Malta: Europe's Best Kept Secret

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Flag of Malta  ,
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

One of the most baffling things about Egypt is that all flights seem to leave the country in the middle of the night. This is how we found ourselves waking up at 2:00am to fly to Malta. Once we arrived we spent several minutes trying to figure out the currency, realizing with shock that the Maltese Lira is stronger than the dollar. The taxi to our hotel wound through rocky hills with the sea to our right as I soaked in the island landscape. It looked just like Italy, rocky hills and tiny, clustered towns. Once at the hotel we didn't do much besides crash into our beds.

When we awoke we headed out into the city where I delightedly ate a ham and cheddar sandwich, I was thrilled to be in a Catholic country with pork products. My mom and I strolled along the water, noticing the rather diminutive Maltese people walking with their families. The Maltese are the shortest people in Europe and for once I felt tall.

That afternoon we took a tour with "Captain Morgan" and cruised around the harbor. It is similar to the shape of a hand so that the water goes in between fingers of land making short trips more round-about than anticipated. We circled the ancient city of Valetta which was founded by the Knights of Saint John, a brotherhood of monks famous for their medical skills. The Knights were kicked out of Jerusalem during the Crusades and after wandering around the Mediterranean for two years they were given the Maltese Islands. Their fortifications in Valetta had fended off numerous Turkish attacks but had fallen without a fight to Napoleon in the 19th century. Then, when the Maltese revolted against the pillaging French soldiers, the British came to the rescue and claimed the island as a colony. The relationship between the British and the Maltese was relatively stable and to this day the Maltese population of 400,000 welcomes 450,000 British tourists each year.

The next day we happened upon our two other travel companions, Megan and Carole Adkins. Megan had been studying in Greece and her mom flew over to Europe with my mom so they could talk on the plane. Carole had been the musical director for the musical so the two moms were content to relive the performances over and over again. Megan and I were happy to talk about study abroad and the anticipated adjustment of returning to America.

After hugging and asking each other about experiences in Cairo and Athens, we headed off for a trip to Mdina. I was excited because the name of the town is Arabic meaning walled city. The Arabs had conquered Malta at the height of the Islamic conquest of Europe and even though they were later ousted, they left behind 60% of the Maltese language. Here and there I would pick up small phrases or nouns.

We ended up getting a cab driver for the day, his name was Joey and he took us to and from Mdina. Along the way he cracked jokes and nearly killed my mom with his terrible driving. He forgot to break until the last minute and my mom nearly went flying through the windshield.

"Sorry," he muttered, "it is hard to talk and drive at the same time." But he then continued to chatter on just as before. From then on the passenger's seat was called the "death seat" and we'd pick straws to see who was going to sit there.

Mdina was the home of the Maltese aristocracy throughout countless occupations. Its winding, narrow streets were strikingly European and filled with flower boxes and balconies. Clean, happy cats traipsed about as tourists lost themselves in the cobblestone maze. Megan insisted on us going into the Torture Museum, described by Lonely Planet as "a last resort on a rainy day." But we complied and soon we were in a dark labyrinth of bloody and gruesome displays with a screaming soundtrack playing above us. Although it was revolting (it is quite unfortunate that St. Agnes had to die on Malta) I did learn a lot and it made me quite glad I didn't grow up during the Middle Ages.

We got lunch in the city and then strolled around Rabat, which is Arabic for "the suburbs." From there we headed to the hypogeum, the site of some of the oldest ruins in Malta. Our first stop was an outdoor temple that was a bit more "ruined" than I had expected. The piled of rocks were indecipherable to my uneducated eyes. We wandered around guessing what everything had been, Carole and I made up unusual stories and entertained each other with our far fetched notions. My mom and Megan were a bit more serious about the whole thing and they learned from the literature that the temple was supposedly built in 7000bc and was used for animal sacrifices.

The hypogeum is an underground temple that was used for burials in ancient Malta and as a bomb shelter during World War II. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and only 90 people are allowed to visit each day. The deep caverns and limited lighting combined with its history of religious ritual and death made the whole place rather creepy. Our tour guide was an overenthusiastic teacher who shouted to make her point clear.

"The one thing we know is absolutely 100% fact is that the ancient peoples communicated. We do not have many facts about this temple, only teories." The whole tour was like this, countless "teories" about who built the temple and what it was used for and no proof for any of it. It was fascinating but as a math major I was a bit bothered by the lack of evidence. How did they even know the place was an ancient temple at all?

The best part of the tour was an explanation of The Sleeping Lady, a tiny statue that was found inside one of the caverns. The tiny figurine is amazingly expressive; she invokes as many questions as the Mona Lisa. Her large hips and serene posture have provoked many scholars to assign her unusual importance in the culture.

