AT TWO MINUTES BEFORE SIX IN THE MORNING, the steeple bells on the Lunzjata Parish Church chime ten times. I make a mental note: “What the…?” I am holed up in a 500-year-old house with stone walls two feet thick, tiny windows to contain the weather outside, an arched vaulted ceiling 25 feet high, and staircases chiseled by hand from massive slabs of stone. The double front doors, a thick wooden affair meant to keep out more than merely weather, seals itself with a massive steel rod which holds the door shut, that no SWAT team could ever penetrate (without using C-4). And just inside those doors is another set of glass doors: these, meant to allow light when the wooden doors are left ajar, and also to contain the weather—heat in winter, a cool breeze in summer. All the windows, as well as other doors that lead to outside areas, like the walled courtyard or the rooftop terraces, have wooden shutters on the inside. It can get pretty dark in here.
At some point in the decades I’ve been traveling the world, I made the decision to rent houses instead of hotel rooms—this was long before there was an AirBnB. At first, it was mainly because I wanted a fridge, to store cold drinks and make my own meals instead of spending the fortune you needed in places like Amsterdam or Paris. Sure, eating out is great if you’re on a two-week vacation, who wants to cook on vacation. But if you travel long-term for three months or six months at a time as I do, some days you just get tired of trying the nasi goreng or local specialty in one more off-the-beaten-track or TripAdvisor-reviewed café; some times, you just want to make a peanut butter sandwich, pop open a frosty brew, and down them while lying on your own sofa, maybe naked, maybe watching an episode of Downton Abbey.
After a while, I realized the extra living space a house affords was a nice feature. Once on the Ille Saint-Louis in Paris, my travel buddy Nina and I rented a room the size of my bathroom in the house where I’m presently staying, and paid three times what I’m paying here (well, it did sit right in the middle of the Seine with a view of Notre Dame—I’m not bitching, you understand, about that fine room with its fine view, we loved it, I’m just saying I now appreciate more space and a fridge, and I like to get as much bang for my buck as owners will give).
This house offers a pretty big bang. The place is huge, actually way too huge for a solo traveler with one carry-on: a long entry foyer with arched ceiling, three stories, five bedrooms, four bathrooms, U-shaped with a stone wall fence in back for complete privacy and safety inside a central courtyard. It even has a shower outside in the courtyard, which you can use because nobody outside the compound can see you there. I sleep in a bedroom on the second floor, the only room in the house with a/c, but I’ve pretty much limited my personal space while awake to the great room with the 25-foot ceiling. The dining table sits in here, so I have a place for my computer. An old wooden chest holds my bags beside the stone stairs leading up to a loft where a couch and a couple overstuffed chairs sit in front of a TV that I cannot figure out how to work—but, thank you god…I just know I’d be wasting time watching reruns of Californication or Keeping Up with the Kardashians or European football in a language I don’t understand. I don’t watch TV at home, and when I travel, I get hooked if I turn the thing on, which I usually do (which is why I don’t have one connected at home). I do like watching Wimbledon, which is usually happening by late June when I travel in summer. I missed it this year. But one year, I sat in a houseboat right on the Prinsengracht canal in Amsterdam watching Federer and Williams kick butt at Wimbledon while tourist boats cruised past the houseboat’s floor-to-ceiling windows—right, not a good place to lie naked eating your peanut butter sandwich. But I would sometimes fill a crystal flute with apple juice and pretend it was champagne and sit on the boat’s porch and let tourists believe I was Dutch and lived on the boat—odd what your ego will let you do some times, eh?
Here, a wood-burning stove sits against one wall of the great room, its long black pipe attached directly to the stone wall, apparently for a bit of passive heating in winter. Overhead, ceiling fans right out of the movie Casablanca (a relatively new addition to the house, along with indoor plumbing and electrical wiring) move the air to cool things off nicely. Malta can get fairly warm in summer, and a bit humid as it is an island sitting at a latitude below Spain (and Italy and most of Greece), maybe about the same line as Tangier, Tunisia, Iraq, Death Valley. Marcelle, the lady who rented me this relic, warned me to remember to duck my head when entering the kitchen because the door was “carved” out of rock and meant for a shorter clan of people living here centuries ago. Marcelle also warned me about the floors—no two are the same level, so you have to step up, or down, when going from one room to another. So far, I haven’t busted my head open on the two-foot-thick solid rock doorway, stubbed my toe, nor tripped and fallen on my ass yet. Knock wood.
