MALTA – FASCINATING KEY POINTS
One: The first migrants to Malta were from Sicily, Italy. The Maltese Archipelago lies 50 miles south of Sicily and 176 miles east of Tunisia, on the northern coast of Africa, in the Mediterranean ‘basin’. According to the Bible, St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD but biblical scholars now debate this as being ‘fact’; the area I stayed in during my visit was in St Paul’s Bay – a town called Mellieha, approximately 1 hour by bus to the capital Valletta on the largest island in the archipelago.
Its strategic position has meant a multitude of ‘conquerors’ over the years including the:
- Phoenicians [600 years]
- Romans [ 400 years]
- Arabs [220 years]
- Normans [400 years]
- Knights of the Order of St John [sold by Spain for 2 Maltese falcons!]
- British [160 years]
Napoleon conquered Malta on his way to Egypt [like you do!] during the French Revolutionary years in 1798. The St Elmo fort and war museum in Valletta provides an interesting, and comprehensive, overview of the history of Malta. It is well worth a visit in my view, and at the time of writing the entry fee was 10 euros. The museum also has a fantastic view of the Valletta harbour.
Because of its historical past, Malta has had a huge number of influences, notably with regard to architecture and language. The language is the closest Europe probably ever came to Esperanza – a European language that was designed to become common amongst European countries, but never developed. The language has a huge Arabic influence but also contains words from Italian, French and English. Despite being a staunch Roman Catholic country, the word for God is Allah. Maltese is mandatory, as part of the education system, however, university opportunities are limited, so many students attend university overseas, mainly in Britain. Healthcare is similar to Britain, although many Maltese choose to pay 20 euros to have a doctor visit them privately. This is considered to be a very affordable option for the population [unlike Britain].
In 1814, Malta became part of the ‘British Empire’ as part of the Treaty of Paris. It became an important trade route for Britain because it was a staging post on the way to India. During the First World War, it became known as the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’. Soldiers were sent to Malta for rest and recuperation, but unfortunately some never made it out of Malta.
Malta became independent in 1964 and a republic in 1974.
Two: The Maltese Archipelago consists of 5 islands: Malta [the largest], Gozo, Comino and two very small islands which are not inhabited.
The oldest freestanding monuments in the world can be located in Gozo – the Ggantija Temples. These date back to 3,600 BC and are even older than the Egyptian pyramids. The little museum that you can enter before seeing the temples is absolutely fascinating. Unlike the hieroglyphics that can tell the story in words of the pyramids, there are only the artefacts, statues and carvings that can tell the story of Gozo in prehistoric times – there is no writing. However, it is very clear from the artefacts the mode of dress and hair styles of prehistoric times, which were very sophisticated for its time. It also became clear, from analysing teeth, the type of diet prehistoric peoples were able to access. It is well worth a visit because it is so interesting and unique. The temples were named so because local people thought they were built by giants initially. They couldn’t understand how an amazing megalithic structure could be built by ordinary mortals!
I took a day tour to Gozo which included the ferry ride, and a guided tour of the island. This included the temples, Dwerja Bay and the capital of Victoria [previously known as Rabat]. If you climb up to the Citadel in Victoria, there is a magnificent view of the island, and on a clear day you can see Malta. The ferry over to Gozo takes between 20 and 25 minutes, although the return journey only took 13 minutes, probably because of the strong winds. I would highly recommend you find a seat as soon as entering the ferry because it is very busy. There are not enough seats for all the passengers. The ferry has toilets and a snack bar. It is free to travel to Gozo but you must have a paid ticket for the return journey. If you take a guided tour from Malta, then the trip includes the ferry ticket and a 3 course lunch with wine. Our lunch stop was at Xlandi Bay – a very picturesque place.
Gozo is popular with the local people as a getaway for holidays and weekends. It has a slow pace, is very green in comparison to Malta [which is mainly rock], and much ‘calmer’ and more peaceful than the main island. The houses are very beautiful. There is much competition between neighbours with regards to who has the most beautiful house!
