Malta Story

Exactly who are you calling a wrinkly?

Not really a Cook’s Tour, more a Mediterranean Recipe for a long slow holiday!

I first caught sight of the magnificent harbour of Valetta, rightly called Grand Harbour, as a wide-eyed National Service Royal Navy “Snotty” in the 1950’s.  I was heavily into Nicolas Monserrat’s sea adventures and he truly described the magnificent fortified capital of Malta as “history encased in golden stone”.

As I gazed around at the bustling harbour full of the British Mediterranean Fleet, together with ships of the line from most of the NATO forces with bumboats and the colourful dghajas buzzing from ship to ship and ship to shore, my jaw must have dropped and I stood wide-eyed, mouth open.

A three-badge killick (leading seaman with over twelve years service) brought me back to earth, with “When I was first here (when Nelson was a boy) you could walk over the decks of ships right across the harbour and not get your feet wet!”  Grand Harbour is huge but I could believe him.

Suffice to say I fell in love with the Islands and their friendly people.  Everything about Malta is different.  For a holiday destination, there are few beaches, normally a priority for me, but Malta is so magical that I keep coming back.

After my regular naval evolutions with the Mediterranean fleet, I next returned after Prime Minister Don Mitoff came to power in Malta and had closed its ports to Western warships.  The economy appeared to be going through a bad time.  The Grand Harbour boasted only one ship, a rusting Russian cargo boat and the roads had not been repaired for years.

I had expected a simmering of anti-British feeling but I could not have been more mistaken.  That was the first time that I heard a cabaret singing a Maltese Calypso that said “The world drives on the right, Britain drives on the left but here in Malta we drive in the shade if we can miss the holes”.

The lovely happy people made me and my wife so welcome and we had such a happy time.  We have returned quite a few times for some quite ‘special holidays’.

This year as a couple who are much older than we feel, or admit to, we decided that the time had come to break a few conventions and do something different for Christmas.  We did not get the expected disapproval of son, daughter or even our teen-age grandchildren when we first mooted the idea of Christmas at an hotel, so Gill and I looked at our options.

No contest, let us celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Malta.  I did my research and before long we were talking of really pushing the boat out and going for three weeks.  “There are some really good deals let’s stay for a month!”

Our discussions as a well travelled and independent couple went down the road of “Could we really be happy on a long stay holiday with the ‘wrinklies’ and ‘blue rinse’ brigade”?  I pointed out that as we were nearer 70 than 60 we were ‘wrinklies’ in fact nearly ‘crinklies’.  My normally placid wife informed me that she did not have a blue rinse and she was younger than I was (nearly a whole year younger).

The idea of leaving Britain with its forecast of cold and power cuts struggled with the idea of a month away and the wonderful Maltese islands.  Good sense won the day.  We booked and packed our bags, leaving ‘this sceptred isle’ (shrouded in freezing mist and heavy rain) for ‘that other Eden’.

Actually, we flew from Birmingham airport and arrived in Malta on December 15th.  We usually stay at four-star hotels and we had booked into a three star after reading comments on the internet from its customers.  We still felt a little bit wary at what we would find.

To be honest the hotel had a somewhat faded look and the rooms would benefit from a lick of paint and a general makeover, but the Metropole Hotel in Sliema had a lot going for it. Truly 5 star staff with not just the usual friendliness that is part of the make-up of the Maltese people as a whole but a real feeling that they were happy in their work and part of a great team.  The food was as good as any that we have sampled on a lifetime of holidays worldwide.  It was typically Maltese cuisine with a lot of choice and a deal of variety.

A few of our fellow residents were obviously more used to spending their holidays at the Dorchester or the Ritz and muttered about being offered Maltese food in a Maltese hotel but that’s life and they obviously enjoyed having a moan.  It made a change from whinging about their knees and hip replacements.

One thing that helped to make up our minds to choose Malta for our first long-stay holiday was that fact that for such small islands, Malta and Gozo have such a wealth of things to do and places to visit.  We began by deciding that we would see more of the people if we travelled on the infamous Maltese buses instead of hiring a car.  To correct that statement, the decision was made for me by “The Management”.  She decided that it would be good for me to walk more.  It would be good for my health and so on.

I was not too sure about that after seeing the fifty-year-old buses and being subjected to what can only be described as hair-raising performances from the drivers.  I believe that it was Ernest Hemmingway who wrote, “Any experience that doesn’t kill you is good for you”. I believe him and so, went along with my lady.  Mind you, it is not only bus-drivers that drive like maniacs, so do most of the population.

Perhaps I took the cowards way out; at least I could close my eyes when things became hairy on a bus journey.  Apart from that the bus tickets were very cheap and the buses very frequent.  Mind you, they stopped running for three hours on Christmas day and New Years day.  For the remainder of the year the service is a bit more reliable.

Having been separated from my car for over a month I can now report that one day we walked all the way from Sliema to Valetta, following the waterside, a distance of some seven miles and what is more I enjoyed it.  I also was able to tighten my belt by two notches, in spite of eating far more than I ever do at home.

Even though we were spoilt for choice with things to do and places to visit, we started with a very laid-back approach with so much time to fit in everything.  I now have to confess that we did not manage all that we had planned to do.

We did hop on the ferry to make the short crossing to Sicily and went up to the top of the volcano that is Mount Etna.  We are not certain why we went, perhaps, ’just because it was there!’ and something different.  We enjoyed popping over to Gozo on the ferry far more.

