Thursday, 25 February 2016

Malta – A church for every day of the year

February 13-21

Hello everyone!

As I mentioned in my last blog, Malta is a tourist hotspot in the summer months. However, there are many reasons to visit this small country even when the sun isn’t strong enough to burn you to a crisp.




If you like history…
The main islands of Malta and Gozo are home to some of the oldest temples in the world, some of which pre-date the pyramids of Ancient Egypt by over 1000 years. The most famous is the Hypogeum. The government restrict visitor numbers to preserve the temple so only 80 people can visit per day. I wholeheartedly support the idea, even if it meant that it wasn’t possible for us to visit. On Gozo, the Ggantija temple complex dates from a similar era.

Entrance of the Ggantija complex, Gozo
Forts and towers are numerous and often dominate a village or vista. The Red Tower in Gozo, whose colour has faded in the 300 days of sunshine Malta claims to receive each year, is particularly striking. We enjoyed visiting it mainly because we found a geocache in its surrounding wall.

The Red Tower, northern Malta

Our geocache found at the Red Tower
  
The Cottonera (Three Cities) are a short boat ride from Valletta, the capital. The journey itself actually gives great views of both sides, as well as allowing one’s imagination to drift to how the various invading armadas must have felt when approaching this strategically important landmass. Admittedly, the modern Maltese Falcon wasn’t around when the Ottomans, Napoleon and co. were leading their respective charges. Having seen this behemoth of a boat up close, I can imagine it would have scared prospective invaders away.

Boats docked in Birgu, one of the Three Cities known as the Cottonera

A view of Birgu, one of the Three Cities known as the Cottonera

The Maltese Falcon
  
What wouldn’t have given these invaders the heebie-jeebies is the Great Wall of Malta, a not-so-great-in-any-respect stone wall which zig-zags across much of the main island. Makes for a nice walk, though.






If you like buildings…
Look, more forts!

The fort at Mdina, one of Malta's first capitals

Malta’s history is often linked to the Knights Hospitaller, a Western Christian military order which operated in Malta for much of the Middle Age period. Their religion of choice is omnipresent on the islands in the form of numerous cathedrals, basilicas and chapels. On the plane to Malta, a man told me that ‘Malta has a church for every day of the year.’ I can certainly attest to that.

A religious complex near Mellieha, Malta
  
A small chapel near Dingli, Malta
  
If you like being in nature…
Malta’s islands are small yet are home to many excellent hikes and walks. The main hike we undertook initially led us from Gozo’s largest town of Victoria to the southwest of the island, before moving along the cliffs on the western side of the island.

A vegetable patch in Gozo

Gozo's stunning coastline
  
The west of Gozo is home to Malta’s most spectacular sight: the Azure Window. We got an idea of how the rock has been eroded so spectacularly as the wind was blowing a gale, resulting in the waves crashing onto the land with brutal force. Walking along the cliffs was quite a challenge.

The Azure Window, Gozo

Crashing waves on Gozo's western shoreline
  
If you like the sea…
With the wind whipping across the island and temperatures hovering bellow the twenties, entering the sea would be brave/foolish/plain stupid (delete as appropriate). I took the plunge on one of the calmer mornings, as you’ll see below. Having tunnel vision for only the sea, I didn’t spot that the golden sands quickly turned into rock…

video


The beaches are lovely and were incredibly quiet, possibly owing to the fact that natives feel that this weather is fairly chilly.

Golden Bay beach, Malta

Ramla Bay beach, Gozo
  
If you like food and drink…
There are local vineyards in Malta and the wine is fairly quaffable. Unlike the beer, which was pretty ordinary.

A taverna selling Malta's national dish

We didn’t sample the local delicacy of rabbit as restaurants were fairly expensive. We did try some traditional desserts, with our favourite being kwarezimal, a chewy cake eaten during the period of Lent.

Kwarezimal

Malta is a lovely place to visit. As I’ve mentioned before, it is probably an entirely different beast in the summer when millions flock to its sandy beaches. Malta Island has been affected by tourism much more than Gozo, resulting in us preferring the smaller landmass. Both are pleasant destinations where one’s sense of adventure can certainly be satisfied.





Love you all


Matt

Monday, 22 February 2016

Malta – The ups and downs of the tourist industry


February 13-21

Hello everyone!

The Maltese archipelago is situated roughly 100km south of Italy. It advertises itself as having over 300 days of sunshine every year and possesses many natural beaches with different colours of sand and sea. It is little wonder, therefore, that Malta is a popular tourist destination.






According to the steps in the airport, over 4 million people pass through Malta’s only airport every year. The population of the country was approximately 423,000 in 2013. Simply put, that is a massive influx. Most will visit in summer, when the temperature soars well above the 15°C (apparently this is the mildest winter Malta has experienced in decades) which this week has averaged.

Image from the Times of Malta showing Comino in the summer

We were staying out of season, which resulted in having copious space on the most popular beaches and being able to eat at restaurants without making reservations. We were able to visit Malta’s most spectacular scenery, such as the Azure Window in western Gozo, in relative peace.

The Azure Window, Gozo

Ramla Bay, Gozo
  
That’s not to say that we were the only tourists here. Our flight from Frankfurt was full and we met many British families enjoying their half-term break in the southern sunshine. It made me wonder, however, what the tourist hotspots such as St. Julian’s and the main beaches must be like in June, July and August. The thought, and volume of people, sent shivers down my spine. Sardines on a small island.


Image from the Times of Malta showing a Maltese beach during the summer
  
Malta has built its economy on tourism. It’s understandable why they chose this path; there are monstrous profits to be made from the industry. As a visitor, it makes life much easier, which I know and accept.


