Written by Diane Webster.
As long as I can remember, there was always talk of Malta in our home. It was the homeland of my grandparents, Aunties, and Uncles. After my husband, Bob, and I took our first “roots” trip to Malta with my parents, Speed and Lila Fenech, we couldn’t wait to get back. It was a dream come true, when my sister and brother-in-law, Joy and Tom Thrun joined the four of us for “Roots 2”-our second visit to Malta with family. It was absolutely incredible! I still find it hard to describe how wonderful it was to share such a rich experience with my family. “The Malta Experience” is the title of a movie shown in Valletta to acquaint visitors to the island and its history. It is also the phase we adopted to describe our trip. Once you have visited these beautiful islands, the experience is one that will affect you for the rest of your life.
Situated in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sicily, Malta is considered by some archeologist as a possible site of the lost Atlantis. There are temples that predate Stonehenge by hundreds of years and are believed to be the oldest in the world. And, that’s just the beginning! The location of the Maltese islands makes it a ‘crossroads’ for nations and of strategic importance to practically every invading force throughout history. Each invasion, whether benevolent, or by force, has left its mark. The ‘big’ main island of Malta is only 18 miles across, yet in two visits we have failed to see it all, and still have much more to discover about the history and sites of this beautiful place.
Malta is actually three islands; the main island, Malta (which we used as our home base), Gozo, which is a short ferry ride away and equally rich in history and sights, and the tiny island of Comino (where only two families live).
A good place to start your experience in Malta is Valletta, the current capital. The Knights of Malta built Valletta in the 1500s after defeating the Turks in The Great Siege. The defeat was significant and ‘saved all of Europe’ from a Turkish invasion. The crown heads of Europe were so grateful that they provided the Knights with money and resources (like renowned architects and artisans) to build a fortress that would provide even greater protection should a similar invasion occur again. As a result, Valletta is one of the first ‘planned’ cites in the world and the home of many important works of art. The 16th century fortress is now a modern shopping mecca. Shops with jewelry, leather, lace, clothes and glass line the miles of ancient stone streets. You enter through limestone thresholds to modern shops with everything from the latest European shoes to traditional Maltese glass and crosses. It’s an almost disturbing mix of old and new. One entry leads you to the latest stiletto heels, the next to the breathtaking Cathedral of St. Johns.
The Cathedrals of Malta are stunning. The entire country is adorned with beautiful churches, which are a source of pride for the community and where the church reflects the faith, devotion and wealth and of those that live there. The marble inlaid floors of St. Johns mark the tombs of knights, bishops and nobles. It is spectacular. And, it is the home of important artifacts, sculptures and paintings including Caravaggio’s “Beheading of the Baptist”. Also in Valletta is the palace of the Knights of Malta, the Archeology Museum, the War Museum, and much more.
In WWII Malta endured a second Great Siege and became the most bombed place on earth. Malta stood alone while being attacked day and night by the Germans forces. The importance Malta’s heroism is validated by the King George Cross and the tribute by Franklin D. Roosevelt that are displayed in the War Museum. While the museum could use a lesson in preservation, it is an emotional experience for veterans of WWII such as our father. For the rest of us, it’s awe inspiring to witness the bravery of the Maltese people. They suffered but stood fast though horrific years of devastating bombing and deprivation where one in 70 people were injured and one in 700 killed. Much of the island was bombed and many priceless landmarks were destroyed. But, as is the nature of these brave and proud people, the island is today a mostly restored, beautiful tribute to their tenacity and bravery.
Which brings me to another favorite feature of Malta – the people and the food. The fresh Mediterranean cooking, with delicious pasta, fish and pizza were so good that my mouth waters at the mere thought of it. Yet, if the dinning experience is topped by anything, it’s the wonderful people of Malta. They seem to really enjoy Americans; they speak English, and are a joy to get to know. Everyone we encountered was helpful and pleasant and it seemed that we wanted to return to every restaurant we went to (and several we did). Some of the food specialties include a Maltese bread starter with tomatoes and seasoning rubbed into it, a delicious bean pate, several wonderful variations of pasta (they have capers the size of peas), and rabbit. Since half of us are vegetarians and the other half are fussy, we skipped the often recommended bunny, but the specialties we did try were simply delicious.
One day we hired a driver and headed west to Mdina, the capital before Valletta was built and the site of The Great Siege. As you would expect, there is a breathtaking cathedral and many important and beautiful buildings. On the way to Mdina, we stopped at the craft village. Here there is a series of huts and buildings featuring Maltese crafts of Phoenician glass, Maltese hand made pottery, jewelry, metal and wood work. We ordered a porcelain nameplate from Bristow Potteries that they hand painted and delivered, beautifully done, to our hotel. We were glad we hired a driver this day as it allowed us to proceed to Mdina with our many acquisitions safely stored in the van.
A visit to Mosta is an easy stop on the way back where one can see the beautiful domed church which is one of the fourth largest in Europe. It’s considered a miraculous church as a bomb pierced the ceiling in WWII and failed to explode or injure any of the 300 attending mass. One of the other largest domes is in Gozo –so 50% of the four largest domed churches reside in the tiny Maltese islands!
Although you could easily spend your entire trip on just the main island of Malta, we wanted to visit Gozo one day, and we all agreed to a side trip to Sicily on another. The trip to Sicily began with a sickening (literally) high-speed ferry ride and included six hours on a bus ride to Mt. Etna with one city stop. At the halfway point, Tom declared that if we made it to Mt Etna he was going to throw himself in. The scenery was fascinating, but after almost 6 hours on the bus, we were glad for the stop in Modica, even though we were given only an hour there. Now, we have a sick mom, for whom we had to find seasick pills, no Sicilian money (they don’t take anything else) and less than an hour. What did we do? With true Maltese grit, we ran to pharmacy after pharmacy until we found one that would take our credit card, delivered the pills to mom and managed to find some great Italian goods for the boys and some fabulous Italian shoes for us girls. Do us Maltese gals know how to deal with pressure or what!
Our ferry ride to Gozo was, thankfully, another matter. Not a single upset stomach and lot and lots to see. We visited the wool and lace making area, the Citadel, and had a breathtaking boat ride on the blue lagoon. You can actually see to the bottom of the clear blue water and marvel at the rock formations and the famous fungus rock. We loved Gozo and it is worth another visit.
All of Malta is worth another visit. This is my second trip and I again feel that I ran out of time. You have to wonder how a place so small can offer so much. It’s easy to see why rulers throughout history have attempted to possess these ‘jewels of the Mediterranean’. We are truly blessed that we could have such a trip – a beautiful place with our loved ones. Malta has a special meaning for me, but I think would for everyone. Malta will win your heart, stimulate your brain, indulge your taste buds and have you yearning for more – it’s all part of The Malta Experience.