Magical Malta

It’s been a while between blogs but sometimes life just gets in the way.  Hopefully I will be a able to pump out a couple in the next week or so (or not), so I don’t get too far behind!  But be warned … this is a long one!

Malta surprised me. It’s wonderful mix of natural beauty, proud cultural heritage and complex history full of pirates, knights and heroic battles – what’s not to love. lol

The weekend started with a Bank holiday at the airport, it was packed and I was more than grateful for the fast track through security 👍🏻.  To be honest, it is only £4-5 so I am not sure why everyone doesn’t get it!  I was also grateful that none of the stag and hen parties were on my flight – I guess Malta is not a hot spot for that 😂

I had run out of Euros and had wanted to get some before I got on the plane but having seen the exchange range that the Moneycorp ATM at the airport I decided to wait until I go to Malta.  Earlier in the day I had converted £100 for €113 whilst the ATM wanted to charge me £122 for €100 🤔🤔 – definitely something wrong with that maths if you ask me!  I am sure so many poor people are caught out with these horrendous exchange rates – don’t be one of them!

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I arrived at around 9pm and the island looked beautiful with all the lights as we came in to land.  I always find it exciting arriving at night as you never know what to expect in the morning.  Unfortunately, at my hostel, the morning started with rolling suitcase outside my room at around 6am!

The Republic of Malta consists of a small group of islands sitting 80km south of Italy.  It has a population of just over 500,000 in an area just over 315 km2  which makes it the world’s tenth smallest and 5th most densely populated country.  What it lacks in size, it sure makes up for in character!

Day 1 was warm with some blue sky and I had a quick walk around the area I was staying in before being picked up for my dive.  I love diving but I hate all the set up!  With a water temperature of only 18C we were wearing 2 wetsuits – a long one, covered by a short one, with my skins underneath!  The guide was wearing a dry suit which is always a telling sign (I think my next course needs to be  dry suit one!)

The diving was nice but there was not a lot to see.  Apparently, the best diving around the area is on wrecks and I was with a girl who was only Open Water certified so we could not go deep enough to go there.  To be honest, that was ok with me, it always takes me ages to get comfortable again after a break so it was good we spent a lot of time in the first dive practicing skills and working on buoyance.

As well as getting some good practice in, it was also my first experience diving on Nitrox or Enriched air (a nitrogen/oxygen mix that means you can dive for longer and have less surface time as your body absorbs less nitrogen during the dive).  I decided to pay the €60 to get certified with the practical being done on the dive and the book part and test done online at home in my own time.

Back in town after the dive, I was so hungry I tried to find some local food – not much of it around in the area I was staying but I stumbled across a shop selling Imqarets.  These are one of the remnants the Arab world left behind in Malta – deep fried pastry filled with dates.  The name in Maltese is the plural of maqrut, meaning diamond-shaped, although sometimes they are rectangular!  I had my served with chocolate sauce and ice cream and it was GOOD!  Calories don’t count if you are trying local food right?

For my second day I had booked a Jeep tour of Gozo – the other big island in the country.  When I booked the tour, the weather forecast had been good, but it had deteriorated during the week.  In the morning on Malta it was breezy and overcast but thankfully still warm.  In hindsight I wish I had booked things the other way around – walking tours on the second day and boat trip on the last day but as I have said before, I try not to go too far away on the day I leave just in case somethings happens and I am delayed getting back – unlikely in this case as my flight is not until 9.25pm!

The pick up was early (which is the kind of efficiency I love) and we drove around lots of little bays on the way to the end of the island where we got in a small open sided boat – not really the weather for it so put on my rain coat (I learnt from my last weekend away – always pack my rain coat and umbrella) and I prepared for the worst.  Thankfully the seas weren’t too bad but it was cold and I was grateful for all the layers I had 👍🏻.

I guess not every travel day is going to sunny and warm, literally and metaphorically!

