Magic Malta

Before you laugh at the title, just know it is the name of the main radio station in Malta!

Malta is one of the most population dense countries in Europe, at 1127 people per square km (NZ is 17 and UK is 263), and they must also be the friendliest people I’ve ever met! The woman in our B&B chatted to us over breakfast and gave us loads of advice about the country she is so passionate about, the bus drivers showed us where to go and wished us a great holiday, we were invited to come to a yoga class during the week by a man who saw us taking photos, and when a lady serving us ice cream found out we were from NZ she insisted we come meet a quarter Maori Maltese man who had never been to NZ!

The Barrow B&B, Tarxien

We spent our first morning visiting the Tarxien (pronounced Tar-shien) Temples – well, the parts of it that survived being ploughed by farmers when it was discovered in 1914. The first megalithic structure here was built around 3000 B.C., when prehistoric culture reached its peak. They were embellished with remarkable works of art; carved stone blocks with spiral designs and depictions of animals. They show goats, bulls, pigs and a ram, suggesting the prehistoric people reared these animals and used them as sacrificial offerings. Temple culture mysteriously ended during the Bronze Age (2500 B.C.) – no one knows if the people died out, were invaded or just left. But they were replaced by various Mediterranean peoples, and the chambers of the temples then became a cemetery and were used for funerary purposes.

Tarxien Temples

After our visit, we took a bus to the port side of the country and walked along the coast to a gorgeous colourful town called Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock) where we had a delicious Maltese pizza for lunch then had our first dip in the Meditteranean. The Maltese pizza had peppered cheeselets made from sheep cheese, Maltese sausage, capers and caponata (a Sicilian vegetable stew made from aubergines).

photo-28

We had a brief stop in the capital Valletta then a slow and painful bus journey to Qawra (silent Q) – a town described to us as the Blackpool of Malta, but unfortunately it was where our apartment was. There was a brief mix up at check in, but the ever friendly staff cheerfully stated they would just take us home with them if they didn’t have a room!! Luckily it didn’t come to that, and we found ourselves in an apartment with a sun room and balcony, about three times the size of our Brighton abode.

photo-29

Saturday we started with a session at the 80s style gym, then we tried and failed to find a vegetable market in Ta Qain. We walked below the medieval town of Mdina with stunning views looking up at it, so decided to give it a visit.

Mdina

It is nicknamed the ‘Silent City’; a walled town with a very long history. We watched a short film about the city and learned a lot. Malta was once connected by land to Sicily, until the end of an ice age when the ice melted and the sea rose, turning it into an island. Human culture began on Malta when Neolithic men from Sicily sailed over on primitive boats around 5200 B.C. At this time the islands would have been covered in lush forest, and they lived in caves and hunted wild deer, wolves and bears. Around 3000 B.C. they began building what are now some of the worlds oldest temples. In 750 B.C. the Phoenician traders – supreme ship builders known as the worlds greatest and bravest sailors – settled there and brought with them new luxuries such as silk. They named the island Maleth, which means ‘shelter’, and grew mainly carob and olives. Centuries later in 218 B.C. they relinquished these islands  to the Romans during the second Punic War, and the country prospered. The Islands became a free municipium and started to be mentioned in written records.  During this time the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on the island as written in the bible and brought Christianity to Malta, which changed the nation.

After the division of the Roman empire at the end of the 4th century, the Maltese Islands were left almost in obscurity until North African Moors arrived in AD870. In their expansion of Islam the Moors had already taken Spain and Italy and came from Sicily to conquer. They found the Roman design of Mdina easy to defeat, so they knocked it down and rebuilt the city with a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets that were easier to defend. They also left their mark in the Maltese language, introduced new crops, including cotton and citrus fruits, and agricultural  irragational systems. The distinctive terraced fields that are all over the island come from ancient Arab methods. Many delicacies of today’s Maltese cooking owe their origins to Arabic imports – figs, almond, sweet pastries and spices.

Mdina

Arab rule on Malta came to an end after a long battle with the Normans who crossed from Sicily. Count Roger conquered the Maltese Islands for the Normans in around 1090. Tradition tells us that he ripped up his red and white chequered flag and gave it to the Maltese people – the origins of their flag today.

