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Trip 27 -- Malta and Gozo Walks

Saturday, August 7, 2021

The promotion that put Malta in my mind -- a €50 to €110 incentive to attract travelers after the country's reopening -- had stipulations at odds with a walker keen on a steady circumnavigation of its two main islands. Hotel bookings had to be at specific properties for a minimum of three nights (some hotels had a "pay for three nights, stay for five" scheme), and sometimes the discount involved a free airport transfer. At one property I could have chosen ten free-drink coupons instead, but ultimately this program wasn't for me.

I knew Malta was an island nation somewhere near Italy, and I expected words to appear in my investigation that reminded me of the tongue of Puccini and pasta. A glance at the map, however, revealed that I was not only embarrassingly far off course but staring at letter combinations that demanded an immediate experience in person. Apart from the capital, Valletta, the towns on the map -- Marsaxlokk, Birżebbuġa, Mġarr, Xlendi, Xagħra -- were a testament to a language far removed from that of the country's northern neighbor.

Though written using the English alphabet (with a few decorative elements), the Maltese language is related to Arabic; in addition to being 60 miles south of Sicily, Malta is 200 miles due east of Tunisia, and the names of the ancient capital and its suburb -- Mdina, Rabat -- evoke Morocco.

A look at a menu was equally powerful in rousing my appetite. Who could resist a cheese called ġbejna, mahi-mahi pie called torta tal-lampuki, rabbit stew called stuffat tal-fenek, almond cakes called kwareżimal, or chestnut soup called imbuljuta? Some foods do evoke Italian influence: minestra soup, ravjuletti (ravioli), and the liqueur known as limunċell -- Gozo-made limoncello.

Gozo is Malta's second-largest island, a quieter place to the northwest of the main island, which eponymous with the country's name. So over the next week and a half I will get to walk two islands: Malta and Gozo. Actually, three -- the tiny island of Comino is between the others, and I'll spend about two hours there, sufficient for exploration -- but only the "M" and the "G" will contribute to my Abecedarian Walks.

Two islands meant two books to contribute to my understanding. Nicholas Monsarrat's "The Kappillan of Malta" is the tale of a priest who inspired a community of hundreds hiding in catacombs during World War II. Father Salvatore and his underground city are historical fiction, but the pummeling of Malta during the war was very real. For five millennia, people have left their mark on Malta as they sought control of these specks of land strategically important for trade between Africa and Europe.

The Neolithic temples, built around 3500 BC (a thousand years before Egypt's pyramids), still survive to some extent. Phoenicians (Lebanese) arrived in about 1500 BC and called the place Malet; they discovered mysterious cart tracks around the islands, like old trolley lines, thought to date from 500 years earlier.

Then came Romans, and then Muslims, and then the Knights of St. John, who did double duty as monks and soldiers and built hospitals. The Turks came in 1565 and the great siege of that year is the stuff of legend: 30,000 Turks (who according to Monsarrat "played hand-ball with the heads of their prisoners," so went the rumor) attacked the 641 knights and their 8,000 auxiliaries, who were led by Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, for whom the capital is named. He ordered the construction of a hidden underwater chain for harbor protection. The knights holed up inside St. Elmo fort for a bloody month. The Turks floated four headless knights -- just their crucified bodies -- across the harbor, motivating la Valette to behead his Turkish prisoners and cannon-fire the heads back toward his enemy.

Eventually the smaller army overcame the larger, but how? Largely because of the civilians of Malta, who didn't particularly want any of these people intruding on what had been their peaceful land. They had hated the Knights of St. John when they arrived, and they hated the Turks even more. Time and time again, invaders saw the people of Malta as obstacles to their occupation of the territory. Much like the Jews of history, the Maltese were many times subjected to a plan of eradication ("Malta was now too great a nuisance to be allowed to live," said the German commander Field-Marshal Kesselring). And as with the Jews, no such plan succeeded.

The Maltese have had a history of community, working together as they know they must against a common enemy. Thus did they help the knights drive away the Turks. Thus did citizens of all social classes come together in 1942 to unload the cargo of the Welshman, which had been disguised as a French destroyer (and its British crew dressed with red French pom-poms -- "ooh-là-là by day, bangers and mash at night, and full ahead at all times") to evade the German bombers.

Thus did the Maltese collectively respect, and act on, the urgency of the past year: Malta was the first country in the European Union to reach herd immunity against Covid-19, with 70 percent of its citizens vaccinated by late May.

The Maltese have another common enemy these days: corruption. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist, was subjected to attacks from those whose offenses she had reported in her blog in the years leading up to her assassination by car bomb in October 2017. Among the scandals she exposed were government officials' involvement in the financial misdeeds discussed in the Panama Papers; payouts and favors connected to the construction of a power plant; the sale of Maltese passports to Russians, Saudis, Chinese, and others who sought E.U. access; payment from Azerbaijan for political favors; and the creation of Pilatus Bank, whose sole operation was money laundering.

These and other scandals are detailed in "Murder on the Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia"? The title indicates a novel, and the train metaphor (Malta is "a dirty money locomotive hurtling through the night" with "a cast of dodgy characters" on board, say its authors) is a stretch, but the research is abundant and the dozens of misdoers leave the reader in wonder how anything ever happens with dignity in Malta. "All concerned deny any wrongdoing" is the authors' most-used phrase, by far; it's even the name of the last chapter.

All of which made me certain to finish the book and not carry it to Malta.

Go on to Malta day 1