Seasonal Salon

Malta: some things the Goddess articles don't say

I visited the country of Malta in May 2010. I had read many articles about the sacred sites on Malta, and had a Frommer's guide. Yet there was information missing that I could have used. I am hoping this article will give you some of that information, so when you go to Malta, the going will be easier.

It is not difficult to fly to Malta, but first one must get across the Atlantic Ocean. I flew Virgin Atlantic (which I recommend highly - free food and drinks and for $50 more, you can upgrade your seat to more leg room, much more comfortable for an overnight flight) into London's Heathrow Airport, and needed the 3 hour layover to get from one terminal to another. Heathrow is very large, located inside a busy section of the city, with four terminals some distance apart. The terminals are reached by bus, and passengers are shepherded very carefully via long hallways (without restrooms) from terminal to bus to terminal. Do not plan to leave the airport, as security does not permit that. Keep your passport and smile ready at hand.

The terminals I was in had several eating places, many high-end shops, and a currency exchange, including an ATM that would provide dollars, euros or pounds, as requested. The flight gates were announced on a large LED board only an hour before departure, so passengers are centrally located in the shopping district of the terminal until an hour prior to flight. The gates I went through had food (sandwiches and drinks) available onsite. All of the eating establishments and shops accepted Visa credit cards. MasterCard is not readily accepted overseas.

Air Malta flies directly into Malta International Airport from lots of places in Europe, North Africa and Russia. The Airport is located on the island of Malta, in Luqu, near Valletta. The terminal is not large, and travelers must go through customs to enter the country.

Maltatransport offers car rentals and bus transport to towns throughout the island. For 20 euros (the currency of Malta) I was transported via van to my hotel on the other side of the island, and promised pick-up and transport to the airport the day of my departure. This is a good deal: Take it. Trying to get back to the airport via the bus system would be lengthy, and a taxi would cost far more. The bus driver picked up several of us from my hotel at 4:15 AM on the day of departure, and delivered a large bus full of passengers to the airport in plenty of time for our flights.

The van that took three passengers to various towns was small, as most vehicles in Malta are. Even the dump trucks are much smaller than we see in the US. The drivers appear fairly fearless and jump on and off the many roundabouts with some daring. The roads are numbered, narrow and often winding and hilly. Speed limits are apparently only a suggestion, as no one seems to observe them.

Malta is an archipelago in the central Mediterranean Sea, about 60 miles south of Sicily (off the coast of mainland Italy). The three largest islands (Malta, the largest, 26 km x 15 km; Gozo, next in size, 11 km x 6.5 km; and Comino, smaller yet, described as ìtinyî) are inhabited, but there are 18 more identified ìrocksî and ìislandsî in the Maltese archipelago which are not inhabited by humans. One of these, Filfla, used to be used for target practice by fighting forces, but is now a bird sanctuary, to which humans are not permitted without government clearance.

The language of Malta is Maltese, a mix of italian, Arabic and I don't know what. Most signs are written in the English alphabet as well as Arabic, and pronunciation can be tricky. Most Maltese people speak English as well as Maltese and I made out well with English and some ìsign languageî. The concierge at most hotels speaks several languages, and the police officers spoke Maltese, English and Italian at least.

The Malta that drew me is the site of several stone-aged temples, the most famous of which is Hal Saflieni (Hal Sah-FLAY-nee) Hypogeum dating to 3600 BCE. Three large chambers, located underground, are being preserved by careful control of the microclimate and limiting visitors to no more than 10 per hour. (If you go, get a ticket well in advance on the internet (20 euros). And buy the book; no cameras are permitted in the Hypogeum.) The bus from Valletta to Paolo will get you there. Walk up the hill from the bus stop and look for a small sign on the left indicating the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Don't be late for your appointment time, or you won't get in.

Other temples are above-ground, some uncovered and some with a tent-like covering to help delay deterioration. Some allow visitors to enter all or most of the site; some are more restricted with ropes cordoning off areas. All these sites permit cameras.

  • The Tarxien Temples (TAR-shen) are located in the large back yard of an unprepossessing building situated on a street lined with homes in Tarxien/Paolo, and easy walking distance from the Hypogeum.

  • Hagar Qim (HAH-jar Keem) and Mnajdra (Mon-NAI-drah) overlook the southern coast of Malta and have for at least 5,000 years.

  • Ta Hagrat (Tah HAH-graht) and Skorba (SKOR-buh) Temples, on the east of Malta, are exposed to the elements and open to the public only one morning a week. They are believed to be the oldest of the extant temples on Malta, and they are starting to look their age.

  • Ggantija (Gee-gahn-TEE-ah) Temples, located on Gozo, have megaliths 15 meters long (that's BIG!), and is believed to be the oldest human-made, free standing structure in the world. At present, parts are supported by scaffolding.

All the sites are World Heritage sites and have an entrance fee, usually around 7 euros. There is a reduction in cost for people 60 and over and students.

I had not expected Malta to be so DRY. It gives the appearance of being mostly rock, and yet people have lived there for 7,000 years, and been building sacred buildings for at least 5,000 of those years, and we assume, raising crops and animals and more Maltese all that time. Ghar Dalam (Ar DAH-lum), a cave on the southeast of Malta, had remains of animals and humans, the humans from 7,400 years ago.