Getting off the boat was manic, there were so many buses filling the wharf and hiding our little jeeps.  No one really seemed to know what was going on but it turns out we were standing around waiting for people who had missed the ferry! The downsides of group tours!

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Our guide, Charlie, was an old guy from Gozo who had spent 10 years in Australia welding shipping containers!  Apparently, there is lots of emigration from Gozo as they often have big families of 11-12 children so many have to leave the island to find work, either on the other island (Malta) or abroad from where they send money home.

Gozo is the second largest island in the archipelago (after the main island – Malta) and is far more rural and less developed.  It has a population of less than 38,000 and is rich in historic locations, including one of Malta’s megalithic temples which is among the world’s oldest free-standing structures.

Every one kept telling us that the days weather was very unusual – apparently it’s always sunny – yeah right 😂  “This year we have a crazy weather” we were told (imagine this being said in a southern Italian accent) as the guide kept saying he could not believe the rain!  Anyone can see Gozo on a Sunny day – not many people get to see if like this 😂😂!

As we drove around, we passed small farms, a few cows, chickens, tomatoes, hay – all in relatively small quantities.  We drove through Xlendi – a beautiful town, which apparently has great nightlife and is packed in summer, past an aqueduct built by the British in the 1840’s to move water to the capital of the island – Victoria.

We stopped in a small town called San Lawrenz – where we stopped in tourist shop to taste local products – unfortunately there was no explanation as to what they were – think it was a liquor from local cactus??

Sadly, that was the story of the tour – little explanation as to the history of the place or what we were seeing. Nothing much more than – ‘there is this tourist site’ etc. None of their personal history or stories about history which I enjoy.  We spent 20 minutes in the tacky tourist shop but the guide just pointed out churches and other historic places as we speed buy.

As it was Sunday, some things were closed, but we were still taken there – “normally we do this, but today is Sunday so it’s closed”, “there was a Stone ‘window’ there but it collapsed two years ago so nothing to see now” (this was the famous ‘window’ in Dwejra bay).  “Normally you go in a boat here into the cave, but not today!”

And then the thunder started and the rain came down – tha65938720_905952726430798_2394534771070861312_nnkfully I had a seat inside the jeep, but my fellow travellers were left in the back with a roof by no sides so in just a few minutes they were soaked through!  One really interesting thing about the rain is that it was ‘sandy’, apparently with sand brought over from north Africa, just 280km to the south.

 

We did manage to get 5 minutes to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, a beautiful church in the Gozo country side.  A chapel on this site was first recorded in 1575 but work on the current church began in 1922 and it was visited by Pope Bendict XVI in 1990.  The church has a set of beautiful mosaic walls and floor in the courtyard in front of the church, apparently paid for by a Gozitan who immigrated to Australia.   Of course, being Sunday, there was a Church service going on so could not spend much time inside!

Our guide pointed out the beautiful Citadel at the top of the hill, as we drove passed the end of the street to stop at a tourist restaurant!!  More rain came down during lunch but thankfully it had stopped before we were dropped off at the earliest of the Maltese megalithic temple complexes – Ġgantija.

The Ġgantija temples are older than the Egyptian pyramids and it is believed they were built between 3600-2500BC.  I must admit I had no idea Malta’s history went back so far!  In fact, it is believed that Malta has been inhabited since 5900 BC!!!

It is believed that the temples are elements of a ceremonial site in a fertility rite and many figurines and statues found on site are associated with that cult. Local Gozitan folklore talks of a ‘giantess who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, who bore a child from a man of the common people. With the child hanging from her shoulder, she built these temples and used them as places of worship’.

Unfortunately we did not really have any where enough time here, just enough to quickly walk around the very impressive education centre (which was fortunate as we would get dropped off with the instructions “ you’ll go there” but not really told what there was!!) and a fast work through the temple complex before have to meet back at the jeep.

