The Mediterranean Medley that is Malta
The Maltese Republic has been ruled under various guises by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Habsburg Spain, Knights of St John, French and British (thank you wikipedia). And as if that weren’t enough, there is also evidence that Germanic tribes like the Goths and the Vandals took control of the archipelago for brief periods.
Despite being small and rocky, the islands must have been very attractive to seafaring conquerors as a place to shelter on journeys between Europe and Africa. Nowadays, they are more attractive to European tourists looking for a little winter sun, and financial companies that benefit from having offshore accounts.
So how does a place with such tangled roots think of itself? Well, somewhat unsurprisingly, the Maltese are fiercely proud. It may stem from the knowledge that so many invaders have come to their shores, yet none have remained. But while the invasions are no longer within living memory, there’s a confident cockiness to the Maltese. A sense of defiant patriotism in their eyes, as if they each saw off the dozen or so rulers last week.
It’s hard to put any labels on Malta though. Like anywhere, most of the population is concentrated in one region. The capital Valletta is as metropolitan as any European city, well geared to the modern needs of tourists, expats and locals. Further north along the shore, people and businesses pack together along the concertinaed waterfront, some bays better for water sports, others where you can party all night. You can party all night, but I spent more time getting to know my DSLR and playing with my new tripod.
Moving only a couple of miles away, you’ll find a completely different Malta. The further you get away from Valletta, the more the place starts to feel like quiet Gozo. Visit the small fishing village of Marsaxlokk, or explore historical Rabat and the famous Mdina glass factories to see some of Malta’s alternative side.
The Maltese people can’t be pigeon-holed either. Some look distinctly North African in origin, with dark Mediterranean features that could pass as easily for Moroccan, Spanish, Tunisian or Italian. Others would blend in perfectly with the ‘indigenous’ locals anywhere from Western Europe to the Balkans. That might not hold true in the blonde & fair states of Scandinavia, of course, but I guess that means Maltese people can certainly be described as looking European. As European as the rest of us in this big glorious genetic smelting pot, non-indigenous peoples included. Presumably because of a healthy amount of genetic smelting on the islands over the many years, although not a topic I tried to broach with anyone during my stay.
The locals led me to believe I wouldn’t be able to understand Maltese, and assured me how unique the language was. However, knowing a little bit of Italian and Arabic, I was surprised to find it quite easy to decipher! I may have insulted a few Maltese folks by saying they were speaking a recognisable Italo-Arabic mix to my ears, obviously denting their pride a touch. But speaking with locals, you’re as likely to find someone with a posh English accent (English is the co-national language here) as you are to come across a stand-in for Manuel from Fawlty Towers. A legacy from the most recent rulers of the region, Britain.
After a week staying in lovely Mellieha with my family, and the luxury of a rental car, the rest of the rabble returned to the UK and I switched back from tourist to traveller, moving to a hostel near St Julians. Hostel Malti was a great place to spend time, and I quickly gave it the affectionate title of Malti Towers when the door handle came off in my hand as I arrived. Connecting with other travellers again was a relief in some ways, and I realised I shouldn’t have enforced my ‘no travel without a goal’ status so entirely. Travel can give you a lot of answers, even if you’re not sure of the question.
The picture above might just look like a plate of food, kindly assembled by a fellow traveller for a group of us eating together, but it’s the only picture I can find of the kitchen table in the hostel. The top was covered in hundreds of stamps collected during round the world travel by the hostel owner Chris. It’s all sealed in lacquer so you can eat your breakfast or dinner on his travel trophies, which includes a couple of pre-second world war examples bearing the profile of Hitler!
With only a few days before 2012 arrived, I was officially ‘back on the road’. There was no plan, other than finding a semi-nomadic way to support myself, and trying not to travel by air. In the UK, I had been working out exactly how ‘the internet will provide for me’ (maybe if I say it enough times…?) when the family-sourced plan of Christmas abroad came about. Without any reason to return to the UK, it made sense not to. It’s a great feeling to be completely free of commitments. Not quite what I was looking for, but it was a welcome start.
More photos from Malta in the coming days. Stay tuned to the rest of my look back at 2012 to see what happened next…