Chapter 16

Malta

The end of the procession is less religious and more festiveA mere dot on the map of Europe, Malta has more to offer than might initially be suspected. Its vast natural harbor has made it of interest to any settler who may come by - and they have been coming since the Stone Age. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Knights of St. John, Napoleon and the British have all made their mark on the island and the present day Maltese speak a language that is mainly of Semitic origin but contains many borrowings from other languages. Due to the very recent influence of the British, English is spoken everywhere. Both Maltese and English are official languages.

On your first trip ashore you may be disappointed to see street decorations being taken down. Statues of saints and angels are dismantled and lights and banners stored away. Obviously some religious festival that is just over. Do not despair, just around the corner street decorations are being put up! Festivities go on the whole summer, each parish celebrating its saint for at least 3 days. There is not a weekend in Malta without at least one festival complete with procession and fireworks going on somewhere. The Maltese love celebrating and everybody can take part.

Entrance to one of the residences of the KnightsDuring the week you can take a look at the historical sights. Malta was very badly damaged during the Second World War. It was bombed so heavily that Valetta was 95% destroyed. In fact the islanders as a whole were awarded the George Medal for Civil Bravery. There are no signs of this devastation today. La Valetta is a beautiful town, built of the yellow limestone quarried nearby, that gives the buildings a warm color. The town goes back to John la Valette who was the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John when they came to Malta from Rhodes in 1565. It was his concept to build the town in straight parallel roads, that go up and down over the rocky peninsula. As you approach Valetta from the sea it is a splendid sight. Fortresses protect each of the branches of the harbor, and domes and church towers rise above the yellow stone buildings.

The Knights of St. John initially had their headquarters in Akko in present day Israel. They were forced to leave there at the end of the 13th century and after a brief period on Cyprus set up home on Rhodes. Fleeing before the Turks they came to Malta in 1524 and were given the island by the emperor Charles V in 1530. They were forced to defend Malta before they had even become properly established. This time they were able to maintain their position and shortly after they sailed to join the European allied forces against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This victory secured them the popularity of the remaining European nations and the riches that were invested in the building of La Valetta. The knights lived in national groups and the mansions built for each group now house various government departments.
 
Bus dating from 1940 Mdina Stone Age sculpture
Public transport on the island is by bus. The friendly climate of the islands has preserved many an old car and bus, and in 1989 the oldest bus still in service dated from 1940. Each driverís cab has a little madonna or saint behind glass in one corner. There are regular bus services to the other towns and so it is possible to visit the old walled town of Mdina that once was the capital of Malta or the various Stone Age temples that are older than Stonehenge. 

 

LuzzoMalta is not just one island. Comino and Gozo are also worth a visit. Comino has a nice anchorage for snorkeling and swimming in clear water: a pleasant place to relax from sightseeing. Gozo has some surprises in store. Here is the largest Stone Age temple Ggantija that is thought to date back to 3500 - 4000 BC. In Mgarr, where the harbor is, there is a magnificent Gothic cathedral. However it does not date from Gothic times but has been built in phases in this century and is not finally finished yet! It is a masterpiece of stonemasonry and will be splendid, and yet it is far too large for the parish it serves. In the harbor at Gozo you can take a close look at the Maltese fishing boats. Brilliantly colored, these boats have the name "Luzzo" which means light.

The locals claim that Gozo is the island of Ogygia where Odysseus met the nymph Calypso. Who knows? He stayed seven years and certainly 2 weeks are not enough to appreciate all that the islands of Malta have to offer.

© Dianne Reichart 1997

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