BEING a bog-standard Aussie hybrid, I decided it was time to investigate my heritage. My paternal grandfather was Maltese and this is where I headed for Christmas and New Year just gone. My mother was also stationed there at a naval base in the 1950s. She wrote a list of her old haunts for me and armed with these, I ventured toMaltato mine some memories.
Malta is an archipelago consisting of three islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) plus a few other islands which are too small to mention. Although it isMediterranean, it is still quite brisk in winter. The temperatures reach a wholesome 15ËšC and covering up is a necessity against the biting coastal winds from the Mediterranean Sea.
The flight is an easy two and a half hour direct flight from Heathrow (and a few other airports now!). The country does not even cover the destination diamond of the map on the in-flight screen. As the plane docked for landing, it tipped over a bottomless blue ocean and descended across the soft, yellow, flat roofed buildings which define the country.
Basing myself in the north-western town of Mellieha, I joined a walking group of new retirees and we averaged eight to ten miles a day as we endeavoured to cover the gorgeous countryside (to give you an example of Malta’s size, it has an area of just 316km squared, making it one of the smallest countries on earth). The first walk, Dingli Cliffs to the Blue Grotto, covered part of the southern coast ofMalta. We were introduced to the archaeological enigma of the cart-ruts, ancient man made indents across the landscape, which still have not been solved today.
We passed the museum of Roman Antiquities and walked via the temple complex of Hagar Qim, which unfortunately was deliberately isolated from the elements (and eager tourists) for preservation. Our destination was the port village of Wiediz-Zurrieq, where my efforts of the day were rewarded by the magical colours of a fading sun.
A sightseeing day in the Renaissance capital of Valetta was a gentle walk around an urban capital of franchises and shopping chains (there was even an M&S situated in the main shopping drag!). This was the capital created by the Knights of St John after The Great Siege of 1565.
Malta is renowned for the proliferation of churches and Valetta was no exception. St John’s‘co-cathedral’ is a staple on the sightseeing tour as well as watching the hour long feature The Malta Experience at the Sacra Infermeria. Malta’s history is an eternal tale of perpetual invasions, exile and war. Personal navigation via the gift shop was mandatory.
Visiting the Rotunda of Mosta Chapel in Mosta (a town smack in the middle ofMalta) was a highlight with its overly ornate interior and punctured dome. This is still the spot where a bomb penetrated the roof in 1942 and miraculously, did not explode. It left an entry wound which one can still see clearly today, even after repair.
Mdina is the oldest city on the island and as its Arabic derivation suggests, it is indeed a ‘walled city’. We spent a short time touring the impossibly narrow streets and side alleys on our third day. It is still inhabited by aristocratic families, and businesses are run on premises within its confines. The architecture and urban plans are almost straight from a mythical age, where side streets are deliberately curved to foreshorten the flight of any arrow.
Our destination from this ancient UNESCO heritage site was Golden Bay. We descended into the Qleigha Valley and investigated the Roman catacombs dug into the hillside along the escarpment ridge. We headed out along the coast again and enjoyed the picturesque views of escarpments diving into the deepest blue sea.
Our final day of walking on the main island was spent on the East coast — Marsascala to Marsaxlokk. To this day, I do not know how they are pronounced. What began as a rough storm in a fishing village, ended in the soft afternoon sun of a harbour town. The colours of the boats are striking and almost lyrical in their uniformity. Bright blues, oranges and reds bob up and down on the water in this port. There was a small market on arrival, but nougat and honey nuts did not tempt me as much as a coffee in one of the harbour side cafes.
We said our farewells to the main island momentarily and headed to Gozo for more walking. This time we bussed from Mgarr into Victoria and out again to Xlendi to begin a final walk in the country. Xlendi is a sweet little fishing village which is protected by strikingly large cliffs. Again, the coastal views were vast, precipitous, rocky and blue.
We covered the south coast of the island with our boots and fell into the bar at the Grand Hotel at the end. The last morning we decided to take the sightseeing bus and travelled the island as true tourists with audio guide in one hand and camera in the other. The Citadel in Victoria is a necessary stop, where the best views of the Gozo landscape can be found. Gozo is an amazing little place, with such a friendly feel, you almost think you are home.
In fact, we unearthed a number of houses with Australian references and a strong link to the homeland.
We returned to Malta and investigated Cosipicua and Vittoriosa, where my ancestors once lived. The derelict buildings and vacant blocks, were unfortunate, but an enduring example of my own family’s past.
If my grandparents had not emigrated to Alexandria (Egypt) and then Australia, I might have been born on this tiny island. And I would have stayed. There was a comfort in the attitude of the people and serenity within the landscape, which is easy to remember but hard to leave.
After returning to theUKand settling into the angst ridden life of a Londoner, I can only sum up my trip in three simple words: ‘Malta— just go!’
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