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Malta 2010 PDF Printable Version E-mail

OUR MALTA EXPERIENCE in FEBRUARY 2010

Barry and Margaret Williamson
February 2010

See also the full account of the journey from Greece to Tunisia of which the visit to Malta was a part:  From Greece to Tunisia 2010.

For a full Gallery and Slide Show of images, click: Malta 2010 in Full Colour

Introduction: It was our first visit to the island of Malta, strategically poised in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, and we were surprised at how much we enjoyed our time cycling and exploring around Valletta, the tiny capital of the European Union's smallest member.

The peoplMalta_(50).JPGe of Malta are remarkably open and friendly. Their English is excellent although the majority speak their own language, Maltese, derived from long Arabic occupation but using the Latin alphabet and with Catholicism as the predominant religion. This makes for a fascinating and accessible mix of culture, history and architecture.

The currency is now the Euro, prices are comparatively low, the food is good and the winter is superbly mild (with hot dry summers).

Ferry from Sicily: We arrived in Valletta's Grand Harbour by sea at dusk, a wonderful experience. Virtu Ferries high speed passenger/vehicle catamaran, the 'Maria Dolores', runs once or twice a day (see www.virtuferries.com) from Pozzallo on Sicily's south coast. This splendid craft, built in Australia in 2006, covers theMalta_(100).JPG 54 miles in just 1.5 hours though it is subject to cMalta_(18).JPGancellation or delay in adverse weather.

We booked a '4-day special' return crossing (69 per person) at the ticket office in Pozzallo and took our bicycles over, leaving the Sprinter van behind on the harbour car park. There was no charge for parking or bicycle carriage. It's important to give a mobile phone number when booking - on the morning of our return we were phoned with the warning that the ferry would leave Valletta at 2 pm rather than 4.30 pm because a north-westerly gale was forecast.

Accommodation: In Pozzallo we found a comfortable little Bed & Breakfast a mile or so east of the town centre, Costa Iblea (www.costaiblea.com), whose helpful owner speaks English and has free WiFi. It's a short walk to an excellent wood-fired pizzeria, Capo Horn, for an evening meal. For campers, there's a somewhat run-down site called King's Reef on the coast road about 3 miles east of Pozzallo, behind a fading restaurant.

In Valletta we stayed at the British Hotel (www.britishhotel.com) on Battery Street, near the UpperMalta_(29).JPG Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the Grand Harbour. This family-run establishment 'built by gentlemen for gentlemen' is one of the oldest hotels in Valletta and something of an institution. Our fourth floor room Malta_(15).JPGhad a bird's eye view from its gallery window of the long flights of steps running behind the hotel - down which we had carried the bikes on arrival. The restaurant offered a panorama over the Grand Harbour: a magnificent backdrop to the buffet breakfast or an evening meal, with a menu including roast pork Sunday dinner.

For campers, there is just one official, well-run campsite in Malta, near the White Tower on Mellieha Bay in the northern corner of the island. (Thanks to our favourite Yorkshireman, Ian Shires, for this info.)

History: Inhabited since ancient times, the island was named Melita by the Romans, who came in 218 BC to a 'fertile abundant land, rich in olive groves, vines and figs'. Malta's Patron Saint Paul, shipwreckedMalta_(26).JPG here, brought Christianity in 58 AD. The Arabs made Mdina the island's capital until the Crusades, when Spain finally took control. In 1530 Charles V of Spain made a gift of Malta (along with Tripoli in North Africa) to the Knights of St John, who had been driven out of Rhodes by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent 8 years earlier. Under Grand Master La Valette, the Knights held out foMalta_(57).JPGr 4 months against the Great Siege of Malta by the Turks in 1565, subsequently building a new capital, Valletta. Even Napoleon occupied the island briefly before it came under British rule.

More recently, Malta's prolonged resistance to Mussolini's bombers and Hitler's Luftwaffe (1940-43), and its crucial role in keeping the Mediterranean open to Allied shipping, greatly facilitated the defeat of Italian and German forces in North Africa and the successful landings of American and British troops on the shores of southern Sicily, causing the immediate surrender of Italy. All this resulted in the award of the George Cross (Britain's highest civilian award) to the whole island.

There are many museums around Valletta covering Archaeology, the Great Siege and WW2;Malta_(72).JPG there are sightseeing buses and boat trips (www.visitmalta.com or www.exploremalta.com); or you can visit 'The Malta Experience' and pay for the whole interactive show. With limited time and money, we did none of these.

Our experience: Knowing something of the island's valiant history from a pair of excellent books - Ernle Bradford'sMalta_(82).JPG 'Siege: Malta 1940-1943' and the same author's 'The Siege of Malta 1565', his translation of the eye-witness account of Francisco Balbi - we wanted to explore Valletta and the perimeter of the Grand Harbour. The bicycles proved excellent for both, though we saw no other cyclists.

Valletta itself - a maze of churches, gardens, squares and tall gallery-windowed houses - was described by Sir Walter Scott in 1831 as 'the splendid town, quite like a dream' and it still leaves a deep impression. We shopped at the Sunday market (for British biscuits and chocolate, or Maltese lace?) and had a picnic on the rocks below Fort St Elmo, built by the Knights of St John in 1552, which played a vital part in the Turkish siege and gave rise to the eponymous Fire.

We were invited into the Roman Catholic cathedral by an elderly and kindly caretaker, who talked aMalta_(96).JPGbout the War when his wife was killed in the bombardment. We were welcomed into St Andrew's Church of Scotland to take coffee with the organist and his wife, Ann & Victor Downing, a couple who met in Malta 50 years ago (she navy, he army) and had chosen to return in retirement. As Victor came from Margaret's native Blackpool, there was much reminiscing!

On a 25-mile ride we cycled to the foot of the Grand Harbour through the old wharves (beware stray dogs!), then up through the '3 towns' of Cospicula, Senglea and Vittoriosa to Kalkara. HereMalta_(85).JPG Fort Rinella, built in 1878 to protect the British sea route to India, is home to the world's largest cannon: a 100-ton Armstrong gun which could send a one-ton shell for 8 miles.

During a lunch break in the gardens at Senglea, watching (and hearing) the noon-day gun fired from the Saluting Battery straight across the waters of the harbour, we learnt more history from a delightful 82-year-old English resident.Malta_(34).JPG A lifelong yachtswoman, she now lives in Senglea and still rides a 125 cc motorbike - the very essence of a Memsahib! The old dockyards and creeks stood in stark contrast to a new marina, but even at the upmarket Regatta Bar we only paid 0.70 each for a coffee.

Conclusion: Having discovered the charm of Valletta, we certainly hope to return to explore the remainder of Malta and the nearby islet of Gozo. Above all, we shall remember the warmth of everyone we met. Even a horse-drawn carriage driver, who knew we had our own transport saddled and ready, tookMalta_(76).JPG time to talk us through our proposed route and his life story. Had the Germans succeeded in 1943, he was sure that all the Maltese would have been exterminated.

The final words come from a friend and colleague of Barry's, Ian Farington, who has many happy memories of Valletta. His father was in the Royal Navy between the wars, on destroyers in the Mediterranean fleet, spending much shore time in Malta:

From my dad's reminiscences: 'Hello Jack; British Navy, best Navy in England; Queen Victoria, jolly fine bloke; come inside, singing and dancing sixpence a bottle.' I have had middle-aged Maltese coming up to me with tears in their eyes begging me to use my influence (?!) to make Malta a colony again.