The striated limestone islands of Malta (122 sq. miles) and Gozo (26 sq. miles) were formed by the collision of the African tectonic plate (traveling north) into the slower moving Euroasian plate (traveling northeast).  Malta’s most prominent geologic feature is the Victoria Line, not a railroad as I first imagined, but a geologic fault cutting across the northern third of the island.  This fault provided natural line of defense and was so named by the British for the defensive wall constructed along its heights.  Geologically peaceful for tens of thousands of years, Malta’s rocky undulating landscape is quite hilly despite the fact its highest point no more than 290 meters above sea level.

The architecture along the often steep, meandering, streets of Maltese cities is dominated by stone construction and the resulting muted browns, tans, and limestone off-whites offer a cool respite from the sun and heat of their Mediterranean summers.  Coming from Chicago’s diverse and world-renowned architecture, Maltese buildings at first appeared bland, blockish, old, and imposing mixing of North African and Mediterranean styles.  The heavy masonry buildings and repeated muted tans stacked atop hills, gullies, and dales of the island landscape gives it the feel of Rome or Morocco.  Yet, after many days exploring the eye begins to pick out the old stone from new and begins to appreciate the fine masonry work that define the place.  The fortress environment seems to extend even to the rural and agricultural lands, which are crisscrossed by low rubble stonewalls.

A member of the European Union (since 2004), Malta has been ruled or occupied by the Phoenicians, Persians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantine Empire, Aghlabit Arabs, Fatimids, Normans, Swabians, Kingdom of Sicily, Knights of St. John, French, and the British.  Malta gained its independence from England in 1964 and left the British Commonwealth in 1974. 

The Cittadella in Victoria near the center of Gozo dates back to 1241 AD and has since variously been modified, attacked, rebuilt. In 1551, the largest attack was made by the Ottoman army lead by Sina Pasha who refused to negotiate and sacked the fort and most of the 6,000 Gozitans taking refuge there were enslaved.

During WWII, Malta was subjected to the heaviest and most sustained bombing attack of the war.  The Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Force flew more than 3,000 bombing raids over a two-year period.  Combined with a blockade on shipping the Axis powers nearly starved out the people of the tiny island group.  The retelling of the resilience of the Maltese people is preserved by of their best museums the Lascaris War Room, which was a hand-dug, top-secret underground bunker built to coordinate air defenses and torpedo plane attacks on German shipping.  Using radar and coastal spotters incoming raids were relayed by phone to inform coordinating officers in the Lascaris War Room that was carved out of the limestone rock 400-feet below the surface.  Using an entirely manual system air and sea battles were tracked and coordinated minute to minute, day after day on huge wall and table maps of the surrounding area.

Maltese Air attacks by torpedo carrying dive-bombers on German shipping supplying Rommel in North Africa importantly helped turn the tide on his advance.  Ultimately at El Alamein, Rommel’s tanks famously ran out of gas.  This was primarily due Maltese resistance against the German war machine and continued attacks on German shipping.  The Lascaris War Room was key to this effort and became headquarters for General Eisenhower in coordinating the attack and invasion of Sicily in 1942.  It was on Malta that Eisenhower determined Generals Patton and Montgomery would never be able to work together.  These and many other key decisions made on Malta set important precedents influencing the invasion of France and D-Day.  In April of 1942 King George VI of England in, “witness to the heroism and devotion of it people,” and awarded Malta the George Cross.

Left to right: A view north from the Upper Gardens in Valletta, Malta's capital toward the entrance of the Grand Harbor.  A secondary gun emplacement as seen from the Upper Gardens in Valletta.  A view across the Grand Harbor toward the Three Sister Cities (See Also panorama below).

Left to right: Looking across the harbor at Manoel Island fortress on the left and Valletta on the right, one of Malta's three UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Looking back through the Valletta's city gates at the bridge across the moat in the background, which leads to a central fountain and bus terminal.  One of many narrow pedestrian streets of Valletta.

