Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Italy, the tiny island nation of Malta is bursting with points of interest, from the world’s oldest buildings to the backstreet fleshpots of the Second World War. Bay’s Nick Smith went there by chance, only to discover that Malta should have been on his list of ‘must-see’ places right from the start.
Decades ago, when I was a trainee journalist with a regional magazine in south London, I was sent on a training course called Style Sharpening for Writers. As the mists of time close in, I confess that I can’t remember much of the advice dispensed that day by an urgent chap in a corduroy jacket smoking a pipe. But there is one nugget that sticks out to this day, something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “Don’t use the word ‘literally’ in a serious piece of journalism, even when you mean the word literally. It’s lazy, overused and no-one will take you seriously…” Given that the word has entered the social media lexicon in the 21st century to mean just about anything the user wants it to, it was probably sound counsel from the scribe that had probably spent decades behind the lectern at the London School of Printing. No matter, rules are meant to be broken, because I was literally closing my front door on my way to Egypt when the bell on my landline rang. A curious event, and one that stopped me in my tracks, prompting me to retrace them and see who on earth it might be trying to contact me on a piece of technology last seen on Noah’s Ark. “You can’t go to Egypt,” said the voice on the end of the line. “There’s been a shooting at Luxor and our insurance won’t cover you for that destination.” The caller from the travel desk of the Daily Telegraph further warned me that her boss wouldn’t pay to get me home if I got into trouble either.
With a sigh I replaced the receiver in its cradle and wondered what to do next. Since my diary had been blacked out for the week I was at a loose end and, reluctant to go through the hassle of unpacking, I phoned one of those bucket shop travel agents and asked them if they could stick me on a plane to anywhere later that day. They replied that if I could get myself to Heathrow by lunchtime I could fly economy class to Malta. Never heard of it, I complained, wondering if it had something to do with The Maltese Falcon or even Maltesers. I dusted off my Times Atlas of the World to discover that Malta was a small island located innocuously between Sicily and Libya that could not have had much impact on anything. Which exposed how lacking my knowledge of the Second World War was at the time, for this was where in 1945 President Franklin D.Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom met at Montgomery House, just outside Malta’s capital Valletta, to discuss the somewhat familiar issue of the Soviet Army moving into Europe.
The so-called Malta Conference was hardly on my mind as the plane sped eastwards across the Mediterranean. Much to my surprise, the travel agents had been as good as their word, and I was soon experiencing the feeling of doing something spontaneous by heading into realms unknown. My first impression of Malta was from the air, the slightly strange sensation of being able to see the entire destination I was going to. It was like looking at a map, for there below me was the tiny archipelago shaped like the figure eight, with mainland Malta to the southeast, the smaller Gozo to the northwest, with the only other significant island Comino sitting between the two. After circling around a few times the plane finally connected with the planet at Malta International where I waited by the baggage carousel in a rapidly evaporating crowd of people until there was only myself left and no further items of luggage to stare at. An official asked me to write down where I was staying, and he’d forward my stuff to me when it eventually arrived. I told him that I didn’t know where I was staying and that I’d phone him when I did. Sensing that there were too many moving targets, he booked a room for me at his cousin’s hotel in what I was to discover was a decrepit old part of Valletta, put me in a taxi and told me not to worry about anything.
The ‘hotel’ was located behind St John’s Cathedral, and little more than a shabby old boarding house in Strait Street, a notorious Second World War fleshpot, best described in the outraged tones of Air Malta’s website as a place of, “drunkenness, rowdiness, prostitution, and even cross-dressing.” It’s no wonder, continues our genteel author, who by now is in need of smelling salts and a fainting couch, “the street was known as the ‘The Gut’ amongst its English visitors.” Walking around the dark alleyways of Valletta is a strange adventure for the British traveller. One minute you’re experiencing the café culture of cosmopolitan modern Europe, the next you’re confronted by the pageantry of a capital proud of its flamboyantly imperious Catholicism, and then you’re looking at an old red British telephone box, reminding you that for all the 19th century and most of the twentieth, Malta was part of the British Empire. Malta was finally granted independence on 21 September 1964, and when I was there beer was still sold in pints rather than litres, you drove on the left-hand side of the road and if you were especially lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the occasional Morris Minor or Ford Anglia.
