I came to Malta in search of pirates.
For the last two years I have been obsessed with the place, surrounded by books, maps and photos, scouring the web, emptying local library of any books on the subject. The obsession is not confined to Malta – my study is also full of books on ships and boats, pirates and corsairs, swords and weapons, generals and admirals, uniforms and fashions of the 18th century.
This obscure single-mindedness is due to the fact that one day two years ago I wrote a few pages of a story about a young girl who is kidnapped by pirates, somewhere near Malta. Those few pages became a book for young readers, and another, and then somehow it became a trilogy: Swashbuckler!
Now, after years of writing, researching, rewriting and imagining, I have to see for myself.
“Let me understand this,” says the kind man at the Tourism Authority, long-distance. “You have written three books set in Malta, but you have never been here?”
I admit that it may seem a trifle unusual, but I never dreamed anybody would read the damn things. Now they’re about to be published, so it’s time to make sure everything I wrote is true – except for the bits that I made up. I’ve stared at the maps so long I feel as if I know the islands better than I know Auckland. I’ve fondled photos and cross-checked and dreamed. But now I need to stand on the islands, to smell the dusty streets, to listen to the sea and feel the sirocco on my face.
Why Malta? Squatting in the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily and Libya, the three Maltese islands have been invaded over the centuries by a who’s who of European history. Everyone’s had a go at Malta, because of its almost perfect strategic position. Successive waves of Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines and Normans left their marks on the islands, while pirates from the Barbary Coast plagued the shipping channels.
But in 1530 the islands’ destiny was changed with a quill-stroke. The crusading Knights of St John Hospitaller were granted Malta as the new home of the Order, after it had been thrown out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Knights became God’s pirates, and their slave galleys swept across the seas to do battle with the “Infidel” Barbary corsairs. The fight reached its zenith in 1565 when Suleiman sent his fleet against the islands: the Great Siege is one of the defining moments in Mediterranean history. When the Knights’ fort of St Elmo finally fell, their crucified bodies were floated through the harbour as a warning to those still alive inside the last bastion. The Knights’ Grandmaster, Jean de la Vallette, responded by firing the decapitated heads of Turkish prisoners from the fort’s cannon.
After the siege was lifted, the Order built some of the most beautiful and remarkable cities on earth. Valletta and the Three Cities along the Grand Harbour are perfect gems of Renaissance city planning and baroque architecture; each one fortified and designed to withstand another siege.
Then one fateful day in 1798, a young Corsican General named Napoleon Bonaparte took the islands with barely a shot fired. The French occupation of Malta was unlike any of the other waves of invaders: this time the Maltese people themselves rose up in rebellion. In time, aided by the British fleet of another up-and-coming chap called Horatio Nelson, the Maltese threw the French out of Valletta. So the islands were once again fought over by the greatest military minds of Europe – and that’s the backdrop for my pirate stories, the swashbuckling islands.
Miles below me, the Mediterranean Sea seems to wink hello. I’d forgotten how very blue it is. If I squint, I can spot the islands on the horizon. The plane flies lower, circles above Marfa Ridge and there’s the Red Tower, and the island of Gozo across the channel. It’s all exactly as I pictured it; the dry fields and rocky coast and – hey! What are those apartment blocks doing down there?
By the time I reach Valletta, I am as dislocated as if I’d arrived from 1798 in the Tardis. Here are the great palaces of the Knights, and there’s Toni and Guy (What is it with them? Are they everywhere?). On my right is the grand baroque cathedral, but across the pjazza I can get fish and chips for only two lira. The dear man at the Tourism Authority takes pity on me and appoints a guide and driver to make sure the strange woman with the pirate fixation gets safely around the islands.
It takes a while to adjust.
I walk in wonder. Even after being bombed relentlessly during World War Two, the cities are breathtakingly beautiful and precisely planned. Streets sweep down to the harbour in three directions, providing a cooling wind and easy troop movement. Steep lanes are bordered with shallow steps; built for knights in heavy armour who can’t lift their legs high, they are now perfect for elderly women weighed down with shopping. Circling the cities are colossal ramparts, bastions at each corner, with narrow slits for firing arrows.
Valletta is on UNESCO’s heritage list, but it’s no mausoleum. Nor is it a tourist hell. It’s a living city, bustling with market stalls and children giggling on the way to school. There are few cars – you’re more likely to get run over by a horse-drawn karrozzin. It’s like seeing history in action: from the florid decorations of St John’s Cathedral to the brightly painted fishing boats bobbing in the coves; from dark Caravaggio masterpieces to naive murals in the Grand Masters’ Palace; from the watchtower carved with a gigantic eye and ear, to the firing of the noon cannon.
But enough of knights and palaces. I have pirate work to do.
My guide, Adrian, and driver, Tony, take a while to get into the swing of the pirate thing.
“Why do you want to go there?” they ask, when I enquire about a desolate beach on the coast.
“It’s in my book,” I reply. “It’s a secret pirate landing place.”
Tony mutters something about the suspension in his car.
“Nobody would ever land there,” says Adrian. He helpfully escorts me instead to an admittedly lovely sandy beach, where pirates might, at a pinch, have dropped by for a picnic and a splash in the clear water.
Atop the famous Cliffs of Dingli, which play a critical part in the final scene of my books, I sidle up to the edge.
