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A steadfast rock in the currents of history: first impressions of Malta

April 16, 2012

The fortress city of Valletta, capital of Malta, seen from the sea.

Happy Easter! Since my husband confidently assures me that Easter lasts for fifty days by the Church’s reckoning, I can get away with saying it a week late. I hope you had a lovely one, and I look forward to catching up with comments and other blogs as soon as I can. We have had a memorable week away, but there is the inevitable mountain of catching up to do on the domestic and paperwork front before I can justify settling down to read.

Having ‘bravely run away’ from the hail and snow last week (as my friend Heather pointed out!), we have now slunk back home to find that April in Scotland is, once again, fresh and beautiful and as astonishingly green as I have ever seen. It looks more like May here: our ancient gean, our Queen of the May, came into blossom on the last day of March, while the sycamores are in full leaf and even the oaks, almost the last to catch up with spring, are soft-outlined with fresh growth. The daffodils are a cheerful shout of yellow, the bluebells – astonishingly – are beginning to flower, the oyster-catchers are nesting and the pied wagtails and curlews are here again. So it is a great pleasure to be home (despite the odd snow shower). But my goodness, what a pleasure it was to have a holiday too!

We spent Easter somewhere whose beauty is entirely different to that of green Scotland: Malta, the doughty little island state which is a dot in the centre of the Mediterranean. We went there in search of history, religion and sunshine, and found all three in abundance. Malta is a welcoming, warm-hearted Mediterranean holiday spot, but it is so much more than that, as I’m sure many of you know far better than I. (I know that there are some Maltese who read Dancing Beastie, and I beg your indulgence as I try to recount my first gleanings of your home country.)

A stepping-stone between Sicily and Tunisia, Europe and Africa, Christendom and Islam, Malta has always been coveted for its strategic significance. So many peoples have left their mark there over the millennia that the island is as layered in history as sedimentary rock. Neolithic men built temples on Malta, and the Phoenicians from Tyre left their language. The Romans governed it; St. Paul was shipwrecked on its shore in A.D. 60 and began the conversion of the inhabitants to the new Christian faith. Later came Normans, Angevins, Saracens, Barbary corsairs and the Knights Hospitallers, the intrepid fighting monks of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Knights of St. John were eventually kicked out by Napoleon, whose troops were in turn evicted by the Maltese and the British. Malta finally gained its independence (by civilised – naturally! – agreement with Britain) only in 1964, so in some ways its spirit is as young as it is ancient.

In the course of its stormy history, Malta has endured and defeated two great sieges: one in 1565 from the Ottoman Turks, who wanted to drive the Christians from this vital toehold in the Mediterranean, and another in the Second World War, when the Axis powers tried to do the same to the British. Victory in the first siege led arguably to the end of the the Ottoman threat to Christendom, and led directly to the building of Malta’s beautiful new capital city of Valletta under the Knights of St. John. Steadfast resistance in the second siege led to Malta’s being the first of only two collective recipients of the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for courage. The medal is shown on the flag of Malta.

Copy of letter of King George VI set into the front wall of the Palace of the Grand Masters (now seat of the Maltese government) in Valletta.

It is an island of palm trees and orange trees and yellow mimosa blossom. Its old cities are built of honey-coloured stone, with cool colonnades for shelter from the blazing sun, and with the most tremendous fortifications I have ever seen as defence from sea-borne enemies. On seemingly every street corner there is a saint. At noon, the bells of the Angelus ring out above the bustle of the streets, filling the air where flags flutter and furl in the sea breeze.

On Good Friday, all the flags on the island flew at half mast. We found it enormously inspiring to spend Holy Week and Easter in a country where faith is an overt and unself-conscious part of life, just as it was inspiring to discover the continuing significance to the island of the Knights of St. John. We were cheered, too, by the warmth of the welcome given us by all Maltese and by their particular kindness to children, ensuring that the boys enjoyed their holiday as much as their parents. And really, with that friendly reception plus boat trips, pageants, Italian ice cream and vivid true stories of knights, saints, pirates and wartime heroism, what’s not to like – for little boys as much as for their parents?

I feel as if our first visit to Malta has planted a seed in us. I don’t know what it will grow into yet, but I hope that we will be able to nourish it with return visits to the island in the future. (And we didn’t even get to the neighbouring island of Gozo, about which I heard so much good.) There is much I’d like to share, but we are still in the school holidays with all their pressing calls on my time. I’ll leave you with a few more first impressions, this time in pictures. Do you know Malta? If so, what are your own memories of the island?

