It was our third trip to Malta – said to be the hottest part of the Med – and the first few days sent us variable weather, just like a UK Spring. After that, we got the sun and heat we both wanted and on went my shorts! I walked out with tanned arms and face complemented by white legs.
First trip we used the famed old Malta buses – they rattled and groaned and broke your back but were great fun. Windows were held in with sticky tape, seats bounced around because they weren’t fixed to anything, and there were holes in the floor! By our next visit in 2004, sadly, most of the old buses were upgraded and much of the fun had gone.
The next trip we hired a car – or at least that’s what they called it: a Maruti, which I had never heard of before, a kind of box half the size of a Mini that rattled and squeaked just like the ‘buses. I’m not too sure, but I think the handbrake worked…
On our first trip to Malta we saw why most tourists use the buses – there were maybe only half a dozen proper roads. The rest of the roads, as we discovered in very rough and noisy rides, were simply millions of holes joined together by little bits of tarmac or compacted soil!! We were tossed up and down and sideways amidst terrific noise, as dusty fourtrack jeeps, pre-war farmers’ trucks, and horses and traps, hurtled towards us on our side of the road! But, it was hilarious and highly enjoyable.
Almost every home has an icon on its walls near the front door, ranging from a flat plaque to full-size standing figures, many behind glass, with ‘burning’ electric candles. The figures covered a religious spectrum, from Mary to Christ on the cross to complex tableaux. In main towns such as Valletta and Mdina large religious figures stand raised on corners of buildings overlooking the streets. Full-size lit statues can also be found on remote rough roads set in farm walls and buildings.
In the Cathedral at Victoria, capital of Malta’s sister-island, Gozo, the décor is amazing. The building has about a dozen full-size tableaux of Christ, Mary, etc., complete with Roman soldiers. The colours are brilliant, and the reason people are ‘hooked’ by all the splendour is easy to see. One interesting figure of Mary has a silver dagger thrust into her chest to depict the grief of a mother who has lost a child.
Even the buses have small figurines, many in glass cases near the driver, which usually decorate the cab bus with religious depictions and texts. Some carry slogans like ‘Jesus loves me’ or ‘Jesus saves’. But, they didn’t stop drivers aiming their buses like missiles down roads designed to crush the limbs and spines of all with brittle bone disease! And driving around roundabouts was, well, life-threatening to say the least. Maybe that’s why locals cross themselves when they get off the bus – probably thankful they reach their destination alive!
Usually I attempt to try out a few words of a local language, but I couldn’t make head or tail of Maltese, which did not have a written form until the 1900’s. The language is Semitic and sounds more like Arabic than the usual Mediterranean tongues. So, on this trip I stuck to English, remembering a visit to Spain when I ordered 4 kilos of nuts in my ‘made-up’ Spanish, instead of the quarter pound I thought I had asked for!
For our entire holiday, folk were driving around every part of the island in long convoys in everything from battered trucks to cut-up cars with no insides except for a driver’s seat. They waved huge flags, some national and the rest EU (European Union), and played music loud enough to wake the dead! After a week we found out it was coming up to major elections and one party would take Malta into the EU. Unfortunately, the EU party won and the people were ecstatic about it…they will soon discover what membership really means!
We made a bit of an error the day after the election and decided to drive into Valetta after the evening meal in our hotel at Buggiba in the northeast. A nice stroll around the massive fortified walls next to the magnificent harbour would be relaxing. Oh boy!! We discovered our mistake too late. As we turned the bend of the hill leading up to central Valletta, we joined nose-to-tail traffic and nothing moving.
Both inward and outward main roads were jammed with every conceivable type of vehicle, all hooting their horns, playing loud music, and blasting hand-held gas-powered bull-horns. Flags were waved from every vehicle and building and people yelled jubilantly. Police just strolled between vehicles, having a smoke and waving back with jolly banter! The atmosphere was electric with fervour and good-natured celebration.
We sat and sat until it got dark as the whole island excitedly celebrated the outcome of the election. Slowly, police siphoned vehicles the wrong way around a huge roundabout near the city’s main bus station, but we were in the wrong lane and had to continue at a snail’s pace sandwiched between rumbling fourtracks made ten times bigger by jumbo-size wheels.
