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Travels and Tribulations - in Malta

Including Mdina, Rabat, Valletta, Sliema and Gozo


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MALTA

CAPITAL: VALLETTA
LANGUAGE: Maltese, English
PEOPLE: Maltese, English

The Republic of Malta consists of the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino. It is located in the Mediterranean between Sicily and north Africa. Its commanding position in the relatively narrow straits between Sicily and Tunisia makes them strategically important. Its central location between mainland Europe and the African continent is the reason that it has been habitated for thousands of years - and the reason why ownership has been disputed so many times in its history. The fortifications on Malta are as impressive as you'll find anywhere, and no wonder the Maltese have such a thing about defence. The country gained independence from the UK in 1964.

Tourism is the principal industry within Malta. The climate is similar to that of Greece, with at least six hours sunshine a day, even in the winter. It has an international airport at Luqa and its main sea route is to Sicily. The islands are actually the peaks of a massive limestone outcrop stretching from Sicily. Gozo has the advantage of a layer of blue clay that holds moisture and makes this little island much more suited to crops. The main island of Malta has only sparse vegitation due to centuries of over-grazing and erosion. The island does have some natural sandy beaches. The fortified cities of Valletta and Mdina, plus the 'Three Citires', all exhibit fascinating evidence of the turbulant past. The main wonder, after all this conflict, is the inherently pleasant nature of the Maltese themselves!

With no fresh water supply and only a low rainfall, desaliniation plants are the necessary source for a stable water supply - which is inevitably somewhat salty to a visitor's tongue.

Hazel and I felt very young as we waited for our hotel transfer from the airport after arriving in Malta. We did wonder if we were too young! Our English group comprised us, an elderly couple who come every year to the same hotel, a squeaky-voiced, rather tiddly lady who spoke with rather refined tones and turned out to be a market stall holder, her cockney partner who was never to be seen without his baseball hat (even at breakfast), an elegant lady whom we initially took to be Miss Squeaky's mother, whom we lovingly termed Mrs Spitfire (she was either constantly feeling her lips for crumbs or accidently spitting them forth), who called everyone 'darling' (hence the misunderstanding as she addressed Misss Squeaky and "Jinny darling" from the start), and a group of three, elderly disabled gentlemen in wheelchairs, supervised by the husband of one who had the patience of an angel when trying to get together their enormous luggage and disablement equipment contraptions, part of which had gone missing. The huge pile of luggage and this large band of people had to fit into one small mini bus. Could we ever do it? Of course we could! Transport is an art on this island. We arrived, baggage and all, late at night, just in time to drop into bed.

I do like Malta! It has at least six hours of sunshine every day, summer and winter

Like the latest cars with global positioning systems, I am at my happiest when I know precisely where I am. I feel more relaxed about getting lost just knowing that I am not far from somewhere I knew where I was! Do you get my point? Consequently, I really do like to have a map to hand when in a strange place. So the first thing I did the next morning was to ask for a map of the locality from reception. The provided a nice coloured map. Splendid! I trotted back to my room happy - until I looked more closely. Now, I knew that Sliema was bordered by water on several sides - my country map showed me that - but this street map showed vivid blue sea all around Sliema! Panic! Where was it joined to the main island? Had I been asleep during the airport transfer, perhaps not noticing a ferry ride? Was I really on the smaller island of Gozo?

Gripping my inner reserves, and coming to my senses, I realized that a bit of artistic license had been used when producing the map - which did similar watery confusing things with the street map of Valletta - so I settled for trying to find out which bit of the map lied. My point, however, is that if a map like this is meant to help you get your bearings, what is the point of making it extra difficult? I mean, some people have trouble enough with maps without this kind of challenge. Well, that's my gripe out of the way, so let's get on!

A Maltese bus, Malta - click to enlarge!I do like Malta! It has at least six hours of sunshine every day, summer and winter, it never gets too cold in the winter, practically everyone speaks English, and many things have an English flavour: as England was several decades ago. In particular, this goes for the buses. The 'Malta bus' is (in)famous, and you must use them, if only for the experience. I did, and I've still got the bruises to prove it. I tend them lovingly. (No, I'm kidding, really.) I'm not entirely sure how it works, but basically the bus drivers own their own buses, take a loving pride in keeping them on the road - I mean both by keeping them intact and by avoiding other drivers - and in providing a very cheap but reliable service. Thanks to a subsidy, 'cheap' is hardly the word: you can travel for peanuts. Basically, just about all the services start from Valletta, the fortified capital, and most run every 20-30 minutes to each far-flung corner of the main island of Malta. Be sure to get a seat, though, or you might also be 'far-flung'! They are all have a yellow skirt, an orange stripe around the waist, and a white or grey top. Very fashionable, I'm sure you'll agree. They lovingly explore every undulating, pot-holed mile of the island, offer all the advantages of 'natural' air-conditioning, and have a variety of bell mechanisms to test your skills, should you ever consider getting off. Have small coins available when you get on, pay the driver, sit down quickly, and enjoy! It is an experience you won't forget.

