Travel: Malta – May 2012

What an amazing place.  I’ve been trying to get to Malta for years – since around 2003 – but for one reason or another it never worked out.  Now that I’ve been I’ll definitely be going back. A tiny island 18 miles long by 9 miles wide with 7,000 years of human history crammed down on top of it in compressed layers.  I had no idea how potent the history of the country is, and how vital a role it has played in so much history involving Europe and the Middle East since time immemorial – occupying a central position in the heart of the Mediterranean sea.  It may as well be a floating fortress. A staging post for armies throughout history.  From neolithic settlers who arrived 7,000 years ago from Sicily, to the Phoenicians with their “imperial” purple dye (20,000 Murex shells were needed for 1 gram of dye) and the Romans – with their Punic wars – and then the Muslims, the Knights of St John, the Normans, the French with Napoleon treating the Christian island like his own penny jar to raid to fund the campaign in Egypt, and then Nelson and the British.

In general, the Maltese people are wonderfully friendly, hospitable and respectful.  They go out of their way to make sure you’re having a lovely time and the price of things is reasonable, rather than being a tourist rip-off accompanied by cynical service.   If you’ve not been to Malta before then I can’t recommend the place highly enough.

Day One

A four A.M. start to get to East-Midlands airport (good little place). Left freezing wind and rain behind to land in 28 degrees centigrade and golden sunlight.  We used St Julian’s as a base of operations.  A lot of people say avoid St Julian’s because there’s a large contingent of English-style football pubs, young lads racing around in suped-up cars and that bare-chests and tattoos vibe going on; it’s actually the only part of Malta you’ll find Spanish / Canary Island style oiks; but this tends to be focussed around the small sandy beach and the warren of taverns north and west of the Casino. If you head south, onto the main drag leading towards Sliema and Valetta, the atmosphere lightens and the quality of people are smarter and more convivial.

Graffiti from St Julians Malta

Graffiti from St Julians

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So contrary to what a lot of folks say, St Julian’s makes a great place to use as a base because it has an inordinate choice of bars and eating houses, easy access to the sea – and our hotel, situated on the coast with a swimming pool and sun deck on the roof, was surrounded on two sides by the glittering blue waters of the Med.

Traffic around Valletta, Sliema and the 3 Cities is diabolical, so placing ourselves in St Julian we were able to hop around the island – and get to Gozo – with minimal fuss.

To stay in Sliema is expensive; Valletta has very few places that give you the ability to spend evenings gazing at the sea and is very crowded; Gozo Island is adorably quiet and rural but suffers from a lack of choice.

A full moon over mediterranean sea - Malta

A full moon over mediterranean sea – Malta

My lady and I took a stroll down to the Casino on the first night. Incredible view of the moon hanging in the quickly darkening sky.  Be warned, the Casino makes cocktails strong enough to knock out a rhino.

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Day Two

Oj and I started early. Breakfast at 7 a.m. and then out the hotel and heading north by bus to the ferry port and across to Gozo – only 30 minutes and cheap as chips.  On Gozo we headed west to the Azure Window.

Malta - Gozo - Azure Window - boat ride through cave

One of the boats emerging at end of trip

You can view the Azure Window from land and by sea. Head down a small dirt track and you’ll find a bunch of blokes willing to take you out on their boat for 2 euros.

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Malta - Gozo - Azure Window - boat ride through caves

Coming out of caves into open sea

There’s a number of caves they take you into. A lot of them lined with unusual orange coral.

Malta - Gozo - heading towards Azure Window

Heading towards Azure Window and looking up at overhanging cliffs

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Malta - Gozo - Azure Window - Viewed from the sea

Azure Window – Viewed from the sea

Malta - Gozo - heading back into caves

Heading back into caves

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Malta - Gozo - Azure Window viewed from landward side

Azure Window viewed from landward side

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From the Azure Window Oj and I travelled inland to the medieval city of Victoria (Rabat) and the deserted yet still intact mountain of the Citadel.

Malta Gozo - Victoria Rabat Citadel - view from fortifications

Victoria Rabat Citadel – view from fortifications

Malta Gozo - Victoria Rabat Citadel - view of narrow medieval street

View of narrow medieval street

Malta Gozo - Victoria Rabat Citadel - baroque doorway showing Maltese eight-pointed cross

Baroque doorway showing Maltese eight-pointed cross

Malta Gozo - Victoria Rabat Citadel - petrol gas station crammed into medieval street

A petrol (gas) station crammed into medieval street

Malta Gozo - Victoria Rabat Citadel - Christian iconography

Christian iconography

Malta Gozo Victoria (Rabat) beautiful street scene

Beautiful street scene

Maltese eight-pointed cross

Maltese eight-pointed cross

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After a couple of hours in the Citadel, we travelled to a quiet idyllic cove called Xlendi and ate lunch looking out over stunning turquoise and aquamarine waters. Small fishing boats bobbing on water so clear it was as if they were hovering, casting shadows on the floor of the shallows beneath.

