Or, Pedaling Without a Cause.
Biking in Malta is in many ways a painful experience. Level ground is rare, pot holes are more prevalent than asphalt, navigating a rural “road” is really
closer to off-roading, and drivers have a way of rattling your wits with their cars’ proximity to your pedal-powered aluminium.
I brought my own helmet but if I did it all again, I would pack padded cycling shorts.
If you can get beyond the terror and embrace cycling in Malta as a constant, thrilling, near-death experience a bike can be a marvelous tool. It can introduce you to a face of the island tourists don’t usually meet. And if you love getting lost, bicycles can expedite this process.
The beauty of the bicycle is you can pretty well chain it anywhere when the fancy strikes you. A voice was whispering in my ear “go west young man… but in a completely non-colonial way” – so west I rode. I was in Qrendi, wandering but not yet “lost,” when I saw, occupying one corner of a fork in the road, St. Matthew’s Chapel (Il Kappella ta’ San Mattew Google Maps satellite view).
It looked intriguing so I stopped pedaling to read the placard on the side of the building. “This chapel is in reality two chapels,” it said. A small one probably from the 15th century and a larger one attached to it whose construction wrapped up in 1682.
There are centuries of ghosts here, I thought. I’m just a blip on the canvas of its legend.
It was the sheltered path below the chapel that drew me in, though. Between the trees, the creeping vines lining the limestone and the clover beds, I hadn’t seen so much vibrant greenery for a while. The island tends to stick to various hues of beige. Leaving my wheels against the wall (pictured right), I frolicked off down the path, weeds and rocks leading the way.
It wasn’t very long before I found the abrupt end of the path. And the sinkhole. For safety purposes I stopped frolicking and began searching for a way down into the pit. It looked deep and lush and seemed to be full of trees whose uppermost branches did not even reach the top of the hole.
It was positively fairytale-esque. I had to get down there.
My search for a staircase was short and fruitful: branching off the path were steps carved into bedrock, their angles washed away by the elements and time and with them any semblance of safety. Slippery emerald moss coated every weathered surface (pictured left). I wondered where I would put my hands to brace myself. I wondered where I would put my feet for that matter.
A barefooted boy in a white t-shirt and football (that’s what y’all in North America call “soccer”) shorts appeared in my periphery with a girl following close behind. He saw me dithering over how best to descend and motioned for me to let him go first. O chivalry. He scrambled down the stairs and out of sight. A minute later he returned.
“Beautiful,” he said, pointing into the darkness. “Beautiful but danger.” And he crawled back down into the abyss glancing up over his shoulder towards me as if to say I really hope you don’t slip and die but this is totally worth seeing. His lady friend, Cher I believe he called her, remained above.
I clamped my teeth around my camera’s neck strap so as to (hopefully) avoid any unfortunate encounters between the lens and the rock and I followed him.
The bottom of the stairs narrowed to a small hole where a boulder has wedged itself between the two walls flanking the staircase (see below). I had to shimmy under it on my butt. On the other side of the boulder was a window that opened into the pit less than halfway down the sinkhole. Without repelling gear, a dead end; I could see what he meant by “danger.” The kid was already there and just gazing outward.
He turned to me as I was focusing my lens on the back of his head.
[for more photos see Il-Maqluba Gallery]
“Take picture?” he asked and handed me his camera. I snapped the photo, much like the one above, with the rock window in the background looking out onto a perfectly round sinkhole. [With much calling to his friend above whose English vocabulary was slightly more extensive than his] he told me the legend says the Devil made the hole appear a long long time ago because the people in the area were wicked (or something…. I know maybe 40 Maltese words and he didn’t use any of them). But personally, he said, he believes it was just an… an… “Earthquake?” I supplied.
Fairytale-esque? This day was taking a turn for the Biblical.
Later, my own
research Google search would add to the broken story he told me. The place is called Il-Maqluba, or “the upturned.” The theory goes that the earth shifted centuries ago and a series of caverns caved in forming the depression we see today.
Or, once upon a time it was a village full of sinners à la Sodom and Gomorrah. Like those doomed cities of yore, Il-Maqluba caught God’s attention for being so damn bad. God therefore sucked it into the ground, killing all the villagers save for one pious old woman who used to pray on the spot where Il Kappella ta’ San Mattew now stands. One telling of the myth I found adds that upon receiving it into his domain, the Devil found the town too evil for his liking and he spat it back towards the land of the living. Of course, it didn’t make it back to the surface and is now hovering somewhere between Hell and Earth.
“What’s your name?” I asked the kid.
“Redeemer,” he said, grinning. “Like Redeemer for Jesus.”
We sat. The air was thick with birdsong. I ducked my head to keep from hitting rock.
And then with a smirk and a nod Redeemer zipped back up the stairs. It suddenly dawned on me that I was sitting under a giant boulder (pictured right) and my stomach flipped upside-down so I moved. I looked for a way further into the pit and found none. I pulled out my mic and recorded the birds.
Eventually I clamboured back up the stairs and left the magic behind. Turned out I had kilometers to go before I slept, so to speak. Mostly because I decided “hey why not take random turns while the sun is rapidly setting?” and I ended up quite thoroughly lost in rural Siġġiewi, to the west of Qrendi.
I heard the BBC World Service emanating from a workshop and I figured the listener would understand my plea for directions. He did, and he gave them, but not without the obligatory “you came very far!” In this tiny country all the towns seem to me to overlap one another; such is their closeness. But locals think everything is far away. Perception is relative, eh?
I finally found Qrendi again and as I passed through the town proper I saw a young boy in a white t-shirt and football shorts. Redeemer’s eyes widened in recognition as I waved to him.
… and I admonished myself all the way home for deeming padded cycling shorts unnecessary.