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Six thousand years in Malta : Friday 22nd Feb 2002
The guide books describing Malta as a "desiccated" or "pretty flat with thin soil yielding very little flora or fauna". But, while the soil maybe thin and the terrain barren, the island is rich in history.
Malta, with its position astride Mediterranean trade routes, has long been an object of contention for so many nations. It has suffered a succession of foreign rulers and only in the last 30 years has it been governed by it's own people. With a history stretching back 6000 years (megaliths on the island date to 3800BC) this represents mere blip on the radar.
The English have long regarded Malta as a charming backwater in the Med where you can get a Guinness and a full English breakfast. This means that charter flights from London are plentiful, even in the depths of winter. As I sat in a crowded Heathrow terminal, I prayed fervently that Guinness and egg-and-chips wasn't all I was going to find in Malta.
We landed in darkness and were greeted by a drowsy tour rep, something we had not expected. He dropped us at our hotel and, over our protestations, promised to show up at lunch time, to give us some ideas on what to do. Early next morning we scampered down to catch the desultory hotel breakfast, less full English and more total disappointment. Still, the sun was shining and the narrow, crooked streets of Sliemma awaited.
There are three islands : Malta-the largest, Gozo-it's cousin and tiny Comino nestled between them. On the main isle (which is only 20km long) the major towns merge into a fairly continuous sprawl. From Sliemma we strolled down to the south side of the Marsamxett harbour, paid 15c, and caught an amiable blue-green ferry across the water to Valletta.
After several centuries of Arab rule, the nobility of Sicily (then a Spanish province) moved in and ruled Malta for 400 years.In 1530 however an the character of the island changed forever. The Crusades had been under way for 300 hundred years but the tide was turning in favour of a resurgent Ottoman Empire under Suleyman the Magnificent. In 1523 the Turks retook Rhodes from the Knights of St John and by 1529 had reached the gates of Vienna. The Knights, the original crusaders, wandered homeless until the Emperor of Spain gifted them the territory of Malta for the rent of two Maltese Falcons a year. In 1530 they arrived to set up camp.
Under the command of the veteran Grand Master, Jean de la Valette, the Knights set about fortifying the island. They didn't have long to wait. Suleyman saw the Knights as a thorn in the side of his ambitions for European domination. He despatched the entire Ottoman fleet to Malta with 40,000 troops to eradicate the Knights. After Malta would come Sicily, Italy and possibly France.
On Malta there were some 700 knights and 5000 other soldiers. Suleyman's generals predicted a siege of two weeks. The Siege of Malta lasted three months and cost 20,000 Turkish lives.
The Knights position was never more than tenuous and time and again they were saved by a desparate act of heroism. Ernle Bradford's book on the Siege describes the Turks throwing themselves repeatedly at a breach in the city walls only to be repulsed by a counter attack lead by de Valette himself, then 71 years old.
Another, more graphic passage relates how a tide of Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottoman army, counterattacked a sally by the Knights - "like the white crest of an ocean roller they burst and fell on the advancing ranks of Christians". The Janissaries were well trained professional soldiers drawn from all parts of the Ottoman empire. In battle they were resplendent in flowing cloaks and helmets capped with white heron crests.
Together with the naval battle at Lepanto, the siege ended the Ottoman's designs on Europe and the Knights were heralded as the saviours of Europe. After the siege, grateful European nobility heaped riches and honours upon the Knights and their fortune grew as their fame attracted lesser nobility from France, England, Germany and Spain. From the ashes of the former city grew a new, planned city named in honour of the man who had defeated the Turks, Grand Master Jean de la Valette.
The city is perfectly preserved. With the massive domes of four churches visible from the water and the bastion wall curling around the edge, the city reminded me of nothing less than Venice on a grander scale.
The interior of the city is beautifully rendered. The streets are narrow and tight and clustered with whitewashed five-story houses. The Knights, being men of God as well as militant fanatics, designed Valletta as a city of extraordinary beauty. They arranged the streets in an orderly lattice to bring refreshing breezes from the harbour and they insisted on smaller touches - like an icon or statue at the corner of each block. The city maybe a little grimier now but you can still see the spirit that makes Valletta a jewel of the Mediterranean.
