Malta interlude

The year was 2017 and, based in Zambia, we had travelled to Europe for the end-of-year holidays and had spent a lovely Christmas with the kids. They, however, all had different plans for New Year’s Eve and so Marina and I decided to break away for a few days, to somewhere different. Even after a relatively short time in Europe during December, we were already keen for a place with more sunshine, but not too far away. Off to Malta, which seemed to fit the bill.

Promising location for some December sunshine, while still in Europe

A search on Google reveals that “Malta is an archipelago in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast. It’s a nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers including the Romans, Moors, Knights of Saint John, French and British. It has numerous fortresses, megalithic temples…“, etc. Clearly a place worth visiting!

Naturally, we visited some of these historic sites, but I should also mention something even older: the rocks that form the islands of Malta and neighbouring Gozo and Comino themselves. The various layers of rock were deposited as seabed sediments over a period between 28 and 5 million years ago. The different conditions at the time resulted in sediments that include limestone, a blue-gray mudstone and a greenish sandstone. Faulting, tilting and uplifting of these layers have eventually brought them to the surface. The limestone has been used in most of the buildings on the island, going back to prehistoric times. If you want to know a little more about the geological history of the islands, Wikipedia has a very nice summary here.

I can’t remember what was so funny, maybe I fell over on the way back to this perch after setting the camera’s self-timer? Horizontal bedding visible in the cliffs behind them.

People first inhabited Malta some 5900BC, coming from Europe and Africa. Living in caves and open dwellings, they hunted but also farmed, depleting the soils within a few centuries. A second wave of immigrants arrived from Sicily around 3850BC and were somehow inspired to build a number of impressive temples. We visited one of these, Hagar Qim, located on the southwestern coast of Malta. It’s one of the oldest religious structures on our planet and it is quite frankly astonishing that it still exists today.

Part of the (partially reconstructed) temple, under the tent that was constructed to protect it from the elements.
More than 5,300 years ago, the builders constructed this impressive solar calendar. These days we don’t know what the time is if we don’t have our smartphone switched on…

Anyway, knowing when the sun was where did not prevent their civilization from collapsing and the islands were subsequently inhabited by Phoenicians, Romans and North African Arabs over the centuries, eventually forming part of the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1530, they were given to the Order of St. John (also known as the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller). More about their fascinating history here, but it is worthwhile visiting one of the earliest “hospitals” that they established on Malta: the Sacra Infermeria.

This model in the Sacra Infermeria in Valetta illustrates what life (and death…) might have looked like in what was then considered one of the best hospitals in Europe.

Valletta, the capital, is an interesting city. Lots of narrow alleys and steps, remnants of old fortifications, etc. I will let a few photographs do most of the talking, but by all means visit this website if you’d like to know more about the city’s attractions.

Parking (and driving) here clearly requires great skill (and planning)
Too pretty to not take a picture

Now, having seen all those old and glorious and picturesque buildings, I must say that our own accommodations were less impressive. We’d booked an AirBnB apartment in the suburb of St. Julian’s, near Spinola Bay. Very interesting surroundings, etc., but the apartment was … umm … not fantastic, to say the least. There were very large windows looking out onto building work and renovations that were taking place literally just a few metres away. The bathroom had no real outside window and the shower did not drain properly. And the place was COLD! We had a little electric heater going almost all the time. It didn’t help that we both had a bit of a cold that week.

A Room with a View
Many opportunities to experience “the good life” in restaurants near our apartment.

We didn’t rent a car and used public transport (or our feet) for travelling. This was much preferable to trying to negotiate the traffic ourselves with a rental car. The only problem was that at peak times there were just not enough buses. We sometimes had to see 2 or 3 full buses drive past the bus stop until there was one that would stop, offload some people, and replace them with us. (I’m sure you also know that feeling when you are not sure whether you should risk a quick walk to the next bus stop, hoping it might be less crowded there?) Even so, we managed to see quite a bit of Malta, including the sites mentioned above and also some lovely little harbour towns.

