Text and photo:
Source: Croatian Traveller
The view from the sea of the magnificent stone walls of the Maltese capital of Valletta in the summer dusk, as the sun gently washes them with its orange rays, is truly an unforgettable experience for the lovers of true romance. Superbissima, “most proud”, as the people of La Valletta refer to their city with deep affection, with its lavish beauty, has been awe inspiring to all travelers in the past 445 years. The magnificent welcome to the city under the protection of UNESCO is only an introduction into the natural and cultural secrets that the Maltese islands reveal. Without any exaggeration, they are among the most beautiful ones in the Mediterranean.
Malta is located only 93 kilometers away from the Italian island of Sicily, and 360 kilometers from Libya. The Republic of Malta consists of seven little islands: Malta, Gozo, Comino, Cominotto, Filflu, Manoel and the island of St. Paul. The first three ones are also the biggest, and they are the only ones that are inhabited. Due to their attractive strategic location, the island was ruled by numerous powers: from Phoenicians and Romans in the ancient times, all the way to the British who recognized Malta’s independence in September 1964. It is therefore not surprising that the Maltese national anthem (L-Innu Malti) contains a line in which the people of Malta beg the Lord to preserve their beautiful country.
Christianity arrived to the island in 70AD with St. Paul the apostle. Malta today has 360 churches, and a population of 400,000, 98 percent of which are Roman Catholics. People of Malta thank their patron saint, St. Paul, with his statue on their entrance doors. On St. Paul’s day, the streets and churches are decorated with flowers and golden statues. The celebrations with fireworks and musical processions are an attraction to numerous tourists. The official languages of the island are Maltese and English.
The first inhabitants of the Maltese islands in 5200 BC were farmers from the nearby Sicily. The stone remains of megalithic temples are a proof of this early stage of civilization on Malta and Gozo. The oldest religious buildings in the world date back from 3500 BC, temple Hagar Qima and Mnajdra on Malta, and Ggantija on Gozo. Around 700 BC, the island was inhabited by Greeks, and a century later by Phoenicians. During the Punic Wars, the population of the Maltese state at the time submitted to Rome, and this gave them autonomy. The capital at that time was Mdina, still very well preserved to this day. When the Roman Empire divided into Western and Eastern Empire in the 4th century AD, Malta became a part of Byzantium.
Malta was taken as a spoil of war by the Arabs, whose influence of many hundreds of years is still felt today, especially in gastronomy and language. They took in during the wars with Byzantium in the 10th century. During their rule, the Arabs improved the irrigation system and planted new fruits and cotton. In 1091, the Norman liberators arrived, led by Roger I. As a thank you to the brave Maltese soldiers, he gave them a piece of his red and white flag, which became the foundation of today’s Maltese flag. Malta flourished during the Norman rule, especially in architecture. During the rule of Frederick I, the Muslims were exiled from the island, and Christians brought in.
Spanish king Charles V left the island in 1530 to the Knights of St. John to rule it forever. After they managed to break free from the Ottoman siege, the new capital of Valetta was built on the peninsula Scebberras on the north coast of Malta in 1566. It was named after its founder, Jean Parisotu de la Valetta. The walls are best seen from the traditional open horse carriage. Since the competition among the carriage drivers is huge, with a little bit of communications skills, you can enjoy an unforgettable tour of the city for some 20 euro. People of Malta love horses. Touring the islands, you will often meet the locals riding in their small carriages.
Before French emperor Napoleon arrived in 1798, several new towns were built, like Citta Rohan and Citta Hompesch. Although more than two hundred years have passed since then, the architecture has not changed much. The new buildings also strictly observe the sand hue of the façade. The swift victory over the Napoleon’s troops marked the beginning of the long rule of the British, the “liberators”.
