One of my abiding memories of Malta will be of it as an island of walls.
The walls are everywhere, though in slightly different guises. They could be the ancient weathered remains of the megalithic temples that dot the country, the oldest free-standing structures in the world. They could be the mighty bastions of Valletta and the Three Cities surrounding the Grand Harbour, towering ramparts and impregnable fortifications hiding the civilised ‘city of palaces’ that the Knights of Malta built for themselves. Or they could just be the web of dry stone walls that cross-hatch the countryside, the white stone standing proud of the dusty fields like the skeleton of some giant creature. All these walls have different functions and different uses, and they were built centuries – millenia even – apart and yet they have one thing in common: the stone. All are built from the local pale limestone, sandy-fawn in colour. This is literally the very body of Malta itself, a bare rocky outcrop at the heart of Mediterranean. Malta is naturally blessed with neither trees nor rivers. What it does have in abundance is the soft versatile stone beneath the feet of its inhabitants. In a way this rock sums up Malta and its proud people. The stone has always provided protection and enabled the Maltese to bravely defy overwhelming odds. On a basic level one can look at Valletta’s impregnable walls – walls built for defence in the 16th century. Yet the stone provided a different kind of succour during the second world war. With the island the target of bombing raids night after night for months on end its inhabitants and locals were able to dig down into the very rock of Malta to excavate shelters to protect them from the aerial bombardment. Plus the houses and buildings that were exposed to the blitz were all made of the same stone. Stone smashes, it cracks, it gets beaten to dust. But it doesn’t burn. The lack of wood in Maltese construction prevented the great firestorms that destroyed Coventry or Dresden. Malta’s sturdy construction meant that damage did not spread beyond the point of inpact. Rubble could be cleaned away once the all-clear sounded; Malta could be rebuilt. Malta could endure.
The nation of Malta is essentially a nation of two islands – Malta itself and its smaller northern neighbour Gozo. There are a handful of other islets (Como, Cominotto, Filfla) but Malta and Gozo house the bulk of the population. In fact the island of Malta alone houses the bulk of the population. It is not a big island, around 95 square miles, with a populatuion of around 388,000 (over ten times that of Gozo). As such to me it often seemed to be one big continuous sprawl of towns and villages, particularly spreading out from Valletta itself. Its countryside was limited to strips of fields and vineyards between the towns. But each town had its own imposing domed Catholic church towering over the houses (Malta has 365 churches – practically one for every 1,000 inhabitants). Catholicism is still strong here, supposedly brought to the island when St Paul was shipwrecked here in AD60 and converted its Roman governor. Malta is the only country in Europe where divorce is illegal. Ona more personal level each house seems to have its own nameplaque by the door, often with religiously-inspired names – Ave Marija, Santa Lucija, Annunziata etc. Spotting them is one of the fun things to do do while travelling around the island, as is noticing how, due to the small population, the same names keep on apperaing over and over again – Borg, Zammit, Camilleri, Caruana.
The Maltese language is a fascinating hybrid itself. Their alphabet is full of zs, js, ġs and ħs. Some phrases clearly derive from the same root as Arabic – merħaba (welcome), akbar (great), gebel (hill), halap (milk) and the walled town of Mdina. Yet there is a lot of Italian influence thrown in there too, with ciaos, grazzis and pjazzas abounding. English has left its mark as, surprisingly, has French (bonju and bonswa mean ‘good day’ and ‘good evening’ respectively). The best phrase I overheard was the mind-boggling "ciao alaykum"!
Getting about Malta is a doddle – within certain limits. The public transport network is solely composed of buses, and these bus all commence their journeys from the Floriana terminus outside the main gate to Valletta. A doddle if you want to get to or from Valletta, but if you want to get from somewhere else to another somewhere else it does mean that you will have to change in Floriana. However the buses are absolutely dirt cheap – in general the tickets are around 47 cents. So to get from the airport to Valletta or vice versa would cost €0.47 by bus compared to €15 by taxi. The buses are an experience by themselves anyway, yellow dated charabancs gaudily decorated with model cars, football colours, rosaries and religious exhortations. There is honestly one at least whose front is emblazoned with the statement ‘Only Jesus can Save you’ – not too reassuring when the bus in question is a ricketty old 1960s thing with no seatbelts, no suspension, and not much more in the way of brakes!
Although small Malta has more than enough quirkiness to absorb you for a week or two, even if you do not go anywhere near the resorts along the north-eastern flank of the island. I certainly came away with the feeling that there was more on the island to see – though I admit that I did have a lazily relaxing time on my trip. But I imagine that what I missed will stay there until any future visit of mine. Like the limestone that it is made up of Malta endures, proud and independent, with a charm and tranquility that belies its troubled past.