Those of you with unnecessarily sharp eyes may have noticed an unfamiliar letter in the text of the previous installment. Thanks to the technology of the modern-day World Wide Web, the “H” with a line through it at the beginning of “Ħal Saflieni” renders perfectly. According to my guidebook, it’s pronounced like the “H” it resembles. And it’s just one of the foibles of the Maltese language. Maltese is unique in the world, in that although it’s a Semitic language – related to Hebrew and Arabic – it’s written in our familiar Roman alphabet, more or less.
There’s a sprinkling of Italian words too, rooted in Malta’s proximity to Sicily. And most Maltese speak English, a legacy of many decades of British rule – English rendered in a particularly delicate and rather beautiful accent, too.
Another relic of the mediterranean Raj: They drive on the wrong side of the street.
Aside from that, Malta is a great destination for English-speaking tourists. But despite the many fascinating things to see in this tiny country, among the tourists Americans are a minority. Most tourists seem to come from England and other European countries.
A few facts:
Malta is a member of the EU and uses the Euro.
The tap water is not considered drinkable; you must keep a supply of bottled water in your hotel room, and on your person too – it gets pretty hot here. Malta is south of Sicily, and south of Tunis. That means hot.
Meals aren’t cheap here, but there are superb restaurants, especially in Valletta.
Our very nice hotel, the Rocca Nettuno Suites, was quite inexpensive considering the accommodations. We had assumed that the word “Suites” was just marketing lingo. Wrong. Our very reasonably priced “room” turned out to be a huge two-room suite.
There was a pricey continental breakfast available in the restaurant, but that kind of breakfast isn’t adequate for a high-metabolism type like me, prepping for a long day of sightseeing in the hot sun, so we had to splurge for relatively expensive full English breakfasts at one of the outdoor restaurants along the strip by the water, just one block down the hill from the hotel.
Staying in Valletta itself would have been more costly. The Rocca Nettuno is in Sliema, one of the adjoining cities. (Square kilometer for square kilometer, Malta is the most built-up country in Europe.) Here’s a view from our window. The numbered bins on the lower right are for collecting rainwater, something you see on rooftops everywhere in Malta.
At the same time, anyone familiar with the history of the long conflict between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire could tell you that Malta has a great deal more than ancient ruins to interest tourists and history buffs. You’ve probably heard of the Knights of Malta. But do you know anything about them? You do? Then you know more than I did.
Centuries before World War Two there was another siege here, the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, a legendary one that burnished the reputation of the Knights for all time. Their buildings, their centuries-long governance of the island nation, and their culture remain everywhere apparent in Malta to this day, even though their 268-year reign ended with the coming of Napoleon at the close of the 18th century.
The Order of Malta still exists as a charitable organization, based in Rome and known officially as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. The name reflects their origins as a monastic order staffing a military hospital in Jerusalem in the early 12th century. Over the ensuing decades they evolved into a fighting unit and became celebrated in battles against Muslim forces.
After the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem the Knights found a new home on the Greek island of Rhodes. Here the Hospitallers were divided into the eight “tongues” reflecting the languages of the several European lands from which members hailed: Aragon, Auvergne, Castile and Portugal, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Provence. The original headquarters of these tongues, marked as such, still stand in Malta, where the Knights relocated in 1530 after the attacking force of Suleiman the Magnificent dislodged them from Rhodes.
After just barely hanging on to their new island home against another fierce attack by Suleiman in the Great Siege, whose 40,000 men tried and failed to dislodge 700 Knights and 8,000 soldiers, the Knights regrouped and built a more defensible new city. Today Valletta, named after Grand Master la Valette under whom the siege was withstood, is Malta’s bustling capital.
When you’re in a small island country, the surrounding water is everpresent in your mind. The water surrounding Malta is everpresent in movie shoots, too. Part of Captain Phillips was shot in the Mediterranean off Malta, for example.
Going back further in time, our day trip to the towns of Mdina and Rabat included a visit to the Roman Domus, whose well-preserved floor mosaics give a clue to the pleasures of villa life for one wealthy Roman family in the period from 125-75 BC.
“Rabat” means “suburb” in Arabic and it is in fact a suburb of Mdina, Malta’s ancient first capitol. The roots of the medieval walled city date back to Roman times and possibly even further, to Punic times, and it was Malta’s capitol until the Knights arrived in 1530 and decided they needed a coastal headquarters instead. Mdina remained important, but after suffering much damage in the 1693 earthquake (the same one we encountered so often in Sicily in the previous installments of this series), its fortunes declined and today it survives as something of a “living museum.”
Mdina and Rabat are inland towns, but that’s a relative term in a tiny island nation like Malta. No matter where you go, the sea is just a few kilometers away. Near here, too, is the former British military town of Mtarfa.
If you’re getting the impression we didn’t spend much of our week on lazy beach activities, you’re right. We did take the popular excursion to the Blue Grotto, on a scruffy little motorboat.
Malta is actually two main islands. The smaller, Gozo, is a short ferry ride away.
The number one reason for our day trip to Gozo was to see the ruins at Ggantija, described in the previous installment. But Gozo has other attractions, notably Victoria, a small, lively city defined by the fortified hill known as the Citadel, and the center of Gozitan life for at least 3,500 years.
Within you’ll find some interesting museums and narrow curving streets populated almost exclusively by tourists.
A walk around the Citadel atop the rampart walls gave us a view of multiple layers of history and a sense of the whole island. It’s really unlike any other walk in the world.
Back on Malta proper, our final adventure took us across the harbor, via a friendly and cheap water taxi, to the original capital, Birgu, also called Vittoriosa, one of the Three Cities that loop around the fingers of the harbor.
After a futile attempt to find the Malta at War Museum before it closed, we settled for a picturesque walk around the streets of Birgu, where the original homes (auberges) of the Tongues – the divisions by country origin of the Knights – still stand. The one in the following photo, marked by the sign, was the Auberge de Castile et Portugal. The photo also shows how nicely kept are the streets. I imagine nobody wants to upset the priest (the tiny figure in black at the end of the street).
It was getting late in the day. We stopped for a beer at a small cafe in the quiet town square and admired our surroundings.
On the way back to Valletta we almost got run over by a cruise ship. Fortunately, it was our only notable encounter with the cruise industry during our week in Malta.
Coming full circle to Malta Story, the World War II movie starring Alec Guinness that touched off my desire to visit Malta, I’ll close with a few images of Valletta’s memorials to the stalwart resistance of the Maltese to the torrential Axis bombing.
If you know me, you know I love parks. You could say I have something of an obsession with them. Everywhere I go, I seek them out. As we wandered towards the Saluting Battery, we came upon a lovely park.
Remember: If you go to Malta, drink bottled water. Drive on the left. And one more thing: Bring dirty laundry at your own risk. There’s no cheap way to wash clothes, no laundromats. Consider yourself warned. As for food, which I haven’t talked much about: Consult a guidebook or online sources to find the best restaurants, for the best restaurants in Malta are really, really good. Want to see more of Sicily and Malta? Start at the beginning! And thanks for reading.