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Six thousand years in Malta


Malta is one of the smaller, more obscure destinations in the Mediterranean for most people. I was only aware of it because of the large Maltese contingent in Australia and the fact that a friend had visited it. Guide books and travel web sites didn’t prove very inspiring either, variously describing the island as a “desiccated” or as “pretty flat” with “thin soil yielding very little flora or fauna”. Still the island held a faint whiff of historical allure and on with a long weekend and nothing to do it seemed liked a good option.

And so it proved to be. While the soil maybe thin and the terrain a little barren I found the island itself fascinating. Malta, with its pivotal position astride trade routes in the Mediterranean, has long been the object of contention for many nations. From its earliest history Malta has suffered a succession of foreign rulers and only in that past thirty years has it been governed by it’s own people. For a land which has a history stretching back some six thousand years (megaliths on the island date to about 3800BC) this represents mere blip on the cultural radar. What this means is that Malta is the home of an intriguing blend of Arab, Sicilian, Turkish, French, English and indigenous culture.

For many years aging English tourists have viewed Malta as a rather charming Mediterranean backwater where you can still get a Guinness and a full English breakfast. This meant that charter flights were plentiful, even in the depths of winter, and a hotel and flight cost less than £250 a head for two nights. As I boarded the flight from the crowded Heathrow terminal I prayed fervently that Guinness and egg-and-chips wasn’t all I was going to find in Malta.

We landed in darkness and were greeted by a slightly drowsy tour rep, a new experience for me. He promised to show up at 12.30 the next day and give us some background on the island and ideas on what to do. We were ferried to the hotel by a courteous but sullen local driver (a common theme, English might nominally be an official language but Maltese is far more prevalent amongst the older islanders) where we dropped the bags and retired for the night.

Waking up early next morning we scampered down stairs to catch the desultory hotel breakfast which was less full English and more no-substance. Still the sun was shining and the narrow, crooked streets of Sliemma awaited.

Geography on Malta is fairly simple. There are three small islands, Malta the largest, Gozo it’s north west cousin and tiny Comino is nestled between them and is inhabited only by guests from a single hotel. On Malta itself you have a number of major towns but since the island is barely 20km long they tend to merge into a fairly continuously urban sprawl. For example Medina and Mosta lie in the middle of the island while Sliemma, Cottonera (the three cities) and the capital Valetta lie on the east coast and the tendrils of their suburbs reach out to the hinterlands and brush at the edges of Medina.

From the hotel in Sliemma, the islands original resort development, we simply strolled down hill to the south side of the Marsamxett harbour and caught a amiable blue green ferry across the water to Valetta. It costs 15c per passenger (about 22p) for a one way trip.

Valetta is steeped in history and its origins stem from some of the most pivotal events in Malta’s history. After a couple of centuries of Arab rule, the nobility of Sicily (then a Spanish province) moved in and ruled the island for some four hundred years. In 1530 however an event occurred which changed the character of the island forever. In the Middle East the Crusades had been under way for some 300 hundred years but the tide was turning and the Ottoman empire under Süleymân the Magnificent was becoming resurgent. In 1523 the Turks retook Rhodes from the Knights of St John and by 1529 had reached the gates of Vienna. The Order of St John were the original knights of the crusade but wandered homeless for a time until the Emperor of Spain gifted them the territory of Malta for the rent of two Maltese Falcons a year. In 1530 they arrived on its shores to set up home.

Under the command of the veteran 71 year old warrior, Grand Master Jean de la Valette the Knights immediately set about fortifying the island in preparation for the arrival of the sultans of Turkey. They didn’t have long to wait. Owing partly to personal pride and partly to a keen strategic insight Süleymân saw the Knights as a thorn in the side of his ambitions for European domination. Consequently the entire Ottoman fleet was despatched to Malta with some 30,000 troops bent on eradicating the Knights from the face of the earth. After Malta would come Sicily, Italy and possibly France. Facing them were some 700 knights and 8000 Maltese irregulars.

