Malta Christmas 2004

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December 25th 2004
Published: October 26th 2008
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Valletta From HarborValletta From HarborValletta From Harbor

The Capital of Malta has 6,315 people and is one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Mediterranean

Hello Everyone, We are doing something a bit different here. We did many journals over the years that were just sent out as print copies. I am now putting them on this blog site, mostly for our records. I’ve copied the text of the journals pretty much as they were written way-back-when, in this case 2004, so most of you have already read this. The photos, however, should be much better in this format.

This was written while we were living in The Netherlands. Settle back and take a walk down memory lane with us to:


Hello Everyone, Here is the promised journal on Malta where Bernard, I and Argentine daughter Victoria spent a week at Christmas 2004.

Vicky spent the summer in Spain and was heading back to Argentina. She managed to arrange her flights so that she flew to Holland and accompanied us to Malta, and then returned to Argentina directly afterwards.
Valletta Street SceneValletta Street SceneValletta Street Scene

While the population of Malta is 340,000, Valletta's small population allows for this kind of street scene, i.e., without people!
So, it is our sweet Vic that you’ll be seeing in a lot of the pictures distributed throughout this journal.

I guess the most frequently asked question for non-Europeans (and many of them as well) is “where the heck is Malta?” We’ve all heard of it, but few can locate it on a map. Well, look for the boot of Italy, which is kicking Sicily, and directly south of Sicily you’ll see the tiny islands of Malta and Gozo (looks like one island, but is really two). See the map at the beginning of this blog.

The People

Generally the people are short and dark. The men are the shortest in Europe and the women second shortest (Portuguese women are shorter). The Maltese are friendly, laid-back and generally welcoming of tourists. They are, however, a little more reserved than you might expect for a Mediterranean country. Most of our interchange with the Maltese (other than the hotel, restaurant and tourist guide folks) was when asking for directions. The maps and road signs are a disaster and the solution is to “just ask anybody.” Which we did, A LOT. While the people were gracious, they always told or
Veggie Vendor Veggie Vendor Veggie Vendor

Vicky is not very tall (5' 4" maybe), so you can judge how short the Maltese men are
gestured for us to just go straight. Granted, while it worked out 99%!o(MISSING)f the time, it was a bit disconcerting.

A Unique Language

Some linguists attribute Malti’s origins to the Phoenician occupation of Malta in the 1st millennium BC, but most link it to North African Arabic dialects. The language has Arabic grammar and construction, but is a melting pot of influences - laced with Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, French and English.

This is for you cousin Holly (who wrote she was interested in the Malti language and wished she could hear it spoken). Malti is a member of the Semitic language group, which also includes Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic. Malti is the only Semitic language that is written in a Latin script. Example: Do you have any rooms available? Ghad fadilkom xi kmamar vojta? Can you show me a room? Tista’ turini kamra? I’d like a room with two beds. Nixtieg kamra bil-kamra tal-banju.

English is taught to children from an early age, and almost everyone in Malta speaks it well. Many also speak Italian. French and German are spoken, though less widely.


Not great, generally disappointing. You would think you could get good North African
Marsaxlokk boats & townMarsaxlokk boats & townMarsaxlokk boats & town

This fishing town had the best seafood and the most beautiful boats
or Italian/Sicilian food, but you’d be wrong. We did find several good restaurants, but the majority were mediocre at best. The seafood was very expensive (go figure). Christmas eve we had our best dinner - really nice restaurant, great service, and fabulous food. And we livened it up a bit by inviting a lone diner to join us. Gabby was sitting by herself and readily accepted our invitation to join us. She was German, but a bit of an Anglophile - perfect English - and fun. She thought we were English (amazing how many people cannot distinguish accents) and when we told her two-thirds of us were American she said “if you are Americans I am an elephant.”

*The following history was gleaned from various guide books.

The British Legacy

For 150 years Malta was part of the British Empire, which means almost everyone speaks English as well as Malti. The Maltese drive on the left, and many of the vehicles are vintage British models; the local football teams have typically British names; cafes serve sausage, eggs and chips and pots of tea; beer is sold in pints and half-pints. Traditional items of British street-ware - red telephone boxes
Vic at Golden BayVic at Golden BayVic at Golden Bay

This was taken just before we went horse riding around this beautiful area
and blue lamps outside police stations - persist in Malta. And conversations in Malti are liberally sprinkled with the English expression “Awright?”

