Here’s a travel piece I wrote for the EDP’s Saturday magazine: ‘Across the Atlantic to another Yarmouth‘.
There are more photos in the PDF version, some of which are my own.
I’d always thought of Malta as a package-holiday destination; its history and beauty squashed between high-rise hotels. But when I find myself on a quiet patch of the island’s west coast, walking down a gentle slope to the remains of some of the oldest religious sites on earth, I start to change my mind.
Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are megalithic temple complexes, hewn from sand-coloured limestone and set near an expanse of Mediterranean blue. Evidence of similarly mysterious sites is scattered across Malta and its little-sister island Gozo, some just unassuming clusters of stones. The earliest temples were built in 3600BC, predating the Egyptian pyramids by nearly a thousand years.
Since their unearthing in 1839-40, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra have suffered damage from wind, rain and sun, as well as rapid changes in temperature. Restoration programmes have brought varied success. The temples’ vulnerable position by the ocean means they are the first sites to be given protective canopies by the EU and Maltese government: cream awnings stretching taut over steel arches. But in the shade of their modern coverings, the weathered stones still resemble altars, benches and annexes, whispering secrets from a time long gone.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage site but in late October it almost echoes with a lack of visitors.
“Do you think Malta’s tourist industry is making enough of the temples?” I ask Darrell Azzopardi, our guide, as we study one of Hagar Qim’s largest megaliths. It is more than 6m long and thought to weigh 20 tonnes. When conjuring up visions of the temple builders, I understand why Gozo’s best-preserved temple site was named Ggantija, meaning ‘gigantic’ or ‘of the giants’.
“We can never make enough of the temples because we always need more visitors,” Darrell says, explaining that tourism accounts for about a quarter of the GDP of Malta, Gozo and tiny Comino. “But it’s not enough to promote Malta for the temples only. We have to integrate this prehistory with the rest of the history here.”
And what history. Malta’s position at the heart of the Mediterranean means it has been occupied over time by powers that include the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, French and British. This island has seen wars and sieges, invasion and bombings, and rule by the romantic-sounding Knights of St John. But today I’m intrigued by what came before; the puzzle of the people who designed and constructed these temples without written language or sophisticated tools.
I admire the pitted decoration on what is believed to be the altar stone of Mnajdra’s East Temple. Some astronomers think the marks represent a tally of days between the appearances of certain stars, although this theory is not universally supported. I’m fascinated by the idea that, during equinoxes, the sun rises in perfect alignment to the main axis of the South Temple. During summer and winter solstices it aligns with the door jambs, so only a slither of light can enter inside.
I could get swept away in the mysticism, especially when Darrell points to what might have been libation points for offering liquids to the gods. My husband asks whether the holes bored through some of the stones, probably for tethering animals, could in fact have been used for channelling light sources. Then: “Oh no,” he checks himself. “I’ve gone a bit Indiana Jones.” We stare at the holes, laughing, and a lone visitor pauses to look too, one hand twitching over his camera as though something otherworldly is about to happen.
The canopies above us caused controversy when they were introduced in 2009, in a conservation and development project costing €4.7m (which included the construction of a visitors’ centre). They are only an interim measure to protect the limestone until a less intrusive method can be found, yet people still complain about the canopies’ visual impact, and of course their expense.
“Personally, I think the site would look better left as it was,” says Darrell. “But this measure was needed. In a hundred years’ time the temples would have crumbled.”
I don’t mind the canopies. For me, their sail-like curves sit companionably beside the calmly rolling ocean, and they let in light. The corbelled wall structure hints that the temples may once have had roofs – made from a perishable material such as grass or wood – and so the artificial cover creates atmosphere in the temple rooms, aiding my imagination. While we’re at Mnajdra, the temperature drops suddenly and we hear but don’t feel the pattering of rain.
“Well, that’s one very good thing about the canopies!” Darrell says.
As we wander back to the visitors’ centre, which was inaugurated in September by Malta’s prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, Darrell talks about Heritage Malta’s plans to create a nature walk at this site. It’s an ideal spot: wild rosemary and Mediterranean thyme are known to spring up from the soft scrubland, alongside dandelions and delightfully named spurge, fleabane and sea squill. This is a home for weasels and wall lizards, while zitting cisticola birds and Sardinian warblers visit to breed. In February and March when cape sorrel is flowering, I’m told the ground is carpeted in yellow.
Best of all, on this western coastal edge, there are no high-rise hotels to cast shadows over the island’s prehistoric ‘giants’ and their megalithic legacy. Glancing back at the canopied temples in their idyllic setting, I’m pleased to have changed my mind about Malta.
This is an extract from my travel book which has the working title The Birdwoman of Bangkok and Other Tales: Singapore to London Overland.
The cyclo driver who took us on a late-afternoon tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s back streets had four teeth, wore a ‘STEPS Musicband’ T-shirt, and referred to Steve as Man. Not in a hippy way, like “Hey man”, but as though Man was Steve’s given name.
“Hello, Man. Man! Sit here, Man. You are a good, big man.”
He complimented Man on his choice of woman – “She is very good” – then proceeded to shout the same incomprehensible stories over and over into Man’s hurting ear while pedalling us through quiet lanes of shops that sold broken clocks.
“Help, he’s giving me a headache,” Steve whispered.
“YES, and my friends come back London one week, then go back one week. London friends come back one week,” shouted Mr Steps, for the third time. In the throes of his excitement, he kept forgetting to steer the cyclo.
“We’re going to die,” I said.
“Come back one week, go back one week. They are my London friends!”