Instead of the predicted two weeks the Great Siege of Malta lasted three months and cost some 20,000 Turkish lives. The Knights position was a tenuous one and time and again they were perilously close to disaster but were saved by an act of heroic valour by one of their number. One passage from “The Great Siege of Malta” by Ernle Bradford describes how the Turks threw themselves again and again at a breach in the city walls only to be repulsed by a counter attack lead by de Valette himself. Another passage relates how a tide of Janissaries, the elite troops of the Turkish army counter-attacked a sally by the Knights, “like the white crest of an ocean roller they burst and fell on the advancing ranks of Christians”. The Janissaries were well trained professional soldiers and were drawn from all parts of the Turkish empire. In battle they were resplendent in long flowing cloaks and their helmets were capped with the white heron crest.

Together with the naval battle at Lepanto the siege ended the Ottoman’s designs on Europe and the Knights were heralded as the saviours of Europe. At this stage Valetta itself did not exist and the main settlement was to the north of Valetta across the Grand Harbour in Birgu. After the siege however, grateful European nobility heaped riches and honours upon the Knights and their fortune grew as their fame attracted the lesser nobility from France, England, Germany and Spain. From the ashes of the besieged city grew a new, custom built and well defended city named in honour of the man who had defended Europe, Grand Master Jean de la Valette.

Rocking my way across the waves to Valetta I was able to reflect that the city was not only perfectly preserved but also represented a real gem in renaissance architecture. With the massive domes of four churches visible from the water and the massive bastion wall curling around the edge, the city reminded me of nothing less than Venice on a grander scale.

The interior of the city is beautifully rendered as well. The streets are narrow and tight and clustered with whitewashed five story houses. The Knights, being enlightened men of god as well as militant fanatics designed Valetta as a Mediterranean city of extraordinary beauty. As well as arranging the streets in an orderly lattice work that brings refreshing breezes up from the harbour front they insisted on smaller touches – like an icon or statue at the corner of each block. The city has suffered somewhat over time but under the grime and scars you can still see the spirit that made Valetta a jewel of the Mediterranean.

Landing at a pier in Marsamxett we walked up into the centre of town over steep cobbled roads. Arriving at the Republic square in front of the Biblioteche I felt like I’d walked into a Roman piazza. The square was jammed tightly with superfluous shade umbrellas and a densely packed mass of tables. Scattered throughout the tables, sipping an early morning cappuccino, were the high society of Valetta who paused in their morning refreshment to give us the once over fashion scrutiny before returning disdainfully to their frothed milk and chocolate sprinkles.

From the square we walked up the hill towards the gates of Valetta and the upper Baraka gardens. I’m not sure of the connection but in Arabic, Baraka means a blessing passed from one person to the next. The gardens over look the grand harbour and the site of the Great Siege of Malta during the 1500’s. The gardens were originally forbidden but were eventually built by an Italian knight so that members of the order would have somewhere to relax and reflect.

From the wall of the gardens you can see the sweep of the grand harbour from the mouth at Kalkara, past the fort at Vittoriosa where the knights one their victory and down to the shallow waters of Floriana. To the left the clutter of houses in Valetta cling to the hillside and spill in an untidy mess down to Fort St Elmo on the point. As the sun slants across the water and the orange trees cast long shadows across the garden the little town of Valetta begins to glow as if the sandstone walls were lit from within. I was beginning to like Malta.

Hunger struck at this point and we went in search of food. A picnic in the sun seemed in order so we wandered down into the town to find a local market. In a covered market in the middle of town we bought some leg ham, some local goats cheese, olives and bread and a bottle of water. The total came to, if my maths serves me correctly, about £1.50. We retired to one of the city walls to consume our little feast and to feed the cats. One thing you can’t miss wherever you go on Malta is the cats. Like a lot of Mediterranean people the Maltese have a predilection for free roaming moggies and the streets of Malta are full of them. Afterwards we headed back to catch the ferry to Sliemma.

