that you don't speak much Maltese, you'd say "Ma nitkellimx tajjeb bil Malte."
I can't even figure how that would sound.

The Maltese lire (Ml) is the official currency, and the exchange rate is $2.90 to 1 Ml. Other currencies are readily accepted and easily changed, even at many ATM machines. The exception is the $20, which, as we discovered has been so frequently counterfeited, even banks are hesitant to accept them.

We stayed at the recently renovated Hotel Juliani, a small, charming hotel right on the bay in St. Julian's. We chose it based on location and online recommendations, and we were pleased. A deluxe room ran 55 Ml per night ($150, including breakfast and taxes). For information:

General information:
-- Malta Tourism, In addition to all the usual advice on where to stay and what to see, this site includes an interactive movie map that provides details on the more than two dozen feature films and television series that have been shot on Malta in the past 40 years.
-- Malta Heritage, This is the source and manager for all of the significant historic sites and structures on Malta.
-- A complete compendium of things Maltese.
-- This commercial site posts links to a variety of other details about Malta.
-- For a guidebook, we relied on the "Lonely Planet Guide to Malta and Gozo" ($14.99 at bookstores or

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