Malta: the island that stole my heart
January 1, 1970
by Ella Spencer
Moving to Malta
I am ashamed to admit that when I was first told that I would be spending a year studying at the University of Malta, I didn’t have a clue what that meant. I didn’t know where Malta was, how big it was, what language they spoke… not a thing. I wasn’t even entirely confident as to whether it was a country or a city. Looking back, I cannot believe how impossibly ignorant that was of me. I enthusiastically thanked my study abroad coordinator, making sure to say all of the right things but secretly just itching to get back to my laptop to do a quick Google maps search.
This is one of the few times in my life when I am thankful that I am so incredibly lazy. I boarded that plane knowing only that I was headed to an island in the Mediterranean and that it would be about 30 degrees when I arrived. The taxi driver who drove me from the airport to my new residence told me more about the island in the 20 minute journey than I had found out in a whole summer of anticipation. Knowing next to nothing about where I would be spending the next year gave Malta the chance to completely take my breath away.
Now, were anyone to ask me about Malta, I would be able to tell them pretty much anything that they wanted to know. This island went from barely being a blip on my radar, to being an intrinsic part of who I am. It is everything to me. It is the home that kept a piece of my heart when I left it.
The first thing you notice when you land in Malta is how brown everything is. Especially for a girl leaving the rolling fields of North Wales, UK, the distinct lack of green is rather shocking. All of the buildings are made from the limestone that is found on the island, giving everywhere a rather dusty look. The uniform, flat-roofed houses all packed so tightly together, interspersed with winding streets so narrow that you almost miss them, makes you feel as though you are in North Africa rather than the Mediterranean. And yet, as you begin to look a little closer, you find that these buildings are not all that uniform after all. Every so often you spot a grand house with a wraparound terrace and Romanesque pillars framing the front door – something reminiscent of a house you may find in Georgian England. I very quickly found that everywhere you look on this beautiful island there is a wonderful combination of so many different cultures.
Historical sites to see
The first humans
Malta is an incredibly small island that sits just above Libya and below Sicily – the perfect stop-off into Europe. The history of the island is as bright and colourful as its iconic little fishing boats. Archaeologists have found evidence to suggest that the first human beings to arrive in Malta came in 5200 BC, most likely from Sicily. Around 3600 BC, during the Neolithic period, many temples were built around the island with great architecture and complex construction for their time. These temples are well preserved and protected today. The Ggantija temple on Gozo, Malta’s sister island in the north, is one of the oldest free-standing buildings in the world. The civilization that built them seemingly disappeared around 2500 BC. We still do not know how or why. The Phoenicians came in the 8th century BC, who are responsible for the tombs and catacombs found in the city of Rabat. They were followed by the Carthaginians in the 6th century BC, before the Romans in 255 BC. It was in 60 AD when St Paul was shipwrecked on the island, bringing Christianity with him. To this day, Malta is a strongly Catholic country. In 533 AD the Byzantine’s had their rule, before 850 AD when they were conquered by Muslims from North Africa. Though the Arabs did not inhabit the island for long, they had a significant impact on Malta, most especially on the language, which although is unique, is still Arabic based. Thankfully for me, the locals on the island have two first languages: Maltese and English. Although you will always find the odd older person who cannot speak English, and the odd younger person who cannot speak Maltese.
For almost 400 years Malta was considered an extension of Sicily, being governed by whoever ruled that island at the time: first the Normans, then the Aragonese. During the Norman reign, the entire male population of the town Celano in Italy was exiled to Malta. It is thought that contemporary Maltese males all originated from Southern Italy. In 1530, Charles V feared the ever expanding Ottoman Empire, and so bequeathed the island of Malta to the Knights of St John. The desperate attempt to uphold a Christian Europe resulted in Malta undergoing a cultural explosion. The Knights are responsible for the construction of most of the major towns and their famous fortifications; the 365 churches on the island; the commissioning of artists such as Caravaggio to embellish some of the most ornate and ostentatious cathedrals that I have ever come across. Unlike previous inhabitants, the Knights made Malta their home. They protected it valiantly from the Ottoman army during the Great Siege, and it is they who built the grand city of Valletta, Malta’s capital.
End of the 18th century to now
In 1798 Malta was signed over to Napoleon Bonaparte who was stopping on his way to Egypt. And so, the French got to leave their mark. Until 1800 when the Maltese people rebelled with the help of the British and Rear Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Malta voluntarily became a part of the British Empire. The island played a large part in the wars before claiming their independence in 1964. Now, small though it may be with a population of only 400,000, it is a bright and thriving country in its own right. The Maltese are, however, proud to have had that British influence. They are proud to still call the Queen of England, the Queen of Malta. They have kept the bright red post boxes and telephone booths. They still drive on the left. Even their supermarkets sell Tesco products – Britain’s biggest supermarket. As my Maltese friend once told me, “Everything the Brits do, we do.”
British though they may strive to be, the people are so wonderfully Southern European. Walking through my village on my own, it took me a while to put my finger on why I felt so different, aside from the obvious. It was my sister who enlightened me on her first visit: I felt so incredibly safe. Safer than I had ever felt back in England. I didn’t feel at all suspicious if people would stop me in the street for a chat, which was a common occurrence due to my white blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Getting lost (also a common occurrence) was not scary because people would go out of their way to help me get back to where I needed to be. Towards the end of my time in Malta, I was hiking with some friends to a lagoon in Selmun that we had heard about. As we approach the water, a Maltese man is walking towards us. He tells us that the water is very dirty and that he knows a much better place to swim just around the corner. “Follow me!” he cries, and off we go. We arrive at a completely empty and secluded lagoon with bright, clear blue water. Our new friend, Charlie, asked if we minded him swimming nude. After almost a year here, I didn’t find this remotely strange or creepy. And he respectfully remained behind a rock the entire time. How easy it would have been for him to keep his mouth shut, politely nod an acknowledgement as we walk by, and have the beautiful lagoon all to himself. Is there anywhere in the world with people more hospitable, more trustworthy, or more relaxed? The way of life in Malta is infectiously laid back. 10 minutes can mean an hour. Buses run to their own schedule, and sometimes route. It is perfectly acceptable – the norm even – to have a 3 hour long lunch of bruschetta, followed by pasta, followed by fresh fish, followed by dessert, all alongside a bottle or two of crisp white wine and topped off with a shot of limoncello.
Which brings me onto the food… Delicious. You will be hard pressed to find a restaurant that does not offer pizza and pasta. The Maltese delicacies are spicy snails, fried rabbit, grilled octopus or calamari, and pastizzi – a moreish savoury pastry. So much of what Malta produces is used right there on the island: not only the limestone, but the fish caught from the sea, the honey or the cheese produced on Gozo, the cactus fruit, the wine. There was a field at the end of my road and every morning the farmer would set up a table in front of the gate and sell vegetables straight from the ground and fruit straight from the trees.
I feel as though I have barely scratched the surface in my attempts to describe the magic of this island. You can read and you can listen, but you will never know quite how red the sand on Ghajn Tuffieha is until you see it for yourself; you cannot imagine how high and mighty the Azure Window is until you stand on the top and feel the wind through your hair. You cannot know how it feels to walk down the perfectly straight streets of Valletta following the sound of smooth jazz drifting from the tiny cocktail bar, Café Society. It is impossible not to fall in love with this island. To anyone who asks, I could talk and talk and talk about Malta until my breath runs out. But the best gift I can give you is to tell you to go and find your own piece of this paradise and bring back your own stories to tell. Go and let this vivacious little rock in the middle of the Mediterranean breath some life into you, and thank me later.