There aren’t many places in the world frequented by Libyan tourists but Malta is one of them.
There was a Libyan in the hotel room next to mine and in a moment of madness, I’d used my only three words of Arabic on him, giving him the impression I spoke it fluently. He talked to me in voluble outbursts, pausing occasionally and saying in English: «Understand? Understand?» When he realised I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, he switched to hesitant French and Italian and told me how to get water in the desert by slitting a camel’s neck.
When it comes to languages, Malta is a confusing place. The name Malta itself is either a corruption of malat, Phoenician for port, or of meli, Greek for honey, which was its main export in early times. But Maltese itself is a curious language closely akin to Arabic, so by a quirk of linguistic history, the Maltese are the only Christians who pray to Allah.
Many locals also use beautifully idiosyncratic English, a legacy of the British who controlled the island until the 1960s. At times, Malta also came under the rule of Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St John and French.
The Maltese are now enjoying independence but you can feel the weight of its history in every syllable. «Good evening» sounds like French (bonswa), «excuse me» like Italian (skuzi) but please sounds like, well, I never did work out how to pronounce jekk joghgbok.
Who the Maltese were or what they were speaking before they got their tongues so twisted is unclear but the island was settled about 7000 years ago.
At Ghar Dalam, in the east of the island, you can visit a prehistoric cave and inspect the remains of a dwarf elephant and hippo, as well as human ones.
Later, the Maltese built sophisticated temples, the best preserved of which stands at Tarxien — although to the idle tourist, the complex of four temples seems little more than a jumble of stones.
The mysterious megalithic temples at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are impressive, thanks to their monumental entrance ways, size and spectacular setting high above the sea.
Another mystery is why the people who built Tarxien disappeared. They were replaced by settlers who dug underground passageways known as hypogea, so named when the Romans turned up in Malta and added Latin to the linguistic cauldron.
At Hal Saflieni, near Tarxien, the oldest diggings date from 3300BC but later they were extended and used as catacombs by Malta’s early Christians.
In the hypogea at Rabat, you can also see circular stone tablets once used for funeral feasts, as well as many skeletons which have lain in the niches lining the walls for 1500 years.
Close to Rabat stands one of the highlights of Malta, the city of Mdina, the island’s first capital.
Mdina is also linguistically confused, the oldest aristocratic family in Malta goes by the name Sceberras-d’Amico-Iguanez but has retained the Arabic title Baron of Diar-il-Bniet. The family’s elegant baronial home stands in the middle of Mdina, fronted by impressive wooden doors and a coat of arms.
Not far away, the baroque madness of the Cathedral of St Paul contains a host of noble tombs and heraldic slabs, as well as engravings by Goya.
If Malta’s history and languages are confusing, at least its geography is compact. Malta is one-fifth the size of Stewart Island, so in the time it takes to recite a Maltese poem you can make it from Mdina to the coast and transform yourself from culture vulture into sun worshipper. Malta boasts a climate that virtually guarantees sunshine from April to October, as well as water that is probably the cleanest and clearest in the Mediterranean.
Holiday resorts straggle for 20km along the northern coast, with St Julian’s, Bugibba, Mellieha Bay and Paradise Bay being the main centres. Hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, bars and fish and chip shops all feature prominently.
The south coast is less populated and more rugged than the north but it has some splendid beaches. Golden Bay is the sort of place that features in brochures: golden sand, striped deck chairs, pedal boats and plenty of restaurant terraces overlooking the sea. On the other side of the bay lies idyllic Ghajn Tuffieha, which can only be reached on foot.
From here the road leads past the dizzying Dingli Cliffs to Ghar Lapsi, a deep bay with crystal-clear waters ideal for diving, and on to the Blue Grotto, which makes a pleasant half-hour boat trip. You could do worse than end up at Marsaxlokk, undoubtedly the prettiest fishing village in Malta, where the harbour is crowded with brightly painted boats. This is a good place to enjoy seafood and a good wine in an outdoor cafe.
Most visits to Malta start and end in the capital, Valletta. This is much more than a transit point and is worth several days in itself.
Planned in 1566 and built within five years, it is a great example of a fortified Renaissance city and is stamped with the influence of the Knights of St John. A neat grid of streets offers ever-changing glimpses of church spires and domes, tall withdrawn houses, flights of marble steps and views over one of the world’s great natural harbours.
The visual feast culminates in the Grand Master’s Palace, a kaleidoscope of patterned timber ceilings, marble floors and opulent tapestries. Next door, the Cathedral of St John is a splurge of baroque colour; the floor is covered in coats of arms, military trophies and figures of angels and skeletons, while the nave is draped with Flemish tapestries.
In case you’re wondering, Italian was the official language in those days. Most of Valletta’s streets are named after Italian saints and the odd pope or archbishop, as befits a religious order of knights.
When the British came along they made some additions: Abercrombie, Hastings and of course Victoria. Even the grand old Duke of York got an avenue.
Despite a long and troubled history, the Maltese just go on talking in all their tongues — effortlessly and nearly always with a smile.
The Southland Times (New Zealand) July 4, 2001, Wednesday