“Careful,” Adrian warns.
I have pictured them like the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, hundreds of feet from raging white water to sky. I peep over the crumbling edge. Forty feet below me is a well-kept terrace of olive trees and fields of capsicum.
It’s not until I sail right around the islands weeks later that I see the cliffs as I had imagined, soaring skywards out of the sea. I realise then that any responsible guide would have made sure I didn’t fall in such a treacherous spot.
The boys and I travel happily all over the place, stopping for fried rabbit and coffee, dropping into haunted churches and tiny museums, poking around catacombs with a fading torch, admiring the spring flowers and mysterious ancient sites. Massive stone temples, older than Stonehenge, and carved in intricate swirls, have been found in several places on Malta and Gozo. Adrian is very knowledgeable about the old legends and tales of miraculous saintly interventions – he thinks that would be a much better idea for a book than a girl who becomes a pirate.
The place is so small, it’s easy to get around, and we cover a lot of ground in a few days. Imagine a country about the size of Stewart Island, but with twice the population of Auckland; with Sicily sometimes visible and North Africa just below the horizon, and everywhere the brilliant ocean. It’s refreshingly free of tour groups and we’re often quite alone in the miraculous temples or museums filled with Roman artefacts.
I’m rather glad I’m not driving. “In America, they drive on the right,” Tony explains. “In England they drive on the left. In Malta, we drive in the shade.”
When I’m travelling alone, I can indulge the pirate passion to my heart’s content. Every morning from my breakfast table I can watch the sea, checking its moods and the winds. Sometimes an old schooner sails past. One day I jump on the ferry to the island of Gozo, and hire a fishing boat. Max, a fisherman, guides the boat across the Inland Sea (smaller than I’d imagined), through the crack in the cliffs (narrower than I thought), and out into the ocean (more ridiculously blue than I’d dreamed). I celebrate my exhilaration with a chocolate gelato and give Max a huge tip. He promises to read the books if I promise to visit his aunt next time I’m in Melbourne.
I spend long days retracing the fictional steps of my characters, choosing the houses they might have lived in, walking the paths I had chosen for them from my research. I crawl through damp tunnels under Vittoriosa just like the ones I’d invented. I gaze lovingly at every piece of furniture in the remarkable Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th century palazzo, as if my characters had just left the drawing room.
I have to remind myself that these are people I made up; that my pirates weren’t really ever here in the winding lanes of the Old City (Mdina), and that their ship, the Mermaid, is unlikely to sail past my hotel room window. Everything is just as I had imagined – but a thousand times more beautiful and fascinating.
Malta captures all the very best elements of Mediterranean life. But it is more than the sum of its influences, and is unique. Nowhere else will you find these prehistoric stone temples; the silent streets of Mdina; the fortress cities of the Knights; gold limestone houses with green balconies; markets selling woven fish traps and straw trilby hats; and an Arabic language with Norman and Italian influences, dotted with the East London “Orright?”
British influences remain strong, and almost everyone speaks English. The most visible British relics are the 1950s Bedford and Leyland buses, all gleaming chrome and painted bright yellow and orange. Inside, a glow-in-the-dark statue of Our Lady might be framed with Chelsea football team flags, fluffy dice, votives, sports trophies and family photos. Each bus is proudly named: I rode on Derek, Holy Mary, Lady Diana, and my personal favourite, Toongabbie NSW. It may not be the most comfortable bus ride you’ve ever had, but it will at least be entertaining.
In Malta, travellers can enjoy the Mediterranean’s Greatest Hits: Roman ruins, Neapolitan paintings and Italian food, old wooden boats, sun and azure sea, cafes in the piazzas, surly taxi drivers and warm hospitality, spirited festas, elderly women in black, skinny young men with impressive mullets, dry stone walls around tiny fields, golden honey and goats’ cheese, wayside chapels, catacombs, and sunflowers, tomatoes and basil growing in the sunshine.
All that, and pirates too.
Emirates flies to Malta via Dubai, with fares starting around $2500. Air Malta flies from major European cities, and there’s a daily ferry from Sicily. The northern spring or autumn are the best times of year to visit.
I stayed in the Vivaldi Hotel in St Julian’s, a short bus ride from Valletta. The area is crowded with restaurants and hotels at all price ranges designed mostly for European visitors. In Valletta, there are fewer restaurants, but the British Hotel and the Grand Harbour Hotel boast spectacular views.
The bus system is simple to master, and connects with inter-island ferries to Gozo. Car hire is cheap, but all towns and villages are best explored on foot.
Money and shopping:
Malta has its own currency (lira) but many shops accept Euros. There are ATMs and exchanges everywhere. It’s hardly a shopping destination, but look out for handmade lace on Gozo, silver and gold filigree in Merchant Street in Valletta, and glass blown before your eyes at the Ta’Qali craft markets.
Try the traditional rich rabbit stew (at Il-Bari in the village of Mgarr) and fried fish or squid (cheap and fresh at a waterfront café in Marsaxlokk). You can pick up delicious pastizzi (pastries filled with peas or ricotta) from the vans near the gates of Valletta, or eat at your leisure at a table outside the legendary Caffe Cordina.
The Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to Malta will tell you everything you need to know, but check the Maltese Tourism Authority’s excellent website.
Header photo: Streetscape, Valletta, 2005