Do you like history? Whether you do or not, you cannot get away from in on Malta. There are some 7,000 years of history to mull over here, and as soon as you get a toe into - or even near - one of the numerous historic buildings, you will be bombarded by offers of audio-visual delights to put it all into perspective. Either be prepared to take notes or just glaze-over at the sheer magnitude of all this stuff but, if you do the latter, do remember to come out of the experience impressed at the ongoing tenacity of the Maltese people: they deserve it!

Prehistoric Malta was inhabited by people from Sicily or Italy and there has been a strong Italian and African influence as a result. The Maltese language is a derivative of Arabic and Sicilian elements. English is the second language, which is widely spoken, and Italian is also widely understood. If you are into archeology or like ancient temples, then you will delight in Malta!

The island became part of the Roman and then the Byzantine empires. Seized by the Arabs in 870 it was conquered and rule by Christian feudal lords until 1530 when the Knights of St John arrived. The Knights were a religious an military order who had been ousted from Jerusalem and Cyprus and who were eventually given Malta as their base. Next, that chap Napoleon seized the island in 1798 but the Knights regained possession in 1802. Phew! We're not even into the last century yet! After a rebellion connected with the French way of doing things, the island became a British colony in 1814. It was an important staging-post on the sea route to India via the new Suez Canal, and it developed a dockyard industry you can still see today, in and literally around what are called the Three Cities.

How is it that a race so oppressed, so attacked, so embattled, can be so laid-back and friendly? Of course, they do like the British, since they were very instrumental in helping them continue to eat during the Second World War - after being cut-off and bombarded continuously by Germany and its allies. (A sinking British ship just managed to make it to the island with vital supplies.) The entire population was awarded the British George Cross for bravery at this, their last stand. It still lies in the critical shipping route via the Suez Canal and the Med to Northern Europe, is still strategic, and, believe me, it is still heavily fortified. So you need to be, when exploring its battlements and bastions! Out of all these influences, it is the Knights of St. John who left the greatest mark, and their hospital work and armed defence of Christian principles can be seen in many ways: particularly in the audio-visual treats that I have already mentioned. The Knights brought peace to the island - after all the fighting - and peaceful it is today.

Crime is more or less absent. It has one prison and, when I was there, I found out that out of 82 prisoners, 73 were foreigners, and, of these, nearly all came from the same middle-eastern country and were banged-up for drugs-related crime. The Maltese are almost all Catholics, they have splendid churches all over their islands, and I am sure that this is at the heart of their gentle, friendly and passive nature. (Passive until roused to battle, of course!)


Mdina

Mdina, Malta - click to enlarge!Mdina, Malta - click to enlarge!The original capital of Mdina - say "im-DEE-nah" - was a fortified city on a hill. Take one of the wonderful Malta buses to Rabat, get out, walk across the bridge adjacent to the Howard Gardens, and you're straight through the walls of this mediaeval city which is located in the centre of the island. Although inhabited, silence reigns supreme in Mdina: hence its name: the 'Silent City'. A quick left, right, left after passing through the Mdina Gate, will take you to the Mdina Experience, a multi-projector, multi-lingual extravaganza about the history of Mdina. (Put on your headphones, dial your flag, and you are away, steeped in history.) (The square pictured to the right is just outside the Mdina Experience.) Not far from the little square that hosts this projected history is the Greek's Gate. Yes, there was a Greek community here! Want some more history? This town was thought first to have been populated by the Phonecians around 1000 BC. When Malta came under the Roman heel, the Governor chose to build his palace there and it housed the government. The Saracens gave the city its modern name when they arrived around 870 AD, and they were responsible for thickening the walls from the nearby town of Rabat. (Thickening city and town walls was to become a favourite and ongoing occupation of subsequent rulers of the island, and they had good reason to be careful.)

Although inhabited, silence reigns supreme in Mdina: hence its name: the 'Silent City'.

Mdina streets are narrow, designed to offer shade from the hot summer sun, its little squares are delightful, and it is possible to take a ride on a horse and carriage, both around the small town and out to Rabat. (It is a dreadful decision as to whether to support the owner of the bony horse that clearly needs a square meal, or one of the perhaps kinder owners like the one we chose: who, when complimented on the care of his horse, admitted that he looked after it better than his wife!) But don't just ride! You must walk all this city's streets to admire some of the best Norman and Baroque architecture on the island! As elsewhere on the island, you can delight in bougainvillea in shades of red, white and orange. Take a look in St. Agatha's church, soon met on the central Villegaignon Street on your way to the central St Paul's Square, which faces the Cathedral, the only really open space. Look out for the palaces, now mainly private homes.