The hate between the locals and the British culminated on 7 July 1919, when four protestors were killed. That day is now celebrated as a national holiday. In WWII, Malta bravely fought against the Germans. This bravery earned them the George Cross medal, which became an integral part of the Maltese flag. Numerous bombardments by the Germans greatly damaged three coastal towns: Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Sengle. The most beautiful view of these three cities comes from the palace of Auberge de Castille el Leon and the nearby Barrakka Park, next to the Memorial Monument.
Although Malta proclaimed its independence in 1964, according to its constitution, it was accountable to the British crown for another ten years, after which it became a republic within the Commonwealth. The British military left the island in 1979. Up until 2004, Malta was a member of the Non-aligned Movement, when it entered the European Union. In 2008, its national currency, the lira, was replaced by euro. The prices dropped steeply, so even those travelers traveling on the budget can visit the land of chivalric tradition.
Malta is a country with a mild climate and scarce precipitation. In the summer months, the temperatures can reach up to scorching 40 degrees Celsius. The best time to visit the island is early or late summer when it is not too hot, and the sea is warm enough for swimming. The southern side of the island of Malta is adorned by steep cliffs of unusual shapes, while the northern side is reserved for tourism, especially in the town of Sliema, best reached by a boat or bus. The chief transportation method in Malta is the yellow and orange bus service, that has been operating on the island since 1905. It is one of the chief tourist attractions.
The owners of beautiful oldtimer cars take care of their prized possessions. What makes them different are the wise words about life written on the back of their vehicles. Don’t be surprised if you miss several buses in the morning rush hour. They will stop only if you wave the driver down, and only if they are half full. Apart from the impressive palaces, the British colonists left them the culture of driving on the left-hand side of the road.
Since its surface area of 315 square kilometers is only a little bit bigger than the island of Brac, it is best to see Malta on a scooter. If you decide to head onto this adventure, pay good attention to the signposts, because you can very easily get lost. Also visit the blue cave that can be reached only by a boat, and the natural pool, called the St. Peter's Pool. Both these locations will be a treat for both the swimmers and the scuba divers. Don’t forget the visit to the towns in the hinterland like Rabata and Siggiewi, and the little ports where typical Maltese multicolored wooden fishing boats are anchored.
Apart from tourism, the Maltese economy also depends on international freighter shipping and artisans. The workshops in the small storage spaces along the roads remind of long lost times. The dry docks near the three towns are the place where ships from foreign shipyards, including Croatian, often end up. Lately, a great contribution to the economy comes from the movie industry. Several big budget movies are shot every year in Malta. For the needs of the movie Popeye, a complete village was built in one of the bays, and today it became a favorite tourist destination for the children. A typical Maltese souvenir is lace.
Malta is also well known for its night life. The clubs and bars in the town of St. Julian's guarantee you a night of fun until the early morning. The lovers of traditional music will enjoy a typical Maltese dinner, listening to Ghana, performed on guitar, played in turns by several people, mostly men. The lyrics of the songs are improvised.
The legend has it that Gozo, an island only 67 square kilometers, lured even Homer’s Ulysses on his voyages on the high seas. The famous hero could not resist the charm of the beautiful nymph Calypso, who promised him immortality in return for him staying on Ogigi (Gozo). The Greek gods decided that he should leave the island on a wooden raft filled with food, water and wine. Gozo is known even today for its broad gastronomical offer. Along with sheep cheese, salted or pickled capers, they also boast the production of aromatic honey, which is one of ingredients of the local beer Cisk. The Azure Window is the biggest attraction on Gozo.
The flavors in the Maltese cuisine were influenced by Sicily, Tunisia, Spain, France and Great Britain. The cuisine is based on vegetables and fish. Still, the most famous recipe of the islands is rabbit in red wine with capers. Numerous bakeries offer various pies with different fillings and Ross il-Forn, a dish made with rice and minced meat, baked with grated cheese. Authentic grapevine varieties include Girgentina white and Gellewza red. After a huge meal and a nice glass of wine, the favorite pastime of the people of Malta is their traditional sport – boulles.