PAOLA - Janet Coles was about to descend into a dark-as-night subterranean burial complex chipped out of bedrock 5,000 years ago. This Neolithic "black hole," known as the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, was probably used as a ritualistic temple and served as the resting place for an estimated 7,000 bodies, according to archeologists who counted the piles of bones in the tombs. Despite the macabre setting, Coles was not the least bit skittish.
"I'm very interested in archeology," Coles said. "In fact, I have a college degree in the subject." She and her husband, Roger, who live in England's Lake District, had flown to Malta, an island republic in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily, to explore its ancient archeological sites and other attractions. The Hypogeum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was at the top of their list.
"This site is one of the great wonders of the pre historic world," a guide explained as he led the way into the first of three underground levels. "It is a legacy of ancient artistic and architectural achievement." Spiral designs and tinges of red ochre are still faintly visible on the walls of the Hypogeum's dimly lighted chambers, which were chiseled by hand, using only stone or bone tools. The tombs were discovered in 1903, and the upper two levels of the burial complex were reopened to the public in July 2000. The famous "sleeping lady" pottery figure recovered from a "donation pit" deep in the Hypogeum is among the priceless prehistoric artifacts displayed at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, the capital.
For years, Malta and its two sister islands, Gozo and Comino (the only inhabited islands of an archipelago), have been a popular vacation destination for Europeans, who flock to the golden sand beaches in Mellieha, Bugibba, and other coastal towns in the hot summer months. However, in recent times, international visitors have been equally attracted by the island's fascinating mix of mysterious medieval towns, ancient Roman catacombs and dungeons, richly endowed Renaissance cathedrals, and centuries-old fishing villages. Even Hollywood has embraced Malta as a setting for a number of thrillers. "Troy" with Brad Pitt , "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe, and "The Count of Monte Cristo" with Jim Caviezel were all filmed at a studio just a stone's throw from Valletta.
Malta is a land steeped in traditions. During Mardi Gras, colorful floats and Carnival characters parade through the stone-paved streets of Valletta. At Easter, parishioners dressed in Roman-era costumes carry life-size religious figures through small towns in solemn processions. Local fishermen still use brightly painted "luzzu," the traditional Maltese fishing boats, to bring in their daily catch, and they spend hours on the dockside mending nets by hand. On Sundays, farmers gather at a weekly outdoor market in the seaside village of Marsaxlokk to peddle fruits and vegetables.
Traveling the rutted, rock-strewn back roads of Malta affords a glimpse into everyday life. An endless maze of stone walls sections off farmland and vineyards, and villagers walk or ride horses along the dusty pathways. Historians surmise the island was once much greener and more heavily treed when the first prehistoric settlers, believed to be farmers and herders from Sicily, arrived here around 5000 BC. Starting around 3600 BC, they built megalithic stone temples and flourished for 1,000 years. The temple culture died out suddenly around 2500 BC, leaving little trace except for the 23 massive ruins and carved figurines and pottery shards that have been excavated.
Two of the most spectacular temple ruins are Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta's southern coast. Hagar Qim is encircled by an irregular wall of giant stones, some 12 feet high and weighing 20 tons. A square entryway, constructed of two vertical stones and one horizontal slab, ushers visitors into the temple's inner chambers. Farther on, Mnajdra comprises three temples that open onto a courtyard. The outer wall of hard limestone is etched by the salty sea breezes, and the softer limestone inside is carved with spirals and other decorations. In the nearby village of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a local fisherman will take you for a ride in a small boat along the jagged coastline to the famous Blue Grotto, an immense deep-sea cave with water so clear you can see the bottom.
Malta's crown jewel is undoubtedly the fortified city of Valletta, which was built on a well-protected peninsula by the Knights of the Order of St. John after the Great Siege of 1565 by the Arabs. These crusading "monk knights," who came from the noble families of Europe, were granted possession of the island in 1530 by the Holy Roman Emperor King Charles V of Spain. The eight points of the familiar Maltese cross represent the eight nations of this Catholic military order. Valletta was named after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette.
The city offers more than you can see in a few hours. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon because many stores close for siesta between 1 and 4 p.m. From the elegant Upper Barrakka Gardens 200 feet above the majestic Grand Harbour, you can gaze across at the three historic maritime towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua. Just off Republic Street, St. John's Co-Cathedral reflects the untold wealth lavished upon it by the order. The cathedral floor is paved with 400 inlaid marble tombstones, and the walls are adorned with Baroque paintings, including Caravaggio's "Beheading of St. John."
A few blocks farther down Republic Street stands the yellow- stone Grand Master's Palace, now the home of the Maltese Parliament. Around back, you can enter the Palace Armoury and stroll through exhibits of antique armor and weaponry. Small coffee shops and cloistered restaurants fill the air with tantalizing aromas. Gift shops entice buyers with souvenir medieval swords and hand-blown Gozo glass. Another way to appreciate Valletta's magnificence is by sea. Daily tour boats leave from Sliema's waterfront and take you on a cruise of Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour.
Other towns around the island are well worth visiting. Horse carriages wait outside the main gate of Mdina to transport visitors across the stone bridge and through the maze of narrow alleyways built by the Arabs in the ninth century. A 15-minute ride or walk through the "Silent City" leads to Bastian Square for a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. If you dare, descend into the town's Roman dungeons where commoners were imprisoned for even minor infractions. In nearby Rabat, you can tour St. Paul's and St. Agatha's catacombs and then see the grotto in St. Paul's Church, where the apostle Paul, Malta's patron saint, hid for three months after he was shipwrecked on the island in 60 AD. The town of Mosta is best known for the dome of the golden-hued rotunda Church of St. Mary, the third-largest church in Europe.
On the weekend, do as the Maltese do and go to Gozo. A car ferry to the island departs hourly from Cirkewwa. If you are driving yourself, you can easily see the island's highlights in a single day. Walk through the Ggantija temple ruins (built in 3600 BC), climb up to the walled citadel in Victoria, and stop for a picnic lunch overlooking the 90-foot rock arch called the Azure Window, just outside San Lawrenz. The people are friendlier and time moves more slowly on this pastoral island. It's no wonder the Maltese themselves consider it their favorite leisure-time retreat.
Claudia R. Capos, a freelance writer in Brighton, Mich., can be reached at email@example.com.