With a few days left to fill before I had to be in Madrid, I decided to go somewhere in Europe I'd never been. Fortunately, I had a friend from Australia who was in Malta visiting her family and suggested I drop into Malta on my way through. This turned out to be an excellent idea because Malta is incredible.
I first met Jess two years ago in Vietnam and we've stayed friends since. I was excited when she suggested I visit because I didn't know much about (or anything) about Malta at the time. It was cheap, close, everyone speaks English (due to its British colonial history) and warm (relatively, compared to the rest of Europe) so it was a good fit.
This Maltese falcon right here
Firstly, some background on Malta I learned during my time there. Malta is tiny. The entire country has a total land area of less than 300km2 and a population of around 450,000. The country is an archipelago made of three main islands; one big one (Malta), one small one (Gozo) and one tiny one (Comino) located off the bottom of Sicily, directly below Italy, above Libya and close to the Tunisian coast. It's position halfway between Europe and the Arabic world is indicative of Maltas history, language and culture. Despite its proximity to the Islamic world, it is incredibly catholic (nearly everything in the country is named after a saint). The most amazing part of the country, however, was its totally disproportionate importance in European history. Warning, I'm going to talk about history for the next long time. Skip it if you like, I won't mind.
Malta is home the earliest known freestanding human structures still in existence (stone temples on the south of Malta approximately 11,000 years old) and has been a part of essentially every empire in Mediterranean history (Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Sicilians, Spanish, Normans, Napoleonic French, British amongst others). In fact, the only empires who have failed to conquer Malta have been the Ottomans and the Nazis. Due to the influence of the Arabic Moors, much of Maltas culture contains an element of Arabic-ness, including the language, architecture and writing style.
That's the country. The whole thing.
The primary historical point of interest about Malta is that for hundreds of years, from 1530 until the invasion of Napoleon 1798, the island was the property and base of the Knights of St. John. Driven from successive bases in the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Malta was given to the knights to fortify and use as a bastion from which to protect Christian Europe from the advancing Ottomans. In 1565, the Ottomans laid siege to Malta and were decimated by the far inferior force on the island. The Ottoman Empire never recovered front his catastrophic loss and began its 300 year decline in power. After this battle, one of the most important in European history, the great powers of Western Europe collectively agreed to continue building defences on the island in case of a second attack. To this end, a new, specially designed city was built to be entirely impregnable. This city, a combined effort from all of Europe, was called Valletta and is still the capital of Malta. This city is defended to an incomprehensible level, with walls, cannons and watch towers everywhere still today.
There was never another attack on Malta from the Ottomans but the defences did get put to the test near nearly 400 years later by Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Malta had been a British protectorate and territory since the defeat of Napoleon and had great strategic significance, due to its location in the middle of the Mediterranean, halfway between British territories in Gibraltar and Egypt. The island was battered constantly by German bombing campaigns during the course of the war and was laid siege to for years, however the islands defences held and Malta was never captured, remaining a base for the British and American navies and a major contributor to the failure of the German/Italian North Africa campaign. For its role in the Second World War, the entire Malta of nation was granted the George Cross by King George VI. The George Cross, the civilian counterpart to the Victoria Cross, is the highest award that can be given to civilians and is awarded for gallantry, heroism and courage. Malta is the only country to be granted a George Cross and the distinctive cross shape has become synonymous with Malta, appear on the currency, flag and anything Maltese. Not Maltesers though, although they do have them.
Anyway, Malta became an independent country in 1964 and that's enough history. Oh, it also where presidents Bush and Gorbachev met to officially end the Cold War.
I had to be up at 5am to get to the airport in time for my flight, vowing never to catch another morning flight again. I guarantee I will, probably sooner than I expect, so feel free to throw that in my face, I guess. Anyway, it's a good thing Malta was worth it because I was in a terrible mood on arriving. I need my sleep. I arrived in Malta, checked into my hotel (I know, hotel not hostel. Malta is cheap so I got a little but fancy) and headed out to explore Valetta. I was staying in St Pawls Bay (not a typo) on the north of the island but Malta is small with a well connected bus network so getting around without a car is easy.