Three: The Knights of the Order of St John. This is a Roman Catholic religious order, and the oldest surviving order of chivalry. It is possibly not that well known outside of Europe. The Order can be traced back to the era of the Crusades and was primarily, in the twelfth century, an hospitally order that originated in Jerusalem to care for sick pilgrims. It was founded by Italian merchants from Amalfi and progressed to acquiring wealth and lands. In 1309, they ‘acquired’ Rhodes [now part of the Greek Islands] which they ruled as an independent sovereign state. The Knights have a fascinating history, and there is too much information to repeat here. However, from 1523 to 1530 the Knights were without a base, until they were granted the Maltese Archipelago by the then Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The Knights built the current capital of Malta, Valletta, and a hospital which attracted patients from inside and outside of Malta. However, as already mentioned, the Knights’ reign came to an end once Napoleon conquered Malta.
I only spent a few hours in Valletta, due to time constraints, and I found it absolutely overwhelming – I didn’t know where to start my tour! The attractions in Valletta are too numerous to mention here, and I hope this blog inspires you to visit and find out for yourself. I certainly will be returning. It’s such a beautiful city commanding an amazing view over Valletta Harbour. The city was one of the first to use the ‘grid system’ for streets, and reminded me in that way of Washington DC [USA]. St John’s Co Cathedral is a ‘must see’: ‘beneath each of the 400 or so marble slabs or sarcophagi, lies a man who lived a life of high adventure’. Valletta has been awarded the 2018 ‘European Capital of Culture’ which the townspeople are very excited about. It was heavily bombed in World War 2, but ruins have been refurbished and re-invigorated.
The Maltese Cross is the symbol of the order.
Four: The Maltese Cross – this is an 8 pointed cross, which is usually white on a red background. The eight points of the cross symbolise:
- to live in truth
- to have faith
- to repent one’s sins
- to give proof of humility
- to love justice
- to be merciful
- to be sincere and wholehearted
- to endure persecution
The Maltese Cross has become confused in some parts of the world with The Florian Cross, which is similar, but fire departments, notably in New York, USA, have adopted a version of the cross as a symbol to represent honour and bravery. The Knights were associated with the cross to symbolise their bravery in tackling ‘fire-bombs’ from the marauding Saracens during the fight for the Holy Land.
Five: The Hop-on, Hop-off bus. There is so much to write about Malta, but the best way to see, and learn about, the country is to use the hop-on, hop-off bus. There are two tours – the North Tour and the South Tour – which cost 20 euros each at the time of writing. They each would take a full day if you get off at the various stops to tour around. I took the South Tour [Red] because I had already seen most of the North Tour on a day trip [which included the ancient capital of Mdina].
The bus tours start in Sliema, but offer free transport from Cirkewwa, Mellieha, Xemxija & Golden Bay, Attard, Bugibba and St Julian’s Bay. From Mellieha [with the largest sandy beach], at the time of writing there were two buses at 0850 and 0950. It’s about one hour to Sliema where the tour starts ‘proper’. It takes around 3 hours if you don’t get off the bus. However, there are so many interesting places to visit that I recommend taking the early bus so you have a chance to explore some of the stops. I got off at Valletta, for a short time and then again at the Blue Grotto. Because it was winter, and the sea was quite rough, there were no boats going around the area of the Blue Grotto but it is definitely a place I would revisit. If you are going off-season, there are several cute restaurants for lunch or a glass of wine to break the journey!
Summary: Malta is an amazing surprise in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, with incredible natural beauty. It is full of ancient history, stunning architecture [with a huge baroque influence] and I am sure will be loved not only by sun-worshippers, but also travellers intent on learning about history and pre-history. There is much to see, is so eclectic and tourism is supported by a well-connected bus service, which is inexpensive and easy to navigate. From the Air Malta in-flight magazine: ‘If you have a flair for the arts and appreciate a good show, then look no further than Malta for your 2018 go to destination’. Happy holidays!