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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.
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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!
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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I’m closing my eyes and pretending I am back in Malta.
A destination like none other I have been to in all of my travels.
English-speaking, Turkish-influenced, Roman Catholic roots describe Malta in words, but no words can describe the terrain, the people or the feeling one gets of being far away from home in a place that is really just 60 miles south of Italy as a map goes. But it’s not the map or the location, right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, that will describe Malta. No, it’s the state of mind that is Malta.
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Tell three people you’re visiting Malta and at least two of them will say “Where or what is that,” and the other one will be jealous knowing the 7000 years of history that Malta boasts. It’s certain, if you want an out-of-the-way vacation where you are not likely to run into Uncle George or anyone from your neighborhood, then Malta is the perfect destination. With 1.2 million tourist per year, only 12,000 are Americans, a meager 1 percent.

For history buffs, it doesn’t get any better. For sun worshippers, there is always sun – it’s in the Mediterranean Sea. For day-trippers, you can do that too since the island is so close to Italy. On my own recent trip to the Maltese Islands; Malta, Gozo and Comino, I found breathtaking views and smiling, friendly locals.
With a hint of the cultures that have come before; Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Castillians, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, French and British there is much to discover as you enjoy the favorable climate and a carefree atmosphere that is just part of what makes Malta memorable.

First of all, historically, but more recently, Malta was awarded a medal of honor during World War II for resisting Nazi forces for two years. However, it goes must further back than that so to get the entire 7000 year history I stopped to watch a short film called “The Malta Experience.”
St. Elmo Bastions
Mediterranean Street
Valletta, VLT 06, Malta
(+356)212243776
www.themaltaexperience.com

Stone Temples

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From the stone temples dating back thousands of years, to the church where the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked eventually spending time on the island, to the rich history of the Knights of St. John, Malta’s culture is made even lovelier by the preservation. For example, Valletta is a World Heritage Site so buildings are not allowed to be torn down. Valletta was, in fact, the first planned city of Europe, built by Jean de La Vallete, the French Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John, following the great siege of 1565.

It is in Valletta that you will get a taste of the history, both majestic and humbling. The Palace of the Grand Masters is here, as well as St. John’s Co-Cathedral, which was constructed in the 1500’s. Flemish tapestries, church ornaments and several paintings by the artist Caravaggio are housed in the co-cathedral. Walk the streets of Valletta and discover St. Paul’s shipwreck church where you can see a bone relic of St. Paul.

Mdina, known as the silent city, is the old capital of Malta with medieval walls surrounding a city that is at once noble and dignified. While in Mdina don’t miss a moment at St. Paul’s Square and the Cathedral.

Prehistoric Temples
There are about 45 prehistoric temples that dot the island of Malta and Gozo and they are as mysterious as the people who built them. For thousands of years these monuments have stood as reminders of early man once living on the Maltese Islands.
On the south side of the island is the Hagar Qim, built to worship a fertility god or goddess. Legend is that infertile couples could not enter the temple because they were thought to be possessed with an evil spirit.
As I walked among the prehistoric temple in the late evening I imagined the sights and sound of an earlier time, a lifestyle forever forgotten, vanished with the first settlers.
The Hypogeum, dating back 5,000 years, is the largest underground religious site in the world. It covers about 5,000 square feet and descends over 36 feet underground, even dating back before the Egyptian pyramids of Giza. Another world heritage site, visit the Hypogeum and enjoy a trip back in time.

Flower Singozo
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From the island of Malta, it’s a must to take the ferry to the smaller island of Gozo for at least one night. The island of Gozo offers a different flavor and experience than the sister island of Malta. In part, this is due to the lush green hills and spectacular coastline. You don’t want to miss the Azure Window in Dwejra, Fungus Rock and the world’s oldest free-standing stone construction in Xaghra, the temples of Ggantija, built around 3500 BC and for shopping it’s the capital of Victoria.
Greek legend insists that it was Gozo where the nymph Calypso lured Odysseus keeping him there for seven years as her prisoner of love. You can see the cave where she was said to have lured him, and sun yourself below on the red sands of Ramla Bay.

The Knights of Malta
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No trip to Malta would be complete without a glimpse into the history of the Knights of Malta. While they are known to the world as the Knights of Malta, they are actually the Knights of St. John and their story begins in the 11th century. Both romantic and dangerous, the knights fought the Turkish invaders, improved trade and commerce on the island and brought hope to the sick and the poor living there.
It was finally Napoleon who ended the rule of the Knights of Malta after 268 years, but nevertheless the knight’s rich history on the island still exists today and will lure the romantic at heart into the victories and defeats during their rule of this land.

Getting There:
Start with Virgin Atlantic from your originating destination and fly into London. From London you can transfer to Air Malta.
Enough can’t be said about the services that Virgin Atlantic offers. With a friendly staff, good food as you fly to your destination and even an in-air massage in upper class there’s no other way to begin your trip.
Places to Stay:
Malta –
Radisson SAS Bay Point Resort Malta
St. George’s Bay
St. Julians, STJ 02 Malta
(+356) 21374894
www.islandshotel.com

The Xara Palace
Mdina
RBT 12
Malta
(+356) 21450560
www.xarapalace.com.mt
Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort and Spa
Triq Ir-Rokon
San Lawrenz
GRB 104 Gozo – Malta
(+356)2211 000
www.Kempinski-gozo.com

Places to Eat
SB Grotto Tavern
Parish Square,
Rabat
(+356) 21 455138/ 21 583214
sbgrotto@waldonet.net.mt

Grabiel Restaurant
1 Mifsud Bonnici Street,
Marsascala, Malta
(+356) 21616368

In Gozo don’t miss:

Chez Amand
Seafront Qbajjar Bay
Marsaforn, Gozo, Malta
(+356) 21561188
www.starwebmalta.com

Ta’Frenc
Marsalforn Road
Gozo, Malta
(+356) 553888