Eventually, remembering my youthful days driving in manic London, I forced my way across a stream of three lanes of traffic, aiming to get off the streets occupied by the most zany folk I had ever been deafened by. Because we were hemmed in by huge trucks, I didn’t know where we were until we rounded another bend. At last I saw we were near the wonderful Lascari War Rooms (the WW2 base used by U.S. and British leaders) set 300 feet under the absolutely awesome solid rock that is the foundation for the harbour fortifications.
I drove to the uncluttered road in front of St Elmo’s Fort and parked the car. The sounds of jubilation were fainter here. We decided to just stroll around until the parades died down. Hm!! We walked to central Valetta and were met in every street by thousands of joyous, friendly people; flag-waving crowds with a deafening cacophony of sound! But, unlike in the UK, here we felt safe, even amongst crowds in the dark, which is a tribute to the Maltese people. Getting nowhere, we walked back again through a maze of narrow back streets, taking some (many!) wrong turnings until we finally found the car again.
With few lights or signs to guide us, we just drove to…no idea…but we eventually suddenly found ourselves alongside the most brightly lit, tall hotel, one we had never seen on previous visits. As we drove past we looked up and realised it was an enormous ocean cruise ship!! So, at least we knew we were under the huge city fortifications, skirting the docks and moving west!
We continued on and took turnings away from the city centre to avoid the crowds. Trouble was, we also avoided any semblance of direction, going in circles, then zig-zags, in and out of the Three Cities opposite Valletta and eventually ending up near Luqa airport in the extreme south! Ah well…I turned around and headed for what I hoped was the coast road back north to Buggiba (we stayed on the edge of town, in St Paul’s Bay, where Paul was shipwrecked). We eventually made it, thanks to the law of averages rather than to my skill as a navigator.
The car was a boon, because we could go wherever we wished. Our eyes were fed by beautiful azure seas whose brilliant, sparkling colours included deep to light blue, greens and blacks. We could gaze to the bottom, it was so clear.
After taking the ferry to Gozo for the second time, and visiting the delightful capital city, Victoria, Diane and I headed for the coast and hiked around a short headland, brilliant white in the sun, to see a cave we spotted from the hill-top, close to salt-pans. I struggled onward manfully and when I looked back I thought “How unusual, Diane’s paddling in the sea!” I asked if she’d enjoyed it, and she grumbled and mumbled…one of those times a husband knows he has said something he shouldn’t have. It turned out she had slipped sideways down the rock and cut her feet in the rocky pool! Coincidentally, I had watched another (male) tourist do the same thing by the cave, moments before. I made suitable sympathetic sounds and then kept my mouth shut!!
On we noisily hurtled in our Maruti… In spring and summer, most of Malta is dusty and rocky, with roads that would make Tibetan mountain passes seem smooth and docile. The country areas, though contained on a small island, are ‘remote’ in the sense they are reached only by roads that are nothing more than dirt tracks with large holes.
Yet, even in the most remote parts, you suddenly come across these amazingly ornate large religious figures with burning candles, emblems of the overwhelming influence of Roman Catholicism. They are at the sides of roads, attached to houses, in the middle of fields with nothing else around. Many are set atop crumbling stone walls. There are cathedral-size churches in every town and village, built and funded by the locals in competition against other villages, and dwarfing surrounding houses. Convents are dotted around the island, in ordinary streets and houses. Churches display huge crosses, lit by fairy lights.
Apart from one or two larger towns, there are no shopping centres, or shopping malls and big stores. Shops are found almost by accident, down alleyways, in rooms of houses. Lots of fruit and vegetables are sold from barrows at the roadside, even in towns. Most of the subsistence farmers will go out of business by voting to join the EU. They don’t know it yet. They could only see the possibility of getting grants for joining but have yet to learn what it truly means – rising taxes which lower incomes and thus push up prices of goods, stifling laws and loss of sovereignty. I must admit to meddling by writing a letter pointing this out to a Malta newspaper. But when the votes were counted the pro-EU folk were ecstatic.
It is likely Malta will generally come out okay, but I guarantee holidays in Malta will become far more expensive once membership is finalised and they start to use the ‘Euro’ currency (they still use their own Lire, sometimes called ‘pounds’). Yet another nice place in the sun will come under the control of faceless Brussels.
So, get there now, before the pseudo-sophistication that comes with big money starts to reshape Malta. Then, maybe, your lasting impression, like mine, will be of a quaint community with all the charm of a rustic hideaway with all the safety of pre-war England.