Malta - Andrew and Jacqui - 2003
Malta culturally is a mix of Europe and North Africa. Its strategic position in the heart of the Mediterranean has given it a long and interesting history, not least winning the George Cross from the British for the defence of the island during World War II.
The island's links with Britain have long made it a popular holiday destination for the British.
The capital is Valletta and is packed with historic buildings. Not to be missed is a trip to the smaller island of Gozo which sits to the north west of Malta island itself.
Malta - Andrew and Jacqui - 2003
Our trip to Malta did not start well. On arrival in Bugibba, a flyblown English-only type resort which we ended up in by booking a cheap trip, we were immediately accosted by a time share tout. He managed to catch us and take us to his office (on the promise of free bottles of wine) where we then spent a couple of hours trying to avoid being sold a timeshare in Malta and thank God we stuck by our guns, I cant think of anything worse than coming back to this island repeatedly one visit sees pretty much everything! We did manage to escape eventually, promising to return the next day to discuss matters further. We never did, naturally, and avoided the area of the mans office like the plague for the rest of the week.
Things improved a little the next day when we encountered our first example of the notorious Maltese Bus.
The buses on Malta are something to behold. Doors are more or less unknown, on some flooring is optional in places, seats are wooden and occasionally fixed firmly to the floor. The drivers are, to a man, insane, pitiless maniacs behind a wheel. To ride the buses on Malta is to take you life in your hands. Needless to say, it is an essential part of any visit!
Our bus took us to Valletta, the Maltese capital city.
Valletta is the highlight of any visit to Malta. Although not on the scale of Venice, Barcelona or even Naples, it is one of the great Mediterranean cities. Occupied since prehistory, much of what remains today dates to the medieval and Renaissance periods.
The buses drop you by the fountain immediately outside the city walls. Valletta is surrounded by fortifications and Malta is well known for its defence during World War II (when the whole island was granted the George Cross for Bravery).
To enter the city you must pass across a bridge over a deep dry moat before going through the City Gate. Immediately inside you are presented with a vista dominated by Our Lady of Victories on one side and Republic Street slowly descending away from you through the centre of the city. Republic Street, inevitably, leads to Republic Square and here with equal inevitability stand horse and carriages awaiting tourists.
We decided that a carriage ride would be quite fun, so boarded the one who bartered the best deal. We had agreed with him that we could jump on and off of the carriage at a few points and so we began to bump around the old streets of Valletta. Just as our bottoms were becoming numb from clattering over cobblestones, we pulled up near the Lower Barracca Gardens from where there is a great view across the Grand Harbour.
Just beyond is the Great Siege Bell Monument and it was here that our driver picked us up again and we began to trundle around to the end of the peninsula by Fort St. Elmo which was also as it happened where our carriage ride finished. Disappointingly the Fort was not open on our day in Valletta, so we walked instead around the northern edge of the fortifications past the French, English and German Curtains (as they are called) a series of walls that surround the seaward side of the city.
Beyond that we passed back through the town and found ourselves high up on the St. Johns Bastion which overlooks the City Gate. Surprisingly, we had walked around the whole of the old City in very little time.
Descending once again we sought out St. Johns Co-Cathedral from the outside a rather drab looking structure, but once inside every inch of available surface is covered in decoration. The most striking thing being the floor which his made up of a series of mosaic tableaux.
An attempted toilet stop gave us the information that there was no water to be had in Valletta today it was all used up(!). So there was to be no food here. Thirst was cured by the application of coca-cola, but hunger was still there. We bought some provisions and with a small prayer boarded the bus back to Bugibba. We were staying self-catering so that night I cooked dinner.
It is said that there are enough churches on Malta to allow you to visit a different one on every day of the year (this is actually a fact!). The following day we were booked on a guided tour on which we see a few of them.
