We were 500 feet above the Mediterranean, on a cliff covered with wildflowers and nettle grass, listening to what sounded like a choir of songbirds performing behind the next rise. Continuing our climb, we discovered two dozen thrush and finches, each in a separate cage, perched atop pillars of stone. In the background, hidden by his own circular cage of piled rocks, sat Francis -- a middle-aged farmer and fisherman of Gozo, one of the Maltese Islands, who had set out the birds as bait to attract the flocks migrating from Africa to Europe.

"I do not sell the birds. They are for my house. For the singing," said Francis, his right hand close to the trigger that would spring a net over incautious birds.

Most of the bird trappers on Gozo and Malta do sell their catch, with rare African finches worth $100 and more. As a result, almost everywhere one goes in Malta, in restaurants and shops, there is a background of trilled song.

That music seems sweetest on Gozo, just nine miles long with steeper cliffs, greener vegetation and a much slower, more agricultural life than on the larger main island of Malta. On Gozo donkeys pull carts of tomatoes, cauliflower and lemons to open-air markets in towns that are built around streets so narrow and winding you feel like a character in some Byzantine novel. In a cave on the north coast of Gozo, Ulysses was kept enthralled by the nymph Calypso for seven years. We escaped after just six hours of swimming in the Mediterranean below the cave.

After nearly 4,000 years of foreign occupation, beginning with the Phoenicians and ending with the British -- with Normans, Vandals, Romans, Christian Knights and Arabs in between -- the tiny nation of Malta asserted its independence in 1979 by sending the last garrison of British troops home.

Now, facing another potentially bleak tourist season, the Maltese are desperately trying to attract another kind of occupying army.

I had arrived from Sicily curious to see a country that I knew little of other than as a part of a famous movie -- "The Maltese Falcon." I stopped by the Office of Tourism and was directed to Paul Mifsud, the minister of information.

"The tourist trade has been very disappointing the past few years," lamented Mifsud. Malta has depended in past decades on the British for two-thirds of its tourist business. "When we severed the military relationship with Britain, people there weren't happy. They dropped Malta." In 1980, 528,000 Britons visited Malta. Last year, less than half that number went.

This republic within the British Commonwealth is a three-island archipelago 55 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles north of the African coast. The island of Malta is 95 square miles and southernmost of the three; Gozo, 26 square miles, lies to the northwest, with Comino, just one square mile, in between.

The squabble between Britain and Malta has created a considerable tourist gap, leaving beds and beaches nearly empty and the already friendly Maltese even more eager to please. And Americans, few of whom have ever visited Malta (3,000 in 1984), are very popular here.

The three islands have everything you would expect of a Mediterranean vacation spot -- sandy beaches, clear and dazzling water, rocky cliffs, small cobblestoned villages and comfortable accommodations. English is spoken by nearly all the country's 320,000 inhabitants, and the cost of living is so low that prices sometimes appear to be typographical errors.

A five-course meal, with a bottle of local wine, can be had for $4. A double room in a luxury hotel overlooking a post card-pretty fishing village will cost $30 a night in the high season, from mid-June to mid-September. Budget travelers can find bed-and-breakfast lodging for $5 a night and less. A 17-mile bus trip from one end of the main island to the other costs 22 cents.

The romance of Malta begins with, but is not dependent upon, a knowledge of its history. For tourists seeking pampered pleasure there is Pacheville, a coastal city just west of Valletta, with modern hotels, fern bars, quadraphonic discos -- even a gambling casino that is reputed to lose money each season.

Tour boats leave both Valletta and Pacheville for day-long excursions around the three islands at a cost of $15. Bus tours -- which can be booked at any travel agency -- will put you on a hill catacombed with prehistoric tombs after breakfast, in an ornate Byzantine cathedral by lunch and on a white-sand beach in time for afternoon tea or Tanqueray.

But the buses are so frequent and their schedules so easy to decipher that you can chart your own itinerary. On our second day in Malta, armed with only a map and a bus schedule, we plotted a coast-to-coast trip designed to please both the spirit and the flesh.

We began on Malta's southeast coast, at St. Paul's pool, a deep transparent pocket of Mediterranean below cliffs perfect for diving. Our next stop was Mdina, the walled, former capital of Malta in the country's interior. There appeared to be as many churches in Mdina as houses and each contained a treasure of frescoes, tiled mosaics and stained glass. We had a late lunch at St. Paul's Bay on Malta's west coast, where the white beach is spotted with rental umbrellas and the air is fragrant with the smell of suntan lotion.

