Malta is like a huge, rich slab of cake, laid on its side in a Mediterranean sauce; the thick part of the wedge – the 200m-high cliffs on the ‘African’ side of the country – slopes down to sea-level on the thinner, Europe-facing side of the slice.
This is a good thing (cake always is!): Malta is one of the most densely populated countries on the continent, but all those people and ports and towns are concentrated in the low-lying north. Where Malta rises up to a fat rugged crest – before stopping abruptly and plunging straight down into the sea – there’s an airy and expansive land of traditional smallholdings and open country.
This means Malta offers far better walking than you might imagine. And over on Gozo, where the people are fewer to begin with, there’s an even greener countryside of small lanes and tiny fields folded into a crumpled landscape.
So the Maltese Islands have the ability to surprise. Even still, I hadn’t expected to actually get lost when I’d started walking near Buskett, a walled wood that was once a forested hunting ground in miniature for the lordly Knights of Malta. The guidebook described a route from Buskett, following lanes and paths to Qrendi town some 12km away, but I needed a bit of help to point me in the right direction. Given Malta’s high population it was ironic, really, that I could see fewer signs of life from the present day than I could from every century back as far as 3,000BC.
The Maltese Islands have rather more history than actual space to store it in: 5,000 years’ worth of neolithic tombs, Bronze Age stone circles, palaces, towns, churches and other fancy stone work have all rather piled up a bit. Take the area I was lost in: a sheet of rock where early drag sleds used to move huge rocks around for Stonehenge-like temples, it has eroded in so many tracks that the place is popularly called ‘Clapham Junction’.
Behind me was a huge depression in the ground with caves around its circumference, containing beds, shelves and other ‘furniture’ carved into the rock. The caves were already in use when the Phoenicians arrived, bringing grapes – wine! hurrah! – and all through the time when the Romans, and the Arabs, too, were here. Troglodytes lived in them for all the 250 years that the Knights of Malta were on the islands, and still when the Napoleonic French landed – briefly – in 1798, before being ousted by the British. Apparently people were lounging around these caves well into the 19th century. Pity that there was no one still at home to help me on my way.
And walked westwards, soon finding myself on track, following a sandy lane running between beautifully crafted walls. It seems that when a Maltese countryman wants something – a veranda, a fence post, a bench, a table and, for all I know, a clock or a sturdy pair of boots – he carves them out of the local honey-hued stone. Where the quarries had left immense squared holes in the ground I looked down onto the treetops of orchards set into lush green gardens. All were, seemingly, abandoned in the heat of the sun.
Then I finally met someone: an islander leading a mule behind a flock of sheep and goats heading up the hill to find grazing. He could have walked out of any of the last century’s ten decades, so timeless he seemed, though if I looked across the island to the lower lands I could see a contrasting built-up world centred on Valletta Harbour.
My senses had readjusted to focus on the rural landscape I was striding through, balmed by smells of thyme and lulled by the song of a blue rock thrush. Similarly strolling were John and Sue. This English couple had been using the island’s trundling vintage buses to link together a week of walks. They’d already worked out Malta’s unique scale. “You just need to look closely to see the detail,” they enthused. “We’ve seen so many flowers, and a chameleon... a black snake... and a lot of birds... more than we expected.”
A few hours later I strolled into Qrendi’s town square. A raffish and venerable banana-yellow Leyland bus was preparing to leave for Valletta, but my need was more urgent than transport. Spying an oasis, I marched into the marble and mahogany opulence of Qrendi’s Band Club. A century and a half of British influence on the islands have left their mark, not just in the taste for marching brass bands around on saints’ days, but also in these typically rather grand but friendly club bars, a feature of most towns.
Anyone, even a dusty hiker, can walk in for a Maltese-brewed, English-style beer and a few frames on the full-size snooker table. The following day I joined Bernard Bonnici, of adventure company Malta Outdoors, to explore the wilderness running north-west from the Dingli Cliffs. Bernard was accompanied by his Maltese ‘rabbit dog’, a hound slender and lanky-limbed as a drawn-out evening shadow in the hot midday sun.
Following the dog’s quick legs we stepped over the edge of Malta and onto a narrow, rough path that ran high above the pewter sea at a steep incline across rocks, scree and falling ground. “You need good boots for this walk,” Bernard pointed out, unnecessarily, “it catches people by surprise that there’s such rugged land in the Maltese Islands.”
After an hour of walking we stopped on top of the cliffs where the land appeared to have been hacked off by an unsteady hand using a giant, blunt saw. The next land south from us, and not so very far away, was Libya.
“We often come to camp on this coast, and nobody knows we’re here,” Bernard said waving his hand at the folds in the landscape above us. “And on Gozo we run four-day camping walks right around the coast of the island, scrambling along the rocks and around the cliffs. We rarely see anyone. You’d be surprised just how much variety there is in one small island, and how much nature, too.”
The path we were following was fringed with caper bushes and stalky fennel plants, Malta’s signature spices, there for the plucking – just two of more than 1,000 species of plant found on the Maltese Islands, 25 of which are found nowhere else in the world. Birds, on the other hand, are less loyal; though an amazing 382 species have touched down on the islands, and nearly 200 species regularly migrate via Malta – including osprey, honey buzzard and heron – there are only 29 Maltese breeding birds. Above us a hen harrier slipped across the sky; at my feet an emerald-green lizard scuttled across the path like a tiny, jaywalking leprechaun.
We climbed down onto a flat white expanse of rock above a sea turned turquoise in the sun and, as we walked over a checkerboard of shallow saltpans, ‘rabbit dog’ posed like an attenuated Giacometti sculpture against the bleached cliff. Running out of flat rock to walk on, we hauled ourselves, hand over hand, up a rope to join a path running back to the island’s ridge high above. At the top Bernard had arranged another surprise. His business partner, Andrew, had tied-off ropes that ran over the edge of a steep gorge; below, the sheer drop lead to rocks splattered by the churning waves.
“We thought you might enjoy another way to explore the coast,” Andrew grinned as he handed me an abseiling harness. Helmeted and strapped in, I lowered myself over the edge and began walking backwards down the rock face, adding, if perhaps a tad literally, another dimension to my day’s walk.
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