Journey to the centre of the Med

In Malta you cross paths with many civilizations - and their relics. Cleo Paskal gets lost among the island's catacombs while failing to find a bowling alley

"Well, how about going to see some catacombs?" suggested my pal Gino. It was not the sort of lazy, late-afternoon activity I was used to - but this was Malta, a country so choked with history that it is easier to find an ancient, important grave site than, say, a bowling alley. And I didn't really feel like bowling, anyway.

"Sure."

We trundled along one of Malta's dusty back roads in Gino's Jeep. In the fading light I could see classic Maltese scenery: earth, shrubs, low limestone houses, all in various shades of yellowing brown. Beyond, constantly clutching at the beaches and cliffs, the dark blue sea. It was oddly timeless. And beautiful.

Gino suddenly pulled over to the side of the road.

"We're here."

I looked around. Earth, shrubs, low limestone houses.

Gino got out and I followed him across a field, up a low ridge and through someone's back yard. Just beyond it, the side of a hill had been carved away, showing several openings into the rock face. Gino went into one of them.

It was starting to get dark. I began to wonder exactly how much I really knew about Gino, the Maltese cousin of a good friend from London. At his cousin's request, Gino had offered to be my guide. But, as far as I remembered, luring me into tombs at night hadn't been part of the deal.

"You coming?" he shouted, his voice echoing inside the hill. I went.

The opening was a low doorway. I stepped over the threshold and down into the sunken chamber. I was in a hallway, with alcoves on either side. Some were too dark to see into, but the others were unquestionably designed to hold bodies.

There were waist-high slabs and central fire pits for visitors who wanted to spend a cold winter evening in the company of the dear departed. It was ancient and eerie but strangely welcoming - a reminder of a time when life and death weren't so far apart.

Gino pointed out details. From carvings on the walls, you could tell that the site had been used by Christians and Jews, together. Most of the catacomb was accessible, but some of the other openings into the rock face were barred.

Soon it was too dark to see any more, and we returned to the Jeep.

I was amazed. Given how interesting the site was, why was there no security? Why wasn't it mentioned in guidebooks? Why was there no information available on site? "Welcome to Malta," said Gino, by way of explanation.

Because of its strategic position, everybody who was anybody has controlled Malta. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, Knights of St John, French - and, yes, the British - have all left their mark, literally. You can't find a more condensed and varied collection of archaeological sites.

That leaves little room for modern Malta to manoeuvre. Every new house, road, factory and farm is potentially destroying something of unique historical importance. Along the way towards the future, bits of the past are sacrificed. This catacomb, an eddy in the current of time, isn't important enough to save.

So what are the Maltese saving? Well, unlike Gino, many of the Maltese who grew up playing hide-and-seek on World Heritage sites don't realise their unique inheritance. And those who do realise it wonder why their nation of 350,000 should have to shoulder alone the financial burden of maintaining sites of world importance.

As a result, in spite of some devoted Maltese and an increasing number of supportive foreigners, the archaeological sites of Malta are in a precarious state. One of the most famous, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an enormous underground burial complex carved out of the rock, has already been closed to the public after tragic damage caused by decades of mismanagement.

But there are still more than enough mind-blowing open sites to lure you away from the beaches. After my outing with Gino, I went out of my way to visit as many as possible. Their accessibility and range became addictive, and soon my day in Malta wasn't complete unless I had seen a temple, a catacomb, or a beautiful piece of prehistoric architecture.

The most impressive for me was Ggantija Temples, on Gozo. From the car park, I walked through farm fields along a dirt track until suddenly, on a slight rise to the right, there they were. Two enormous Neolithic twin temples, 1,000 years older than the pyramids at Giza. Constructed f rom massive blocks of limestone, some weighing more than 50 tons, they made Stonehenge look like a random collection of pebbles.

The temple roofs were gone, allowing a clear view of the floor plan. Designed to honour a voluptuous fertility goddess with wide hips and large bosom, they looked, from above, roughly like a drawing of two snowmen side by side, the bottom circle representing the hips, the middle circle the breasts, and the top one the head.

As with all Maltese sites, you could walk right into the temples. I let my imagination run riot, smelling the scorched flesh while looking at the burnt stones in the animal sacrifice area, listening for the whispers of guidance at the oracle hole, pretending to pour liquid offerings (I chose water rather than blood) into the libation holes.

Other temples offered different imaginary fodder. Tarxien Temples, on Malta itself, have astounding carvings. Mnajdra Temples, also on Malta, feature solar alignment, making a huge prehistoric calendar. Hagar-Qim's towering reconstructed facade makes you feel the weight of belief.

Hopefully, as more tourists tear themselves away from the bikinis on the beaches to see the voluptuous goddesses of the temples, the Maltese Government will find the momentum and the money to make the country's past part of its future. And with any luck, the next time I see Gino, we will still be able to creep around the catacombs rather than go bowling.

Making for Malta

Cleo Paskal travelled to Malta using some spare Air Miles.

For fare-paying passengers, Air Malta (0181-785 3177) flies from several UK airports to Malta. Fares from Gatwick and Heathrow for the summer start at pounds 189 including tax; departures from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow are slightly more expensive. You may find lower fares through an Air Malta subsidiary, Malta Direct Travel (0181-785 3233).

GB Airways, an affiliate of British Airways (0345 222111), operates daily from Gatwick.

The Malta Tourist Office is at 36-38 Piccadilly, London W1V 0PP (0171- 292 4900).

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