Malta – Island #39

The observant amongst you will have noticed that I’ve got a bit behind with the blogging.  Travelling and writing (and working occasionally) has taken up a lot of time. Thanks for staying with me! I am attempting to catch up as quickly as I can!

I spent a week in Malta in early October and did day trips to Gozo and Comino. Without doubt, one of the most fascinating groups of islands I have visited this year from a historical point of view. There is so much to see that it would take much longer than I had to see it all.  It was also raining heavily for the first couple of days which impeded my sightseeing progress! I have just included a tiny bit of history and the highlights of my visit here, one of which was meeting HRH Prince Charles in the street! Sorry this post is a bit long but I couldn’t work out what to leave out!

The Maltese Islands form an archipelago in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast and consist of the islands of Malta, Gozo, Comino and several uninhabited islets and large rocks.  Apparently situated in between Eurasian and African tectonic plates, the islands of the archipelago lie on the Malta plateau, a shallow shelf formed from the high points of an ancient land bridge between Sicily and North Africa that became isolated as sea levels rose after the last Ice Age.

Covering an area of 246 km², Malta is a large and densely populated island, home to approx. 437,000 inhabitants and is one of the world’s smallest and most populated countries.  Because of its strategic position (see map), it has been conquered by numerous different civilizations including the Romans, Moors, French, Aragonese, the Knights of St John and, of course, the British. It is packed with temples, fortresses and other historical remnants or prior civilizations. Malta officially became a part of the British Empire in 1814 and, following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, became an important stop on the way to India – at the time, an important trading route for the British.  Malta accommodated a large number of wounded British soldiers during the First World War, earning the title of ‘The Nurse of the Mediterranean’.

Malta played an important part in the Second World War, with Valletta – Malta’s capital city – being home to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet until it was moved by Winston Churchill to Alexandria due to fear of air attacks. The British launched attacks on the Italian navy from Malta and had a submarine base there.  The island was also used as a listening post, intercepting German radio messages including Enigma traffic. As a result the island was heavily bombarded by German and Italian forces. The bravery of the Maltese people was rewarded by King George VI with the George Cross being awarded collectively to the people of Malta on 15 April 1942.  It still appears on the Maltese flag and coat of arms. The phone boxes and post boxes are red and the same as those found in the UK – a residue of years of British rule.

After negotiations with the United Kingdom, Malta achieved its independence as the State of Malta on 21 September 1964 (Independence Day), retaining the Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State and Queen of Malta. In 1971, following a general election win by the Labour Party, Malta declared itself a republic on 13 December 1974 (Republic Day) within the Commonwealth, with the President replacing the Queen as Head of State. The Republic of Malta adopted a policy of neutrality in 1980. After applying to join the European Union in 1990, Malta finally became a member in 2004 after a referendum and a general election indicated the people’s desire to do so. Malta joined the eurozone on 1st January 2008.

Malta has its own fascinating language, Malti, since 1934 the national language of the islands.  English is also an official language and is a widely spoken second language.  Italian is also widely spoken and understood and was, historically, Malta’s official language for several centuries. For language geeks (such as myself) Malti is a descendant of the (now defunct) Siculo-Arabic, a version of Arabic previously spoken in Sicily. Initially only a spoken language in Malta, it was formalised and written down in the 19th century and, as a result, became the only Semitic language written in Latin characters albeit with a few additions. It is now a hybrid language heavily influenced by borrowings from Sicilian, Italian, French and English. English is the international language of business and the ability of the islanders to speak English has made Malta a popular destination for financial institutions and other large organisations to set up shop.

Malta’s capital, Valletta, is one of Malta’s 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a fascinating, little city of churches, monuments, plazas, palaces, fortresses and fortifications all hewn from golden stone perched on top of a peninsular at the mouth of an enormous natural harbour. Covering an area of only 0.8 km², Valletta is a fascinating city and easily walkable provided you don’t mind a few steps! Entering Valletta means crossing the enormous ditch designed to protect the city, currently undergoing excavations.  The views across the Grand Harbour to the 3 cities and across the water on the other side towards Sliema are breathtaking due to Valletta’s high position – at night Valletta and the surrounding cities twinkle and glow spectacularly. Valletta is a city of contrasts where old blends seamlessly with the new – amongst the ancient monuments and flagstoned streets, visitors are transported by electric taxis and the police use segways to get around! There’s a lot going on too – religious festivals and processions, concerts, live music, choirs singing in the street, buskers. Never a dull moment!

In spite of the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, there are still some charmingly dilapidated old, traditional shops and businesses to be seen complete with hand-painted shop fronts nestling in between more modern buildings. Many buildings have the traditional Maltese ‘gallerijas’ – the brightly coloured, wooden, windowed balconies that protrude from the front of buildings.

HRH Prince Charles was on an official visit to Malta whilst I was there.  I saw him in his car as he drove down one of the main streets in Valletta, then a bit later on whilst wondering down a side street I came across a small group of people standing around a fenced off street.  I asked what they were waiting for and they told me Prince Charles had just gone into the Anglican church in front of us and would shortly be emerging.  We chatted to Arthur Edwards, photographer to the Royal Family until HRH came out accompanied by the Bishop (?) in fuschia robes.  Prince Charles shook hands, chatted and joked with us before heading back to his car.  The Maltese people who had seen him were very excited indeed!

