The Subtle Secrets of Malta

Malta

Three inhabited islands of the archipelago of Malta have supported civilization since 5900 B.C. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean, south of Sicily and north of Libya, many empires, among them Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French, and the British, have claimed these lands. Each has left indelible cultural, architectural, and political marks on the terrain and its people.

A web search of “Malta” bombards the seeker with an onslaught of ancient temples, beaches, walled cities, cathedrals, remnants of 150 years of British occupation, and spoken English, to boot. So many activities are crammed into such a small land mass that it makes a traveler’s head spin. It’s an escape to faraway places with strange sounding names, like Willie Nelson’s tune.

My husband and I joined the frenzy on a recent visit, during “the time of COVID.” Starting with activities, billed as “not to be missed,” I felt a lingering tug away from the bucket list. At the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Hagar Qim and Mingdra, where ancient freestanding temples date back to 3600 B.C., we marveled at the world’s largest 20-ton megaliths, but I winced at the row of tourist buses waiting to unload the hordes.

Valletta

Across from the seaside port of entry, we took the elevator up to the cliff’s mesa where the High Barrakka Gardens offer a respite before entering the capital city of Valletta. I politely pushed my way into a spot along the jammed stone retaining wall to gaze upon the beautiful Grand Harbor below. The original 1566 city gate into the smallest national capital in the European Union opened onto crowded, pedestrian streets. Trendy shops and cafes, tucked into neoclassical and baroque style buildings, swelled with tourists, eager to unleash their pent-up hunger for travel experiences.

Our mission in Valletta: to visit the ornately gilded St. John’s Co-Cathedral, number 1 on the “not to be missed list.” The chivalric Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John had founded and protected this city over 500 years ago, and the eight-pointed Maltese cross emblem flag, adopted here in 1126, waved in the breeze from every light post. At the cathedral, the line of tourists waiting for entry streamed out the door. With an admission fee of 15 euros, and a requirement to dig out my vaccination card, I mouthed, “No, I’m not doing this.” From that moment on, I threw the bucket list away and allowed the subtle secrets of Malta to sink in. I strolled through centuries of quaint alleyways, studied clothing styles from laundry hanging outside terrace windows, and allowed my eyes, ears, and taste buds to do the exploring.

Daphne Caruana Galiza

As an alternative to the opulent cathedral, we searched for the memorial to Maltese investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist Daphne Caruana Galiza, who was assassinated by a car bomb on October 16, 2017. At the Great Siege Monument, I spied her picture on a simple, commemorative altar. Through her extensive reporting in the Sunday Times of Malta, Daphne single-handedly exposed government corruption, money-laundering schemes, bribery of top officials, and the Panama Papers Scandal.

Every country has its dirty secrets. Daphne Galiza revealed many of Malta’s by exposing unethical politicians. Daily death threats, her house set on fire, and, finally, her murder silenced this brave woman’s words and the truth. That same government declared a National Day of Mourning on the date of her funeral.

At a local bakery, we grabbed two “must have” Maltese pastizzos, which turned out to be rich, flaky croissants filled with repulsive puréed peas. We shared the open space of St. George’s Square with locals who munched on identical pastries. They licked their lips with each bite, and contentedly swooned as if this was the most delicious late morning snack. It has to be an acquired taste, I decided, like scotch, and it has to be British.

Mdina and Vittoriosa

Two ancient, pedestrian-only, walled neighborhoods across the harbor from Valletta captured the feeling of a virtual history lesson. My favorite, Mdina, the old capitol of Malta, today is a well-preserved, impeccably maintained medieval town with a thousand years of stories to tell but only 300 current residents. Known as the “Silent City,” I tried to imagine the chaos that intruded on its quiet winding alleys, when film crews arrived to shoot scenes for The Game of Thrones, Gladiator and Troy.

The other, Vittoriosa, one the Three Cities enclosed within the largest walled fortification is much bigger than Mdina, older than Valletta, and served as the original location that the Knights of St. John selected to govern the island. The city also overcame the attempted invasion of the Ottoman Turks in 1565. 

In both of these neighborhoods, unique architectural enhancements to the drab limestone buildings made the doorways, windows and balconies pop with color and imagination. Wandering through each town’s narrow streets, I couldn’t believe how fascinated I became with the history behind these architectural gems.

Distinctive, elaborate door knockers, called il-habbata in Maltese, remain an iconic feature of residential front doors. Two identical door knockers, cast in bronze or brass, and positioned on opposite sides of colorfully painted, double wooden doors, made each entryway a work of art. The size of the knocker plus the elegant motifs of lions’ heads, nautical themes, or family crests symbolize the homeowner’s social status and wealth. 

In front of each door, a latticed wrought-iron half-gate with intricate cut-out designs, complements the striking entrance. This additional partial barrier allows the main door to remain open so light and cool breezes can flow through. In ancient times, these gates prevented goats from entering. Milkmen of yore used to meander through the alleys with their herd, milking one on the spot to fill the order of a home’s mistress.

The architectural addition of an enclosed, wooden second-floor balcony with either glass or mesh panes and fronting the street is considered a national symbol of Malta. The gallarya, which evolved during the occupation by the Arabs, had been introduced to provide Muslim women discretion when sitting on the terrace, without being viewed by passersby. Now, this architecturally rich adornment remains a “must have” for any homeowner.

Second floor full-length windows with protruding curved wrought-iron grills mounted to protect the openings are known as “pregnant guards.” There are “nine-month, six-month, even ready-to- have-twins grilles, depending on the degree of bulge at the bottom. Ancient invaders hid beneath open windows and grabbed the feet of residents who stood there and dragged the victims off to use as slaves. The grilles provided protection for residents from this fate and later became a regular window security feature.

  A Dghaysa Boat Ride

I longed to do one more thing before leaving Malta. We had circumvented the Grand Harbor for days, but had not boated across it. As if the gods were listening, as we exited Vittoriosa at the waterfront, a captain and his traditional water taxi seemed to be waiting for us. Originating in the 17th Century, this type of boat, called a dghaysa in Maltese, is cousin to the Venetian gondola. I loved seeing Valletta from the Grand Harbor, of passing by the ancient towns we had visited, of waving to boaters moored in the marina, with a brisk Mediterranean breeze blowing through my hair.

Salisbury English Pub

On our last evening, the hotel’s concierge advised, “You must have dinner on the waterfront.” We passed a quaint English pub just one block away, but continued walking down to the harbor. There, every restaurant was noisy and crowded with half-hour wait times. We headed back up the hill to the Salisbury Pub, a friendly place, filling up with locals. A plate of crispy fish ‘n chips, a pint of Maltese craft beer, and laughter coming from the booths brought back comfortable memories of pubbing in London and relief that we had rejected one last “must do” in Malta.

May 2022 Issue

El Ojo del Lago – Home Page

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Carol L. Bowman
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