Soon his ramblings gave way to a commentary of his own devising.
“This one Notre Dame Cathedral.” He pointed to a crumbling church in a less-than salubrious part of town. “And this one, Man,” he said, both arms sweeping off the handlebar and in the direction of a tatty apartment building, “This one big Hong Kong bank!”
The poor guy needed help, but that didn’t excuse him from trying to charge us double at the end of the ride, claiming our agreed fare was for one passenger only. Fortunately Man and I were well-versed in cheeky scams by now, and handed over the pre-arranged money. The cyclo driver argued only gently, and we left him scratching his belly through the STEPS T-shirt and grinning a gappy grin.
Walking back to the hotel as dusk was falling, clouds stretching like pulled grey wool across the sky, we saw families kicking up their da cau in the park, while children too little to join in wobbled around on toy-shop trikes. We took a shortcut down an alley and were transported into my vision of old Saigon: laundry sagging on lines from window to open window; wrinkled ladies squatting down to chop food on the pavement; a brass funeral band playing a racket outside a mourning household where candles burned on the porch.
In Malta, many vehicles have windscreen stickers bearing slogans: boasts about the kind of journey you might expect to take in them, or a statement about the driver. Among others I’ve seen ‘Hardcore Ride’, ‘Daddy’s Taxi’, ‘Baby Think Twice’ and ‘Life In Heaven’. The last two worried me because they appeared on public buses.
The Number 65 is one of those buses: a 1960s orange-and-chrome Leyland rattler, the sort the EU is trying to phase out. Its slogan is ‘Gallant’-something; I can’t make out the second word because the letters are peeling away.
Gallant certainly doesn’t refer to the driver. He barks: “One way or whole day? One way or whole day? One way or whole day?” until I make my choice and hand over the fare. He keeps the change.
I’m not confident he knows how to drive a bus. He fails to pull in at the next stop, slamming on the brakes five metres later when he notices the running, waving woman. She hauls herself aboard, breathless, and we’re away again before she can even close her handbag. An empty seat catches up with her and she topples into it.
We pass dry-stone rubble walls which look as though they might collapse at the merest touch. The last of the summer’s prickly pears protrude from swollen cacti like sexually transmitted diseases only the pages of medical textbooks should have to suffer. In the interior mirror I can see the driver picking his nose and eating what he reaps. There’s a black rubber spider dangling from his mirror and I wonder whether it’s been hung for Halloween, which is two days away, or whether it’s always there. I suspect the latter.
A ticket inspector hops on: he’s all of sixteen with the air of authority that comes with a bumfluff beard. He checks people’s tickets, one by one, tearing them slightly to show they meet with his approval. I bet he wishes he had a proper gadget for clipping holes. Then he sits behind me, playing noisy beeping games on his mobile phone.
We are ascending a steep, straight hill toward Malta’s former capital city of Mdina and the driver leaves the engine in first gear so it shudders and roars all the way. He stops steering and this buys him time to count all the notes in his cash register, leafing through them like a deck of cards. I wonder how he’s acquired so many when the maximum fare is only a few euros. The bus is still groaning and I lean forward instinctively to help with its plight.
The driver decides to steer again for a while and I am relieved, but only a little. I have noticed a five-litre can of what looks like petrol standing behind his seat, the liquid line slopping from side to side as the bus judders up the hill.
At last we arrive in Mdina, swerving into a space outside the City Gate. As I alight I find myself thanking the driver, perhaps out of habit and also relief at surviving the journey. He blinks at me, as surprised by my gratitude as I am.
They call it Stendhal Syndrome or Florence Syndrome: a psychosomatic illness featuring dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations as a result of overexposure to art. Add Tuscan sunshine and the heady joy of being newly married, and there was no way I could be trusted to meet Michelangelo’s David without falling into a swoon.
Two hours south of Florence, on the slopes of Monte Amiata, my husband and I found the perfect antidote. Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri is an open-air sculpture park, empty of crowds and full of magic, where we trampled for hours over the parched straw fields, finding quirky-looking iron monsters, a greenhouse sheltering lightbulb flowers, and, in the woods, the handprints of a make-believe pilot who had crawled out from a crashed tin biplane.
We peered inside a small brick hut and met the leers of straggly haired skulls in a witchcraft cabinet; climbed up to a mock zoo enclosure on a hillcrest where life-size model elephants lay in varying states of decay. In a seemingly neglected farm building, Steve flicked a switch and a hideous automaton roared into life, its two heads whirring towards us with garish grins.
“Turn it off – I don’t like it!”
But I loved the fact that every sculpture was affecting us. In the stuffy confines of the Uffizi gallery, Botticelli, Lippi and Raphael had stirred quiet awe within me; now we were wandering through pine-scented gardens, alive and free. Rock lizards darted over bronze busts, while the cypress shrubs chirruped with cicadas. Steve lagged behind and silently picked up a fallen wisp of a branch, making me shriek in fear when he used it to tickle my bare ankles. He knew I would react: visitor signs everywhere warned of poisonous snakes in the long grass. I’m one of those people who screams at worms.
Later, after walking along the stone walls of a labyrinth, trying not to tread on the crickets that hopped across our path, we grew weary and thirsty. Our thoughts turned to pizza from a wood-fired oven, to cold beers on the terrace of our hired casetta where we could watch the fading sun pour honeyed light over the mountains.
“Shall we go back now?” said Steve, pulling my clammy little hand into his bigger, clammier one. “And are you better now, my funny wife?”
I beamed at him. The Stendhal Syndrome had gone. This was our honeymoon, we were in Italy and life felt magnifico.