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Amazed by Malta

Malta is tiny. It’s so small that you’d think it would be easily overlooked. Not so – this sunny archipelago lies at the heart of a Mediterranean marine thoroughfare and, as such, has been of huge historical importance as both a naval base and trade route throughout the centuries.

Thanks to its locality, Malta and its inhabitants have been invaded and ruled by almost every major political power through the ages. They have been ransacked by pirates, bombed for Britain, used as a base for the Crusades and occupied by Arabs, Phoenicians and the Spanish.

Not surprisingly then, Maltese society today draws on a hugely diverse range of influences – their culture exhibiting a heady mix of French, Spanish, English and Arabic.  Given this melting pot of ideas, traditions and tastes, a dilution in sense of national identity would be understandable. Quite to the contrary, though, the Maltese people remain fiercely proud of their past, with everyone from the hotel concierge to the bus diver an expert local historian.

As such, small-talk with local taxi drivers takes on a whole new meaning in Malta. The usual enquires about where we were from and what we do for a living were replaced by vivid and interesting accounts of real historical significance. Quite casually, one driver gave us a quick run down of the past 500 years or so, relaying how the brave Maltese Knights repelled Turkish invaders in 1565, and how the spirit of the Maltese people stood resolute until their eventual surrender no less than 250 years later to Napoleon’s armies.

Living on such a small island, the inhabitants of Malta are constantly exposed to the sea, with a great many of them relying on it on for their livelihood. Seamen and fisherman are everywhere, and so are their boats. In fact, the elaborately-coloured fishing vessels and water taxis are one of the main tourist attractions here, filling the small harbours dotted around the islands with bright yellows, blues and greens.

One afternoon, we negotiated a boat ride across such a harbour with a fisherman going about his daily business. After settling on a price (“just give me what you want; too much I’ll give some back; too little I won’t say anything”), he gave us his own account of the islands, with the same distinguished pride that seemed to be the norm amongst the locals we met.

He told us how the airport was used exclusively by the military until they opened it up to commercial use after the war. The very first passenger craft, he told us, to use the airport was a hi-jacked Air Egypt airliner. He laughed this off easily, as though he had seen it all before. He was very proud of the fact that Winston Churchill once described Malta as ‘Britain’s unsinkable aircraft carrier’ and that King George awarded the entire country the George Cross for bravery (now the Maltese Cross in their national flag).

Francis, an elderly cab driver, who took us on a tour of the local sights en route to the Blue Grotto, an impressive natural rock formation with deep blue and incredibly clear water, gave a more recent account of the island.

Legendary actor and rogue Oliver Reed, he told us, died in a Maltese bar whilst filming Gladiator with Russell Crowe, while Brad Pitt used our hotel gym during filming for last year’s epic, Troy. The classic Midnight Express – set in Turkey – was filmed here as well and we were taken to some of the landmarks from that movie.

With friendly people, excellent seafood, settled Mediterranean climate and stunning scenery, Malta is a destination that has to be seen to be believed. And if you are curious about anything at all, just ask – there are proud historians everywhere just waiting to show off their country’s past.

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