Thankfully we finally made it to the Citadel (or Citadella as it is known) – and had about 20 minutes to run around and see as much as we could!  Again, this was somewhere we could have spent a few hours here with plenty to see but oh well lol.

The area has been inhabited since the Bronze Ageand during the medieval period, the acropolis was converted into a castle which served as a refuge for Gozo’s population.  A suburb developed outside the walls, but apparently, they all slept within the walls of the citadel to avoid the rampaging pirates who would capture anyone they could to sell in to slavery.

The Citadella was invaded by an Ottoman force in 1551 and it briefly saw action during the French invasion and subsequent uprising in 1798; in both cases the fortress surrendered without much of a fight.

The Cathedral of the Assumption is the centre piece of the Citadella and the information plaques describes it as showing ‘muted magnificence’.  Not really sure what that means but I like it!

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Again, we did not have enough time here before we had to rush to the boat for 3pm where we then sat for 30 minutes not going anywhere whilst the boat guys haggled with other people for rides and to get more money … while we all sat there and waited!

The whole day was really a comedy of errors.  Thankfully I was in a Jeep with nice people so the day so we managed to have fun and it was not a complete write off – apparently, one couple had been recommended the tour, not sure I will be recommending it in the near future!   Being good Americans – the 2 couples tipped our driver (I cannot call him a guide) but I took a typical kiwi stance and did not tip him as service was definitely not exceptional!

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On the way back to the island of Malta, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon on the small island of Comino – which was indeed very blue 🤔👍🏻.   It was blue, it was a lagoon … but by this time I was just ready to get back!

 

By the time I go back to the hostel the sun was out and the sky was blue – such a shame really.  Normally I can console myself with having had an interesting time when the weather is not great – this time not!  But I should not really complain, I have since read about what we saw and I am still glad I went despite it all lol.

Thankfully my third and final day was beautiful and sunny.  I checked out and headed up the hill, this time to walk to the ferry terminal. Wandering through the narrow streets, past the beautiful old houses in various states of refurbishment.  Nodding good morning to the old local men, sitting around outside small shops chatting about life in their weird language (to my ear anyway) – did you know Maltese is a mixture of Italian and Arabic?

I walked down the hill in to Sliema and got by first view of the capital of Malta, Valletta,  (In hindsight I wish I had stayed in Sliema, or if I am honest in Valetta itself but hindsight is a wonderful thing right!)

The ferry to Valletta took just 10 minutes across the harbour and a finally got my history fix on and all was right in my world 😂.  Valletta is another incredible walled city – similar to Dubrovnik, but thankfully with not quite so many tourists!  As with Dubrovnik massive groups of cruise ship tours everywhere – later in the day I saw 5 ships in the harbour!   Chatting to the guide later in day, he said that although they count number of visitors as a good thing, but those on cruise ships spend very little money in the local economy so most locals are not keen on them.)

Despite paying for my tour (in the hope the group size would be smaller than on the free tour) it was still a pretty big group but not to big not to be able to hear the guide.

Building on the original city began in 1556 and in 2018 Valletta was named European City of Culture, so there has been a lot of recent regeneration in the city, particularly around the entrance gate so there is now a real juxtaposition between old and new.

The Government engaged the services of Renzo Piano, the Italian architect who designed The Shard in London and many locals didn’t like the results, thinking it was disrespectful to the history but as with much ‘change’, it grows on people as they get used to it.

A few of his works was the morphing of the city gates in to a welcoming entrance rather than an actual gate (as there are not expecting to be invaded any more), the €90m Parliament building with a design that is an artistic demonstration of the pitting on Maltese lime stone as seen in the nearby old buildings.   One of his most controversial designs, was creating an open-air theatre out of the bombed out opera house rather than rebuilding it (which is what people had expected).

The city of Valletta was founded by the Knights of the Order of St John who completely changed the fortunes of the islands during the 268 years that they ruled.  Charles the 5th actually gave them Malta as a home when Rhodes (where they came from) was invaded by the Ottoman Empire.  They really did not want to stay there as the island was not self-sufficient (there was no fresh water supply) and therefore very vulnerable, but they really had no other option!  Because they didn’t really want to be there, they built very little in the first 35 years as they had no intention of staying long term.