Mdina, Malta - click to enlarge!There are lots of other little streets to explore, but the town is small, so it will not take too long. Nor can you get lost! Bastion Square at the end of Villegaignon Street gives you access to the bastion and some great views across the island. Nearby you will see small St. Agatha's Square, and just along from here is the Ciappetti Tea Gardens which I found delightful for a snack. (The picture shows the narrow street in which it is located: the door on the right!) They include an enclosed courtyard with overhead vine, another leafy retreat from the sun. Further around to the east from Bastion Square is Bastion Street, and this offers another venue for tea at tables overlooking the tremendous view across the island to the sea and Dingli. Mdina is a place that you will find hard to forget. I don't know of a more tranquil town anywhere in the world. If you go to Malta, do not leave this place out! (Even Mrs Spitfire got here, although Miss Squeaky and Mr Cockney were too busy scouring the markets of Valletta.)


Valletta

Valletta, Malta, looking towards the Three Cities - click to enlarge!Valletta, seen here across the harbour from Sleima, is the capital of Malta. It all happens in Valletta, and it always will, given that all those Malta buses terminate there. They roam around a central roundabout at the bus terminus like noisy termite ants looking for pickings. they honk at each other and potential passengers to make their presence known, they drive a wedge between you and your companions and, despite their generally friendly owners, they keep you on your toes - or else they go on your toes! As with Mdina, Valletta is but a short walk from the bus terminus across a bridge. You tend to enter all important towns across a waterless moat in Malta. (There is no water, remember, so they really do dig ditches, here, big-time!) Did I mention the fortifications, by the way?

The main street of Valletta is Republic Street, and this goes right through the town to Fort St. Elmo at the northern end, adjacent to the entrance of the Grand Harbour - near to which is The Malta Experience. Yes, there are lots of pre-programmed 'experiences' in Malta, and this is the principal one. It's another multi-projector, multi-lingual offering about the history of the island, or there is The Great Siege of Malta and The Knights of St. John, in part of The Grand Master's Palace (boss of the Knights), offering 'Europe's most exciting and thrilling walk-through spectacular experience ... adopting the latest Hollywood technology to recreate the life and adventure of the Crusaders'. Now, if you go, remember this is a quote; I think the nearest this got to Hollywood was, perhaps, a scriptwriter for this blurb. You walk around - have comfy shoes - watching TV screens and listening to a commentary in a headset that goes with you with the correct language CD whirring at your belt. (I was disappointed, and so far, nothing in this line has come near to the Time Walk in little Weymouth, England, where you get the scene for real, plus the sounds and smells of what is represented. Here is a walk worth doing. But I digress!) You'll need a rest at one of the shady tables outside The Grand Master's Palace after that particular experience, and a nice drink and snack there is just the order. (Caution: If you have a speciality coffee here it really has spirit! So if you plan to return by ferry, remember that it is a long, steep hill down to the ferry, and this can be a challenge to those whom, might we say, are in high spirits!)

Street in Valletta, Malta - click to enlarge!Parallel to Republic Street is Merchants Street, and this is the other street offering shops - although these are smaller. Apart from the two streets mentioned, and especially the east-west streets and opposed to these north-south streets, many of the other streets are narrow and, it has to be said, shabby! True, they have character, they have balconies (or overhanging bays to some of us), but mainly they have dust and grime.

Don't overlook the Lower Barrakka Gardens just east of Fort St. Elmo for a great view of the Grand Harbour mouth, or the Upper Barrakka Gardens for a view across this harbour to the so-called Three Cities.

Sliema, Malta - click to enlarge!As I mentioned more than once, you can get anywhere on the buses from Valletta. You can also get to Sliema via a ferry from the south-west corner of the city which, as I said earlier, is considerably lower than the main part of the town!

As you pass the harbours in Malta and Gozo, note the picturesque boats, with their high, colourful sides, and the two protective 'sweet eyes' on either side of the bow.


Sliema

Sliema is the place you may find yourself staying, since there are many hotels and some of the biggest shops here. Valletta is an easy bus or ferry ride from The Strand. Bustling with life, Sliema is where the action is. Just along the northern shore from here, the action continues, as do the hotels, restaurants and clubs. St. Julian's Bay contains many of these. Expect to be approached by time-share vendors in these parts! (Although we were not hassled.)


