My next day in Malta got off to a slow start. I’d had the questionable judgment to have tea after dinner the night before and I was up at 3:30 again. You’d think I would learn. I missed breakfast at the hotel as a result. It was time to look a little further afield. The man at the desk recommended the fishing town of Marsaxlokk because apparently it was a market day and a lot of people go there for a Sunday lunch. Seemed strange to have a Sunday lunch town, but hey, what do I know? I’ve never been here before. I got to the car and my driver, and got going.
At this point, I should mention that my guide did an excellent job. I understand he is usually a right side of the road sort rather than an English driver, but he didn’t once turn on the windshield wipers nor did he often miss a gear on the manual transmission. Off we went to Marsaxlokk without incident only to find out that the town was packed and parking seemed nonexistent. However, somehow he found a tight, legal space about 25 feet from the main road and got into it in the most efficient parking job on the wrong side of the road that I have ever seen. It’s the little things that impress me. I’ve driven on the left side myself and I could barely manage it in an automatic. I remember that mostly I did a lot of swearing and worrying; I had to give up the whole business when I had to share a twisty 1.5 lane road with oncoming logging trucks in Malaysia. And I didn’t have roundabouts or parallel parking.
After a short walk, I settled on a restaurant. The owner came out and told me about the fresh fish of the day and the general menu. I ordered a pasta with fresh prawns. The prawns turned out to be gigantic and they came with the heads on, freshly caught that morning. I confess I sucked the heads out of the shrimp. I learned how good they taste when I was somewhere in Hong Kong or China, and I haven’t been able to resist it since. While waiting for the meal, there was a lot of people-watching to be done. Mostly the tourists were Italians (smoking and looking way too stylish for the town) or Brits (sunburned to a red crisp and wearing decidedly unstylish clothes). Lunch was followed by a little stroll around the market square and then it was back into the car for a tour of Valetta.
Valetta, wow. What a city. It is situated on a sort of a “finger” that sticks out into the sea, and it’s very hilly land. It reminded me a little of San Francisco in its topography, but it was more condensed by far in its buildings. At the top of the main hill was a fort and St. John’s cathedral and at the bottom, the fort of St Elmo and the shipping ports. For some time, the main hill was empty, historically. The Knights of St. John built forts into the two “fingers” on either side of the land that is now occupied by Valetta, and they had a fort at the foot of the land, but they did not build a fort and city at Valetta until after they were invaded by the Ottoman Turks in 1565. The Turks stormed onto the hilly ground above the forts and claimed the high ground, making a victory nearly certain. The Turks had brought nine months of supplies with them, assuming there’d be a siege, and having calculated what they thought the supplies were of the Knights of St. John. The Turks were well-organized planners and really, by all rights, should have taken Malta. The Maltese forts were not that well designed and it was difficult to resupply and re-man them without taking heavy losses. Two factors stopped the Turks. One, the knights were tough and it was taking a longer time to defeat them than previously estimated. Two, there was a change in power in Istanbul with the death of the Sultan. Mysteriously and conveniently, when the great Admiral came to check on the progress of the invasion, he died before he could get home and report back. That was handy, because the Turks did not really want anyone in government to know that they had not yet taken Malta. The whole thing was just taking too darned long. Better to go home, count your losses and try again later. Which is what they did. Before the Turks could come back, the Knights had built Valetta (named after Jean Parisot de Valette, the Grand Master who had seen them through the Turkish invasion) and they were just waiting to kick some ass. The Knights kept the island for another 233 years until Napoleon’s landing in 1798.
In 1800, Great Britain was called in to remove Napoleon’s government, and it was a British colonial holding until 1964. In World War II, the island was still physically strategic and the Maltese and British were most effective at sinking the supply ships of the German North African forces. As a result, Malta was ordered to be harassed, starved and if possible, flattened. The Italians, only 90 miles away in Sicily, flew over daily and did their best to harry the Allies. To make war on Italy, the Allies sent their best generals, including Eisenhower, to Malta. Caves were bored deeply below Valetta and a war headquarters was created. Today, you can tour the caves (called the Lascaris War Rooms) and learn about the tactics used to defend Malta. The view outside though, is really amazing. I could see the entire harbor of Valetta and the giant cranes that form the Valetta shipyards. The island also has a long history of naval architecture and is still quite active today in the ship building trade. No one was working in the yards though – it was Sunday. The weather was warm with a light breeze, and there were plenty of pleasure boats on the water, heading for home or out for an afternoon cruise. People here love the sea and who can blame them?
Overall, my impression is that Malta is really special. Italian cooks, English police, a history of rich, noble ancestors, fiscal responsibility and beautiful boats. How can you go wrong?