The first, and the most famous, is the Dome Church in Mosta. Mosta is a nothing town aside from its huge church. Incredibly the Dome Church was built by the villagers of Mosta genuinely with their own hands over the space of about 27 years in the early 1800s. Bearing in mind it has the third largest unsupported dome in the world this is a remarkable feat. The church is said to be big enough to accommodate a thousand worshippers, in a town with a smaller population that is some achievement. In one of the small antechambers in the church stands the shell of the bomb which nearly destroyed all of this work in World War II.
Inside the Dome I fell foul, for the first time, of the Maltese reverence for their churches. I took a picture and was roundly told that I was a blaspheming philistine and if I so much as raised my camera again Id be out on my ear. Thus chastised we left the church and got back on the tour bus.
Our next port of call was the Malta Glass Factory near Mdina. Maltese glass is well known for its quality and robustness, so it was nice to visit. However, the tour was only marginal the demonstration only extended to one man heating up some glass and then you were packed off to the shop to browse and spend money. We spent a little but were not particularly impressed with this paucity of tour.
Our next stop, as the weather began to change for the worse, was a small cliffside chapel. Then it was on to Rabat one of several towns whose name gives away Maltas North African history. Once in Rabat the heavens opened and the water shortage in Valletta was abruptly cured.
The main thing to see in Rabat is the Church of St. Paul. This is St. Paul the Apostle who is said to have landed on Malta in 60 AD as a result of a shipwreck. He was on his way to Rome and only stayed around 30 days, but the seeds of Christianity were sown and have certainly blossomed here! Oddly enough, St. Luke, who recorded St. Pauls visit to Malta, is scarcely mentioned on the island for some reason.
Underneath St. Pauls church is the miniscule little cave where he is said to have lived during his stay. Although it seems very likely that St. Paul did visit Malta there doesnt seem to be any evidence for his living in this particular place.
We were already running late by the time the tour arrived at Mdina, the old capital of Malta. By now the weather conditions had deteriorated considerably and in the end we merely popped outside to a café to wait for the bus to return us home. We knew we were renting a car the next day and could easily return to Mdina.
In retrospect it wasnt really worth doing a guided tour on Malta. As long as you have a car nowhere on the island is very far from anywhere else. So if you dont mind playing avoid the potholes, we would recommend driving to tours.
The next day the sun was back or at least the heavy rain was gone so we drove our little car to Mdina.
Mdina is an ancient place, contained entirely within ancient city walls it was the capital of Malta until it was moved to Valletta by the Knights Hospitalliers. Entrance is through the main city gate (dodging any passing carriages)
Once inside the walls you enter an area of tiny twisting alleyways which together with the name of the place certainly give away its origins. This couldnt be much more like a North African/Arab casbah if it tried!
One major difference, this being Malta after all, is inevitably a church or in this case Cathedral slap bang in the centre of it all. Mdina Cathedral is another of Maltas more memorable churches and well worth a look around.
Mostly, though, Mdina is a place to wander around, browse in little shops and generally mooch. Its small size means you never really get lost and occasionally you will emerge to find places of interest or long views out across the central plain of the island. Mdina sits almost dead centre in Malta.
As you leave Mdina it is worth looking back and seeing it from afar. Then you really get a feeling for its fortified nature and commanding position. It was probably the most rewarding town to visit in Malta and we were glad that we hadnt rushed around it in the rain on the tour.
After a brief stop at the fortified Wignacourt Tower in St. Pauls Bay we headed to the far south of the island to the little fishing town of Marsaxlokk.
Marsaxlokk is one of the most picturesque towns on the island with a wide sweep of bay from the church at one side to the site of the first Malta airport at the far end.
Central to this is the fishing harbour where you get to see the best concentration of the luzzu fishing boats which have come to be the symbol of Malta. Painted brightly in yellow, blue and red with eyes painted onto the prows, these vessels bob and dance colourfully in the harbour against the blue sea and sky and certainly make for a lovely scene.
Add to this the little row of excellent fish restaurants along the waterside and you have the recipe for an excellent afternoons outing.
