A few specks of limestone dropped in the middle of a cauldron, with chefs from Africa, Europe and Asia all stirring the pot at different times: that is what Malta seems to be. It is a tiny nation yet one that has been an important staging post in history with invaders and protectors coming from all corners of the Mediterranean. It is the only nation in the world to have been awarded a medal – the George Cross – for its heroism against almost impossible odds during its second major siege in five hundred years – the 168 days of bombing by Axis forces during World War II. The earlier 1656 siege by Suleiman the Magnificent was another story – but one that also ended well for the Maltese.
One of the many forts that are dotted around the country is the St Elmo Fortress on a north-east corner of Malta island. It has recently been restored and is now a glorious pile of pale golden limestone containing room after room of historical displays and multi-media presentations which give an excellent glimpse into the nation’s history. Perhaps when Queen Elizabeth returns to the island in November for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) she will have a chance to visit the fort as her uncle did at the end of the Second World War.
Its history and its location make Malta what it is today – a place where the Maltese language (about 60% Arabic in derivation) shares a daily life with English and Italian. Its numerous coves and harbours are dotted with fishing boats, glistening pleasure cruisers obscene in their opulence, sleek tall-masted sailing ships and small boats of all colours and flavours. The larger vessels are tethered by multiple hawsers (you do not want your multi-million tub bumping into another one) but the smaller ones behave like obedient sunflowers, turning their noses to face the incoming tides. There is a rapidly expanding viticulture although they have yet to develop a suitable Syrah to go with the perennial rabbit dishes served at traditional restaurants.
Traditional crafts are important in Malta and include not only boat building and works of art in silver filigree and fine lace, but glassblowing and model making where detailed scaled versions of Malta’s famous Arab-inspired balconies are lovingly crafted. I spoke with Lawrence Callus who proudly showed me several of his creations and photos of his father hauling in a huge octopus in one of Valletta’s many harbours many years ago. Lawrence said that his model balconies were not for the tourist market but for fellow aficionados of the old times.
Another of the traditional arts I really enjoyed seeing was the dry-stone walls. Malta is, let’s face it, a pretty barren, rocky series of little islands, and timber is rather scarce, so what are you going to use to build your houses (and towering apartment blocks) and barns and boat sheds – and walls – but the stones that make up the islands. In the rural areas age-old dry-stone walls fence off vineyards and orchards, and modern road builders are continuing the tradition with miles of similar walls along highways.
I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition
The old ways are not always the best ways, however, and current inheritance laws and death duties have resulted in scores of empty and decaying buildings. The diverse members of the families who may have a claim to all or a minuscule part of what may have been the family house squabble over its destiny: one member may wish to sell, while others may hope to hold on for a better price “some time in the future.” Those that have been cleared by probate or other legal hiccoughs are ripe for restoration and renovation. Many have been turned into hotels and boutiques while others have been re-tooled as museums. In Vittoriosa (one of the “Three Cities” of Malta to the east of Valletta’s Grand Harbour) it is possible in a short stroll to go from the beautiful ‘Norman’ House where I spoke to the owner / restorer, to the Inquisitor’s Palace to the home of the executioner (indicated by the crossed beheading axes carved into its limestone walls) for all those not-so-devout Catholics who fell foul of the “law”.
Today’s labour “laws” are also pretty flexible, it seems. Malta is a staging place for many refugees from Africa, seeking a better way of life. While the government does what it can to house, feed and educate as many of these as possible, others are reduced to common labourer status. It is possible for a builder or a home renovator to drive to the Marsa traffic roundabout and select half a dozen labourers from those lying under the few shade trees available. It seemed not too remote a practice from the old slave markets of Africa and America … but perhaps it did offer those selected a chance to earn a few Euros and a chance for a decent meal.
Roasted, stewed and boiled rabbits are popular meals – as is rabbit liver cooked in various ways. There is also a rabbit farm for sale if you want to start your new life as a rabbit farmer in Malta! Other popular foods include the traditional Maltese sandwich or Fatira filled with tuna, capers, lettuce and tomatoes, the tiny pastizzis that are similar to small Cornish pasties but filled with mushy peas or cheese instead of spiced meats. Sweet pastries filled with dates can be washed down with the local wine or with a glug of Kinnie – a strange concoction of fizzy carbonated orange juice and a secret selection of herbs. My hostess was corrected by the waitress when she called it “a type of Maltese drink.” “No,” quoth waitress, “it IS a Maltese drink.”
I drove over to Gozo for a couple of days.