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Malta Gozo xlendi - lunch by the shore

Xlendi – lunch by the shore

Malta Gozo Xlendi a fishing boat hovering on crystal clear waters

Xlendi – a fishing boat hovering on crystal clear waters

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After lunch we strolled up onto the cliffs and down through a “secret passage” with weathered steps descending down through the a hole in the rock, emerging on the other side in a hidden cove. Wonderful.

We picked up a guide and left Xlendi, travelling to the neolithic site of Ggantija Temples.

Still on Gozo – we’re away from the sea and feasting our senses of these vast blocks of ancient limestone, stacked up on each other – a thousand years before Stonehenge.

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Malta Gozo - Aerial view of Ggantija Temples

Aerial view of Ggantija Temples – image via Internet for context

Malta Gozo - Ggantija Temples

External wall of one of Gantija Temples

Malta Gozo - Ggantija Temples - a hole used to tie doors into place with rope

A hole used to tie doors into place with rope

Malta Gozo - Ggantija Temples - a sacred altar

Part of sacred altar where offerings were laid out

Malta Gozo - Ggantija Temples - stone weathered for 5000 years

Stone walls weathered for 5,000 years

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And from the sublime to the ridiculous. Leaving the Ggantija Temples we returned to Malta mainland and passed a preserved film-set used for the Popeye movie (1980).

Malta - Gozo - Popeye Village

Malta – Popeye Village

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Getting the ferry back from Gozo we returned to the hotel and I spent the afternoon up on the roof, sprawled on a sun-lounger with a pint of beer, gazing out across the endless blue expanse of the Med and listening to Depeche Mode (Sounds of the Universe) on big headphones.

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Day Three

Took a bus to Valletta, the capital of Malta and mind-blowingly beautiful. We hired another guide for the morning and she described in vivid detail the history of the Three Cities – how the Knights of St John arrived from Rhodes, fortifying Birgu, a place later to be called Vittoriosa after successfully fending off a vast siege by Muslims in the late 16th century. The end of the siege led to the construction of vast fortifications around the hilly area above Birgu / Vittoriosa, a place named after the Grand Master at the time – Valletta.

Malta Valletta

The beautiful Valletta

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The main nations of the Knights of St John were each given their own hotel so young men could converse in own language and have at least a flavour of home whilst they trained.

The main nations of the Knights of Malta were each given their own hotel so young men could converse in own language

One of the hotels built for the Knights of St John

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The streets of Valletta are laid out in a rigid grid pattern and have urban undulations like San Francisco.

Malta Valletta streets built on a grid pattern with hills like San Francisco

A grid pattern with hills like San Francisco

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Malta Valletta - typical architecture is limestone structure with enclosed wooden balcony

Architecture is limestone structure with enclosed wooden balcony

Malta Valletta - incredibly ornate stone  facades and masonry

Incredibly ornate stone facades and masonry

Malta Valletta soldier on guard outside prime minster and parliament building

Soldier on guard outside prime minster and parliament building

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A statue of Queen Victoria occupies pride of place outside Biblioteca Nazionale a Valletta – an area that also hosts a gaggle of eating houses, somewhere to touch down, grab a drink and a bite to eat. A mix of tourists and office workers.

Malta Valletta statue of Queen Victoria pride of place outside Biblioteca Nazionale a Valletta

Queen Victoria

Malta Valletta street view

Valletta street view

Malta Valletta steps

Steps

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Malta Valletta a glimpse of the dome of St Pauls church

Dome of St Pauls church

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Malta Valletta Headquarters of Knights of St John Jerusalem Rhodes and Malta

HQ of Knights of St John Jerusalem Rhodes and Malta

It’s a lovely city to just wander. I drifted through Hastings Park and then came out and found myself confronted by this vast sloping edifice, several stories high. At first I thought it was just a part of the incredible fortifications that make up the backbone of the city but then I realised I was looking at a building.  I walked around the entire perimeter. Almost no windows and just one doorway (more or less).  I thought “hmm” it must be an enclosed courtyard with other smaller buildings inside – but looking on Google maps I saw that it’s one solid, massive structure.  Very bizarre. The headquarters of the Knights of St John. 

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Then came a huge highlight.  Oj and I went into St John’s co-cathedral and viewed two paintings by the tragically tempestuous and vastly talented 17th century painter, Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi).  The two paintings were” Saint Jerome Writing” and dark and disturbing “Beheading of john the baptist“. To stand there and gaze upon them with your eyes is a potent experience – not something you can really describe in words.  Made more incredible when you learn how young Caravaggio was when he painted these and how young he was when he died.

Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio circa 1607 - housed in St. John's Co-Cathedral  Valletta

Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio circa 1607

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Michelangelo Caravaggio beheading of john the baptist housed in St. John's Co-Cathedral Valletta

Beheading of john the baptist

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Malta - Grand Harbour - Valletta

Grand Harbour – fortifications of Valletta (image used for context)

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In the image below you can see the Seige Bell War Memorial, a tower with a cupola, up from the Malta Experience (venue for 45 minute history film, worth seeing) on Mediterranean Street and Quarry Wharf.  At midday every day the authorities in Valletta fire a cannon and ring this bell. The cupola has great warning notices on it advising people to stand away at twelve o’clock – because you can actually be standing right beneath the bell if you’re unlucky enough.  Thankfully it seems the scum of modern human history – The Health & Safety Executive – have not made too many inroads into Maltese life (yet).