But Malta offers more than a cheap suntan. There is enough history on the islands, evident in prehistoric temples, baroque churches and the massive fortress walls that surround the coastal cities, to keep a visitor dizzy remembering dates and periods of occupation.

"Everyone has come and left their imprint. We are a mixture of them all," said Mifsud, whose native language contains elements of Italian, Arabic and English. "And we have something to show for all of it."

What brought both visitors and invaders to Malta was its geographical position in the heart of the Mediterranean and its deep, natural harbors. The most beloved of the visitors was St. Paul, who shipwrecked here in 60 A.D. and proceeded to convert the Maltese to Christianity. The country today is more than 95 percent Catholic and their religious fervor is evident in the number of churches, some of them enormous and ornate, that dominate every village and town.

Malta is credited with stopping the advance of Muslim power in southern and western Europe in 1565 when 700 Knights of St. John and 9,000 troops held off a Turkish force of 40,000. The Knights, who occupied Malta for more than 200 years in return for the annual rent of one Maltese falcon, were sent packing by Napoleon in 1798.

A more recent siege was endured during World War II when the capital city of Valletta and the nearby town of Senglea -- where the British maintained a ship repair dock -- were subjected to daily bombing raids that destroyed 25,000 buildings and killed 1,600 people. Winston Churchill called Malta "England's unsinkable aircraft carrier."

The fortress walls have been rebuilt around Valletta, "a city white like a dream," according to Sir Walter Scott. Lord Byron was not as enthusiastic about the city, which is built on the side of a steep hill. He described it as being comprised of "cursed streets of stairs."

Despite the climb involved, a visitor is compelled to spend a little time in Valletta exploring Renaissance palaces and opulent cathedrals. But after a few days surrounded by limestone and stained glass, you deserve an escape to Gozo.

One night, camping on the edge of a cliff near the harbor of Mgarr on Gozo, we heard the distant sound of an engine approaching on the dark water.

Suddenly, around an outcropping of rock, appeared a small boat supporting a great lamp on its bow. As it drew closer into the cove below us, we saw two men lying on the bow below the lamp, peering into the water through glass-bottomed buckets. Reaching into the boat, one of the men withdrew a three-pronged spear, plunged it into the shallow water and pulled an octopus from its sleep.

Minutes later, the boat had disappeared into another cove, leaving us again in the dark of a moonless night.

If camping is not for you, there are some fine old hotels in Gozo, among them the Duke of Edinburgh. It is clean and comfortable, with pictures of Queen Elizabeth (who stopped in for tea in 1951), Lady Diana and Prince Charles in the lobby, and a menu that begins with fish, chips and tea. But lately the Duke, which sits in Victoria, capital city of Gozo, has gone the way of the Empire.

"This was once the best hotel in Malta," said Roger Portelli, a dark-haired Gozitan with impeccable English and a nearly empty hotel. "But tourism has been very down. I don't see things getting much better this year."

The Maltese lay part of the blame for the precipitous decline in tourism on the world recession and the devaluation of the British pound. For 180 years, the British and Maltese pounds were equivalent. But five years ago that changed. A British pound sterling is now worth about 35 pence in Malta. Psychologically, say the Maltese, the British find that exchanging their pence and pounds for Maltese currency bearing the same names, but worth less, is humiliating -- even though the vacation is cheap.

That perceived problem is so great that the Maltese government is considering changing its monetary system or perhaps just changing the name of its currency.

But the abandonment of Malta by Britain is more than economic. After the British naval base was closed in 1979, the socialist government of Malta began courting trade relations with Libya, the Soviet Union and North Korea. The country still depends on Western Europe for 75 percent of its trade. But because of its position in the Mediterranean, Malta considers itself a bridge between Africa and Europe and is trying to trade with both sides to increase the markets. The result has been disenchantment with Malta by former European allies. It has also created a very vocal split on the trade issue between Malta's socialists and conservatives in what is a Catholic, conservative country. The conservatives tend to prefer to rely on Europe, while the present government would like to trade with everyone.

One afternoon while waiting for a bus in Senglea, I joined a conversation among five elderly men. The talk progressed quickly from the weather, to the scenery, to the World War II bombings they had endured, before becoming a mild argument on the political present.

One man who had said very little took my elbow and finally spoke softly.

"We are a country split," he said. "But at least today we decide these things for ourselves." Malta Ways & Means, Page E6.