Malta: Glorious Past, Troubled Future

Home to 400.000 Residence and Countless Tourists, Time Lies Suspended Between Magnificence and Modernity

On The Town | Christian Cummins | June 2008

Malta looks wonderful from the sky. It’s so brightly lit up, ringed by the continuous orange dotted lines of lights along the coastal road, it could be a huge oil-tanker steaming through the Mediterranean, with the tiny islands on Gozo and Comino tugboats dragging it up towards Sicily.

But blink and you’ll miss it. Flying down from Vienna, I’d nudged my girlfriend when the northern coast appeared through the airplane window. By the time she’d put down her magazine and leaned over to the window, we’d already flown over the south coast and were heading into a steep curve for landing. The Maltese Islands really are miniscule, smaller than Vienna’s city boundaries – a statistic that’s hard to take in. Perhaps it’s because Malta has always mattered historically, and today, as an EU member state with its own unique culture, language and cuisine, it matters still.

In World War II, three rapidly converted Gloster Gladiator bi-planes, piloted by amateurs, fought off the Italian squadron’s warplanes from Malta, then part of the British Empire, quite alone for three weeks, before help arrived from abroad. The Maltese later braved ferocious bombardments by Mussolini and Hitler so stoically that the entire population was awarded the Britain’s highest military honour, the St. George’s Cross. It was an unprecedented salute to a country that refused to bow its head before overwhelming odds.

The Maltese were probably less surprised than the rest of the world. They look back on 7,000 years of proud history. After all, what are a few Fascist warplanes to a country that had fended off an Ottoman fleet carrying 30,000 men during the Great Siege of 1565?

"They always underestimate us, don’t they?" the taxi driver told us when we arrived from the airport, giving us a blow by blow account of the national soccer team’s 1-1 draw with the Turkey the night before, complete with vivid descriptions of just how far down Turkish fan’s jaws dropped when the islanders scored their goal. His accent seemed straight off the streets of East London; had he spent a long time abroad?

"Yeah I did actually, mate," he admitted. "I drove a bus in Gozo," all of six kilometres away, the next island in the archipelago. "That’s where me wife’s from," he went on, "But I got homesick, didn’t I?" The legacy of 150 years of British rule lives on in more than the red telephone boxes, eggs and chips and half-pint glasses.

We were staying in Sliema, a bustling waterfront collection of tourist hotels, cheap bars and packed restaurants. But on the first morning, after a greasy English breakfast, we headed off to the capital, Valletta, taking a 5-minute ferry ride that disembarks below the girdle of the city’s imposing stone walls, 70 metres high in places and knotted with forts and watch towers. In the morning sun, however, the sandstone glows a warm honey colour and nowadays seems more romantic than bellicose.

Up a flower-lined stone ramp and through a thick archway, ancient Valletta is no wider than a single kilometre and a deserved World Heritage site, a compact mixture of the best features of Jerusalem and San Francisco. As Europe’s first planned city, Valletta is built in a grid-system of torturously steep streets, dead straight to allow the breezes off the sea to circulate freely and cool the sun-baked stone of the palaces, cathedral and churches. A further cooling effect comes from the buildings themselves, tall enough to offer shade from the relentless rays of the Mediterranean. The strict planning is the legacy of Jean de la Valette, a passionate Frenchman who founded the city in the late 16th century to house his Knights of St John chased out of Rhodes by the Turks. Drawn from noble families from across Europe, the knights were sworn to celibacy; perhaps they found solace in the sober magnificence of the palaces, known as Auberges, or inns, with proud coats of arms carved deep into the porticoes.

Time lies suspended in the pedestrian walkways of Valetta. But elsewhere, modern life has very much caught up with Malta and perhaps offers the country its stiffest challenge. The ancient capital is called Mdina – from the Arabic word for ‘town’ – a noble little place situated on one of the highest points on the island, with a view of the sea in all four directions of the compass. Sadly, clouds of dust and pollution also hang over Malta like a spectre of the inevitability of change. Malta, in fact, has one of the highest asthma rates for children in Mediterranean Europe. Home to 400,000 people and countless holiday residents, Malta is seriously overcrowded.  Mdina is only a stone’s throw from Valletta. Yet not more than 12 kilometres away, it still took nearly two hours to get there.

We rode in a picturesque yellow bus that stank to high heaven as it belched out pungent black fumes into the sea of traffic, which retaliated by sending their own stink back through the open windows of our rattling coach. Per capita, Malta has one of the highest car ownerships rates in the EU and they like to use them. Getting anywhere means sitting in seemingly endless traffic jams. But even walks along the waterfront promenade in Sliema are dusty and punctuated by the sounds of cement mixers and heavy drills. Unplanned property development is booming, although one in four stands empty.

It’s a real problem for Malta, which lives from tourism. Today with increased competition from Croatia and Montenegro and inexpensive long-haul flights now available, sunshine is no longer enough, and overnights have been dwindling for years. And with the countryside taken up by shotgun-armed bird-hunters – a controversial national passion – Malta is going to have to come up with some new strategies to keep the tourists coming.

There are options, of course. On our last day, we took a trip on a speedboat from Sliema to the fish market at Marsaxlokk, a maritime village on the South Eastern tip of the Island. Vastly more expensive than the bus, speedboats are still the way to travel around Malta. Under golden cliff edges, we bucked wildly over the waves as our sun-frazzled pilot, almost irresponsibly cheerful, waved chirpy apologies at the fisherman he was dousing with water.

After a half an hour’s rollercoaster, he cut back the engines and we cruised into a curved natural harbour crowded with moored wooded boats, brightly painted in blue, red and yellow, slowly peeling under the ferocious midday sun. From the water, the scene probably hasn’t changed much in centuries. The colourful ‘Luzzu’ boats have the "Eyes of the Osiris" – the Phoenicians’ god of protection against evil spirits – painted on their high bows that have been hauling in fish from the rich waters off the Islands since time immemorial.

It was the Malta we had been looking for all along.

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