The intention of this trip was to visit a small local church, near the capital
city of Valletta, which I had made contact with through some friends
in London named the Alfrey's, and to immerse myself into a different culture for ten days.
The Alfrey's were a Christian family that I had grown close to in London; the husband was
English and the wife was Maltese. They owned a flat in Malta and took their children there on
yearly trips. I had heard them tell many stories about Malta, and sat for hours listening to
the Alfrey's reminisce about Malta, so I thought I would enjoy going there and was pretty well
prepared for my visit. I would be traveling just a few days after the Gulf War ended
in March 1991. Accompanying me was a young man, named Robert Black, from Portland,
Texas, who was living in Northampton, England, and worked for the church through an
organization called AIM (Adventures in Missions). Robert was about twenty-years-old, stocky,
had black curly hair, and could have passed for being Maltese. He had a good heart and a
fun-loving, humorous personality. In short, he was a great travel companion. We flew together
from Gatwick Airport (South of London) on Air Malta, to Malta's Luqa Airport in about three
hours. Upon arrival, my Maltese friend Manuel Attard (who is about medium height, has black
hair and wore glasses) picked us up and delivered us to our destination in his compact Ibiza
car. We quickly observed that just about everything on Malta was made of brick and stone, and
therefore looked very old, which I didn't mind at all. It was also small and did not take very
long to get around, and the sea along Malta's coast is the bluest I have ever seen.
We stayed at the Alfrey's two-bedroom flat in Marsascala, a mid-sized
town on the eastern seashore. The flat was in a typical two-story building with a flat roof.
There was no TV, telephone, or hot water, so we had to improvise a little, but the apartment
was clean and comfortable, and since we were there in March, the temperature was not too
hot. March is an ideal time of the year for the most comfortable weather, in my opinion.
We bought groceries from a shop down the street, but ate out most of the
time because there were plenty of decent and affordable restaurants, or pizza take outs
everywhere we went. Maltese pizza, I hasten to add, is rather exotic compared to the average
American article, and very tasty. What really impressed me about Malta was the friendliness
of the people. The neighbors, and the people we met in Marsascala were very nice to us. In
fact, I have never visited a country where I have felt as safe. Everywhere I went I felt
completely safe, which says a lot for Malta.
Robert and I did a lot of sightseeing in Valletta, the heavily
fortified capital city that held off dreadful Turkish sieges in the 1500's. The valiant
Knights of St. John protected Malta during those dark days. Today you will find an impressive
array of ramparts, bastions and fortifications, built in the 1600's, around the old town of
Valletta, with a grid of narrow streets and plenty of street-life, with markets, squares,
churches, and bustle. The Grand Harbor truly deserves to be called Grand, and the architecture
is gracefully consistent, nothing appearing out of place. We spent more than a day just taking in all the museums and sights of
Valletta. Malta has so much history for such a small island though, and it was, more often
than not, invaded by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and the French--each one
leaving their mark. The Germans and Italians tried to capture it during WWII, but stout Maltese
resistance and British military help held up. Today, Germans patronize Malta's tourist industry
quite a lot, as I saw many, many Germans there.
The one figure that seems to have left the greatest mark
on Malta is the Apostle Paul. He was shipwrecked there and held prisoner for a winter, back
around 60 AD, while on a journey to Rome to be tried for a petty offense. I saw the rock where
they believe his ship wrecked, and I saw the grotto where they believe he was held prisoner.
You can read an account of Paul's circumstances in Malta in Acts chapter 28 of the New
Testament Bible. Malta is a very religious country, and there are many monuments dedicated to
St. Paul everywhere.
We managed first to get around the island traveling by bus for a couple of days.
The buses were very neat and dependable. They were all the color green, and
appeared to be a number of years old, but were well kept. Many of the drivers decorated them
on the inside to suit their personalities. Some looked like mini catholic shrines with
pictures of Christ, and not a few hanging objects and colorful affects. After two days of
sightseeing this way on our own, we met up with my friend from the British Bible School, Manuel
Attard, and eventually met the Ebejer family, who are the main members of the
church of Christ there. After a few days I decided to rent a car, an Austin Mini,
and then Robert and I drove all over the island sightseeing. See a picture of the
Mini I rented.