Malta typically receives 21 inches of precipitation a year, 7.9 of those in December and January, and another 9 in February, October and November. That doesn't leave much for the other months of the year. Older homes had cisterns located under the house to store water from the winter months to use during the dry summer months, when there is very little precipitation. Newer homes do not have these, I was told, which seems wasteful of the rain that falls in the wet months. I visited there in May, and for the two weeks I was there, there was no rain at all; a LOT of wind however, sometimes so much that boats were cautioned not to sail on the windward side of the islands. It turns out that May is the Windy Month, hence the lower hotel prices.

The temperature is relatively pleasant year-round, with lows in the wet winter around 40 degrees F, and highs usually less than 90 degrees F in the dry summer. Many Europeans, especially British, choose to vacation in Malta because of the seashore and the temperatures. There are few sandy beaches, some of them human-made, but with the many lagoons and harbors, there are lots of private shores if one doesn't mind a few rocks.

The towns were located on hilltops, and the bus chugged up a hill to the town, collected and discharged passengers, and then charged down the hill out of town. In between towns, there were many garden areas, separated by stone walls (no fences to been seen, but why use precious wood when stones are Everywhere?). Watering systems were used extensively, black hoses coming from cisterns right there in the field, and watering through a small hole in the hose to just where the plant was, no further. Even civic garden plots outside public buildings had very small planted areas, and the unplanted areas were not watered at all. Most homes in the cities had a potted plant outside the front door. The front door is directly on the sidewalk, which is directly on the street. Most of the windows in those doors were graced by Gozo lace curtains, which used to be handmade, but is now almost all machine-made. Typically, there is a walled backyard plot at the back of the house, many made shady by plants growing over a frame above a sitting area.

The buildings, private homes and public edifices both, are almost exclusively constructed of rock. Even temporary enclosures are made of stacked building blocks of the yellow sandstone that covers the islands. Empty lots are littered with building blocks like these, and people seem to feel free to use them for various purposes. New construction shows three-storied buildings, with small rooms, and all sides except the front made of rock. The front has a window, and the rest is somewhat cave-like. As the apartment gets sunny, the drapes are closed against the heat of the day, to be opened to allow in the cool of the night, which the rock holds into the next day.

I saw women cleaning their street-side windows every day (probably needed because of the dust from traffic), using a bit of water in a basin and a rag. Every one I saw put the remaining dirty water onto a nearby plant. Cars were not washed very often; the two I saw being washed had one section done at a time, using just a half-filled pail of water and a rag.

Drinking-water in the hotels I stayed in was all bottled and brought in from off-Malta. And yet the hotel shower heads were not water-savers, but full blast. The tourist industry is very important to Malta's economy, and I suspect the money trumps the water loss. Some portion of the Malta's water comes from desalination; I did not find a statistic on what percentage. Desalination is an expensive process, however.

Malta is a member of the European Union, and uses the Euro. Driving is on the left, and buses traverse Malta Island and Gozo Island regularly, although the buses tend to come and go from a central location. On Malta, that central location is in the capital Valletta, on the eastern shore of the island. My hotel was located in Qawra (OW-Rah. No, the Q is not a typo), on the northwestern shore of the island. To get to the temples in the south, I took a bus to Valletta (east across the whole island), then took another bus to the south. To return, the process was reversed. One day, I decided I would Not Visit Valletta, and I was able to make the visits to Ta Hagrat and Skorba Temples, but the wait between buses was longer than the trips to Valletta would have been.

On Gozo, the buses come and go from Victoria, located in the center of the island, making bus travel a bit quicker. One day I rented a car and drove over the entire of Gozo, starting at 9 AM. I was finished by 3 PM, and even had a leisurely lunch in the meantime.

Maltese cooking is heavily reliant on garlic. Walking in Valletta one day, I was pulled by my nose to a cafe by the garlic-laced lunch. The national dish is rabbit cooked with garlic, tomatoes and potatoes, followed closely by fish stew. The Maltese bread is very good, a round crusty loaf, baked in stone ovens and served with every meal, frequently alongside a spicy bean dip called Bigilla. Maltese wines that I tasted ran the gamut from Very Drinkable to Vinegar.

Malta sits in the Mediterranean Sea, and fishing is an important industry, but its many ancient sites and agrarian views make it a wonderful site for making movies. The Blue Lagoon lies within Maltese territory between Comino and Cominotto Islands, and was the site for the movie of the same name.

Malta has quite a history, having been overrun and ruled by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Swabians (German), the Angevins (French), the Aragonese (Spanish), the Knights of St. John, a very brief stint under Napolean, the British, the Axis forces in WWII, and finally independence in 1964. The Axis bombing of Malta from 1940-43 is worth noting, as it almost wiped out the country. In 1942, the islands were bombed for 154 consecutive days, killing thousands and starving the population. Somehow they hung on, refusing to surrender despite the odds. The entire country was awarded the George Cross in recognition of their bravery. I suspect living for centuries under foreign rule on a bunch of desert islands without fresh water except for rain taught them Tenacity.

Sources:

Melchior, Lee. (2010) Personal journal of visit to Malta.

Rose, Lesley Ann. (2009) Frommer's Malta & Gozo day by day. John Wiley & Sons, Sussex, England.

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mt.html

http://www.malta.com

http://www.visitmalta.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malta

Category: Fall Equinox 2010