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Memories of Malta

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Fans of Humphrey Bogart know the tiny island state of Malta as the origin of the jewel-crested black bird in the 1941 film classic The Maltese Falcon. A year later, the real-life epic of the Maltese people brushed decisively with world history when thousands died while beating back the Axis powers, who craved the country's strategic shipping lanes. Since human history began in Malta back in 5200 B.C., world conquerors and romantics alike have craved its shores.

Take a stroll through the Maltese town of Mdina and see for yourself: Ancient Roman and Phoenician outer walls surround an inner maze of alleyways paved by medieval Arab city planners. Buildings cover the island, some extending right to the water's edge. The shady lanes spill into a sun-drenched square, where couples, holding hands, face the glimmering dome of a 19th-century cathedral. Such shifts mark every city in Malta, a crossroads of East and West, where centuries of change can be measured in yards. From the weather as well as the architecture, you'd think you were wandering through an old section of Palermo, but then you turn a corner and suddenly it looks like you're in Istanbul.

I had the pleasure of visiting the place a few years ago. Remembering it recently, I thought I'd share some recollections.

The Republic of Malta is an archipelago made up of five populated islands (the largest is called Malta) that dot the sparkling ocean between Arab North Africa and southeastern Europe--58 miles south of Sicily, to be exact. The summers are hot and dry; the winters are mild. Being a history buff and Middle East specialist, I wanted to explore every inch of the place.

I cruised after sundown toward the capital, Valletta, from the tiny Sicilian seaport of Pozzallo. Maltese passengers sat around the ferry deck arguing about soccer, beer, and Jesus Christ--much the way their neighbors the Italians do, but in a throaty language unlike any spoken on the continent of Europe. I managed to understand some Maltese because it stems from Arabic, the native tongue of Malta's Muslim conquerers and my Iraqi-born mother. But the language, like the people who speak it, has been infused with Turkish, French, English, and Italian elements, each the linguistic relic of an empire that smothered the tiny country for decades or more, only to be shaken off by the natives.

"It would take you 30 years to really learn Maltese," one sports fan proclaimed over a Heineken, slurring his gutturals.

"Unfortunately I only have a week," I explained.

A foghorn sounded, and there was Valletta harbor's round citadel of stone, glowing blood orange against the darkness. We disembarked into a hushed sea town from another time: Mustached customs agents whisked us through immigration and onto a dusty cobbled street nearly devoid of people. Bogie as Sam Spade, and Sidney Greenstreet as The Fat Man, would not have seemed out of place. Such was my first impression of the mainland. But after a short cab ride down Malta's hilly, curvy coastline, we reached St. Julians, a glitzy entertainment hub crowded with sexy visitors dressed to disco.

The next morning, I caught a bus to ancient Mdina, which hosted the apostle Paul after he'd shipwrecked in 60 A.D. Beyond the lush green meadow and rural settlement I over-looked from above the town's Phoenician and Roman fortifications, the Mediterranean seeped past gentle cloud-shrouded hills.

Hungry, I found Ta' Frenc Restaurant, an elegant little candlelit place with a stone patio overlooking the water. Maltese cuisine, like the language, is a hodgepodge of flavors and dishes, but the proximity to southern Italy makes the Sicilian influence especially strong. On the menu you'll find everything from spicy fish stews and sausages to salty pea-stuffed pastries and African bean dips. That night, I chowed down on fennkata, a local specialty of roasted rabbit with stewed tomatoes served over pasta, best with distinctively pungent Maltese merlot. In contrast to some Caribbean resorts, tourists aren't the only ones being served in Malta. The relative affluence of its dense population--trade and electronics manufacturing are large chunks of the economy--means that locals rub shoulders with foreign visitors at the finest eateries. I learned from a couple seated at the next table over that most Maltese grapes and game are farmed on the next island over, a place of green hills and valleys called Gozo. So I darted across by speedboat one morning to check it out, and stumbled, once I'd landed, on some interisland tensions.

"You staying in Mdina, not Gozo?" a cab driver asked.

I said yes.

"People who live on the island of Malta live only for today," he declared, referring to his more urban neighbors. "They never save money, never think about tomorrow. Here on Gozo, we have tradition and values!"

It was the universal spat between capital and province, only fiercer on bite-size turf. Gozitans plausibly claim to have been around long before their neighbors on Malta; their megalithic temple complex at Ggantija predates Stonehenge. And Ggantija's imposing pagan stones would have been old hat by the time Homer's sea nymph Calypso imprisoned Odysseus for seven years in one of the island's seaside caves. I gained insight into their torrid affair by swimming through an echoing grotto at the edge of a turquoise lagoon.

En route to Tunisia more recently, our plane flew over Malta and I remembered how much I had enjoyed the country. I warmly recommend a visit.