Malta - Valletta - Grand Harbour and World War II memorial bell tower

Grand Harbour and Seige Bell War Memorial  (image used for context)

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Day Four

Oj and I joined a few other folks and chartered a yacht to sail us around the whole island country of Malta. A wooden, twin masted Turkish  Gulet, she had beautiful lines and a fantastic crew.   We set off from Sliema and spent several hours tacking around the coast in a clockwise direction, slipping into small bays for a bit of historical story telling and flavour.  Best of all was mooring up in the Blue Lagoon, a small area of turquoise and aquamarine shallows at the island of Kamino, between Gozo and Malta.  We were there for  3 hours, eating a late lunch and snorkeling; brilliant to jump off the bow of the boat and swim back to the steps.

malta - sliema  turkish gulet for charter

Our beautiful lady for a day at sea

Malta - Kamino - Blue Lagoon - pulling in

Blue Lagoon – pulling in

Malta - Kamino - Blue Lagoon - fish

Blue Lagoon – fish

Malta - Kamino - Blue Lagoon - David J Rodger jumping off bow of a yacht

Me jumping off bow of yacht

Malta - Kamino - Blue Lagoon - swimming back to the boat

Swimming back

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Leaving the Blue Lagoon and sailing away from Kamino we began the final leg of the journey around Malta, heading towards Valletta and the Grand Harbour.  I have a great memory of lying on deck in the sun, skin tingling with the salty water (which was icy cold) and a sense of blissful delight with life at that moment.  Big headphones clamped on my skull I lay there gazing up at the rigging and one of the  masts, blue bowl of the sky directly overhead.  Great feeling.  Great moment.  Great memory.

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yacht rigging - memories of lying on deck gazing up at the mast

Memories of lying on deck gazing up at the mast

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Day Five

I slept well that night!  Next day Oj and I grabbed a ride to the ancient capital of Malta, the stunningly medieval city of Mdina and Rabat.  It used to be one city split in two by a vast ditch. Mdina is called the Silent City now because almost nobody lives there. It is a vast museum piece  that you can walk around and explore with delight.

Malta - medieval city of Mdina (silent city) Rabat - viewed from distance

Medieval city of Mdina (silent city) viewed from distance

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We headed first to Rabat – which is more of an urban sprawl (still very nice) than a medieval fortress.  In the heart of Rabat (but what would have been outside the old city walls) are vast catacombs, thousands of years old.  Hand-excavated from deep within the rock, the ones Oj and I went to go on for about 2,000 square metres.  The ancient people would either pay for a simple shelf or something more elaborate; the body would be wrapped in linen and placed inside the vessel, then sealed behind a concrete facade (or marble) for two years before the remains where then removed and placed in the ossuary, leaving the catacomb to be used again by somebody else (or sold to another family).

Malta - catacombs outside ancient city rabat

Deep beneath the ground lie the catacombs

Malta - catacombs outside ancient city rabat

Up a narrow flight of rock hewn steps into a low ceiling chamber

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mdina rabat statue of religious figure monk standing with hands apart

Religious figure of monk standing with hands apart

Malta - Mdina Rabat - religious shrine with flowers

Rabat – religious shrine

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After Mdina Rabat, Oj and went back to Valletta and then over to Vittoriosa, one of the three cities and formerly called Birgu – where the Knights of St John successfully fended off the Muslim “Great Siege” of 1565.  I got to walk into an immaculately preserved 13th century Norman house – again, words can’t describe the feeling, because the experience of being there, in such a living yet medieval context, really brings the idea of what it might have been like… to the forefront of your sensory awareness.

After Vittoriosa Oj and I headed back to our hotel and actually spent the next 36 hours  there.  Eating, sleeping or lounging on the roof top sundeck.  I started writing a new novel, working title The Black Lake: it’s set in the Yellow Dawn universe and is about a meteorological expedition setting off from Malta (of course!) to visit a remote island in the sub-arctic seas above Scotland where Storm Curtain activity is unusually intense.  Of course, what they find can only lead to madness and diabolical demise – think Hastur – think Carcosa. I’m also continuing to write The Social Club, another Yellow Dawn novel about the Orwellian state of the Power of Eight Group controlling the survivors in London.  And I more or less finished fleshing out the plot map for Oakfield – a prequel to God Seed.

So all in all an amazing trip, rich with historical flavour and punctuated by chilled out sessions of sunlight, swimming, sailing and writing.

I love Malta.

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David J Rodger – DATA

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2 thoughts on “Travel: Malta – May 2012

  1. Only gripe would be that popeye’s village is in fact in Malta, not Gozo. Apologies for knit picking haha.

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