Left to right: The UNESCO World Heritage Ggantia Temples on Gozo.  The initial square inside Medina's Citadel with the arched gate entrance in the lower left.  The Dingli Cliffs on the west coast of Malta looking north at the start of a promising hiking path.

Besides the Lacaris War Room, There are many good museums and historic sites to enjoy, like the maritime museum, and the Ggantija Temples on Gozo, which is another UNESCO World Heritage site and dates back to 3200 to 3600 BC.  The town of Medina is particularly popular and definitely worth a visit to wander for a half or full day this citadel town and its maze of streets inside the massive fortress near the center of Malta.  The location has been used to film episodes of The Game of Thrones.  We also spent 2-3 days wandering around Valletta and still did not see everything, and the upper and lower gardens should not to be missed.  Similarly the Dingli Cliffs along the west coast of Malta with dramatic views to the sea is popular and there is a path to the north offering a great hike for the more ambitious. 

It was very pleasant to not have any neon signs and very little in the way of flashing of lights allowing one to find things on their own.  Simply visiting the many towns and cities to wander streets, shops, cafes, and restaurants was very nice.  The traditional fishing village of Birzebbugia at the south end of Malta was also quite nice.  Throughout the food in general was great and mostly a mix of seafood, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisines in addition various different ethnic restaurants and the Maltese also have some decent wines.  Most folks go out to dinner on the late side, almost on a Spanish schedule and the restaurants are unrushed, prices reasonable, and you feeling restaurateurs would rather you enjoy the experience than feel any pressure of turning tables.  We stopped at one popular pastazza to find it did not open until 7pm.  A couple young guys arrived with keys and explained the late start adding, “Hey, WE are Italian,” then smiled and shrugged.

MALTA

Interestingly the Maltese have public areas dedicated officially and unofficially for cats that roam freely, mostly ignoring people, to live outside and lounge about the small structures, pads, and scratching posts created for their comfort.  My theory, though unconfirmed, is the Maltese love their cats as an island and important and historic port of call this was a way to control and eliminate the rats that would certainly jumped ship and likely been almost impossible to control given all the ships coming and going over the centuries.

Arid and typically Mediterranean climate, the January 40s, 50s, and occasionally 60 degree temperatures were a favorable comparison to Chicago’s blustery, frigid winter, and to our amusement locals were often bundled as if for a Chicago winter.  Free of snow or freezing rain Malta’s steep hilly and narrow city streets are home to the most densely populated country in the EU with about 1,265 inhabitants per square mile.  The cities and towns do not sprawl as in the United States, rather developments tend to cluster and make the best use of space, which leaves significant rural agricultural areas and open land a short walk or drive from town.  The muted rocky scrub and dusty landscapes are cut in to irregular patches by the innumerable stonewalls off set by beautiful sky and sea blues punctuated by fluffy whites, purples, reds, and grays for dramatic panoramas of the changing, mostly fair, Mediterranean weather.

Left to right: A view from the Dingli Cliffs looking northwest.  A typical Maltese double-door entrance to a home.  A view from Gozo looking south at Mgarr with the island of Comino, to the left and Malta in the background.

Maltese balconies are striking for the variety of condition and colors.  Limited by the narrow streets and stone construction they give residents of the tightly packed cities air as the windows tilt out and can be held open by long hooks and eyes to catch a sea breeze

Left to right: The entrance tunnel to the Lascaris War Rooms. An office inside the Lascaris War Rooms with a window over looking an operational room displaying a map of Sicily.  Image from inside the National Armory of Malta of soldiers' armor which offers a wide display of weapons from the 15th - 19th Century.

Months ago I was asked to join friends going to Malta.  My immediate thoughts were ‘When else would I go to Malta?  ‘So sure why not?’  And then, ‘Where the heck IS Malta?’