Before the Knights, much of the population lived inland to avoid pirates (the old capital was Mdina is situated in the centre of the island) but as a naval power, the Knights needed to be by the water and started to build along the coast.

Jean de Valletta, for whom the city is named after, was a French Nobleman who went on to become the Grand Master, despite spending time as a galley slave and being arrested numerous times for drunken brawls, at one time spending 4 months in solitary on Gozo.

That said, he later became a hero, commanding the resistance against the Ottomans in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.  10,000 Maltese people (many of whom were normal citizens) winning against 30,000 Ottoman troops!  This was the turning point of Malta and from here, the Knights decided this would be their permanent home, with de Valletta laying the foundation stone of the city in 1565 – sadly he did not live to see the completion of the city as he died only 3 years later.

With the defence of Malta, the Knights stopped the advance of the Ottoman’s further into the European continent so various European countries helped fund the building of the city so they could continue to provide defences for them.  Even the Pope supported them and encouraged others to do so – this was certainly the golden years for the city.

Despite its small size and population, there are over 730 churches in the country of Malta, 28 in the city of Valletta.  In fact, the founding stone of Valletta was the founding stone of our Lady of Victory church in 1566.  (Valletta’s bodies were initially buried there before being moved to St John’s Co-Cathedral when it was built.)

During the baroque period, the church was renovated inside and out so the the church we see today is far more ornate that the original structure.  In fact, there are many very ornate buildings, the most beautiful of which is one of the auberge’s (lodging house) built for the Spanish knights – there were 8 auberges in total, each housing a different nationality.

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Interesting, the man who built the Spanish auberge was actually blamed for bankrupting the knights as he continued to build ornate buildings despite the slowing down of the flow of funds aligned with the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

It was around this time that the locals started to resent the Knights who were living in luxury in the city, while the locals lived in poverty in the surrounding the countryside, paying heavy taxes to do so.  So sick of the Knights feudal system, they supported Napoleon when he  invaded.  His troops easily defeated the bankrupted Knights with the locals’ support and they were given 48 hours to pack up and leave the island.

Napoleon stayed on the island for 1 week on his way to conquer Egypt, leaving behind a small army of 4,000 people.  They change lots of laws, mostly for the better, but all at once rather than bit by bit which the locals resisted.  After less than 3 months, the locals revolted, causing the French to take sanctuary inside the city walls.

Without much in the way of fire power and nothing more than fishing boats, the British stepped in to help stop the French bringing in supplies from their ships.  This battle went on for 2 years, by which time the French had eaten all their horses, donkeys and even the rats running around the streets.

Instead of surrendering to the Maltese (who they do not want to speak to), the French decided to approach the British and without the consent of the locals, the British ‘inherited’ control of the country.  The Maltese felt deceived but decided maybe the British would be better than any of the other options.   Thus, Malta became part of the British Empire until its independence in 1964.

Everything that is Maltese is a mixture of all the cultures that were here – the language, the food, the architecture etc.

We continued to walk through the city, past the Co-Cathedral of St John’s (the other co-cathedral is in Mdina) built by the Knights and is rather plain on the outside and extremely ornate on the inside and the Grand Masters Palace which is now the President’s office.

With the opening of the Suez Canal, Malta gained much more strategic importance due to it’s local and the British dockyards became the cornerstone of the economy – ships still seem to be the cornerstone of the economy, however now it is cruise ships!

The country has been of strategic importance for the British during both world wars.  In WWI, it became known ‘Nurse of the Med’ due to its military hospital and was also key getting supplies through to North Africa.  In WWII, Malta was the most bombed place in the world between 1940-1942 and in 1 month, more bombs fell on than it did on London during the whole war!  The country gave so much but still gave so much support to Britain during the war, it was awarded the George Cross by George 6th – so, since 1942 the George Cross was added in the corner of the Maltese flag.