The cliffs near the beautiful Blue Grotto from the prow of a luzzu (traditional fishing boat).

Valletta, 'Città Umilissima', seen from Sliema in evening light

The flag of the Knights of St. John flying over Zejtun

Street corner in Rabat

Good Friday procession in Zejtun

Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta, rising like a fairy-tale fortress above fields of clover.

A cliff-top shrine at Wied iz-Zurrieq

I shared my introduction to a more northerly set of islands here: In Orkney, there are seals at the bottom of the garden.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Perpetua permalink
    April 16, 2012 5:53 pm

    Oh, thank you so much for this wonderful post, DB! It transported me straight back to my one and only visit to Malta 12 years ago this month. It was a one week package tour and I went with my mother-in-law as DH won’t fly. 🙂 We had a fantastic time and saw so much, including a day coach trip to Gozo. Your gorgeous photos have really brought the memories flooding back. I must dig out my own photos when we get back to Wales….

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 16, 2012 6:01 pm

      I’m so glad to have revived happy memories for you! I’d love to show more if time allows over the next week or two.

  2. Elephant's Eye permalink
    April 16, 2012 7:32 pm

    We stayed on Gozo. I have sad memories of hunters after migratory songbirds. And deep memories of the ancient temple at Gigantija. And a Maltese brass dolphin announces our visitors.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2012 7:15 pm

      We must look forward to Gozo and Gigantija next time. Bringing home a dolphin doorknocker was a lovely idea, but, oh, those poor birds – I had a feeling that Malta might be one of the places they come to grief. I’m sure we have fewer swallows every year, and I always think about them trying to get to us from Africa at this time of year.

  3. hmunro permalink
    April 16, 2012 7:37 pm

    I’ve never set foot on Malta. But thanks to your wonderful post, I may not need to! What wonderfully evocative writing, DB … and your pictures are beautiful. Thank you for a lovely introduction to this little island. (And thanks, too, for the mention! 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2012 7:17 pm

      Least I could do, m’dear! Glad to have given you a little virtual holiday in the Med. 😉

  4. April 16, 2012 11:31 pm

    What a wonderful post! Back when I was in university in Toronto I lived one year in a part of the city called “Little Malta”, which is, naturally, full of Maltese people. There were lots of Maltese clubs and bakeries, and all in all Malta has always seemed mysterious and fascinating to me since I lived there. I’ve never actually been to the real Malta, but I’d like to go one day… and hopefully one day soon now that I’ve seen those gorgeous photos!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2012 7:19 pm

      Thank you, Jodi. I wonder what took a community of Maltese people to Toronto…? I hope you get to ‘the real Malta’ one day. It’s a place which you would respond to, I think, with its beauty and deep history.

      • Elephant's Eye permalink
        April 17, 2012 8:55 pm

        They say there are more Maltese people off the island, than on. Another community is in Cape Town.

  5. April 17, 2012 2:24 am

    I’ve always wanted to go to Malta – so much history. It’s in so many books. Thanks for the tour and descriptions – from the street corner to the landscape skylines – just the stuff of dreams.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2012 7:21 pm

      I was so ignorant of Malta before I went there – all I knew was some vague ideas of the Knights and the George Cross – so I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to find out more. It was indeed the stuff of dreams.

  6. April 17, 2012 4:25 am

    I have never been to Malta and don’t even know why I have had a hankering to visit the place but it has always sounded like somewhere I would love. I am also interested in Jodi’s comment as I also used to live in the same area in Toronto. There’s a Malta Bake Shop that was (probably still is) a neighbourhood stalwart.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 17, 2012 7:23 pm

      How funny that you know the same neighbourhood in Toronto as Jodi in Aberdeen! I think it would be dangerous to live near a Maltese bakery. 😀 Hope I have managed to feed your hankering for Malta, just a little.

  7. April 17, 2012 9:34 pm

    I don’t know it at all, and have only recently read about Malta’s heroic stand in WW2. My only local knowledge is that the University of Malta stops work at 1pm in summer because it’s too hot to work. Sounds like my sort of place. Glad you all had a good break.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      May 8, 2012 7:02 pm

      Thanks, Linda. Should you ever want to find out more about Malta’s history and its wartime experiences, I’d recommend a vivid novel by Nicholas Monsarrat (author of ‘The Cruel Sea’ which became a splendid film with Jack Hawkins) called ‘The Kappillan of Malta’. It took me a while to get into, but I’m glad I persevered.

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