The Middle Ages were a time of poverty; there were frequent raids from North Africa and Turkey, the Maltese people were taken off for slavery, the islands passed through the hands of many different European royalty and nobility: German princes, French aristocrats and more. Under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V the Islands became part of the Spanish Empire. He granted the Islands to the Knights of the Order of St. John.

By now, Malta was used to invasion and for years they were under constant threat from the Ottoman Turks. In May 1565, a huge Ottoman fleet of 40,000 men lay siege to the Islands. The Knights were heavily outnumbered with only 700 men and around 8000 Maltese troops. The Islanders took refuge in the fortified towns of Mdina and Vittoriosa destroying crops and poisoning wells as they fled. The Turks had estimated they would take over the island in 5 days, but it did not work out this way. They had heard Mdina was easy to conquer, but due to some clever tactics by the Maltese – dressing up women and children as soldiers so their army appeared larger than ever – they gave up on that idea. The mighty army went home with 30,000 losses, which seriously diminished the power of the mighty Ottomans.

The French arrived in 1798, Napoleon keen to control the massive fortifications and harbours of Malta. They tried to write some new laws to give extra power to French Lords in Malta, but the Maltese didn’t like this new threat to their traditions and they revolted. The British were called in  to help, and Lord Nelson used a blockade around the harbour to starve out the French. Thus began 160 years of British rule. Because the island is such a strategic stronghold in the Mediterranean, it was heavily bombed throughout World War 2. Malta received the George Cross in 1942, and it can now be seen on the top left of the Maltese flag.

IMG_1645

Later that evening we walked around to a very lively area in St Paul’s Bay and had dinner in a cosy local restaurant serving some local dishes. I had a dish called Ross Al ‘Forn, a rice dish mixed with Bolognese sauce and béchamel and baked in the oven. Heavy on the carbs, but very yum! We watched the last half of Holland against Costa Rica, then headed home about 1am.

Sunday morning is market day in nearly every country I’ve been to, Malta no exception. We took an excruciatingly long bus ride to Marsaxlokk where there is a famous fish market and bought lots of fruit and some of the famous Malta honey. We had a lunch of some freshly caught fish, then made our way to a little beach for a swim.

Marsaxlokk market

Monday we had booked a boat trip to Comino and Gozo. We sailed past St. Paul’s island where he was supposedly shipwrecked, and into a stunning area called the Crystal Lagoon. We went snorkelling and swimming in the sea caves. It was unbelievable how clear and blue the water was! We had another brief swim at the Blue Lagoon at Comino, before sailing over to Gozo.

IMG_1643 IMG_1642

Gozo is a three-hilled island, which has a similar history to the main island. The three main industries are farming, fishing and tourists! We went to see the The Azure Window, a natural rock arch with a beautiful swimming spot beneath it.

Azure Window, Gozo

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the Ġgantija temples – they are considered the oldest surviving, free-standing monuments in the world. They predate the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and Stonehenge in southern Britain by around 1000 years! We visited The National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’Pinu, located on the edge of a cliff that allows a great view of the island.

IMG_1621

Next we spent some time in capital Rabat, renamed Victoria in 1897 on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. We tasted some local cheese and sausage, and some honey, liqueurs and nougat. I wish I had more room in my luggage!

IMG_1622

Tuesday we relaxed and took it easy, lazing by the pool and checking out some other nearby swim spots. The beaches aren’t sandy, mostly rocks. But the water is crystal clear, and the perfect swimming temperature.

IMG_1620

Wednesday we went to Valletta early in the morning, where we had booked a private walking tour. Our tour guide Nick was amazing, giving a ‘real’ tour of the city and teaching us how to tell the history of a building just by looking at it. He gave us a brief history lesson while standing over the Grand Harbour of Valletta, the location of the Great Siege. When we heard the history of Mdina on Sunday, I had wondered why we didn’t hear much about Valletta. Well, it turns out that was because it didn’t exist yet!

