Saturday, October 17, 2009

Temple of the Giants

Azure Window, Gozo
The fortress island of Malta - known to the Romans as Melita - must be one of Europe's most unsung destinations. Malta and her rural neighbour, Gozo (a 35 minute ferry ride from the northern tip of Malta), revel in a boggling array of historical sites - and that's the reason I'm on my fifth visit here.

I'm based, as ever, in the south-west of the island, and have just returned from a visit to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, invaded by the Ottoman Turks in 1565 and by Napoleon's army in 1798. In more recent times - exactly 20 years ago (I think!) - Marsaxlokk harbour hosted the Bush-Gorbachev summit.

The world's oldest human structures - more ancient than the Pyramids, more antique than Stonehenge - are to be found on Malta and Gozo. Perhaps the most bewitching testimony to Malta's pre-historic past is the Hypogeum, an elaborate burial chamber plunging three storeys beneath the earth.

By contrast, the time-worn, sea-blown stones of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra occupy dramatic sites overlooking the Mediterranean. Gozo is home to Ggantija, the Temple of the Giants, as well as the Azure Window, where every year I meet the man who, it is claimed, is Malta's richest resident.

Steve's ruse is simple: he waits for the tourist buses to decant their contents and then simply walks up to each tourist in turn and puts a guide book or a selection of post-cards in their hands. If they want them, they buy them - at a hefty mark-up, of course (and, it goes without saying that he never has any change and we're in the middle of nowhere). If they're not turned on by his tatty old postcards or dog-eared guides, well, that's when the fun begins.

Temple of Ggantija, Gozo
Because Steve won’t take them back. He only has one arm and he keeps that steadfastly locked to his side, his hand jammed in his pocket. What is the tourist to do? His only option is to drop them on the floor. But the rocks are riddled with puddles, and this will only ruin poor Steve's stock. And who wants to ruin the livelihood of a one-armed man? So, inevitably, the visitor ends up paying up... and Steve, with a wink and a nod in my direction, gets rich.

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