For the sake of logistics, Malta is only 16 miles across and they drive on
the left just like in Britain. It doesn't take long to get around, but some of the roads are
rough and bumpy, and there is an abundance of sights to see. We went to visit sights such as,
the harbor and market at the town of Marsaxlokk, the pre-historic temple of Tarxien, Ghar Hasan
Cave, Verdala Castle, Buskett Gardens, Mgarr, Golden Bay, Mellieha, and the Dingli Cliffs,
among others. (And I'm not making up these names!) Petrol was expensive, but the Mini got
fairly good mileage. The driving experience was a lot of fun, but the Maltese drivers have
a rude habit of honking at people in rental cars. I'm not sure why, but I think they are
just a bit too wary of foreign drivers.
Robert and I also took a day trip to Sicily by catamaran,
and bus. It is a little untrue to call it a "day trip." It was more like 5:30am till a little
past midnight (a very long day indeed). Sicily is 60 miles north of Malta, less than 2 hours
by catamaran, and we joined a bus tour of Mt. Etna, Taormina,
and Catania. The chic city of Taormina has a Greek/Roman amphitheatre ruin that is among
the finest still around, and is perched on the seaside cliffs. Mt. Etna was a major excursion by itself. It's an
active volcano that is 11,000 feet high! Our tour bus drove to about the snow line, where
there were shops, restaurants, and ski lifts. There was evidence of volcanic rock lying around
from an eruption in the early 1980's. This was one of the best days of all my travels
(to this point in my life)!
Back on Malta, Robert and I had a wonderful time visiting
with the Ebejer's in their authentic Maltese home in Cospicua, and with Manuel, and visiting
museums, and archeological sites. We spent a great day exploring Mdina, the former
capital of Malta, which is a fortress-like citadel. The city is so old that the streets are
too narrow for cars, so only pedestrian traffic is permitted in its tight quarters today,
and it is called the "silent city" as a result. An amazing thing about Mdina is that from
certain vantage points, one can see almost across the entire island. The whole island is
laid-out before you. What a sight! There are just too many sights to mention here about Mdina,
but we spent considerable time there and explored the cathedral and the Natural History
Museum. Plus, we explored the St. Paul Grotto (where Paul was jailed) and St. Agatha's
Catacombs, located a short distance outside of Mdina.
Robert had to leave to go back to England before I did, so I spent the last couple of days
by myself. Some of the interesting places I went to by myself were the Blue Grotto (a
natural grotto on the south coast accessible only by boat), and Popeye Village where the
movie "Popeye" was filmed in 1981, with Robin Williams (the village buildings from the set are
still there). When I think of Malta, I think of limestone, because just about every structure
that is man-made is made of thick, solid, limestone, and I saw one of the biggest limestone
quarries anywhere there. Malta also has one of the largest free-standing domed cathedrals in the
world at Mosta, where you can see a WWII bomb that fell through the roof, and miraculously,
did not explode. I went to Mosta twice on this trip. And, I went to see the unique "salt
paintings" in Cospicua (various religious scenes painted on canvases of salt).
On the next to last day the Ebejer's, myself, and a few others took a
car/ferry over to Gozo, a separate island, and explored some of the remote
areas as well as the busy city of Victoria, or Rabat (its original name), the
Gozitan capital. We also visited the Xewkija Dome Cathedral, which was even bigger than
the one at Mosta. We ate lunch at Marsalforn, on the north coast, and went to the prehistoric
temples at Ggantija, which were amazingly old. Just about everything on Malta and
Gozo looked really old, because their civilization goes back to maybe 3000 BC. The
last place we went on Gozo was Calypso's Cave, where legend says that Calypso lured
Odysseus and held him captive for seven years. One thing's for sure, Malta's alluring charm
could easily have held a travel-loving guy like me captive for a lot longer, if only
I'd had the time!
My last morning and afternoon in Malta, before my flight back to London in the evening,
George Ebejer took me to see San Anton Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden near an old palace,
and we went to Ta 'Qali, a craft village. Then we spent some time visiting a few other places,
and had dinner at his house before my time of departure. This was a nice ending to my trip to
this jewel of the Mediterranean. When I flew back to Gatwick, my friend Ron Alfrey was there to
pick me up and give me a lift home in his van. The one-hour drive quickly passed as we conversed
about my Maltese experience. This trip was so wonderful that I may never be able to top
"Malta had the culture of South London in a landscape like Lebanon--news agents selling The
Express and The Daily Telegraph, video rental agencies, pinball parlors, pizza
joints, and a large Marks and Spencer. All thoses, as well as fortresses and churches and many
shops that sold brass door-knockers. But chips-shops and cannons predominated." --Paul
Theroux, in The Pillars of Hercules
The Times of Malta