The tour came to end and we left the prehistoric darkness for the startling sunshine of modern day Malta. Soon Joey was taking us back to our hotel near Valetta as we laughingly recalled the day's events.

"So, it's goodbye, it's see you soon, it's have a good time." He said as we climbed out and headed back into the hotel.

Gozo: Malta's Little Sister

The history of Gozo is rather tragic; similar to Malta's only instead of fending off the Turkish forces the undefended landmass was constantly losing its residents to slave ships. On one occasion the entire population of 5,000 people was captured and shipped away. The problem became so serious that the residents were ordered to sleep inside the one, tiny castle on the island. We visited this "citadel" and I could only imagine the whole island cramming inside each night.

If Malta is Sharm El-Sheikh, full of high rises and European tourists, then Gozo is its Dahab counterpart. The smaller island has no skyscrapers and can be crossed in an hour. Its rocky coast is dramatic and the surrounding waters are a piercing turquoise. Getting there, though, is a bit more complicated. We hired another cab driver to take us to the ferry and he wasn't happy. Apparently this is a long and arduous journey, all thirty minutes of it, and he wasn't having a good day. He agreed but moaned about the expedition the whole way there. We quickly gave up on asking him to cross over to Gozo with us when he started lecturing us on his latest personal dramas.

We missed the ferry, they pulled up the gangway as we were running down the dock. So after waiting forty minutes we finally boarded the next one and crossed the narrow channel of water to Gozo. Once there we hired a driver for the day and criss-crossed the tiny circle of land. Our first stop was the Azure Window, an arch-like geological formation on the coast that framed the beautiful waters. We climbed into a tiny, brightly painted boat and sailed in and out of the coastal arches and caves. Below us coral glowed in neon oranges and purples.

Lunch was at a quaint little fishing town where they showed us their latest catches and we got to pick from the icy container. I had fun practicing my deboning skills and the bread and olive oil rounded out the perfect meal. Carole had been getting car sick because of the winding roads and our driver's love for speed to she stuck to the bread and later we made sure she didn't sit in the death seat.

Our last stop was a beach for swimming. Unfortunately our lazy umbrella boy plopped us onto the rockiest part of the shore because he didn't want to walk as far so this made it harder to enjoy the water. Still, I jumped in and splashed around in the refreshing sea. The owner of the umbrella company was a Maltese-American from Pennsylvania so we talked to him later on.

After taking the ferry back to Malta I recommended we take a bus back to our hotel since it was so much cheaper. This was our first time on public transportation and at first the ride was uneventful. But when we reached the winding roads of the harbor our bus had to slow down behind a bicyclist who was blocking our path. The impatient driver honked and yelled but the biker wouldn't move, stubbornly riding in the middle of the road until we rounded the turn. Then he moved to the tiny burm and our bus almost knocked him off the road. We head a loud thud, either our bus had hit the bicyclist or he had whacked the bus in anger with his fist. I turned to mom in shock as
the bus driver just kept driving, not even looking back to see if the guy was hurt.

The bus was overcrowded with a group of French college students on break so two girls and an old woman were sitting by the door. At the next stop they started getting off when suddenly the old woman fell. When I looked again I realized the biker, red with rage, had pedaled furiously to catch up to our bus. He had now boarded our bus, crashing past the three women and grabbing the driver by his mouth. He yanked the driver off the bus and they started screaming and fighting on the sidewalk. A brave or perhaps foolhardy French guy jumped off the bus to help mediate. We just sat there watching it all unfold. After awhile it seemed the driver had won and he reboarded the bus and we kept driving.

"It is my road! I honked and he didn't move! Didn't you see?" He was yelling. I was undecided as to who was in the wrong and I wasn't about to get involved. A French girl who had been mowed over by the biker was crying and her friends kept saying "she's not ok" in French to the driver who responded with more exclamations in English about how the biker had hurt him and how it was his road. Then, like a freaky apparition in Sixth Sense, the biker reappeared in front of our bus at the next stop. I was afraid the driver was going to run him over but instead there was more shouting and the biker hit our bus a couple times. We sped onwards, skipping the next couple of stops so the biker wouldn't be able to catch up. So, after using public transportation for the first time we were all a bit startled and shook up. I guess the moral of the story is that a bike never beats a bus.

We spent our last day wandering around Valetta and soaking up some sun at the pool. I was pensive, thinking of the finals that awaited me. Carole and Megan talked about their final day in Greece and mom was starting to focus on Mike's wedding. The vacation was drifting to a close and reality was creeping back in. That night I left the Sleeping Lady and the boisterous people of Malta for my final ten days in Cairo.
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