Another big industry for Valletta (in fact the whole of Malta) is the movie business – numerous movies and TV shows have been filmed there like Gladiator, Troy, Game of Thrones etc.   The diverse architecture of the city means it can be used in place of a world of places and it has been used to represent Jerusalem, Spain, Italy and Istanbul in the past!

My next stop on this busy day was Mdina – the original capital in the middle of the island.   I decided to catch the local bus to Mdina and managed to navigate around the massive, but fairly well laid out, bus stop to the right bus stop, but I had forgotten how bad Europeans are at queuing and it was just once massive of shove to get on when the bus arrived.  The worst offenders were little old ladies who elbowed their way to the front causing much grumbling around me in Maltese but no one spoke out lol

The bus was full and I was glad to have a seat as I had no idea how long the journey was but knew I was getting off near that end – just not exactly where 🤦🏻‍♀️😂  Luckily I had 2 hours before the start of the next tour as it didn’t seem that this journey was going to be a very quick one.   I watched the bus route along the map as the time ticked away and was lucky I had not chosen to sit down and have lunch in Valletta!

This next tour had the same guide and there was only 5 people – that’s my idea of a tour 😂!  Compared to the 6,000 people who live within the walls of Valletta, only 250 people live within the walls of Mdina.

Predominately a medieval city, nothing much has changed in Mdina since the 1720s and in fact it was on the site of an early city that dated back as far as the Bronze age and the city has seen it fair share of people through it’s gates – Bronze age, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors (who are partly responsible for the Arabic influence in the country as well as the name Mdina) and the Spanish.  And that was all before Charles the 5th gave the country to the Knights as a home!

As the Knights preferred to live near the sea, they did nothing to the city of Mdina until an earthquake in 1692 caused significant structural damage and the Portuguese Grand Master decided his legacy would be to repair the city and so, in 1720 the once medieval city became a baroque city.  Even today, the medieval tower has his coats of arms on it.

The flag towers played an important roll in communication around the islands and they are dotted round the country.  All men between the ages of 16 and 65 had to take their turn as look out and signal if pirates or other dangers were approached.  The towers formed a chain the islands and so the message was spread for people to seek refuge within the walls of the city.

The city was full of narrow intertwined streets and they actually made for additional defences (as I was easy to get lost)!  This is a complete contrast to the wide grid patterned streets which help the ocean breeze get through the city and provide direct routes from one wall to the other for the limited soldiers to defend the city.  It also had a pretty gruesome history of siege warfare including pouring boiling oil on attached (through a hole by the gate) and putting dead bodies on the walls to spread disease!  Interesting the city had a dry ditch rather than a moat as there is no rivers or other source of what in the city of the island to fill it!

Mdina was a beautiful city, the wonderful baroque buildings (often only with baroque facades and plain medieval backs. Fancy door knockers, often customised for rich families.  All the mix of architecture styles makes it very difficult to date the buildings in the city as they have been modified so much over time.

It was so good having such a small group as we had lots of time to ask questions, not just about the city but life in general – it was really interesting and definitely finished my time in Malta on a high 👍🏻

I had been worrying about how to get back to St Julian (where I had been staying) to get my bag but given that the journey required 2 buses and what would take 20 minutes in a taxi could take up to 2 hours in the bus … sense won over frugality and I got the taxi.  It was definitely the right decision as with all the traffic I don’t know if I would even have made it back by 7pm when I was being picked up to go to the airport! Rush hour traffic in Malta is not to be toyed with!

All in all I was captivated by Malta though in hindsight I do wish I had stayed in Valletta so I could have wandered around the city in my free time.  Although not bad, the area of St Julian was much more modern, with many international chain restaurants, rather than anything traditional and there was not much else to see or do.

 

 

 

 

 

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