The Three Cities

The Three Cities, Malta - click to enlarge!The Three Cities - partly seen here from Valletta, looking across the Grand Harbour - are named Vittoriosa (originally Birgu), Conspicua (Bormla) and Senglea. They lie just across the Grand Harbour from Valletta on outcrops of land. This is the heart of docklands, and the docks surround the houses, some of which are one-up and one-down, with little more than air-vents and a door at the front. Yes, don't pick a B&B here, folks! Yet there is character here, clean front-doors despite the narrow streets, and a throbbing humanity. Did I mention the fortifications yet? Not only are the three cities fortified but they are walled from each other! Whether this was to stop in-fighting regarding shipping orders or to secure each one despite the fate of its neighbours I'll leave you to guess, but these tall (I mean TALL) walls are a bit oppressive. Well, let's be honest, VERY oppressive. They do, however, serve extremely well to protect their inhabitants! This area was very heavily bombed during the war: because of those dockyards.

Yet there is character here, clean front-doors despite the narrow streets, and a throbbing
humanity.

Blue Grotto, Malta - click to enlarge!A bit further along the south coast is the Blue Grotto where, if you are lucky, boatmen will take you inside this rocky outcrop. When I went it was too choppy and no boats were running: so you'll have to put up with this distant view. Very close to this is the ancient temple remains at Hagar Qim. Time did not permit a visit.


Gozo

The island of Gozo is a little rural gem. Here they can actually grow tomatoes and other vegetables, not to mention prickly pears! The custom of leaving one's door unlocked still survives here in many homes. You get to the island by ferry. The buses seem even older here, if that is possible! You arrive by sea at Mgarr Harbour. The town is guarded from its highest point by The Citadel - a somewhat smaller version of Mdina which has its origins with the Phoenicians. This also contains a fine cathedral, and the present fortifications date back to the Knights. The island's capital, originally known as Rabat, is now known as Victoria.

I saw yet another audio-visual treat in Victoria: Gozo 360° . Entering a very modern and plush cinema - that seemed quite out of place among the old buildings - I waited with baited breath to see a surround screen, hear surround sound, boggle at the latest Hollywood technology. The flat screen was, therefore, somewhat disappointing. True, I did count 21 projectors used for projecting stills onto 21 patches of the screen, and the presentation was good. But where do they get the name Gozo 360° from? What would you expect?

(Must be that Hollywood scriptwriter at work again.)

Gozo washerwoman - click to enlarge!The Old Wash House in Fontana makes use of a natural spring. Believe it or not, one old lady still takes in washing and does it right there. It wasn't until I developed the photographs that I spotted the pair of boots hanging from the lip of the wall. Since then I've been extremely worried about who was hanging there by his toes to dry. The custom in these parts used to be that a married woman stayed in the house while her husband was out at work. Perhaps this lady is the only one to have overcome that, and this is her husband, hanging by her every word. Clearly she is the worker in her family! Other customs included putting a potted plant on the balcony to signify there was an unmarried daughter available for marriage, and leaving the key in the front door; whether the latter two customs were connected I was not able to ascertain.

Fungus Rock, Gozo - click to enlarge!One of the most famous landmarks hereabouts is the rocky outcrop at Dwejra known as Fungus Rock (or General's Rock). A plant there was prized by the knights for its curative powers: hence 'fungus'. Here you are likely to be accosted by a little man pushing a folder of postcards and a booklet into your hands saying "Is my living. Is my living!"(I told you they all spoke English.) The few lira he asks is actually well worth it for what he offers, so give him a break! It is his living! Down a nearby track you'll find the Inland Sea, really just a small salt-water lagoon linked by a rocky tunnel to the sea. This is a favourite place for subaqua divers. Nearby, on the relative flat rock adjacent to Fungus Rock, you cannot fail to find many old fossils - some in the rock and some getting off buses!

Which is my queue to finish, and return to the airport for a flight home. Here was a great reminder of how windy it can be in Malta. As I looked out across the airport runway I saw a blue hold-all bowling along at high speed: heading east. So hang on to your baggage and hats - and don't use round luggage! They even favour dry-stone walls hereabouts so that the wind blows right through the walls. (I'm talking about field walls, here, not houses, or hotels, you'll be pleased to note.) The stone in Malta is beautifully mellow, and it is used for all the buildings and, because of its plentiful supply and the need for something strong to divide fields, it is seen everywhere in the country for walling as well. This stone gives the place a biblical touch that's quite evocative; it's also highly appropriate, give then religious fervour hereabouts. I often saw a bus driver making the sign of the cross.

And he was not always alone.

Which reminds me of the tale of the Maltese priest and Maltese bus driver who both died and found themselves outside the Pearly Gates together. The gates opened and the bus drive was invited in at once. The priest made to follow but was told to wait. Indignantly he demanded to know why a bus driver should enter Heaven before him. The angel explained. "Every time you preached, the congregation went to sleep, but all the while the bus driver worked, the passengers were praying and making the sign of the cross. Now do you understand?" The gates closed and the angel had achieved something very difficult to achieve: he made a Maltese cross!

End of this segment!

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