The undoubted jewel in the crown of all of Valletta’s many treasures has to be the Conventual-Cathedral of St John, built by the Knights of Saint John. This is the most splendid and awe-inspiring religious building I have ever seen with my own eyes! Splendidly adorned throughout with ornately carved and worked gold, silver and jewels, the floor is made of hundreds of intricately inlaid marble tombs of the Knights.  It costs €10 a ticket and you get a very good audio guide in the language of your choice which enables you to wander around and access information as you go. It is also famously home to Caravaggio’s largest and only signed painting – The Beheading of John the Baptist as well as his St Jerome Writing. (Caravaggio was a novice Knight thrown out in disgrace for fighting and subordination).

The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (aka The Knights of St John and many other similar names) were a medieval Catholic military order which originated in 1023 as a group of individuals providing care for the sick, poor and injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land during the crusades and were originally based in Jerusalem. After Jerusalem was conquered in 1099, the order became a religious and military one under its own Papal Charter charged with the care and defence of the Holy Land.  When Jerusalem fell to Islamic forces, the order moved to Rhodes and subsequently to Malta where they ruled as a Vassal State under the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily until 1798 when Napoleon captured Malta. The Knights left a considerable legacy on Malta, the Conventual-Cathedral being the most glorious.

I stayed in Floriana, the neighbourhood immediately next to Valletta, the capital.’s ‘Guest House’ turned out to be a grubby and tired third floor walk-up 3 bedroomed apartment which I shared with other ‘guests’. It wasn’t great but it was clean and very cheap, the other people were OK and the location was brilliant.  Such is the life of a budget traveller! Floriana is a fascinating, traditional, slightly scruffy, residential area full of real houses, tiny shops and local bars. It also has the enormous church of St Publius and a huge open area known as The Granaries where the Knights of St John stored grain for times of siege and which is now used for concerts. Floriana is also right next to the cruise ship terminal – there were at least 3 enormous ships there every day I was there.

One of the highlights of my visit to Malta was a visit to The Three Cities – Conspicua (Bormla), Victoriosa (Il Birgu) and Senglea (L-Isla) and the Fort of St Angelo, built by the Knights of St John (1530-1560) as their headquarters before they moved across the water to Valletta. The ‘Three Cities’ are situated directly opposite Valletta on the other side of the Grand Harbour and have their own rich history and palaces, churches and forts which pre-date those in Valletta.  Their deep harbour inlets have provided a home and fortress to almost every civilization who have settled on the islands since Phoenician times.

The ferry leaves from Valletta and for a couple of euros transports visitors across the Grand Harbour to the other side where you can wander the harboursides, quiet streets, squares, alleyways and stairwells of the 3 cities and enjoy amazing views back across to Valletta. Religious festivals are celebrated here in a big way, particularly Easter and the wonderful Birgufest held in October, when the streets of Victoriosa are lit up by thousands of candles (sadly I missed this by a week!). I loved it here and came back again for a better look around the quiet streets and at the old-fashioned shops and the vans selling food on the streets.

Malta has two traditional types of boat – the dgħajsa (dye-sar) which simply means ‘boat’ in Maltese but refers to the water taxis used to get across the harbour inlets and to and from larger ships moored in the harbour. I saw these waiting at the boat taxi rank immediately below an enormous cruise ship. Sadly numbers of these lovely old boats have dwindled considerably from over 1,000 in the 1970s to only about 12 in the present day. The shortage is apparently due to a lack of skilled people to make them and repair them.

The other kind is known as a luzzu (pronounced loot-tzu) and is a traditional fishing boat in use in the Maltese islands since ancient times and instantly recognisable by the bright colours and sometimes a pair of eyes painted on the bow.  Large numbers of these can be seen in the fishing harbour of Marsaxlokk in the south east of Malta, one of my favourite towns and home to a large fish market on a Sunday morning.

The ancient walled city of Mdina is a must-see. Capital of Malta until 1570, the city is also known as ‘the silent city’ and ‘the noble city’.  The city’s 2,500 m² is crammed full of palaces and religious buildings including an impressive Cathedral dating from the 15th century.  Traditionally inhabited by the noble families of the island, Mdina continues to be home to some of Malta’s aristocratic families.  I went twice – once in daylight and once at night when wandering the hushed, narrow alleyways and romantically lamplit streets becomes a wonderful, peaceful and atmospheric experience. The neighbouring town of Rabat is also well worth a visit, especially at night.

The north eastern part of the island is very popular with tourists from the UK, Germany and other Northern European countries and there is also a lot of time-share property here. The resorts are very built up and a lot of people seem to be squeezing onto not very big beaches and lidos built onto the rocks along the coast.  I liked the old cities a lot more!

The Maltese Cross – seen extensively in the Co-Cathedral but also everywhere on the island – was officially adopted by the Order of the Knights of St John in 1126. Its eight points are said to denote the eight obligations of the knights – to live in truth, have faith, repent one’s sins, give proof of humility, love justice, be merciful, be sincere and whole-hearted, and to endure persecution.

I became fascinated by the Maltese doors as they were all based on the same basic model but modified and decorated in different ways. These are some of my favourites.  In Floriana, a lot of the houses and streets looked the same so I found my way home by finding the light green door (below)!

Malta is a truly fascinating mixture of ancient and modern and of diverging cultures and languages. I had a great time here despite the rain. To see Malta properly, you need a lot longer than a week.  If I come back, I’d love to see the candlelit streets of Victoriosa during Burgfest.

NEXT ISLAND:  Staying in the Maltese Islands, I took a day trip from Malta to neighbouring Gozo.


4 thoughts on “Malta – Island #39

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