Magnificent Malta

Valletta, Malta-2

“… Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone but unafraid in the centre of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness – a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.

Malta’s bright story of human fortitude and courage will be read by posterity with wonder and with gratitude through all the ages.

What was done in this island maintains the highest traditions of gallant men and women who from the beginning of time have lived and died to preserve civilization for all mankind.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 7th 1943.

Unlike Dad and Mike, I’m not a history buff, so I knew little of Malta’s turbulent history prior to our visit. Following a comfortable three-day passage from Greece we entered Marsamxett Harbour, one of two deep natural harbours that surrounded the Valletta peninsular. Through the darkness, defiant fortifications and embattlements set a powerful and provocative scene.

Situated part way between Europe and northern Africa, Malta’s position was long considered to hold strategic significance. Attracting great interest from powers of the various eras led to a chequered and tempestuous existence. The first defining event begun in the 16th century, when Malta became a stronghold for the gallant Order of the Knights of St John. The knights were noblemen from Europe’s aristocrat families and were entrusted with the duty of defending both the Christian faith and pilgrims, along with the Order’s precious land from the Turkish Ottomans. Behind massive fortified walls and bastions, they constructed the capital of Valletta. Their efforts included the Grand Master’s Palace and the baroque grandeur of St John’s Co-Cathedral, whose golden opulence and ornate artwork was concealed inside a solid yet simple exterior façade. The symbolic splayed cross of the Order of St John – visible on Malta’s bold red merchant flag – decorates buildings and sites throughout the country. The knights were moved on in 1798 when ousted by Napoleon. French rule was unpopular and short lived, with Malta moving under protection of the British Empire in 1800.

Again a strategic outpost during WWII – this time as an Allied naval base – Malta was repeatedly bombed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1942. With 3,000 air strikes it was one of the war’s most bombed sites. Much of the city was left in ruins and the people near-starvation. Also under attack, Allied relief with supplies, fuel and reinforcements finally reached the island by sea, fending off a German-Italian seizure. Later the people of Malta were collectively awarded the honourable George Cross for their bravery.

Growing up in Mackay, North Queensland, we were surrounded by surnames such as Vassallo, Borg, Deguara, Caruana, Falzon and Vella. Maltese workers indentured to the sugar cane industry began arriving in the 1880s, where they remained and eventually became the farm proprietors. In turn Mackay is said to have one of the largest concentrated Maltese populations outside Malta, with around 25% of the entire North QLD community believed to be of Maltese decent. In and around Valletta, familiar names from my childhood were scribed on the signs of family-owned businesses such as Galea Construction, Camilleri Butcher and Baretta’s Plumbing.

With permission from a slip yard on Manoel Island, we were grateful to pick up a permanent mooring, tying-up free for four nights near old-town Valletta. Travelling in a wide berth catamaran, we always avoid marinas – where the nightly cost is often more than a four or five star hotel room and its still BYO everything (e.g. bedding, bathroom, kitchen sink). From our mooring it was an easy dinghy ride across the harbour to explore Malta’s showpiece – the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valletta.

Towering above the steep one-way streets, Valletta’s signature limestone buildings were set hard against the footpaths. Peculiar narrow sunrooms, or enclosed wooden balconies, protruded from the second and third floors. From their tiny glass shutters, weathered faces peered down observing passers-by, cats sunned themselves and dogs craned their noses out, barking protectively. Valletta’s main boulevards, shops and squares were teeming with a stream of visitors. Stepping a few blocks either side we wandered empty streets where we couldn’t resist peering upwards at each building’s individual design or haphazard additions. As it was mid World Cup fever, flags from various nations hung from windows and the streets fell deathly quiet when neighbouring Italy was knocked out by Uruguay.

Carrying a new appreciation of the city’s long and colourful history, the grace and grandness of Valletta was overwhelming and an awe-inspiring city to amble and admire.

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St John’s Co-Cathedral was constructed in the 16th century by the Order of the Knights of St John. The church’s baroque-era grandeur, golden opulence and ornate artwork was concealed inside a solid yet simple exterior façade.

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The Grand Master’s Palace, pictured below, today serves as the seat of Maltese parliament. Attached is the city’s prized museum – the Palace Armoury. Often finishing one or two books a week, hubby Mike loves to read. Over the years, the vast majority of those have been religious-based fiction novels including the Templars and various courageous Crusades. The prospect of visiting the home of the Knights of St John and coming face-to-face with genuine knights’ armour brought years worth of stories to life.

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Across the Grand Harbour from Valletta, the fortified Three Cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea – where most locals took shelter during the WWII bombings – contained some of the city’s oldest surviving buildings. After exploring the architecture and quiet laneways of these neighbourhoods on foot, we later motored around the Grand Harbour for the seaside view.

