Often when I arrive someplace in my travels, I find I’ve packed a pretty fair number of expectations and preconceived notions along with my socks and sundries. Once in a while though, a destination slips beneath both my general knowledge and my trip planning radars, and I set out with no real idea of what’s in store!
Like when I went to Malta.
Before my visit, I’d only have gotten a short distance on Jeopardy Malta-wise:
Alex: It’s the name of the priceless statuette as well as the title of this 1941 Humphrey Bogart film.
Me: What is “The Maltese Falcon”?
Me: Let’s try “Oodles of Poodles” for 400, Alex.
Alex: This white-coated member of the toy group hails from the Central Mediterranean.
Me: What is a Maltese?
Alex: Right! Go again.
Me: Um, “Meets and Greets” for 1,000!
Alex: Site of the 1945 conference attended by FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
Me: What is Malta?
(Boop boop boop.)
Alex: Yalta. We were looking for Yalta.
Yup. Although I’d long known it was one of the destinations on an amazing “Roman Revelations” themed Mediterranean cruise I was taking with the folks, what I still hadn’t gotten around to learning about Malta at embarkation time could have filled a book. I mean sure, I was already fascinated by and had read up on ancient Rome – but afraid all I really knew about our first two ports of call was that they’d filmed some of Star Wars in Tunisia and some of Gladiator in Malta.
Not super scholarly…
So when on a sunny August morning our ship entered the imposing harbor of Malta’s capital city of Valletta, I eagerly started recording in my journal what would prove to be a constantly evolving and ever enchanting set of impressions!
My first Malta impression, written as we glided past Valletta’s forbidding fortifications?
“Spectacular!” “Absolutely stunning!”
Thus began my education on the Republic of Malta – an archipelago that includes three inhabited islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino). Occupying a key strategic position in Southern Europe, the country has been coveted throughout the centuries by such powers as the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Turks, French and British – as its eclectic mix of architectural and cultural influences suggests.
And as the first stop on our bus tour would show me, beyond the imprints left by many of these big historical players, evidence of Malta’s more ancient population also remains to call to us over the din of conquest from even further back in time.
Alex: A temple complex erected by the Neolithic inhabitants of Malta that is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids.
Me: What is Ggantija?
Well, I know that now. But as we ferried from Cirkewwa to the island of Gozo where I spent most of my single Maltese day, I had no idea we were about to view the second oldest collection of manmade religious structures still around today! (Ggantija is runner-up only to Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe.)
A place where prehistoric people once held their sacred ceremonies, legend actually has it that the temples were built by a giant. Whoever deserves constructing credit for this UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with other temples on Malta), I was just awed at being able to wander among structures built as long ago as the 4th millennium BC!
Legend also surrounded the next stop on our tour! I noted in my journal that our trusty guide Bernadette proudly described most of what she showed us of her country not just as “very” old or “very” beautiful, but always “very very” much so! That’s why I was surprised when her introduction to Calypso’s Cave was considerably less than “very very”.
I thought it was wonderfully romantic that we’d be touring a cave touted as the one in Homer’s Odyssey where the nymph Calypso made Odysseus her prisoner of love! I was so excited that I hurried off the bus ahead of my fellow tourists so I could get in first to absorb the atmosphere and grab some unpeopled photos!
But I only wound up being the first to find that we weren’t even supposed to go into the cave – one that really didn’t appear overly epic anyway. I should have listened to Bernadette. Despite the Homeric build-up, it pretty much looked like “just another craggy hole on the island”…
Needless to say, I was in no danger of falling under Calypso’s spell – but our tour stop wasn’t a total bust. The view of the shoreline at Ramla Bay below the cave proved a satisfyingly captivating substitute!
The bus next took us to the city of Rabat where we were deposited at the base of a hill to make a little pilgrimage up to the Citadel (the “Cittadella”). Even with only a short time to stroll, it was easy to get a sense of the fortress’s colorful and contested past.
A prime spot for keeping watch on the surrounding countryside and for mounting a good defense, the hill is said to have been inhabited in the Bronze Age, become the Roman town of Gaulos, been claimed for the Order of St. John, pillaged by Ottoman invaders, occupied by the French and commandeered by the British. (Pausing here to breathe…)
These days, though, the Citadel is thankfully only besieged by tourists!
On the day of my visit, the fortress and town were especially alive and inviting with decorations for the upcoming Assumption Day feasting and festivities – which, like so many places in Malta, have a rich and storied local past from which to draw inspiration!
The Citadel’s cathedral, known as the Cathedral of the Assumption, is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. It stands where there was once a Roman temple dedicated to Juno, but then St. Paul is believed to have been shipwrecked close by and instead of being carried on to Rome for trial, he lived for a time in Rabat and carried Christianity to the people of Malta! (Whew! Pausing again for breath…)
After absorbing so much history, it was refreshing to take a break and do a little feasting of our own in the town of Marsalforn. Here our tour group sat at long tables arranged outside where we could enjoy a view of the pretty bay while we dug into the meals put before us:
I didn’t realize this ensemble was just the prelude to a main course of chicken, fries, wine and dessert, all served in a delicate breeze and sprinkled with pleasant conversation – delicious all the way around!
And that’s kind of how my whole Malta experience went! I didn’t know what to expect, discovered something perfectly charming and then came to find there was so much more!
Time is still marching on in Malta where new layers of civilization are being added to the old. Our last stop before ferrying back to the ship was in Xlendi – one of what I suspect are many quiet “fishing villages” in the process of giving way to fancy tourist resorts and private havens. Rather than join the crowds, I was happy just to gaze at it from the road above.
Then all too soon, we were back onboard ship and cruising once more past those amazing Valletta walls. I remember feeling overwhelmed with thoughts of all I’d seen and learned that day – and of all I knew I’d missed. I stood for quite a while on deck as we drifted along through those green-blue waters past monuments of honey-colored stone, and I found myself already grasping at the melancholy hope that I could experience even more of Malta one day.
And I now knew for sure that I’d need a bigger book!
Alex: A collection of Mediterranean islands that is Biblical, mythical, historical, traditional, transitional – and truly remarkable!
Me: What is Malta?
Alex: Correct! Go again.
Me: I’d love to go to Malta again, Alex! Very VERY much!
(And my apologies for any historical inaccuracies – there was an awful lot to cover…)