back 5,000 years
By HUGH KAY
I FLEW into Valletta on the night of the feast of St. Paul Shipwrecked. It was like one of those stories where the magician projects you back for an hour into an ancient civilisation — or rather into half a dozen of them rolled into one.
Up and down the steep. winding, narrow streets, flanked by Moorish-type houses straight out of a film set, the crowds jostled eight, nine and 10 abreast across the middle of the road.
There were priests, ascetically thin and enormously fat, burly Franciscans, inquisitorial Dominicans, pretty girls with fire and mystery in their eyes, angry young politicians, British naval personnel, Mintoffian trade unionists, Young Christian Workers, all humping, banging, jostling and charging into each other with the best of good will.
Then came the huge procession —hundreds of copes and birettas, a sermon booming on the loudspeakers above the roar of the crowd, occasional bursts into strange old hymns in the hybrid Maltese tongue with Arabic as its dominant motif. And finally, the massive, towering figure of the great Apostle himself, borne aloft, an inch at a time, by 30 sweating young men.
Certainly, this was a Catholic island, the social and the religious interweaving in a way that made nonsense of our attempts to understand Maltese politics in a British context. But one also remembered that, here, Hannibal was born; here Ulysses sojourned for seven years with the goddess Calypso; the island teems with neolithic remains, relics of cultures that flourished before Europe was born.
Here, where Paul was shipwrecked in the year 60, are cathedrals of breathtaking grandeur, museums packed with paintings and sculptures of great value and price. There are Carthaginian tombs and Roman catacombs, the Auberges of the Knights of St. John, the relics of the Arab period. Drive out for an hour and visit Mdina and Rabat, once a single
town—the old capital of Melita mentioned in the Acts. Mdina is the old capital of Malta, now a strangely silent city, a medieval town surrounded by formidable bastions of the Arab period. Floodlit by night, it hangs between heaven and earth like a city on a magic carpet.
Some of its buildings go back to the Norman era. The cathedral is built over the site occupied by the villa of Publius. the Roman Governor in Paul's day.
Malta has the finest climate in Europe, sunny and warm, not unbearably hot.
The beaches and the bathing are unsurpassed, and, if so inclined, you can have a day's sailing or aqua-lung diving for thirty shillings, water ski-ing for £8 10s., including the boat, and even big game fishing. And there are cheap family runabout boats.
Hotels and boarding houses arc very cheap, and the food is usually excellent, though the comforts tend to be rudimentary. The Malta Government Tourist Board, St. John's Square, Valletta, will send you all the advice you want and help you choose the right place.
The people are extremely friendly, they mostly speak English, the currency is our own, and the return flight by night tourist plane is only £33 13s. The Tourist Board is trying to attract ordinary working people from leritain. If Mum and Dad can rake up £150 between them, they can have the best holiday of their lives, all in. And, if they travel by sea, its costs less.
All the year round the religious festers and folk festivals offer colourful processions, fireworks, singing, dancing, and even racing. Spectator sports include sailing regattas, polo, soccer and waterpolo. The Imnarja is the all-night traditional Maltese Folk Festival.
Young visitors need a little ingenuity if they are not content with the sea and the smell of prehistory. It's no use looking for switchbacks and dodgem cars, and. incidentally. the two-piece bathing dress is still outlawed (and why not; they look revolting, anyway!).
But if you want a taste of a lively people with an uproarious taste for politics, you'll meet that too in Malta. I was there at election time. and one felt like Monty must have done on D-Day. Having been nearly crushed to death in a small car with Mr. Mintoff, whose supporters express themselves with a terrifying energy, I passed from his riotous outdoor meeting to the 60,000 strong crowd roaring loyalty to the Archbishop in the great central square There's one thing about Maltathese people are alive, in a sense that we forgot 100 years ago.