THE UNDERSTANDABLE MYSTERIES OF MALTA
Malta is an archipelago consisting of three islands, all of which are inhabited. The earliest evidence of human settlement on the islands dates back to 5900 B.C.
The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the French, and the British have all laid claim to these islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily and Libya.
Each has permanently altered the landscape and its inhabitants through their cultural, architectural, and political influences.
World Heritage Sites, ancient temples, swimming and diving beaches, walled cities, churches with naves engraved in gold, relics from the island’s 150-year British occupation, and English are just some of the results that come up when you search for “Malta” online.
A tourist’s head may spin from the sheer number of things to do on such a little piece of land. It’s a chance to imagine yourself in exotic locales with esoteric names, just like the song by Willie Nelson.
While visiting Malta in October 2021, my husband and I got caught up in the excitement of the ‘season of COVID’ by participating in events that were touted as ‘not to be missed.’
Although I would not recommend missing out on them, I could not shake the feeling that there was something else calling my attention.
We admired the largest 20-ton megaliths in the world at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Hagar Qim and Mingdra, which house ancient free-standing temples dating back to 3600 B.C., but I grimaced at the row of tourist buses waiting to offload the masses.
We rode the elevator up to the mesa at the top of the cliff opposite the entry point, where we could view the sea and the High Barrakka Gardens below.
With a smile on my face, I elbowed my way into a space along the crowded stone retaining wall so I could take in the view of Grand Harbor.
When it first opened in 1566, the city gate into the smallest national capital in the European Union led to pedestrian streets that quickly filled with people. Tourists, bursting to the seams with pent-up wanderlust, throned the chic boutiques, cafes, and restaurants housed in the city’s many Neo-Classical and Baroque-style structures.
The beautiful and gilded St. John’s Co-Cathedral is at the top of our “not to be missed” list while in Valletta.
Almost 500 years ago, the city of St. John was created and guarded by the knightly Order of the Knights Hospitallers, whose flag, including an eight-pointed Maltese Cross insignia, was flown from every lamppost.
The queue of sightseers waiting to enter the Cathedral snaked out the front entrance. With a 15 euro entrance fee and the need to produce my immunization card, I simply mumbled, “No, I’m not doing this.”
At that point, I abandoned my travel wish list and opened myself up to learning Malta’s more subtle mysteries.
I walked the centuries-old cobblestone streets, took notes on the latest fashion trends from the clothes drying in terrace windows, and scoped out the stores frequented by the residents.
DAPHNE CARUANA GALIZA
Instead of visiting the grand cathedral, we looked for the memorial of Daphne Caruana Galiza, a Maltese journalist and anti-corruption campaigner who was killed in a vehicle bombing on October 16, 2017.
I found her likeness atop a modest memorial altar at the Great Siege Monument, which is located just opposite from the Law Courts of Valletta.
Daphne’s investigative reporting in the Sunday Times of Malta and her blog, Running Commentary, uncovered widespread government corruption, money laundering operations by organized crime, bribery of top officials, and the Panama Papers Scandal.
Some unsavory things happen in every nation. By exposing corrupt politicians, Daphne Galiza exposed a large portion of Malta’s.
This courageous woman’s thoughts and the truth were hushed by daily death threats, the burning of her home, and her eventual murder. The administration she served also designated the day of her funeral as a national day of mourning.
We bought two “must-have” Maltese pastizzos from a nearby bakery, and they were buttery, flaky croissants stuffed with awful puréed peas. St. George’s Square was crowded with natives eating pastries that looked just like the ones we had.
At each bite, they licked their lips and swooned as if they were enjoying the most decadent late-morning treat ever. I settled on scotch as an example of something British and requiring an acquired taste.
MDINA AND VITTORIOSA
Across the bay from Valletta are two old, walled neighborhoods that are only accessible on foot, and they manage to convey the sensation of a virtual history lecture.
Mdina, the former capital of Malta and a favorite of mine, is a medieval village that has been meticulously conserved despite having fewer than 300 residents.
I attempted to picture the mayhem that must have invaded the ‘Silent City’s’ tranquil winding streets when production crews for “Game of Thrones,” “Gladiator,” and “Troy” arrived to film sequences.
Vittoriosa, another of the Three Cities within the biggest fortified fortification, is far larger than Mdina, older than Valletta, and was the first place the Knights of St. John chose to administer the island.
During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Ottoman Turks attempted to invade but were unsuccessful.
Architectural touches such as colorful doors, windows, and balconies brightened up the otherwise dull limestone structures in each of these areas.
Incredible as it may sound, I became utterly engrossed in learning the backstory of ornate architectural details like door knockers, latticed half-gates, window grilles, and enclosed wooden balconies.
As we explored the heart of each town, we came across quaint alleyways and stunning landmarks.
DOOR KNOCKERS, PREGNANT WINDOW GRILLS AND MALTESE GALLARYA (ENCLOSED BALCONIES)
Even today, Maltese front doors aren’t complete without their signature door knockers, known as il-habbata.
Every entrance was a work of art thanks to the two bronze or brass door knockers that mirrored each other and were placed on opposite sides of double wooden doors that had been painted in bright colors.
The size of the knocker, as well as any ornate designs like lion’s heads, women, nautical themes, or family crests, are all indicators of the homeowner’s standing in society and financial stability.
A latticed wrought-iron half-gate with ornate cutout motifs stands in front of each entry.
The primary door can be left ajar for ventilation and natural light thanks to this secondary barrier. These gates were originally put up in antiquity to keep goats out.
In the past, milkmen would wander the streets with their herds of goats, stopping to milk one if the mistress of a nearby house placed an order.
The addition of a wooden balcony to the second story of a building, enclosing the space between the balcony and the street and often featuring glass or mesh panels, has come to symbolize Malta as a nation.
During the Arab occupation, the gallarya was developed to give Muslim ladies privacy on the terrace.
This architecturally sophisticated accessory is now universally considered a “must have”
Full-length windows on the second level are referred to as “pregnant” when curved wrought-iron grills are added to protect the openings. Grills range from “9-month,” “6-month,” to “ready to have twins” designations based on the size of the protrusion at the bottom of the circular section.
In ancient times, invaders would sneak up behind a building and grasp the feet of occupants standing in open windows, dragging them away to be used as slaves.
The grills shielded inhabitants from this destiny and eventually became a standard component of window protection systems.
A DGHAYSA BOAT RIDE
Before departing Malta, I really wanted to get in one last hurrah. For days, we avoided actually crossing the Great Harbor by boat. As if the gods had heard our prayers, a traditional water taxi and its captain were waiting for us as we left Vittoriosa at the dock.
This boat, known as a dghaysa in Maltese, is related to the Venetian gondola and was first used in the 17th century, however nowadays it is propelled not by oars but by a tiny outboard motor.
However the case may be, I thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of sailing through the Grand Harbor of Valletta, passing by the old villages we had seen, and waving to boaters moored in the marina with the fresh breeze of the Mediterranean flowing through my hair.
SALISBURY ENGLISH PUB
On the evening that we were checking out of the hotel, the concierge offered the following piece of advice: “You really must eat dinner on the waterfront.” We continued strolling down toward the port even though we had just passed a charming English pub that was only one block away.
Every restaurant there was loud and packed, and the wait times averaged a quarter of an hour. We made our way back up the hill to the Salisbury Pub, which is known for being a welcoming establishment frequented by neighborhood residents.
The sound of laughing coming from the booths, a plate of crispy fish and chips, and a pint of Maltese craft beer brought back warm memories of drinking in London pubs, and we felt relieved that we had skipped one of the final “must do” activities while in Malta.