We had agreed to meet our “tour guide” back at the hotel at 12.30 for a “briefing”. The whole tour guide thing is an anathema to my normal mode of operation on holiday but seeing as I’d never tried it before I thought I’d give it a go. We spent a good hour listening to the very informed guide who laid out the history of Malta for us and recapped exactly what I’d already gleaned from guide books and my previous research. He did however add a bit of local colour to the proceedings and he did convince us to spend the next day visiting Medina which turned out to be a good decision.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a lap of nearby St Julian’s and snoozing by the sea until the evening meal was called for. Resolving to try some local food we managed to find a seaside restaurant which promised local specialities. The food, as with most of the things I ate on Malta, was unremarkable. I had ravioli with ricotta and a local speciality called bragioli, which consists of a giant beef-olive – mince wrapped with fillet of beef and bacon. While both of these appealed on paper the execution was less than brilliant and I was left feeling a little underwhelmed. This is not to say Malta doesn’t have good food however, I think we were just unlucky in our choices during our short stay.

After dinner we had a quick stroll around the seafront once again and then retired to the hotel. The next day we skipped the pitiable breakfast and headed off to Valetta to catch a bus to Medina for a day trip.

The buses of Malta deserve special mention. Painted in cheery yellow and orange most of them are a good thirty years old and are piloted by gruff, hairy Maltese men with forearms like Popeye. The impressive musculature of the drivers is necessary because navigating the narrow, bumpy roads of Malta is more like a professional wrestling match than an mode of transport. After forty minutes the bus finally creaked to a halt in Rabat, just outside the walls of Medina and the bus driver indicated with a thrust of his arm that this is where we should alight.

If Valletta is beautifully preserved then Medina has been virtually untouched since 1530. When the Knights landed and settled in Birgu the  of power shifted from Medina to their new capital almost overnight. The Sicilian and Maltese nobility refused to have anything to do with the new masters of Malta. Even during the Great Siege the nobility in Medina barely stirred from their palazzo’s and took little part in the fighting.

Medina is another fortified town and sits high on a plateau in the centre of the island surrounded by a deep moat. The bridge from the modern town of Rabat into the walled city is long and narrow and you have the impression you are entering another world. Like Valetta the traditional houses in Medina are tall and narrow and loom over the small streets. The cobbles and the bare sandstone are complemented by the dusky orange colours of the buildings and tiny architectural features like elaborate bronze door-knockers and the ubiquitous procession of icons, saints and statues.

The view from the battlements of Medina is spectacular and encompasses most of Malta. From the west side you can see out across Mosta to the north coast and the islands of Comino and Gozo. Off to the right lies the built up coastal strip of Sliemma, Valetta and the Cottonera and dotted between them is a patchwork of tiny walled fields in gold and green. It is said that on a clear day you can see the shores of Sicily and the peak of Mt Etna 50 miles to the north. From the east side of the castle you can see out across the suburbs of Rabat to the islands airport and the fairly quiet north east and the harbour at Marsaxlokk (where the Turks landed).

Just in its geography alone you can see the tremendous influence successive cultures have had on Malta. Marsaxlokk is a native Maltese name while Medina and Rabat are, respectively, the Arab words for “walled city” and “suburb”. The Maltese language appears from the outside to be terribly complicated and contains a smattering from every culture that passed through the island at one time or another. “Good evening” is “bonswa” while “sah’ha” means goodbye and “grazzi” means “thank you”. It’s likely that every time you buy a cup of coffee you’re going to be, linguistically, circumnavigating the Mediterranean.

I was delighted with Malta. The weather was beautiful, even in the depths of winter, the cities are charming, the people were pleasant and happy, the food was… well adequate… and the place literally drips with history. I too, like the Turks, would like to spend a little longer there.

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