Click for Malta MAP to see my route so far–all 7 kilometers of it
On the plane to Malta, I read a travel article by a woman who took a break from what she called “the hurly-burly” of her city life and boarded a freighter and sailed across the Atlantic—with no Internet, no phone, no email, no 6 O’clock News, no shuffleboard. I could relate because I was coming to Malta for pretty much the same reason: I wanted to relax while in a foreign land, and did not want the hurly-burly of either ordinary life or the travail of traveling. When I feel I need this in my life, I usually end up in Amsterdam or Bali—where I can live in an exotic location but still relax and feel at ease and maybe watch Serena kick butt.
I truly don’t need the 6 o’clock news or shuffleboard while traveling, but of course, I did expect the Internet and email—who can live without those for more than two days? Marcelle also warned me that because of the stone walls and floors, you have to be in the same room as the router to get wifi. I don’t take my laptop to the john or use it in bed, so fine, no worries there. The house has a number of routers in different rooms, and one router sits in the loft of the great room, so I’ll get the connection in there.
I’m calling it the great room not only because it is large but also because it’s just so damn great: stone walls and ceiling, arched roof, skylight, candelabra, stone stairs, tile floors, double doors leading to the courtyard outside, atavistic windows and shutters, oddly appointed quirky antiques and oozing with history and untold life stories and secrets. The room is maybe 40 feet by 15 feet, and of course, that 25-foot ceiling.
The cherry on top of all this, however, is that the wifi is not working at all. In the icon on my laptop that displays how strong the signal is, it shows I have no connection, but it also displays an exclamation point. Uh-oh…what’s up with that! But I just can’t be bothered to get bothered about it—this is how I know I’m in the right place at the right time, that I’m living in the groove, and flowing. Hit a brick wall…don’t care…pass me another ice-cold brew from my fridge.
Tarxien (to my ear, it sounds something like Tarj-zheen), the tiny village where my house sits, is a solemn little burg and most certainly no center for tourists, such as coastal towns like Valletta or Birzebbuga or Sliema (all pronounced like they look). I did harbor the notion that I would obviously find a Starbucks here, but I now believe that doubtful unless, perhaps, I head for the tourist centers near the coast, which I decide I may if I start getting withdrawal symptoms—no one should go cold turkey alone, especially in a stone house with dwarf doors on a rock in the Med. However, there are two local bars within a one-minute walk on either side of my front door, where each evening you eye a pride of local men in shorts and loose-fitting tank tops gathered for lager and camaraderie, all barking loudly in a language with the lilt of Italian and the heft of Arabic. Tarxien has a tiny grocery store. A pastry shop. A paper/cell phone store. A dress shop. A mechanic working on motorbikes out of his home’s one-car garage. A bakery. The church with the odd chimes. And that’s about all I see that Tarxien has to offer. Oh, and two places to buy lottery tickets. This month’s prize is up to half a million euros. I may purchase a ticket—miracles happen remember, especially when you’re flowing along life’s groove. If I win, I’ll buy you a plane ticket to visit me in Malta.
Some of the Neolithic (new stone age) and copper-age temples on Malta are fairly important as they are the world’s “oldest free-standing buildings.” And apparently, quite unique. Archaeologists are still arguing whether the island in those days was a “magic sanctuary” where pilgrims from foreign lands bought “religious paraphernalia” with gifts or fees, or the vast wealth simply accumulated locally. Recently, out of over some 300 sites selected as UNESCO Heritage Sites, eight sit right here on Malta—no mean feat on an island 27 miles long, and 14 miles wide at its longest points. The Tarxien Temples is one of those sites. Apparently, this island has been an important place for a very long time.
One reason the Tarxien Temples is unique is that there are four temples instead of the usual two or three found at all other sites on Malta and the nearby island of Gozo. Although they are not the largest nor the oldest of the over two dozen prehistoric temple sites here, the Tarxien Temples harbor large stone idols and more complex decorations, which archaeologists believe suggest that Tarxien may have been the most important site, and the center of their civilization, which lasted maybe 500 to 800 years, ending around 2500 BC. The temples at Tarxien were built over a number of centuries, the oldest was built around 3100 BC, which—get this—predates both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Real-old stuff going down on this big rock in the water.
I decide to take a walk to see if I can discover the Tarxien Temples without a map. I have come to the island on a whim, a last-minute gut-level “un-decision”—without a guidebook, with no map, and knowing very little at all about Malta itself really—not much more than what you see in the movies with scenes shot here, like The Da Vinci Code, and Troy (the one with Brad Pitt and whatisname), and World War Z; and the filmset for Popeye was left standing and has become a tourist attraction. Hell of a landscape here, and when we say crystal clear blue water, that’s precisely what we mean—if you put on a snorkeling mask and free dive, you can expect to see for maybe 165 feet, (50 meters) even if you’re down 90 feet (30 meters).