In the 1930’s Italian was the language of law and of polite conversation among the upper classes. Malti was the everyday language of the common people. Mussolini made the ridiculous claim that Malti was merely a dialect of Italian and that the Maltese Islands rightly belonged within his new Roman Empire. In 1934 the British decreed that Malti would be the language of the law courts, and that Malti and English would be Malta’s official languages.

The Temple Builders

When I think of Malta I think of the medieval history because so many massive forts, citadels and fortresses still exist from that period, but indeed it has some of the best prehistoric sites in the world.

The oldest monuments are the beautifully preserved megalithic temples built between 3600 and 2500 BC, the oldest surviving freestanding structures in the world. They date from approx. 1000 years before the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. The remains of about a dozen megalithic temples survive today, and some of them are remarkably well preserved.
Ancient TempleAncient TempleAncient Temple

Tarxien and Hypogeum Temples, were well preserved and there was also an amazing museum

We visited the main temple sites of Tarxien and Hypogeum, plus several out of the way (waaaaay out of the way - you cannot imagine the goat trails we were driving on at times!!) sites. Probably the most interesting, but one I don’t have pictures of because it is underground and photos not allowed, is the Hypogeum.

The Hypogeum is an incredible underground necropolis. It consists of halls, chambers and passages hewn out of the rock and covering some 500 sq. meters; it is thought to date from around 3600 to 3000 BC, and an estimated 7000 bodies may have been interred here. The chambers, halls, etc., were hewn out of the solid rock to look exactly like the aboveground temples.

Phoenicians & Romans

From around 800 to 218 BC, Malta was colonized by the Phoenicians and, for the last 250 years of this period, by Phoenicia’s principal North African colony, Carthage. With their watchful eye painted on the prow, the colorful Maltese fishing boats seem little changed from the Phoenician trading vessels that once plied the Mediterranean. The island may have served as a Carthaginian naval base during the First Punic War against Rome (264 - 241
Gozo Island - Mgarr town from ferryGozo Island - Mgarr town from ferryGozo Island - Mgarr town from ferry

The island of Gozo has a population of 28,000, so remains quaint and quiet

During the Second Punic War (218 - 201 BC) Rome took control of Malta before finally crushing Carthage in the Third Punic War (149 - 146 BC). The island was then given the status of a municipium, or free town, with the power to control its own affairs and to send an ambassador to Rome. There is evidence, however, that Malta retained a Punic influence. In the 1st century AD an historian described the islanders as “barbarous,” as in they didn’t speak the civilized languages of Latin or Greek.

St. Paul’s shipwreck was certainly the most influential event of this period. The Bible (Acts 27 - 8) tells how St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta (most likely around AD 60) on his voyage from Ceasarea to stand trial in Rome. According to local lore, during Paul’s three-month stay both the Roman governor of Malta (later to become St. Publius) and many of the islanders were converted to Christianity, making the Maltese one of the oldest Christian peoples in the world.

Indeed, it is one of the staunchest Catholic countries in Europe. Divorce and abortion are illegal and active churches abound, which makes it a particularly nice place to visit at Christmas time.

Arabs & Normans

The rapid expansion of Islam in the 7th to 9th centuries saw an Arab empire extend from Spain to India. Malta fell into Arab hands in 870. Both Malta and Sicily remained Muslim possessions until the end of the 11th century.

During the 11th century small groups of Norman adventurers from northern Europe arrived in Italy, formed allegiances with local leaders and set up a system of feudal lordships. One, Robert Guiscard, took over much of southern Italy and in 1060 his younger brother, Count Roger, captured Messina and used it as a base for the conquest of Sicily. It took 30 years of constant struggle, but by 1091 Count Roger had driven the Arabs out of Sicily. A year earlier, in 1090, he had captured Malta after a surprise attack. Tradition has it that needing the support of the local people, Count Roger tore his red and white quartered banner in two and gave half to the Maltese contingent, thus inventing Malta’s national flag. Notice the famous Maltese Cross in the top left corner.

For the next 400 years Malta’s history was closely linked to Sicily’s and
Maltese flagMaltese flagMaltese flag

According to legend, Norman Count Roger needing the local people's support, tore his red & white quartered banner in 2, giving 1/2 to the Maltese contingent and thus inventing Malta's flag
its rulers were a succession of Normans, Angevins (French), Aragonese and Castilians (Spanish).

