Marvellous Malta


 

The Maltese archipelago is full of pleasant surprises. It is the kind of place where you feel the locals like to keep quiet about, as they don’t want to share their unspoilt islands with too many people. It is like an undisclosed secret you feel guilty about keeping to yourself. If you have been there you are not sure you should tell anyone about it, but you feel you ought.

 

We have more in common with the Maltese than you might expect. We share a chequered history of colonialism and a recently acquired independence from the British. Malta gained its independence in 1964 and is now an independent republic within the British Commonwealth. The familiar red post boxes and phone boxes bring into focus the British influence on the islanders.

 

We both have exotic languages that are almost extinct, although you do feel the Maltese have more of a handle on preserving their ancient language, which is allegedly a dialect of that spoken by Jesus Christ himself. There is a touch of Romance about the modern tongue and you will often hear locals use Italian words like ciao. It won’t however be said in the affected manner you often here on Dublin streets.

 

Both Ireland and Malta are geographically misplaced. We should both be slap bang in the middle of the Northern Mediterranean, as it is there that we would sit nicely from a cultural perspective. Most of us Irish could certainly do without the vagaries of our typical unpredictable summer. Somewhere between Sardinia and Sicily between the Iberian Peninsula and Italy would do very nicely indeed for me. We could be friendly neighbours with the Maltese as they are a very civilized bunch.  There is no doubt though that we Irish have fared worse off with our misplacement than the Maltese, at least from a climate perspective. The Maltese don’t complain too much been stuck in the mid Med and just off the coast of Africa nowadays, but Malta has had many problems in the past because of the militarily strategic significance of its location.

 

Thee are remarkable similarities between our religious histories. We both are Roman Catholic countries with the vast majority of the population practising Catholics. You do think they are more serious about their religion though as there may be two or three large elaborate churches per small town. Just like the excess of pubs in Ireland you wonder how they get sufficient custom, but they obviously do.

 

Malta and Ireland were both converted to Catholicism by saints with the blessed ability to banish all poisonous snakes from the vicinity. Our own St Patrick may seem to have the upper hand over St Paul in that he allegedly banished all reptiles (although there is considerable debate in pubs up and down the country about whether frogs were banished by our own patron saint, as there have been frog bone findings at ancient Celtic sites). St Paul of course was one of the disciples and he was shipwrecked off the Maltese coast and rather than moan about his plight he immediately set about converting all those about him. Malta has a slightly higher percentage of Catholics than Ireland has with a priest in every family still being the norm, and it has avoided all of the recent controversy surrounding the church.

Valleta is the capital of Malta and it is the city of the knights and a world heritage city. The heroic Knights of St. John founded this grand walled city, which could be an elegant Neapolitan suburb. The Knights were originally formed in the 12-13th century to protect pilgrims who travelled from Italy to Jerusalem along one of the pilgrimage routes. When Jerusalem was taken over by the Muslims they headed off to Rhodes considered to be the best place to ambush passing Turks who were busy expanding their Ottoman empire at the time. After repeated attacks on Rhodes, the Knights were forced out and they were given Malta by the church because of their previous good deeds. They were not too impressed because the fortifications were poor compared to Rhodes and they didn’t think too much of the locals. But they got on with the business of building up impressive defences for the islands.

 

The rent they were charged for the island was two of the famous Maltese falcons per year. Unfortunately, the falcons are now all extinct thanks to the locals rather nasty habit of bird hunting. The Knights used to stay at extravagant inns called auberges and many are still intact. The Maltese cross is their symbol. White is the colour of purity and the four arms stand for justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance.  Although the Knights have this image of purity and they had various vows of abstinence from a variety of life’s pleasures, they were not always as pure as they were painted. They had special tunnels out onto the narrow streets of Valleta through which they used to dispatch their various mistresses if they got an unexpected visit from their Grand Master. Some of them also used to dress up as women and then try on their seduction tactics at midnight mass. During the great siege of 1565 the Knights showed their true colours. They protected the islands from invasion by the infidel Turks and were hailed as the saviours of Christendom, which led to Malta’s subsequent prosperity. St John’s Co-cathedral in Valleta is where most of the Knights are buried in elaborately adorned marble vaults under the floor.

 

In 1798 Napoleon dropped in and conquered Malta on his way to Egypt. He stayed just long enough to grab some of the local treasures, many of which ended deep under the sea after the Battle of Waterloo. Malta played a key role in the Second World War and it was bombed more by the Luftwaffe than London. In 1942, the islands suffered 154 consecutive days of blitz. So heroic were the Maltese in defence of their island that all of them were awarded the St. George’s Cross, which is the highest bravery award from the British crown.

 

The Maltese have been very clever in the planning of the conservation of their landscape. The local golden limestone rock that gave the island its Melita name (from Greek for land of honey) is so ubiquitous that it is used in the construction of almost everything. The newer buildings often have a slightly whiter hue, but with time and a year or two of wind erosion they almost blend into the landscape. Wickedly you might think of retiring on Malta and dropping one of those awful mock bungalows that ruin the most scenic of Irish landscapes just to get revenge on the Maltese for having such a favourable climate and such a beautiful place to live.

 

The locals have a real craftsmanship ethic that would put us to shame on another front. There is a real sense of preservation and maintenance of quality as twenty-year-old minis and British Leyland buses are kept in pristine condition. Traditional fishing boats, luzzu, are also lovingly maintained. The best place to see them is at Marsaxlokk on Malta and look out for the eye of Osiris on the front of the boat because that protects the fisherman from harm and wards off the evil eye.

 

Mdina was the old Maltese capital before the Knights arrived. It is a wonderfully medieval place and one of the treats of a trip to Malta would be to stay in one of the converted hotel palaces. Other highlights of the island are to take a small boat out from the harbour at Wied-iz-Zurrieq to see the blue grotto and a visit to the prehistoric site at Hagar Qim.

 

Although the national sport of Malta is a kind of horse carting held on Sundays, the locals are probably most passionate about football. They have however not been too successful on the international stage. We ourselves have in the past given them quite a drubbing. It is an idyllic place for watersports, particularly diving and if this is your thing than a trip out to the blue lagoon on Comino island is an absolute must.

 

Gozo is a sleepy agricultural island and not really for those who like to party all the time. It doesn’t wake too early and there is little sound, apart from birds chirping and the vegetable deliveryman beeping his horn, before the school children fill the streets with bustle. A Connemara dry stone waller would be in his element on Gozo, as they seem to have spent a lifetime constructing the walls around their terraced fields.

Some of the highlights of the island are the citadel and central market in Victoria (you might pick up a great souvenir in one of the antique shops down a narrow lane), the holy Ta’Pinu basilica (where the voice of the Virgin Mary was heard in 1883), Dwejra bay (with the azure window and fungus rock), and the impressive prehistoric Ggantjia ruins, which are the older than Stonehenge and the pyramids. According to legend the fungus rock is so named because of a very special fungus with therapeutic and aphrodisiac properties that was discovered by the Knights. They did not need to take any little blue pill.

Maltese food is wonderfully Mediterranean and the most pleasant way to escape from the midday sun is to sit on the canopied balcony of a restaurant overlooking some bay and have a long lunch. Some of the local specialties include lampuki (a kind of tuna) pie, rabbit stew with spaghetti (fenkata) and a Gozitan goat’s cheese (gbejna). A couple of glasses of the local red or white wines (named after Greek Gods) will set you up for an afternoon siesta or a stroll among the quiet medieval streets of one of the towns. The food is so delicious on Malta that, in a moment of inspired madness, you might find yourself taking back the lunch ingredients to try and recreate the atmosphere in your own back garden at home.

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