Jeanine Barone, a travel writer with an eye for hidden treasures, sends us this note about her recent cultural, natural, and supernatural finds in Malta.
You never know what you’ll find when exploring Malta on foot. I recently made some curious discoveries on two of the three inhabited islands in this archipelago.
Artists at Work
“My neighbors thought I was crazy because I’d have to find people who liked art and who also enjoyed walking,” said Hermine Sammut, an artist who leads Art Walks through the Gozitan countryside. Luckily, she had no trouble finding interest, as our small group of art lovers hiked narrow dirt roads flanked by clumps of prickly-pear cactus and terraced fields planted with tomatoes, melons, artichokes and pumpkins.
Along the way, artists opened their doors to us, inviting us to examine their works and ask questions about their creative processes. In the village of Ghajnsielem, sculptor Joe Xuereb showed us his curvy limestone pieces that take inspiration from local Neolithic figures. As we headed to the village of Nadur, an ancient stone watchtower with a new contemporary roof stood sentinel. We climbed a path leading to a landscaped promenade with vistas of neighboring Comino Island. Once in Nadur, Justin Falzon, a young painter, led us to a spare bedroom in his mother’s house where he laid out a multitude of canvases displaying his brooding death series. It created a hush over our otherwise lively group.
Finding Art in Nature
On Gozo, Malta’s greener and sleepier sister island, I walked along the north coast, beside Xwiendi Bay, passing seaside cafes and pebbled beaches that give way to a seeming moonscape. There’s a sculptural magic here, just west of the petite resort city of Marsalforn. It’s dominated by golden cliffs and a 160-foot-wide expanse of rectangular and abstract-shaped hollows resembling puzzle pieces.
These saltpans, row upon row of them, cover a sea-buffeted limestone ledge. Strolling along this mile-long expanse, I found some filled with a mirror-like surface of seawater, perfectly reflecting the cloudless sky. Others are dry and woven with glistening crystals that form a pattern of fine lace.
Centuries ago, when the saltpans were formed by nature, the Phoenicians and Romans used them to produce sea salt. Since the 18th century, locals have dug hundreds more by hand, with eight families now maintaining and harvesting the salt. Between May and September, you can spot them using brooms and shovels to harvest the dry heaps of white sea salt which they then sell in the island groceries.
Back on the main island, roaming narrow cobbled lanes enveloped in the shadows of the many-storied baroque buildings in Valletta, Malta’s fortified capital city, I found it easy to believe in ghosts.
Even though flickering oil lamps are a thing of the past, the carved images of saints on many a façade, lit by electric lanterns, made me feel like I was being watched.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
On this ghost tour, among a clutch of abandoned buildings, my guide, Christine Muscat, stopped outside a particularly eerie derelict stone edifice with a chained door and a dark upper-story window sitting partly ajar. I had no desire to peek inside after she told a ghostly tale of two sailors who, having climbed through this window, shared drinks with a lovely maiden who had killed herself years before. (She still haunts this property that remains up for sale.)
In Valletta, the supernatural comes in many forms and haunts all manner of dwellings. In the 16th-century St.
Johns Cathedral, a dead monsignor once said morning Mass. A rogue ghost monk lurked around a police station jail that stood on the site of the present Law Court. Stories of cat and dog apparitions, partying spirits who clinked glasses, and a woman who strangles anyone who sleeps in a particular bedroom, all had the hairs on the back of my neck at attention.
Photos by Jeanine Barone