During this period the Maltese aristocracy began to form, and a few of their elegant townhouses survive in Mdina. Their distinctive architectural style is referred to as Siculo-Norman, but it is almost entirely Sicilian - there is little if any Norman influence.

The Knights Arrive (Attention Da Vinci Code fans - this is the history of your Knights Templar)

The Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem - also known variously as the Knights of St. John, the Knights of Rhodes, the Knights of Malta, the Knights Hospitallers, and the Knights Templar:

This is a complicated and long history intricately linked to the Island of Malta since 1522, but had its origins in the Christian Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Some Italian merchants from Amalfi founded a hospital and guesthouse for poor pilgrims in Jerusalem in 1070. The hospital was operated by monks who followed the Augustinian rule. The monks won the protection of the papacy in 1113 and were raised to the status of an independent religious order known as the Hospitallers. The Order
Vittoriosa Vittoriosa Vittoriosa

These defensive walls were built around Vittoriosa (current pop. 3,000) to defend the island/city against Suleyman the Magnificent
set up more hospitals along the pilgrimage route from Italy to the Holy Land, and Knights who had been healed of their wounds showed their gratitude by granting funds and property to the growing Order.

Other Knights offered their services as soldiers to provide protection for pilgrims, and thus the Order’s dual role of healing the sick and waging war on the enemies of Christ began to evolve. Knights of the Order kept the road to Jerusalem free of bandits.

When the armies of Islam recaptured the Holy Land in 1291, the Order sought refuge first in Cyprus. In 1309 they acquired the island of Rhodes, planning to stay close to the Middle East in the hope of re-conquering Jerusalem. Here they remained for over 200 years building fortresses, guesthouses and a hospital, and evolving from a land-based army into the most formidable naval fighting force the medieval world had ever seen.
During this time the Order grew and was composed of European noblemen who lived the lives of monks and soldiers. The Order comprised eight nationalities or “langues” - Italy, France, Provence, Auvergne, Castile, Aragon, Germany and England. (King Henry VIII dissolved the English contingent in 1540 following his breach with the Roman Catholic church.)

The objectives of the Order were “service the poor and defend the Catholic faith.” The revenue of properties and estates spread throughout Europe, which were either owned by members of the Order or had been gifted to it, financed the Order.

The marriage of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile led to the unification of Spain in 1479, and under their grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Malta became part of the vast Spanish Empire. One of the greatest threats to Charles’ realm was the expanding Ottoman Empire of Suleyman the Magnificent in the east. Suleyman had driven the Knights of St. John from their island stronghold of Rhodes between 1522 and 1523. When the Knights begged Charles V to find them a new home, he offered them Malta. The nominal rent was to be two falcons a year - one for the emperor and one for the viceroy of Sicily. (Yes movie fans, Maltese Falcons are real and today still fly freely above these isolated islands.)


To defend the island from Suleyman, Jean Parisol de la Valletta, the Templar Grand Master between 1557 and 1568, ordered the building of ditches and defensive walls around the peninsulas of Birgu and Isla. Many forts were built around the entire island and remain an outstanding feature of the island. Vittoriosa’s historical center remains a wonderful labyrinth of narrow streets and charming neighborhoods with fabulous ocean views.

Valletta, named after the Grant Master, is the main city of the island and has the best Christian sites: St. Johns Co-Cathedral, the Grand Master’s Palace, and many museums. Walking around the vast fortifications of the city, which naturally have fantastic views over the city and out to sea, is a highlight.

In May 1565 when an enormous Ottoman fleet carrying more than 30,000 men arrived to lay siege to the island, Grand Master la Valletta was 70 years old and commanded a force of only 700 Knights and around 8000 Maltese irregulars and mercenary troops. To make a long story short, the fortifications la Valletta had insisted be erected saved the island. The Turkish morale was drained by the long, hot summer and the prospect of spending the entire winter encamped outside the walled cities. When the Knights received an unexpectedly small relief force from Sicily of 8000 men, the Turkish commander ordered some of his troops to attack. But the tired and demoralized Turkish soldiers were in no mood to fight these fresh and ferocious Knights and men-at-arms, and they turned and ran for the galleys now anchored in St. Paul’s Bay. Thousands were hacked to pieces in the shallow water of the bay as they tried to escape. That night the banner of the Order of St. John flew once again over the battered ruins of St. Elmo and in their churches the Knights and the people of Malta gave thanks for the end of the May - September, 1565 siege.