Landing at a pier in Marsamxett, we walked up into town over steep cobbled roads. At the Republic Square in front of the Biblioteche, I felt like I'd walked into a Roman piazza. The square was jammed tight with mass of tables under clustered umbrellas, all sporting a clutch of cappucino sipping socialites.
From the square we walked up the hill towards the city gates and the upper Baraka gardens (I'm not sure if there's a connection but in Arabic, Baraka means a blessing passed from one person to the next). The gardens overlook the Grand Harbour and the site of the Great Siege of Malta. The gardens were originally forbidden but were eventually built by an Italian knight so that members of the order would have somewhere to relax and reflect.
From the gardens you can see the sweep of the Grand Harbour - from the mouth at Kalkara, past the fort at Vittoriosa where the knights won their victory, to the shallow waters of Floriana. To the left, the clutter of houses in Valletta cling to the hillside and spill in an untidy mess down to Fort St Elmo on the point. As the sun sets, the orange trees cast long shadows across the garden the little town begins to glow as if the sandstone walls were lit from within.
I was beginning to like Malta.
Hunger struck so we went in search of food.
In a covered market in the middle of town we bought some ham, local goats cheese, olives and bread for a handful of change. We perched on the city walls to dine and to feed the cats. The Maltese have a predilection for free roaming moggies and the streets of Valetta are full of them.
We met our tour guide back at the hotel at 12.30 for a "briefing". I don't normally associate with tour guides but he came with the package and he was a nice and knowledgable young man. He takled about the History of Malta for us and recommended a few locations, like Medina, to us.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in nearby St Julian's and snoozing by the sea. There we found a seaside restaurant which promised local specialities. I had unremarkable ravioli with ricotta and a local speciality called bragioli, a giant beef-olive (mince wrapped with fillet of beef and bacon). While both appealed on paper the execution was lacklustre.
The next day we hopped a bus to Medina.
The buses in Malta deserve special mention. Painted in cheery yellow and orange, most of them are thirty years old and are piloted by gruff, hairy Maltese men with forearms like Popeye. The arms are necessary because navigating the narrow, bumpy roads of Malta is akin to a professional wrestling. After forty minutes the bus creaked to a halt in Rabat, outside the walls of Medina, and the bus driver politely indicated with a thrust of his arm that we should alight.
If Valletta is beautifully preserved then Medina has been virtually untouched since 1530. When the Knights landed, the centre of power shifted from Medina to their new capital almost overnight. But the Sicilian and Maltese nobility refused to have anything to do with the new masters of Malta. Even during the Great Siege, the nobility in Medina barely stirred from their palazzo's.
Medina is another fortified town and sits high on a plateau in the centre of the island, surrounded by a deep moat. You take the narrow bridge from Rabat into the walled city and you enter another world. Teh houses in Medina are tall and narrow and loom over the small streets. The cobbles and sandstone are complemented by the dusky orange buildings and tiny architectural features, like elaborate bronze door-knockers and a procession of icons, saints and statues.
The view from the battlements encompasses most of Malta. From the west side you can see out across Mosta to the north coast and the islands of Comino and Gozo. To the right lies the built-up coastal strip of Sliemma, Valletta and the Cottonera. It is said that on a clear day you can see the shores of Sicily and the peak of Mt Etna.
Just in geography you can see the influence successive cultures have had on Malta. Marsaxlokk is a native Maltese name while Medina and Rabat are, respectively, the Arab words for "walled city" and "suburb". The Maltese language itself is complicated but contains a smattering from every culture that passed through the island. "Good evening" is "bonswa" while "sah'ha" means goodbye and "grazzi" means "thank you". It's likely that every time you buy a cup of coffee you're going to be linguistically circumnavigating the Mediterranean.
We only had a weekend on Malta and it was far too short.
I was delighted with Malta. The weather was delightful even in the depths of winter, the cities are beautiful, the people were pleasant and happy, the food was adequate and the place drips with history. I think I'd like to come back again in a thousand years and see how they're doing.