There might be some observers who will think that my journey to Malta so far has all the hallmarks of a shambles. And yet, as I sat in the cathedral square outside a café (that I think might have once been the headquarters of the Maltese Communist Party), I reflected that when things go to plan there’s hardly ever anything interesting to write about. As I flicked through a guidebook making notes about where I should visit over the next few days, the man from the airport arrived with my rucksack. “How did you find me?” I asked him not sure whether to be surprised or not. “You’re in Malta now my friend,” said Luca – whose brother had played for the Italian national football team and now owned a bar on St Ursula Street – “nothing happens here without us knowing. Especially a foreign journalist travelling without any belongings. Let’s eat,” he said sitting down at my table uninvited, shouting at the waiter to bring two dishes of stuffatt tal-fenek which it turned out was rabbit stew. Luca told me that this was the national dish of Malta and that he’d eaten it every day of his life: “my father used to shoot them on the hills down by the sea. And birds. In Malta we shoot birds. Of course not everybody likes that. To hell with them,” he snorted, before telling me how rabbits were introduced to Malta by the Phoenicians, but only really became popular when the Romans arrived. According to Luca, the Romans laboured under the bizarre impression that if a woman ate a baby rabbit “she would become more beautiful.” Not quite sure where the conversation was heading, I jumped in with a request for Luca to tell me more about the island’s famous archaeology. “I’ll take you,” he said. “And we go by bus.”
Malta’s mustard yellow, red, black and white buses are without doubt the only way to get around. Right out of the 1950s, they’re nearly all British – makes such as Bedford, AEC, Leyland and Ford – and they’re all loud, smelly, uncomfortable and terrific nostalgic fun. As we departed the stately, burgundy-domed churches and Canaletto-style skyline of Valletta’s harbour we headed south-west to explore the megalithic temple complex of Ħaġar Qim which, dating back to 3600-3200 BC is thought to be one of the most ancient religious sites on Earth. So impressed was he by this collection of stones was the eminent Australian archaeologist V Gordon Childe when visiting the site in the mid-20th century, wrote: “I have been visiting the prehistoric ruins all round the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece and Switzerland, but I have nowhere seen a place as old as this one.” And while part of me wanted to make a joke about Malta’s buses originating from the same era, there was something about the look of pride on Luca’s face that stopped me. As we drank coffee in the shade of an olive tree he wrote down a list of more archaeological sites I needed to visit, the so-called ‘Megalithic Temples of Malta’, some of which I’d find to the north of the mainland, but if I wanted to see Ġgantija, I’d have to catch the ferry over to Gozo.
As the sun set we got back in the bus and followed our shadows back to Valletta where I spent a few further days wandering around churches and bookshops, soaking up the atmosphere of this grand 16th century baroque city built by the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of Saint John. One of the great Renaissance centres of art and architecture, the city with its 320 monuments is sometimes called an open-air museum and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. But to take in Malta’s more recent historical ambience I needed to head to the Lascaris War Rooms, an underground complex of tunnels and chambers from where the island’s defences were co-ordinated while besieged by Italy and Germany during the Second World War. Such was the bravery of the Maltese people during these times that George VI awarded Malta the George Cross, the only country to have collectively received the honour. The king was so impressed with how his subjects held off the enemy that he dispatched a handwritten note, addressed to ‘Malta’, saying: “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.” The cross has now been incorporated into the Flag of Malta, and as you tour the fascinating reconstructions of the control centre of the Lascaris War Rooms, the guides can barely disguise the emotion in their voices.
How I filled the rest of my improvised trip to Malta can be summed up in a few short sentences, describing how I toured the traditional villages with their picturesque windmills and hiked along the clifftop paths watching the sun dip over the Mediterranean horizon (and on one occasion having to get out of the way of some very angry bird shooters). Stopping off to take in the 17th century Lippija Tower along the way, I journeyed by bus to the very north of the island from where I caught the ferry, sailed past Comino and made landfall at Mgarr, where I hired a moped and explored the rural landscape, saltpans and coastal rock formations of Gozo. Although I was supposed to be in Egypt, in Malta I’d found somewhere that I’d never have visited unless the winds of circumstance had blown be to its shores. I’d started off being diverted by a terrorist attack on a tourist destination in another land, lost my luggage and barely known where on Earth I was. As I sat on the plane homeward bound for Heathrow I said to myself that this was what travel was all about: taking things in your stride, making friends, seeing new things. And that’s got to be better than watching sleek travel shows on TV.