At forty-five minutes into the walk, I’m lost. And I don’t remember the name of the street my house sits on. I don’t remember the name of the pub on the corner nearby. I don’t think I even know the name of the church whose bells I heard at six o’clock. I think of the lady riding the tramp steamer across the Atlantic—she’s lucky, she can hardly get lost on a ship that’s maybe two football fields long.
I wander down some fairly interesting little roadways clustered with stone homes with wooden bay window structures, and I can’t quite imagine what it must have been like living here maybe 500 years ago—no roads, no coffee, no battery charger. And no selfies, unless you peer into a puddle of water. And how would you light a candle without matches is what I want to know. Many roads through the village are one-way roads now because they were first laid out as either footpaths for pedestrians, or for horses and maybe a wagon. Sidewalks are narrow if there is a sidewalk. All houses have heavy, wood double doors with huge knockers, or some, simply have large knobs to pull the doors open. Most have a large cantilevered bay window-balcony affair on their second floor or higher, to look out, but also to catch a breeze of fresh air. Apparently, the main architectural concern in those days was less about gingerbread fou-fou and more about keeping out unwanted visitors, and weather, and perhaps to see what your neighbor might be up to because you’d never hear them through your adjacent walls.
For awhile, I’m fairly confident that I know—if not precisely where I am, then—that I’m within a few blocks of the road home, but which direction is home? That’s still a mystery. I stumble across a café advertising that if you buy a pastry for two euros, you get a cappuccino for free. I push that door open. It’s a clean, tidy little white place lacking a soundtrack and a Starbucks logo, but that’s why you travel, isn’t it—to wallow in the horrid travails along the way. Turns out the pastry is huge, and probably a day old. The coffee is good (it’s difficult to manufacture a bad cappuccino), but the cup is small and the coffee is not steaming hot. Why can’t anyone, including Starbucks, make a piping-hot cappuccino is all I’m asking now? The barista does not know where the Tarxien temples lie. And it also turns out that I have wandered out of the very little burg of Tarxien and into the slightly-larger, neighboring little burg of Paola.
After the wallowing and downing the tepid cappuccino, I wander around trying to find the temples and the road back home. All the streets look alike: row after row of connected stone homes with double doors and bay window-balconies above. I come across a playing field with some men deep into an intriguing game. They seem to be on two opposing teams. One man at a time steps inside a wire ring to take his turn. First, one guy steps into the ring and very intently and fussily tosses out a little red ball—maybe trying to land it a particular distance away? There are maybe three guys on each team, one with green blocks and one with red blocks. A man from one team then steps inside the wire ring to toss his blocks, apparently trying to get close to the little red ball. Then a guy from the other team steps in and takes his shots. The one guy who tossed out the little red ball has three of them, and every once in a while he tosses out one more. The guys with the blocks try to come close, or they try to knock the other guy’s blocks away. The players are remarkably accurate with their tossing and hitting the other guy’s blocks. After they’ve tossed all their blocks, they pick up the wire ring and all walk to the other side of the playing field, where another team member begins tossing in the opposite direction from where they just came. I feel like an intruder for some reason, and do not want to interrupt them to ask what the hell they call this game. So I meander on, in search of the illusive and atavistic Tarxien Temples.
I discover Paola actually harbors a main street with shops and quite a modern, if diminutive, shopping mall built where several homes used to sit. I ask a couple of shopkeepers where the temples are. They point me in different directions. I walk and photograph other people’s homes. It’s a nice evening for a walk. Local people sitting on benches or door stoops stare at me. People eating in sidewalk cafés stare at me. People drinking beer in doorways of local pubs stare at me. People buying lottery tickets stare at me. Apparently tonight, I am the odd roadside attraction here.
What I finally find is a sign in Paola for the temples that points in a completely different direction than where I’ve been walking—they lie back in Tarxien…duh. However, I now know where I am and how to get back home because I recognize a house with a particularly interesting balcony that I had photographed earlier—right, I’ve been walking in circles. I give up on seeing the temples today. I’m told they close at 7 pm anyway. So I will search for the temples tomorrow. I’m also told there are no bookstores here that sell guidebooks, the salesclerks suggest Valletta, the capital city and tourist Mecca here. This is definitely not your average tourist-hype village. They don’t even sell fridge magnets. But it is quaint, and photogenic, and exactly what you’d look for in a place if you wanted to escape your hurly-burly world.
DO YOU KNOW THE NAME OF THE GAME THESE MEN ARE PLAYING?
HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN LOST IN A FOREIGN LAND, OR TOWN?
DO YOU HAVE SUGGESTIONS OF WHAT TO VISIT ON MALTA?
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