Above my pillow, the Maltese lace curtain billowed in the Mediterranean breeze, and beyond the window, a donkey brayed in one of the back lanes and a cockerel heralded the dawning of a new day. Soon the fishing village of Marsaskala would be bathed in a soft, golden light. This, my first morning on the island of Malta seemed idyllic, then, the unexpected happened. My soporific state was shattered by the noise of repetitive volleys of gunshots reverberating off the cubic limestone buildings. I gingerly edged my way onto the flat rooftop of our bed & breakfast lodging to check out the fracas. Unperturbed, a neighbor was beating clouds of limestone dust from her Moroccan carpet, nuns attired in pristine white habits were escorting young orphans to the bus stop. Caged canaries trilled in the shaded courtyard. All seemed to be well with the world.
At breakfast before our host's first spoonful of muesli reached his lips, I enquired about the gunshots. Apparently shooting and trapping wild birds is a legal sport and despite pressure, it is taking a long time to change this archaic practice. It is not surprising since this small sun-bleached island is steeped in layers of history. Even its megalithic temples pre-date the Great Pyramids of Egypt. In more recent times, its strategic location between Sicily and Tunisia meant the Maltese endured months of continuous bombing during World War Two. Their litany of hardships has created a unique people who after 150 years of British rule, became independent in 1964. Today the densely populated island is a treasure trove of museums and palaces which tell their stories.
For our first taste of the island, my husband and I took a colorful Bedford bus to the 16th-century capital city of Valletta. The inexpensive 30-minute trip took us through heavy populated neighborhoods with exotic names such as Zabbar, Vittoriosa and Paola. Valletta is a magnificent fortified city situated on the Grand Harbor overlooking two massive peninsulas. Built by the Knights of the Order of St. John in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is built on a grid system of narrow streets. Each opens up to stunning harbor views and allows sea breezes to blow through them unimpeded. From the busy bus terminus, we walked through the city gate which was the prime spot for swarthy merchants selling fresh bread, fruit and vegetables. After negotiating through a festive crowd watching a lively marching brass band, we wandered down stepped streets. Elaborate baroque churches abound with one for every day of the year. Valletta alone has 32 churches with the most sumptuously decorated one being St. John's Co-Cathedral. Most Maltese are Roman Catholic and request visitors to dress modestly in their places of worship.
English is widely spoken and one lady inching her car past us on a narrow street offered to give us a ride to her husband's vineyard in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. This delightful seaside town was balm to the soul with colorful fishing boats bobbing in the harbor. At a waterfront restaurant we enjoyed local fresh Lampuki , or dolphin fish.
Over our two weeks, we explored much of the island by public bus, but also took a few local day trips with a small tour company and added visits to the nearby island of Gozo and over to Sicily.
Our first escorted journey was to the medieval walled city of Mdina which dates back to the days of the Phoenicians in 1000 BC. I gave the gruesome dungeons a miss and instead thought about the lives of the nuns who live in complete seclusion in the Nunnery of St. Benedict. Continuing along the shaded side of the street, I found myself the lone occupant of St. Paul's Cathedral. The site was once the home of Publius, the Roman governor who showed Paul warm hospitality after he was shipwrecked in AD60. In the adjacent city, Rabat, we visited Paul's grotto and the adjacent catacombs. With flashlight in hand, I ventured along the three-kilometer labyrinth of narrow passageways wishing I had brought along a ball of red wool.
Another highlight was a visit to the pre-historic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. The largest megalith weighs more than 20 tons. On returning along the sea-thrashed clifftops, I pondered on the fact that Malta was indeed a place where history has been encapsulated in a time warp.
IF YOU GO:
Photos: By Hamish M. Jackson
1) A typical edifice in the capital city of Valletta
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