A little research revealed Malta amidst the Mediterranean Sea is located fifty-miles south of Sicily.  Dating back to ancient times with three UNESCO World Heritage Sites the Republic of Malta's two main islands of Malta and Gozo sounded intriguing.  A coveted fortress island and culture due to its natural deepwater harbors long a strategic port of call for centuries Malta has regularly been immersed in world politics.  


The four of us arrived for New Years Eve, which we spent wandering around the walled city of Valletta, Malta’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Walking with the crowds across the bridge, through the city gate, and strolling the narrow streets, and busy squares gave us our first taste of the cafes, music, food, and revelry.  Most striking that evening was the number of teenagers dressed to the nines (as if going to prom) flitting about in groups, hanging about enjoying their friends.  Unlike the emphasis on booze and cocktails in the U.S., as more typical for Europeans, the Maltese hold strong family ties as nuclear and extended families and friends strolled, gathered, and prepared to celebrate the start of 2017. 

Official and unofficial Cat Cafe's are found throughout Malta and Gozo as bed, shelters and scratching posts are to be found in public squares and spaces throughout the cities.

Today, getting around Malta is relatively easy as most residents walk or utilize the island’s bus system.  The wide array of routes can take one most anywhere on the island for one-and-a-half Euros including bus transfers.  However the system occasionally gets overloaded and a bus may pass by due to being fully loaded or for not seeing anyone signal for it to stop.  So visitors on a timetable will want to have a plan B and catch a cab, rent a car or walk.  As a former British country they do drive on the left side of the road and have many rotaries so navigating can be a bit tricky.

Visiting Malta, tourists are greeted by a ruggedly beautiful, exotic place with cozy restaurants, bars, shops, and real estate offices, and Malta has a free, safe, and opening feeling of normalcy allowing folks to walk most anywhere.  Yet the built environment of the islands molded by centuries of repeated attacks, invasions, and changing empires cannot hide its history of defense against attack and invasion.  The not so subtle repetition of massive city walls, fortifications, dense shear stone buildings of row houses with no gap between create winding walled streets to further perpetuate this feeling.  Even the homes on the narrow streets have an outside double door (that could easily be bared from the inside) with a second door a foot or two inside those to pass through before gaining entrance to the residence.  These subtle and not so subtle touches combined with the many signs for CCTV and security give visitors to Malta a sense of fortress mentality, culture, which seems to heighten a sense of discovery around each corner.

Softening this effect is the free mix if diverse peoples of both visitors and residents and of course the colorful Maltese balconies.  These numerous and varied balconies of a stone step extending two-to-three feet from upper stories, waist high wood bases (or balustrade), with typically four rectangular windows facing and matching windows on each side are almost always ornamented by three raised wood decorative panels.  Often painted various colors they create an inviting warmth against the heavy shear stone of the buildings.  The building uniformity and great use of stone mixed with the Maltese balconies along the hilly, windy streets, and blind corners offer pleasant views and surprises, while one imagines the plethora of defensive and sniper positions offered by such architecture.

The summer here offer a few beaches, but many places to swim or snorkel and looks as though can be quite busy in high season.  Malta has a tradition of strong Olympic water polo teams with several water polo clubs on the relatively small island, most notably the Neptunes Club with a beautiful pool situated on Balluta Bay in St. Julian’s.  It is possible to lap swim at the 33-meter pool, which offers a one-day pass for about 5 Euros.

 We enjoyed staying in the St. Julian’s and Paceville area, which has quite a variety of hotels and restaurants and a couple casino hotels to choose from and was about a 20-30 minute bus ride to Valletta.  Renting a car was easy and very reasonable as was taking the car ferry to Gozo, which runs every half hour and takes about 20 minutes between Cirkewwa Harbor and Mgarr Harbor on Gozo.  Getting to Malta from the U.S. requires flying into Europe first to connect for the 2-1/2 to 3 hour flight to Malta.  Getting from the airport to your hotel may be done via a shuttle service that can feel a bit casual or by cab which is 3-4 times more expensive, but not unreasonable.