After the Siege

The Knights of Malta, previously neglected, were now hailed as the saviors of Europe. Grateful monarchs heaped money and honors on them. Although sporadic raids continued, the Turks never again seriously threatened Malta. Suleyman the Magnificent died in 1566, and a magazine explosion in the Istanbul dockyards destroyed much of the Turkish fleet. What remained of the Ottoman naval power was crushed at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, a victory in which the galleys of the Order of St. John played an important and enthusiastic part.

Mdina-The Silent CityMdina-The Silent CityMdina-The Silent City

The city of Mdina has survived over the years with its distinctive architectural style referred to as Siculo-Norman, the "streets" are so narrow nothing but foot traffic is allowed and thus the whole town retains an amazing calm, peaceful feel.
the Turkish threat removed, the Knights occupied themselves less with militarism and monasticism, and more with piracy, commerce, drinking and dueling. Although the Order continued to embellish Valletta, the Knights sank into corrupt and ostentatious ways.

Napoleon in Malta

Did I warn you that Malta had a LONG (but interesting) history? By the late 18th century around three-quarters of the Order’s income came from the Knights of the French langue, so when the French Revolutionary authorities confiscated all of the Order’s properties and estates in France, the Order was left in dire financial straits.

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Malta. He demanded water for his ships, but the Knights refused. The French landed and captured the island with hardly a fight - many of the Knights were in league with the French, and the Maltese were in no mood for a battle. Although the French Knights were allowed to remain, the German Grand Master and the rest of the Order were given three days to leave.

Napoleon stayed in Malta for only six days, but when he left his ships were weighed down with silver, gold, paintings and tapestries looted from the Order’s churches, guesthouses and
Mdina StreetMdina StreetMdina Street

Mdina was built approx. 4000 BC. Because of the restrictions on cars and people, it is called "The Silent City." You can see why only foot traffic is allowed
infirmary. Most of this treasure went to the bottom of the sea a few months later when the British Navy under Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

Back on Malta Napoleon had left behind a garrison of 4000 men, but they were taken unawares by a spontaneous uprising of the Maltese people and had to retreat within the walls of Valletta. A Maltese deputation sought help from the British, and a naval blockade was enforced. The French garrison finally capitulated in September 1800, but having taken Malta the British government was unsure what to do with it.

Malta was almost returned to the Order of St. John, but the Maltese did not want them back and sent a delegation to London to petition the British to stay. Just then war between Britain and France broke out again. Faced with the blockade of European ports against British trade, the British government soon changed its mind regarding the potential usefulness of Malta. While the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars wore on, Malta rapidly became a prosperous port, and with the Treaty of Paris in 1814 it was formally recognized as a Crown Colony
Gozo FieldsGozo FieldsGozo Fields

Gozo is largely agricultural - makes the scenery fantastic
of the British Empire.

Crown Colony

The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought an economic slump to Malta, trade fell off and little was done in the way of investment. But its fortunes revived during the Crimean War when it was developed by the Royal Navy as a major naval base and supply station.

During WWI Malta served as a military hospital - it was known as the “Nurse of the Mediterranean.”

During WWII Malta effectively became a fortified aircraft carrier, a base for bombing attacks on enemy shipping and harbors in Sicily and North Africa. It also harbored submarines which preyed on Italian and German supply ships. These operations played a vital part in reducing the supplies of fuel and material to the Panzer divisions of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which were then sweeping eastwards through Libya and toward British-held Egypt. Malta’s importance was clear to Hitler too, and a crack squadron of Stuka dive-bombers was stationed in Sicily with the objective of pounding the island into submission.

Malta’s greatest ordeal came in 1942 when the country came close to starvation and surrender. It suffered 154 days and nights of continuous bombing - in April alone
More Gozo FieldsMore Gozo FieldsMore Gozo Fields

We hiked all over this island - what a wonderful experience!
some 6700 tons of bombs were dropped on Grand Harbor and the surrounding area. By comparison, at the height of London’s Blitz, there were 57 days of continuous bombing. On 15 April 1942 King George VI awarded the George Cross - Britain’s highest award for civilian bravery - to the entire population of Malta.

The aircraft and submarines based in Malta succeeded in destroying or damaging German convoys to North Africa to the extent that Rommel’s Afrika Korps was low on fuel and ammunition during the crucial Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, a situation that contributed to a famous Allied victory and the beginning of the end to the German presence in North Africa.