You will have gathered that I love the Maltese people as much as I love their islands.  The people are curiously unique and highly individual whose qualities are many.  Among other things, they are cheerful and hardworking, shrewd but honourable, sometimes emotional and excitable, great lovers of home and family – and deeply religious.  Religion has a special place in Maltese life.  While there is complete freedom of worship throughout the islands, the unswerving allegiance of practically every Maltese is to the Roman Catholic Church.  Their piety is not merely a matter of church attendance; theirs is a living faith, which has vivid meaning in their everyday life.  Even in the buses, there are small shrines.  On the first bus journey of our visit, we were rather tickled to see many of the locals crossing themselves before taking their seat.  As the holiday went on and after a few hair-raising journeys, I was close to copying them.  I even felt that I should perhaps be genuflecting after arriving in one piece.

With our visit being over the Christmas period, we were able to sample many treats associated with the Maltese people’s joyous expression of religious belief.  With every town and village celebrating the birth of Christ in such many and varied ways.  One of the highlights was a tour of “Cribs” where many families set up a display of their much-personalised creations of the Nativity.

We went expecting to see models of the manger scene similar to those in our churches back home.  We could not have been more mistaken.  These were not just in churches or even in house windows these were fabulous recreations of the whole village of Bethlehem as it would have been on that special night.  Whole model towns had been created taking up complete rooms and garages.

Some of these were animated; some had taken six months of painstaking work by the whole family.  All of them were brilliant.  It is the tradition that the models are made afresh each year and there is a competition for the ones that a judged to be the best each year.  Every one we saw was exceptional and we did not envy the judges.

At the entrance to Valetta, there is an arch through the city wall.  On top of this arch were six-foot high letters in the Maltese language with lots of Js and Xs making up six or seven words.  We assumed that these were a permanent feature and part of the city fabric.  We felt complete lemons when we discovered after some three weeks that these were part of the Christmas celebrations and simply said “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.

Just inside this arch a large tented stage had been set up and for the two weeks leading up to Christmas day we were treated to some fantastic free concerts as Police and Military bands, choirs and orchestras, children and adults, dancers and entertainers demonstrated their fabulous skills every day.  All of them were so skilful and proficient none of them would have seemed out of place in a London theatre.  Wonderful, yet another bonus to our holiday.

I mentioned that Malta has so many attractions and sightseeing within an area that is just 27 kilometres long and about 16 kilometres across at its widest point that it could keep the tourist busy for months.  Part of this has come about because the island has both preserved and rejoices in its history.

As Winston Churchill famously said that, ‘a nation that forgets its past has no future’.  If that is true then Malta certainly has a great future, because wherever you go on the islands you cannot help rubbing shoulders with history from the mists of time to modern times.  There are places which set you wondering what life was like 4,000 years before Christ; others, a millennium or so younger.

More recent places whose age is measured in mere centuries, which have changed little since they saw the clash of Christian knight and Turkish janissary.  Add a touch of Napoleon together with other places that come within living memory and evoke those fateful years when embattled Malta defied the Axis powers and fought out her second great siege to George Cross victory.

If you add to the mix the plethora of the fabulous churches in all their splendour that range from the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral which ranks as a masterpiece of architecture to the more humble church of St.Paul Shipwrecked that is equally full of stunning painted ceilings and beautiful gilded carvings.  Every church that we visited seemed to be competing with the other for sheer beauty.  All contained magnificent paintings and sculptures by some of the world’s greatest artists.

Our favourite church on the island that we visited three times was the breathtaking church of St. Mary at Mosta, which has one of the world’s largest domes.  The church is said to be large enough to house a standing congregation of 10,000 people.  It is really light and airy and is home to more artistic treasures.  It is also yet another reminder of World War II because in 1942 a bomb came through the dome, bounced of off two walls and then slid across the floor from one side of the church to the other.  It did not explode and none of the 300 congregation present was injured.

Also in the formula are the superb Palaces, Auberges, Hostels, and Hospitals built in the mid 15th century by the Knights of St John.  The fortifications of the Three Cities, the Catacombs at Rabat together with a peaceful visit to the silent city of Mdina that has gone through history from a bronze age hilltop village, known to the Greeks, was a Roman city and was later occupied by the Arabs.  It was the capital of the island until the building of Valetta.  It is now summed up in three words peaceful, beautiful, and serene.

Before you suffer from a surfeit of history, architecture, and art you must also combine in the holiday recipe all of the beauties of the islands.  There are no mountains, no rivers, no green landscapes, and few trees but just look at the pretty fishing harbours and villages.  Take in the Blue Grotto that rivals Capri and add the peace and tranquillity of Buskett Gardens where you will find original native trees like pine and oak together with groves of oranges and lemons, interspersed with carobs, almonds, tamarisks, and figs. There, even in January we found it to be lavish with wild flowers.  Go to the cliffs at Dingli that offer such magnificent views and add a pinch of the pleasing public Barracca Gardens in Valetta and you have the prescription for a holiday that you will remember forever.

So what is our verdict on a long-stay holiday?  We loved it, it was better than we expected – it most certainly was not what we feared, an extension to God’s waiting room.  Our fellow guests were as young at heart as ourselves.  In fact, a lot of them put us to shame on the dance floor, jiving, and rapping the night away, and not an ‘Anniversary Waltz’ in sight.

Our Tour Operator was Mercury Direct and with too many years of package holidays under our belt than we care to remember, they stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

Perhaps it was because their Reps were not young bloods out from the UK for a season or so, set to have a good time themselves, and whose only interest was earning as much extra cash as possible by selling tourists as many trips as possible.  These were local people knew their Islands and who were able to give good sound advice, they did not push trips and tours on the unwilling but were there to aid and assist in any crisis.  We were suitably impressed and will do it again.

James Clark
January 2008

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