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


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