Independent Republic - UE Member

In 1974 Malta became a republic. On May 1, 2004 Malta became a member of the European Union. It is anticipated that the Euro will eventually be adopted as the national currency (probably in 2007).

The Knights of Malta - Today

Following the loss of their French estates and their expulsion from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, the Knights sought refuge first in Russia and later in Italy. After several years of uncertainty, they finally made their headquarters in Rome.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries the Order rebuilt itself as a religious and charitable organization. Now known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, it is an internationally recognized sovereign entity that mints its own coins and prints its own postage stamps. In effect it is a state without a territory, although its properties in Rome enjoy extraterritorial status. It concerns itself largely with providing hospitals, medical supplies and humanitarian aid in regions stricken by poverty, war and natural disasters.

The Order now has diplomatic relations with 93 countries, has legations in several countries (including France, Germany*, Belgium and Switzerland) and has been a permanent observer at the UN since 1994. The Order has an embassy in Malta and since 1991 it has reoccupied its old home in the upper part of Fort St. Angelo in Vittoriosa. Since 1988 the Grand Master has been Fra’ Andrew Bertie, a Scot.

*Bernard lectured for the present-day German organization, Malteser, in Prague, in 2002 and 2003.

Our Adventures - Conclusion

HOTEL. What a disaster!! I had specifically chosen a hotel that had a fitness room, indoor pool, etc., because we knew it wasn’t
Malta WaterMalta WaterMalta Water

It was too cold to swim, snorkel or SCUBA, for us anyway, but it was very tempting to dive into these beautiful waters
beach weather and looked forward to warming up in a Jacuzzi after touring all day. Well, the 4-Star hotel I choose should have been rated 2 stars or less. The rooms were run-down, the fitness room, pool, etc., closed at 5 p.m. unless you wanted to pay extra!! And these facilities weren’t in good shape either. The “two bedroom” apartment I’d booked turned out to have one bedroom and a bed in the living room for Vicky. It worked out okay, but was definitely not what we had hoped for.

We spent the first part of our stay exploring the ancient temples and walking through the medieval cities guidebooks in hand drinking in all the history. And while history is ever-present wherever you are Malta, we next focused on the natural beauty of our surroundings. The day before Christmas we went horse riding along the coast, but there are absolutely no photos of us riding as I had the camera. Did I mention I don’t know how to ride? Vicky is a great rider and it was for her that Bernard (who is allergic to horses!) and I donned helmets, defied gravity and mounted very large animals. Once atop
Gozo Salt PansGozo Salt PansGozo Salt Pans

These ancient salt pans are still worked by the locals in the summer - high tides fill the pans; the sun evaporates the water leaving salt
our mounts it was, well, WORSE than I’d expected. This was not my first time riding, but every time I get on a horse I remember why I don’t like it - I can’t ride! My horse always wanted to be in the lead. Whenever Vicky and another young lady would gallop away, I had all I could do to hang on to my horse who was desperate to follow at full speed. Bernie wanted to go faster, but his horse refused to go at more than a fast walk. Have to say Vicky looked lovely with her hair flying behind her as she sped away. The only photos I got, however, were taken before the ride, but give an idea of how beautiful the scenery was:


The other Maltese island is Gozo, a short ferry ride from the main island. It provided a soothing respite from crowded Malta, which is amazingly densely populated. Although Gozo is more than one-third the size of its larger sister, it has less than one-tenth of the population - only about 28,000 Gozitans live here. Farming and fishing are the main activities, and the pace is much slower than on the main island.
Your CorrespondentsYour CorrespondentsYour Correspondents

And last but not least, Bernardo and me at the Azure window on Gozo

We went to Gozo two different days because we liked the slower pace, found a good restaurant, and enjoyed the views.

We did some nice walks, but mostly drove the entire island through one picturesque terraced field, quaint town, and scenic coastal area after another.

It was amazing because you’d be driving along and the most amazing view would pop up around a corner.

The salt pans were picturesque and interesting. They are still worked by the locals in the summer - the high tides fill the pans and then the sun evaporates the water leaving the salt.

Did I mention how beautiful the water was? There is wonderful scuba and snorkeling around Malta, but it was too cold for us to attempt such an adventure - we had on all the clothes we brought as it was unseasonably cool.

So folks, that concludes my Malta journal. I NEVER mean to write so much, but I do enjoy history and writing, which in the case of Malta was a deadly (i.e., long-winded) combination.

Much love, Kathy & Bernard


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