Colourful Marsaxlokk harbour, Malta’s picture postcard fishing village.
Marina can never avoid playing with cats, even bronze ones…
Getting around with a hop-on-hop-off bus. Good view from the top, no comment necessary about the weather :).

Malta (the country) also includes the islands of Comino and Gozo. The latter has a fortress and can be reached with a ferry. So, being the explorers that we are, we just had to go there. The bus ride from Spinola Bay to the ferry terminal at Marfa Bay was uneventful, but the ferry ride was windy and rough and bumpy enough for us to stay inside. This good decision was reinforced when we saw one gentleman on the foredeck outside being drenched by a wave.

The Citadella in Gozo is an impressive building providing a grand view over the island from the ramparts. We braved the cold winds up there to take in some of the views, and then retreated down into the building itself. Also called the Gran Castello, it contains an interesting museum, with exhibits on various trades and skills from years ago, but also of household and musical instruments.

Sound was produced by rubbing the goatskin on the reed, producing what one author called “a hoarse moaning sound which is peculiarly grateful to the uncultivated ears of the country people.” Political correctness was still far in the future. This exhibit indicates that there should have been similar instruments in South Africa and Zambia, but I have never encountered the “uncultivated country people” who are supposed to have used them.

After this dose of historical and cultural information, we took a walk through Victoria (the central town) and almost overdosed on a delicious local lunch. Suitably reinforced with pastizzi (and hot chocolate, I seem to remember), we started the return journey – the bus ride back to the ferry terminal and then another bumpy voyage back to Malta itself.

New Year’s Eve in Valletta was a bit underwhelming. We first wandered along the streets of the city along with thousands of other people, and as day turned into night, we could appreciate the various Christmas lights.

Crowds on the streets of Valletta, with a Christmas tree made our of glass balls.

Later in the evening, the bus terminal started to fill up and we had the brainwave to take a short ferry ride across the bay, so that we would be able to see the promised fireworks from across the water, after which we would be a few bus stops closer to our apartment. So, as 2017 turned into 2018, we watched the illuminated old buildings of Valletta from across the water, and then we saw some fireworks for about 3 minutes and that was that.

Not quite Great Zimbabwe, but some care went into giving this cairn a specific shape. Connected to the low walls in farmland, perhaps they serve or served as markers?
It seems that we are always walking somewhere… in this case, in perfect weather – cool and sunny.

So there you have it: some of the highlights of our short visit to Malta. If you have any interest in historical sites, in old churches and very old temples, in long walks or geology, then by all means go there, you’ll enjoy it. Just don’t expect fantastic fireworks at year end.

6 thoughts on “Malta interlude

  1. I had to chuckle at your plan to have a short holiday in the Sunny Mediterranean in winter…. We did the same in December 1973 in Rhodos: extremely cold and miserable but just like you we also had a great time as we also were thinking we were “explorers”. And for one day we rented a very damaged car and had a ball… Love the picture of Marina admiring the view in the Room with a View… Keep p the great stories!! Louis

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  2. Love it – and the commentary, as always. Hindsight can be cruel (but still funny) “Knowing when the sun was where didn’t prevent their civilization from collapsing”. We’ve thought about going to Malta, so this is a good guide as to when the sun is where in relation to us visiting 😀

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  3. Love it – and the commentary, as always. Hindsight can be cruel (but still funny) “Knowing when the sun was where hdidn’t prevent their civilization from collapsing”. We’ve thought about going to Malta, so this is a good guide as to when the sun is where in relation to us visiting 😀

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  4. Have never been to Malta, but it has a connection with New Zealand. During WW2 Malta was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force. Sir Keith Park, the New Zealander who commanded 11 Group of Fighter Command during 1940, and the battle of Britain was sent to Malta to organise the air defence. After that he became Air Force Commander of SE Asia and finally a city councilor in Auckland NZ, his home town.

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