Mellieha has a great reputation

In the days before the internet, this was how many tourists and expats kept up with news at home

Yet it also spoils the landscape and forces many into an industry they would rather avoid. Hotels looming large and casting shadows over beaches. Narrow roads clogged with numerous sightseeing buses which are far too big. Prices rising to the point that we didn’t visit the ancient temples on Gozo. I also can’t shake the images of ‘lads on tour’ holidays when pondering a Maltese summer.

The Radisson Blu hotel hanging over the Golden Bay beach, Malta



This problem is certainly not restricted to Malta. I would also be a hypocrite to criticise as it makes it much easier for me to visit these places. What I don’t like is when it starts to affect the very things – and people – which people are visiting for.



The other thing we noticed as we drove around Malta is how seasonal the tourists must be. Some restaurants, which would undoubtedly be heaving in the summer months, were permanently closed during our time here. Some areas resembled ghost towns at times, with very little happening and very few people walking around.


A popular restaurant which was available to let in Mellieha
  
The main anomaly to all of this was the capital, Valletta. This did not strike me as being geared towards tourists. In fact, Valletta gave off the impression of a working capital city. It was busy but the noise was coming from locals doing their business rather than invaders snapping selfies.

The main street passing through Valletta

A car park in Valletta with Fort St. Elmo in the background
  
I don’t know if I would want to visit Malta in the summer. It would be a completely different experience and one which summons negative images in my mind: cramped beach space, no parking, and fewer places to escape to relative quiet. I’m very happy that we visited out of season, allowing us the freedom to move around and explore this lovely country.

Ships in the Cottonera in February - imagine this in July...

Beautiful Gozo
  
Love you all


Matt

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Malta – A little set of rocks with a lot of history


February 13-21

Hello everyone!

Every February Hannah and I are lucky enough to have a week’s holiday. Each of us has a stipulation which must be fulfilled by this adventure. We must go:

- Somewhere warm (Hannah)

Fun in the Emirati sun in 2012 

- Somewhere new (me)

Visiting the southern hemisphere for the first time in 2015

In years gone by, we’ve travelled to places as diverse as Dubai, Marrakech and the national parks of Uganda using this policy. With money being a bit tighter this time round, we decided to stick to Europe for our February trip. Admittedly, there isn’t much of Europe that is closer to the Equator than our chosen destination: Malta.

View of the Cottonera - the Three Cities - from Valletta

I didn’t know a lot about this small country when we booked our flights. Very little, in fact, with the best example being that I didn’t realise Malta is comprised of more than one island until we started organising our holiday. It is made up of three islands, the largest of which is called…Malta. The other islands, Gozo and Comino, are part of the country called Malta. We learnt that people on Gozo don’t like to be referred to as Maltese (they’re Gozitans), even though this is their nationality. Still with me?


I did know that Malta – all of it – was a British colony. Signs of this are abundant, sometimes literally. From red telephone boxes (unlike in Britain, these are actually still used to make phone calls) to the statue of Queen Victoria watching over one of Valletta’s main squares, the British influence is pretty much omnipresent. In many ways this was comforting, particularly the fact that they drive on the left. With the narrow roads, plethora of roundabouts and occasional reckless driver, it was one less factor to worry about.



She may have been missing a finger, but you wouldn't want to mess with Queen Vic
  
English is commonly spoken and one of two national languages, Maltese being the other. It struck me as being a Romanised version of Arabic, which inevitably led to us pronouncing many town names incorrectly.

"Hi, we're looking for...umm..."

The alternative influences reflect Malta’s location in the Mediterranean Sea. Strategically, it has been a fantastic outpost to control, irrespective of its small size. For the Romans and the French under Napoleon, it was a stopping point on the way to North Africa. For the Moors, it was a pit stop when going the reverse direction. The British used it as a resting point between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. All of which helps to explain the sheer volume of fortifications on the islands.

A gate with Roman influence

A defensive tower on the southwest coast of Malta
  
The Ottomans, meanwhile…well, they just wanted control of it. They attacked with a huge army – estimations range from 20,000 to over 40,000 men – in 1565, only to be famously repelled by the Knights Hospitaller and local men when on the cusp of conquering the main island.

The main fort of the Cottonera, which was the focus of much of the 1565 siege

Malta played a vital role for the British during the Second World War, being used as a base for many British aircraft to attack targets in Italy and North Africa. The islands were bombed and blockaded by the Germans and Italians from June 1940 until November 1942. The locals stayed strong in the face of fire and famine until the British could break through the blockades with supplies to help Malta defend her territory. As a mark of gratitude, the country was awarded the George Cross: one of the Empire’s highest honours. The cross adorns the modern Maltese flag.

The introduction of Spitfire planes into the battle turned it decisively in the favour of the Allies


The Maltese flag, with the George Cross in the upper left corner
  
Malta’s history, however, stretches back much further than these medieval and 20th century battles. Further back even than the Roman era. Cart ruts showing indigenous people dragging goods from one hamlet to the next are spread across the country. Temples – the most famous being the Hypogeum – which pre-date the pyramids of Giza are on both Malta and Gozo.

Beneath this armadillo are the Ggantija temples, which date back to 3500 BC

Only 800 people are allowed in the Hypogeum each day, meaning it's normally fully booked - as it was for the entire week we were in Malta
  
For such a small country – its total area is 1% of Belgium’s – Malta has been a historically important heart of the Mediterranean Sea for a long time. Unfortunately, its modern heart is kept beating by a rampant tourist industry, which I will detail in the next blog.

Victoria Gate in Valletta, another reminder of British rule until 1964


Jean Parisot de Valette, founder of the town which is now Malta's capital

Love you all


Matt