Gozo is a smaller island to the North West of Malta and is a twenty-minute ferry ride. People from Malta look scornfully on Gozitans – saying they are the poor cousins of the country. I suppose it is a bit like the Australia – Tasmania complex. Did I mention that Gozo is small? On my map it looked like a three-day forced march to get from the harbour to Xlendi where I had planned to spend the night, but it turned out that I arrived in the town square before I had changed into third gear. In any case, there was no room at the inn, so another three-day / twenty minute drive to Ta Cenc where I found the comfortable Ta Cenc hotel set amidst large clumps of sweet-smelling pink and white oleanders over looking the rocky coastline and the superb Rotunda church at the delightfully-named village of Xewkija.
The hotel also had a private rocky beach some two kilometres away and I tried to walk to it as it seemed straight forward enough. Clad in a hat, a swimsuit and a sarong I set off along the wrong road. Repeat. Return to hotel to collect car. Find that I had left the headlights on and that battery was flat. Try pushing the twenty-three year-old Isuzu Gemini uphill in the hotel car park to get it going. Find it is a lot heavier than modern cars. Call on a passing tourist to help and with his help and a bit of muscle power from two hotel staff members we got it going … albeit to the amusement of the locals as in all of this my sarong had got tangled up with assorted feet so there was the splendid sight of the red-faced geriatric old man in a pair of Speedos struggling uphill shoving a rusted-red geriatric old car.
Festival in Floriana
Probably a better sight to behold was the display every town and parish put on for its “festa” – a special festival in honour of its local patron saint. Saint Paul is a favourite saint in Malta – he was shipwrecked on a small island en route for his trial in Rome – but every parish arranges gaudy street displays and decks its church with thousands of coloured lights. Fireworks and street bands and eating and drinking make it all quite fun, whether you are on one of St Paul’s Islands, in the Bay of St Paul or the suburb of St Paul …
I enjoyed the hospitality of Brenda and Adam – friends from Chiang Mai – who were excellent tour leaders to Malta’s Three Cities, to Mdina and Rabat, and with whom I went on a boozy Sunday luzzo – traditional Maltese fishing boat – cruise from the harbour immediately below their apartment over to Comino and to Gozo to the same bay I had visited earlier.
This time there were jelly fish by the score at the Comino beaches. I had had an unfortunate encounter with a jolly jelly fish a week or so earlier while swimming through the natural tunnel linking the Inland Sea with the open ocean and the Azure Window. I was given a glass-full of vinegar to deal with the sting by a woman at a coffee shop: “Oh – so you went outside, then?”
Three weeks later the scars are still somewhat painful, but there were no jolly jellies at the Gozo site or at a northern beach on Comino where it was possible to swim into a cave, clamber up rough rocks through a crevice or two and then climb further up the cliff to dive off – like the Count of Monte Christo in the film of the same name – into the beautiful ocean below.
I did not … deciding that the painful climb back down the rocks was more prudent then a thirty-metre belly-flop amid clustered tourist boats.
Rather like a child saving the cherry on top of the cake for last nibble, I saved Valletta until my last couple of days in Malta, and based myself at the somewhat charming old-fashioned Osborne Hotel in the middle of the old town.
Valletta is a walker’s delight. Up and down its narrow hilly streets, taking random turns left or right – something of interest pops up at every corner, whether it is a simple art restorer’s shop, a truck selling fresh fruit and veg, a weathered carving of a holy saint or two perched high on a crumbling building, or the more spectacular places like the Grandmaster’s Palace and St John’s Co-cathedral which houses Caravaggio’s huge canvas depicting the beheading of St John, amid many other delightful paintings, sculptures, tapestries, gilded walls and tourists and tourists. And tourists.
What’s in a name? Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet, and in Malta interesting names are everywhere. Houses are numbered, of course, but almost all of them also have a religious statue embedded in the wall by the front door and a house name – Mary and Joseph, Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Trinity … I guess a lost visitor would say to the passing gendarme, “Excuse me, but I’m looking for the Holy Trinity in Old Bakery Street.” The gendarme may reply – if he is feeling irreverent – “Sorry – God the father, God the son and God the HG have moved on to a new apartment in St Paul’s Bay where they can all have their own bedrooms.”
On Gozo, people are a bit more prosaic. There you will still find Maria and Joseph, but also Maria and Mario, Australia, Khartoum and even Glorious USA. In Valletta there is, in addition to Old Bakery Street, the Archbishop Street, Old Mint Street, Old Theatre Street … and West Street.
Malta may only be a flyspeck about three hundred square kilometres in size, but its history, food, scenery, people and wonderful oceans make it something of a rare treasure where a week simply isn’t enough time to experience all that can be found.
- Journey: July 2015
- Text and photographs: © Christopher Hall 2015
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