I left snow-bound Montreal one February evening on Swissair, headed for Zurich and then onward to a reputedly warm and sunny but unfamiliar land. Two hours beyond Zurich I was getting apprehensive, having seen little but snow-covered mountains – French, Austrian, Swiss and Italian – stretching as far as the eye could see. So it was with profound relief that I finally spied three tiny dots of land in the middle of the Mediterranean which, as we descended to land revealed the walled fortress city of Valletta, and other places of potential interest. I would spend two weeks in the island nation of Malta, generally unknown on this side of the Atlantic, in spite of its supreme importance in the history of western civilization.
Malta is an island nation, an independent republic within the British Commonwealth. It’s located mid-way between Sicily and Africa, sort of like a couple of pebbles that have been kicked there by the Italian "boot". Its mild winter climate, good infrastructure, unpretentious people and tranquil life-style are reasons why it’s long been a popular vacation spot for the British and other northern Europeans. It is only now beginning to be discovered by North Americans, who can reach it easily through Swissair, British Airways, or Alitalia.
A Preliminary Snapshot
There are three, quite different islands: rocky, rugged and historic Malta; tiny, green fertile Gozo; and minuscule sandy Comino. Malta is about the size of Martha’s Vineyard or the Isle of Wight, and all three together could fit into Montreal Island. The total population is similar to Calgary or Albuquerque, but there are many more expatriates living in Australia and North America. Everyone speaks English as well as Malti.
I was initially attracted by Malta’s incredibly rich history. Located at roughly the geographic centre of the Mediterranean, it has been of great strategic importance to both colonizers and armies for two millennia. It has played key roles in every European military operation and religious movement from Roman times to World War II, and though it has often been occupied, it has never been subjugated.
It’s safe to say that no other country of comparable size offers such a kaleidoscope of historical artifacts and vestiges of past struggles. While every era is represented as far back as 4,000 BC, the places of greatest interest to most modern travellers go back "only" about 500 years. No wonder I was looking forward to a new and exciting experience.
I must confess that history and climate weren’t the only attractions. There are several convenient hotels in Valletta’s suburbs, and unlike most tourist destinations they charge only a tiny singles supplement, so they’re quite affordable. The single rate at the three-star Sliema Chalet included my air fare to and from Montreal, room and two daily meals for C$1,650 (about US$1,100). On top of that, the staff was friendly and helpful, and their home-cooked meals were excellent.
Malta is incredibly easy to visit. Although it’s rocky, it’s almost entirely flat, so hiking is a breeze. Buses (pre-WWII "historic monuments on wheels") go everywhere for 7 Maltese cents locally, or 11 cents between towns. A regular and inexpensive ferry service connects Malta with Gozo.
The Maltese are law-abiding, tenacious, friendly, independent, genuinely pious, and family-oriented. (Entire families regularly stroll along the waterfront walkways in the evening). They appear to be almost entirely middle-class, hard-working unspoiled people, with a kindly attitude toward visitors, but no tolerance at all for drugs, crime, pornography, juvenile delinquency or the vices one finds in most tourist destinations – but which are virtually non-existent there. Most of all, they are fiercely proud of their heritage, a history of absorbing and incorporating wave after wave of occupiers, while maintaining their own unique identity.
Over the centuries their language, Malti, has borrowed influences and vocabulary from Arabic and many European languages, so that it’s a hybrid unlike any other. For example, although the country is devoutly Roman Catholic, you’ll often hear "Allah" mentioned in conversations, since this is the widely-used word for "God". There’s no need to worry, though: everyone speaks English, and it is a popular place for Northern Europeans to take ESL classes. Because of the proximity to Sicily many Maltese also speak Italian.
Towns & Employment
When the Knights arrived, the capital was the tiny walled Mdina, today known as "the silent city" because vehicles aren’t allowed. After finally repulsing the Turks almost 450 years ago, they set out to build the present capital, Valletta, as a planned city and an impregnable fortress. Today it is a modern but quiet small town, filled with shops, government and other offices, museums, Parliament, a small park here and there, and the battle-scarred imposing Fort St Elmo, which is now the police academy and a popular movie set. You can easily do a one-day walking tour of the entire city to orient yourself.
Tourism is the main source of livelihood for many Maltese, particularly in smaller towns and resorts along the coast north of Valletta. A major employer in suburban Senglea is the dry-dock, one of the world’s largest. Outside the capital fishing is important, and the village of Marsaxlokk is famous for its luzzu boats, with eyes painted on the bows to watch for dangers and sea monsters. On Gozo agriculture and handicrafts are the main activity, while Comino is visited only by day, for its sandy beaches.
A quick tour around Valletta and suburban Sliema made it clear that I wouldn’t be lacking for things to see and do. In two weeks of perfect shirt-sleeves weather I didn’t manage to visit all the spots of interest, but did see quite a few, and they were very impressive. There’s far too much to put into one article, so this is just the start of a short series.