Grand Harbour, Valletta

Valletta was built during the rule of the Knights of St. John shortly after the Great Siege from the Ottomans – which apparently could be heard all the way in Sicily! The Knights demanded to be given money to build a great fortress; they must have been terrified of a repeat invasion. The city was built by 12,000 men in the just 5 years! It was named after Jean Parisot de la Valette; the official name was ‘Humilissima Civitas Valletta’ which means The Most Humble City of Valletta. It is now a World Heritage site and has been selected as the European City of Culture for 2018.

For fifty years the city was a simple fort, then the Knights and the Grand Master started to knock down the plain shacks and build much grander and elaborate buildings. The ruling houses of Europe gave it a new nickname; Superbissima – which means Most Proud. One example of their pride is in the facade of the Auberge de Castile, in the photo below. The original, plain building was knocked down, and they built the new barracks which housed the langue of Castille, León and Portugal. From 1800 it was the headquarters of the British army in Malta and now houses the office of the Prime Minister of Malta. The bust in the centre is the Grand Master himself, and he is surrounded by the weapons of defeated enemies, and theatre curtains frame the whole thing.

Auberge de Castille

After the tour we took a short and very cheap boat trip over to the fishing villages and had lunch over the in one of the fortified Three Cities. We had a fantastic view of Valletta, and even jumped when the cannon went off at exactly midday, a long-standing tradition that allowed the ships to keep time.

View of Valletta

Back in Valletta we visited the St John Co-Cathedral. Named after St John, it was built in 1573 all from local limestone, and finished in 1577. As with the other buildings in Valletta it was plain and ordinary on the inside until the 17th century. Now the church is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals.

Interior of Cathedral

The marble floor is made of many tombstones for some of the most illustrious knights. Each tombstone is coloured with unique designs that represent the end of life on earth. The ceiling is oil based, and depicts the life of St John. In a side room there are two great works from Caravaggio, who spent time in Malta on the run from Rome for killing a man. He was inducted here as a knight, but shortly afterwards was involved in another brawl, arrested by the knights before he escaped to Sicily. His life was tumultuous, but his paintings were incredible. Now they are worth millions.

Marble Tombstone Floor

That night we went to a slightly fancier restaurant where I had mushrooms stuffed with ricotta, Alex had the most delicious duck served on plums and onions. I had freshly caught tuna – probably from one of the many tuna farms scattered around the islands.

On Thursday we hired a car – it was only €30 for the day. After taking some very narrow and dodgy roads we made it to the Blue Grotto, a picturesque cavern in amongst a network of caves, where we took a boat trip to see the brilliant colours underwater and the amazing blue colour of the sea. Next we visited Peter’s Pool, very difficult to get to, but a beautiful swimming spot.

Peter's Pool

On the other side of the island, we checked out the Dingli cliffs, which apparently are more impressive if you view them from the sea. We visited the Mosta Dome – built in the 19th century and the third largest unsupported dome in the world. It was just as impressive on the inside, but we were only allowed 5 minutes because there was a funeral procession on the way.

photo 2

Our last night in Malta I had a very delicious dinner of bragioli, a traditional Maltese dish otherwise known as Beef Olives. It’s simply beef mince with bacon, garlic and parsley all stuffed inside good quality beef pounded thin. The bragioli are then garnished with sautéed onions, carrot and bay leaves, and slowly braised in red wine. Mmmmmm.

Top tips for Malta
– make sure you spend time talking to the locals; they are some of the friendliest people I’ve met and love to tell you about their country
– a car is a lot quicker to get around and parking is easy; although the buses go most places and are very cheap. It’s a small island but it takes a long time to get anywhere. Take a couple of days to do all the site seeing you want, then you can relax!
– go to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk and have a cheap meal of fresh fish. It was definitely the cheapest part of the island. I would recommend Cafe de Paris. We had a seafood pizza, two beers, two almond pies and two espresso for under €10!
– get a walking tour of Valletta so you can really get to know the city. I highly recommend Nick from Foundinmalta Guided Tours – nripard@go.net.mt
– take a cheap boat from Valletta to the fishing villages (or the other way), it’s only €2.80 return, and the view of the city is easily worth it