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Fringed by rock, Malta offers few beaches. Most swimming in the crystal-clear Mediterranean occurs off the rocky outcrops with assistance from swim ladders, catwalks and plunge pools carved into the shoreline. A stone’s throw from gorgeous Valletta, tired-looking beach clubs or ‘lidos’ with pools and sun lounges lined the sprawling touristy suburbs along the north coast. For decades sunseeking holidaymakers have descended on the tiny nation, where hordes of package tourists and groups of late teen to 20-somethings fill mediocre seaside resorts. St Julian’s was a pleasant exception – a scenic bay filled with colourful bobbing fishing boats and some upmarket restaurants. Though I suggest not lingering long amongst the waterfront tour touts in Sliema, party town Paceville or St Paul’s Bay, or you may well be turned off – that is, unless that’s your holidaying cup of tea. As Malta was under British rule until 1964, English is spoken everywhere and the atmosphere has a distinctly British feel with many ex-pat retirees and tourists, cars driven on the left side of the road and power plugs also of the UK variety.

After falling in love with gracious Valletta and her adjacent Three Cities, we headed up the coast and away from the urban noise and tourist crowds. Anchoring in a secluded bay, we had to see the humour when at 10 pm a disco party boat anchored alongside us with lights, music and MC pumping until the wee morning hours. There was no escape!

Come the weekend, ocean-bound Malta’s love for boating was clear. Slowly making our way along the coast we were joined by a menagerie of dinghies, RIBs, tourist boats, motorboats, sailing yachts and high-powered cigarette-style boats gunning their engines as they skipped precariously across the white caps. We joined what must have been half Malta’s population at busy but picturesque Comino Island. Flat and barren, Comino is famous for its impossibly aqua ‘Blue Lagoon’. We anchored snuggled amongst rocky outcrops and other local boats. Swimming ashore to access the lagoon, we clambered over dozens of tourists sprawled across the terraced rock like a penguin rookery. Regardless of the crowds the aquamarine lagoon with its shallow sandy floor was a stunning setting to spend the afternoon.

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Malta is comprised of three islands that include mainland Malta, tiny Comino and to the northwest, sleepy Gozo. With significantly less tourists and package hotels, the change of pace on rural Gozo was staggering and perhaps a more accurate reflection of traditional life going about business. Compact and laidback, the island was easy to navigate and explore by hire car. We drove through deserted sand-coloured villages, visited 350-year-old working salt pans and admired the Dwejra area’s impressive natural assets – comprising the ‘inland sea’ (salt waterhole with 80 metre tunnel to the open ocean), Azure Window rock arch and the 15 metre deep Blue Hole that we’d later SCUBA dived.

At the head of a narrow emerald cove, the low-key resort town of Xlendi was a relaxing lunch stop to sample a traditional Maltese dish of stewed rabbit. Gozo, and all of Malta for that matter, was accented with massive Catholic churches. No exception was Basilica of Ta’Pinu at Gharb and Church of St John the Baptist that towered over the township of Xewkija. Whilst the landscape was also parched, the Gozoians had carved and cultivated crop patches and fields that added fertile splashes of greenery. Where our last taste of mainland Malta had been ageing tourist developments along the north coast, Gozo’s relaxed pace and lack of commercialism returned a positive departing impression of the resilient and remote European island gem.

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An undisputed highlight of our Malta visit was the SCUBA diving. Considered one of the Mediterranean’s finest regions for diving, visibility often exceeds 30 – 40 metres. Spoilt for choice – Malta, Comino and Gozo promotes more than 100 accessible dive sites. For technical divers haunting WWII ship and plane wrecks rest deep on the seafloor off Valletta. With a Bauer compressor, tanks and full dive gear on board, we are self-sufficient – given we can pinpoint the dive sites!

Anchored nearby, we dived on a scuttled patrol boat at Comino Island. Upright in 20 metres on a vast white sandy floor, the water clarity was flawless. Intentionally sunk, all engine hardware and wires had been removed and sections of the hull cutaway allowing for tight swim throughs and investigating. Next exploring Santa Maria Caves we traversed passages and natural arches whilst dodging pink jellyfish trapped in alcoves.

Impressive observed from the craggy limestone cliffs above, Gozo’s Blue Hole, Azure Window and tunnel leading to the inland sea was, from below, another world. Sunlight refracted down through the Blue Hole’s opening as we descended amongst a sea of legs attached to day-tripper swimmers. Exiting through a fissure at the bottom, we finned along towering rock walls and over boulders strewn below. Drifting away to over 50 metres, the seabed disappeared into the impossibly blue depths. Still relatively new to diving, my heart rate accelerated squeezing up a natural six-metre chimney lined with soft corals that opened into a sunlit coral garden and aquarium of inquisitive fish.

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This post geographically comes to you from the exquisite azure shores of Sardinia where extra special guests – sister Bree and brother-in-law Brett – have joined us for eight day and nights. Life is good!

Ciao for now!

Next stop - Italy!_

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