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That Time We Stayed in a Medieval Castle — and I Found a Secret Passage Down to the Dungeon!
It really happened. But the "dungeon" was not what I thought.
Our first year as nomads, in 2018, Michael and I lived in Malta for two months in what was essentially a small medieval castle.
Malta is a tiny island country in the Mediterranean, part of Europe, but it looks more like North Africa. It’s incredibly dry with almost no trees, not a single river or stream, and only one lake, which is a human-made reservoir. The country is famous for its yellow limestone, which residents have been hacking out of the island for centuries, arranging it into a seemingly endless number of castles and fortifications.
Indeed, if Malta looks like North Africa, the people here have acted very much like Europeans, fighting war after war over what has traditionally been a very pivotal piece of land, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean.
We stayed in Birgu, a small walled city across the harbor from Malta’s main city of Valletta — connected by a five-minute ferry, or you could take one of the local gondolas for three euros a ride.
Birgu’s buildings are tall and narrow, with the wooden doors and shutters all painted bright colors. Meanwhile, the central streets, which have fantastic names like Tramantuna and Triq Pacifiku Scicluna, are often too narrow for cars, so you have to walk everywhere on foot.
It couldn’t have been more romantic. The cobblestones had been worn to a surprising slickness, which shimmered in the sun. The Knights of Malta once trod upon these very stones, and their armored boots must surely have contributed to the sheen.
Our castle-home was a “coliving” facility that advertised itself as lodging for nomads and other long-term travelers.
The day we arrived, the house manager met us at the front door. He was an adorkable twentysomething guy with a tousled mop of brown hair.
"You must be Brent and Michael," he said. "I'm Clark. Welcome!" He had an accent I couldn't identify — British, definitely, but maybe several other cultures as well.
We entered a stone foyer that looked straight out of Game of Thrones. One set of wide stone steps led up to a second floor and another wound down to a cavernous grand hall. It felt old and also mysterious, something with a good story behind it, like Clark's accent.
“Fantastic building!” I said.
"Isn’t it?" Clark said. "It’s been here since at least the sixteenth century, but that’s only as far back as the city records go — it’s probably much older than that. Over the years, it’s been everything from a wine bar to an artists’ studio.”
After settling in, we met the three other current guests, including Conrad, a nomad from Poland who had the room in the castle’s lone tower.
I was jealous that he got to stay at the top of those spiral stone steps — until I discovered that the closest bathroom was the one near our room, down the tower and across a small, open-air courtyard.
Indeed, I quickly realized that while living in a medieval castle sounds romantic, there are actually some very non-romantic issues. The entire building, which could hold a maximum of eighteen guests (and various day-workers in the coworking room), had a grand total of two bathrooms.
One day, I mentioned to Clark that I didn’t think the place had enough toilets.
“You’re right,” he said, “but it’s harder than you think, adding bathrooms to a four-hundred-plus-year-old limestone castle.”
Then there was the castle’s “kitchen.” I have no idea where the castle’s original inhabitants cooked their food, but we used a dark, dank chamber off that cavernous grand hall. It was the only room in the castle that had been modernized.
Unfortunately, it had been “modernized” around 1955, which is when the rusted, creaky appliances had been installed, and the entire room had been swathed in green tile.
It was a depressing, claustrophobic place to cook. As for ventilation… Ha!
One night while I was cooking dinner, endlessly waiting for my water to boil, I found myself staring at the walls, which had always felt like they were closing in on me.
But hold on, something about these particular walls didn’t line up right. There was extra space beyond the pantry, a wall that seemed too far away.
It almost seemed as if…
Oh! There was an open doorway in a little nook behind the refrigerator. You couldn’t see it unless you stepped into it, which no one would ever have a reason to do.
It was dark — it looked as if electricity had never been installed in this part of the castle.
Hold on, I thought. Could this be a secret passage?
I couldn’t resist turning on the flashlight on my phone and stepping forward to investigate.
There was dust and dirt everywhere, and the air was cold and musty. Little rocks crunched under my feet — remnants of the ancient, crumbling castle.
I finally came to a dead end in a room filled with old trash.
Very old trash — so old that I didn’t recognize most of it. It had crumbled or rusted almost entirely away.
I spotted something mixed into the detritus.
What was this? It looked like…
It was! It was an actual flail, which is a spiked ball on a chain at the end of a handle. And shackles at the end of other chains! Everything was black metal.
Oh my God! I thought. Did I just find ancient artifacts from some earlier century? Had this whole area once been the dungeon?
I hurried back to the kitchen where my water was finally boiling, bubbling hard. But I ignored it.
“Michael!” I called to the other room where he’d been working on his laptop. “Come see this! I found a secret passage! And the castle dungeon!”
Michael joined me. “Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yes! Look!” I showed him the artifacts I’d found and pointed out the secret passage. “Can you believe it?”
By now, Clark had heard the echo of our voices, and he joined us too. Since this wasn’t America — where everyone is super-eager to sue — I didn’t hesitate to tell him how I’d been wandering around in the bowels of the castle.
“Can you believe these artifacts I found?” I said. “A flail! And shackles! Do you really think they kept prisoners locked up down there?”
He smiled enigmatically.
“What?” I said, realizing there was something he knew that I didn’t.
“They definitely kept people locked up here, and you may have found a dungeon,” he said. “But it’s not what you think."
“What do you mean?"
"Remember when I said this place has been lots of different things? A wine bar and an artists’ studio? Well, for a time, it was also a sex club.”
“Hold on. You’re telling me this whole castle is a former sex club?"
"You got it."
“Huh,” I said. “Doesn’t seem like there are enough bathrooms for it to be a sex club either.” I confess the lack of toilets still annoyed me.
Clark ignored my sick burn. “You didn’t find artifacts. They’re leftovers from the sex dungeon. They were probably just stored down there. But you did find an unused part of the building.”
"I get they may have kept people chained up, but…" I nodded at the spiked flail. "I mean, I know there’s S&M, but not with anything like that."
“I suspect it was decoration for the walls," Clark said.
This explained why none of the metal was rusted, but I still wanted to think I’d found a real secret passage to a real dungeon full of ancient artifacts.
Alas, several days later, Clark showed me a marking on the cobblestones in the courtyard, a painted arrow that pointed up to Conrad’s tower, along with some words: “Orgy room.”
So I definitely didn’t find real artifacts, but who’s to say I hadn’t stumbled into the real dungeon? Let’s face it: I also found a secret passage of sorts.
And I spent two months living in a former sex club, which is also fairly interesting.
But I still don’t understand how a sex club managed with so few bathrooms.
The coliving facility couldn’t manage it either. They closed down a few months after we checked out.
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Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.