Leaving Marsaxlokk we made the slight error of not going back the way we had come in, but leaving by the coast road which passed the old airport and some rather rough looking barrack buildings. We then found ourselves in a bizarre hinterland of semi-abandoned houses and rusted detritus it felt more than ever like we were in some forsaken part of North Africa, the only life was the large dogs chasing after our car barking furiously. It was a relief when the car bumped out of this unpleasant area and out into the open countryside once again. It was quite a shock to see such squalor in Malta, especially so close to one of the islands nicest places.
A brief stop at Mgarr Church which also felt like it was in the middle of an abandoned town but at least wasnt full of stray dogs and it was back to the modern, neon version of civilisation that was Bugibba.
The day had been our best in Malta both Mdina and Marsaxlokk were very nice but the contrasting squalid areas and the dusty, potholed roads stopped us ever quite coming to love Malta.
1. The Tarxien Temples
The next day we had set aside to visit some of the ancient sites of Malta. Our first stop was on the outskirts of Valletta in an unlovely and forgotten suburb. When building work was started here the workers uncovered some ancient remains. These are known as the Tarxien Temples. They are said to date to around 3250 BC, making them amongst the oldest places of worship anywhere in Europe. One of the most famous finds here are the massive sculpture of female legs the top half has never been found which are the subject of many an amusing picture and postcard.
2. Hagar Qim
Across the island from here is the best preserved of the ancient sites on Malta Hagar Qim. This is a more elaborate series of temples dating to 3600 BC and is considered amongst the most ancient religious sites on Earth. The complex of temples is close to circular and within it are a series of chambers which are also circular.
There is a good deal to discover at Hagar Qim and its sheer age gives it a feeling of mystery and a great atmosphere.
Just 500 metres away, a short walk towards the sea, is the Mnajdra Temples. A relative stripling compared to Hagar Qim a mere 3000 years BC this complex is more open than its predecessor and, perhaps as a consequence, has suffered a little more from its exposed position.
The combination of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra as good as next to each other gives Malta one of the largest collections of pre-2500 BC structures in the world and was one of the biggest surprises of Malta which was not a place we were particularly expecting to see some of Europes most precious ancient monuments.
A short distance away, and our last stop of our last full day, is one of the planets many famous Blue Grottos. It seems every island worth its salt has a blue grotto somewhere. Malta, having been in the tourism business for some time, makes a big thing of its version.
So you drive down to the little quayside and get in a tiny boat (I went on my own as Jacqui didnt fancy it). The boat then chugs around the coast to a small sea cave which, due to the white sand and the odd way that the light tends to hit the water, appears to be filled with brilliant cobalt blue sea.
It was quite atmospheric, but the feeling was somewhat diluted by the fact that I was on one of about six boats bobbing around in the cave, so it didnt feel much like intrepid exploring. It was worth the trip, but if we hadnt already been close by for the ancient temples Im not sure it would have been worth seeking out the southern side of the island just to visit.
The next day was our last in Malta. In the morning we had time to head to Mellieha, on the narrow bit of land near the western end of the island and as close as we got to Gozo.
Mellieha has the remains of some old Roman beehives which we briefly looked in at before driving up to the plateau high above the town on which the rather fine church stands. This morning was very hot indeed, the hottest day wed had, and we spent a little while soaking in the rays by the church before heading off to our final destination.
This is the closest thing Malta has to an actual castle rather than a fortification the Red Fort. Properly known as Fort St. Agatha it was built as a defence against the Ottomans around 1648. As such it is a very late example of a high tower type fortification, by this time most others were low angle bastions of the type that surround Valletta.
The Red Fort has a commanding position, high above the northern end of Malta, and as such would have been strategically well placed to observe shipping passing along between Malta and Sicily. In the hot sunshine of this day it positively glowed red, against the deep blue sky and with the profusion of bushes around it gave me a great photograph in bold colours.
From here we drove straight to the airport where we left our car and off we went. We managed to not to get to Gozo, but otherwise we did Malta fair justice. Its not a place wed particularly hurry back to, nothing was especially wrong with it, but at the same time I cant see it repaying repeated visits with anything new.
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