I was actually incredibly impressed with Valletta, and Malta in general. The architectural style in Malta is unlike anywhere else I've been and it looks like what it is; a mixture of Arabic and European (specifically Spanish, French and British) influences, all made with brightly coloured wood and Maltese limestone which has a distinctive beige colour to it. Quite simply, the buildings in Malta, and Valletta are just nice to look at. Valletta is small (at only 0.8km2, it's the smallest capital city in Europe) and the way the city is built around the massive fortifications makes it easy to navigate. It also seems to be both ancient and modern at the same time. I guess I'm a fan.
I spent the afternoon checking out some of the must-do touristy things in Valletta; Republic Street (the Main Street through Valetta), St Johns Cathedral (ornate doesn't seem to cut it), the fortifications along the grand harbour, the Siege Bell memorial/lookout for WWII victims, the Barakka gardens, the old Sacra Infermeria (the hospital of the Knights of St John), Fort St. Elmo and "the Malta experience" which gave an interactive overview of Maltese history.
Then the sun started to set
The next day, Jess and I took the bus to explore the old capital of Malta, Mdina, and the most famous natural landmark in Malta, the blue grotto. Apparently the countryside is very different during the summer (when it gets stupid hot on the islands) but in winter everything was either barren and stony or lush and green. Malta is a land of dichotomy all around.
Mdina is built entirely out of beige Maltese limestone and was the sight of the original great siege against the Ottomans. The oldtown of Mdina is an ancient, winding, cobblestoned warren of short streets and narrow homes, mostly for tourists these days.
We also had a look in the Mdina dungeons, which was essentially a glorified torture museum. It got...weird.
The nearby town of Rabat has extended to essentially encompass Mdina. Rabat is also home to the St Paula and St Agatha catacombs (which were extended for use as WWII shelters).
By the time we got to the Blue Grotto, it was either already closed (everything closes at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, if it opens at all) or it just wasn't open that day. I wasn't clear but it was a shame to miss out on it. I'm not entirely clear on what it is but it's supposed to be incredible. We got some good views from the cliffs on the south side of the island, though.
This is the entrance to the blue grotto. I never got to find out what it does.
Even the bus stop gets a Jesus shrine
The next day we checked out the extensive WWII bunkers/museum in the old city of Melliheah and caught the ferry out to Gozo but were forced to turn back because if inclement weather. Instead we hit up some of the bars in St Guljans (St Julian's), the self-proclaimed party town of the island.
Only photo I got of Gozo
The next morning I left Malta and flew to Madrid. It's probably obvious from the fact that this is already the longest blog post I've ever written, but I really liked Malta. It was an excellent blend of natural beauty and fascinating human history, it's cheap, the food is amazing (basically Italian food but with more rabbit), the people are friendly (and literally everyone speaks English, if that's important to you), its small enough that you can see most of the highlights in a few days and is a genuine blend of cultures, more than nearly anywhere else I've been. I would have easily put Malta in my top three places in Europe. I say I would have, because something happened on my final morning that changed everything. I'm going to make you scroll down to discover what happened, for dramatic effect.
In my previous travels, there's really only been one Australian commodity that you can't find anywhere else that has made me a tad homesick. Not even in the United "It's Just Australia But Colder" Kingdom could I find this thing. I spent days searching the streets of New York with the boys looking for it when we were there a few years ago. I assumed it was apparently just an Australian thing, but I was wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves. Ready? MALTA ALSO HAS MEAT PIES. You may all return front he edge of your seats now. There is literally not way to express how excited I was when I found this out. I went and looked in every bakery I could find and most of them stock that delicious morsel of the gods that we call meat pies. They have a little less gravy and are a bit more favoursome but they are definitely pies. This is the culinary equivalent of discovering intelligent life on another planet.
I light of this gastronomical delight, I'm officially calling it. Malta is my favourite country in Europe. Your move, Portugal!