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#4  Malta:  May 6 - 23, 2009 

 

Malta on Our Minds

"Malta" has always resided in the dark fringes of my mind with other far away places like Seville, Katmandu, and Timbuktu--the names were all quite familiar but there was no lasting story attached to any of them. Once we began traveling, a hodge-podge of disjointed stories helped Malta to ever so slowly take a more concrete, though incomplete, form in my mind.


A portion of a megalithic "standing stone" at Locmariaquer (2004).

Unexpectedly "Malta" cropped up in our readings while in Brittany in 2004. We were visiting Carnac and other prehistoric sites to admire their menhirs, dolmen, and alignments and those French megaliths were frequently compared with the Maltese specimens.  And before that, we'd heard about the Knights of St John while on the Greek island of Rhodes (near Turkey), which was their home base for centuries. Pressure from the Ottomans had the Knights relocating--to Malta. And Malta popped up any time we saw exhibits about the WWII battles in the Mediterranean. 

It was reading about Malta's megalithic sites while in Brittany that bumped Malta on to our "must see" list. But being a tiny island south of Sicily, it was always too remote to easily fit into a year's route. But this year Malta was the perfect place to rendezvous with a colleague of mine from the 1980's who like me, had developed an appetite for both travel and history 20 years later. Map Man hadn't ever been able to slip Malta into the itinerary as an easy fit and so 2009 was the year it was forced to fit--Bill built our spring route around visiting Malta.


The barely visible painting - "Our Lady
of Philermos" -  is the 9th c work.

Malta hit critical mass for us this year while we were finalizing flight and lodging plans for our  visit there while still in Montenegro--even in Montenegro we were bumping into more Malta history bits. First it was the venerated Madonna icon: Our Lady of Philermos. We found this 9th c. painting tucked away in the unlikely inland old capital, Cetinje, of this Orthodox Christian country.

The icon was first mentioned in written history while it resided on the island of Rhodes with the Knights of St John and traveled with them from Malta to northern Europe after Napoleon's raid on Malta.  Next we learned that Renaissance-era Maltese pirates had a home-away-from-home at Ulcinj, Montenegro where we laid-over for 2 weeks while my shoulder healed. Gradually remote and distant Malta was becoming closer and more distinct in our minds. 

Even modern Malta was in the European news as we prepared for our visit. Being a new EU member put it in a contentious position with Italy over the fate of boat people from Africa stranded in the waters between the 2 countries. Illegal immigrants put a tremendous pressure on many countries and tiny Malta that was now an even more desirable destination with greater obligations was feeling the strain.

 

Obstacles in Getting from Montenegro to Malta

Despite the growing momentum to see Malta for ourselves, our trip to Malta was almost cancelled because of the swine flu. Bill nervously read the WHO and CDC reports regarding the virus twice a day for about a week while we were in the interior of Montenegro as he formulated his personal response to the new threat. The early reports suggested that the virus triggered the excessive immune response that lead to the deaths of so many in the 1918-19 pandemic. Should this be the case with the  current swine flu strain, he wanted to return to the US so as to have full and certain access to medical services. 

Fortunately it became clear over the mounting days that this iteration of the bug triggered a usual, milder immune response in most people. In addition, projections emerged suggesting that we'd likely have less chance of exposure to the virus in Europe than if we'd returned to the US, so the trip to Malta was on.

The next obstacle in our Malta adventure was my recent partially dislocated shoulder. Off-the-bike time for its early healing phase sucked almost 2 weeks out of our schedule, which left Bill with a mere week to get us from Montenegro to Pisa, our departure point for Malta.

Our Montenegro exodus began with a 24 hour interval of train-overnight ferry-train to get us from Podgorica, Montenegro to Bari, Italy and part way up the Italian coast to Foggia. From there the plan was to bike as much of the distance between Foggia on Italy's east coast and Pisa on its west coast as we could. We'd make up any shortfalls in distance covered by taking the train.

In addition to the time crunch, another complicating factor was the recent earthquake in L'Aquila, which was in the mountains between Bari and Pisa. Bill's original route would have had us going near by the destruction area. The wild card for us was lodging as the last we'd heard was that 10,000 of the displaced residents of L'Aquila were being housed in regional hotels but we couldn't find out exactly where. Lacking useful information about the lodging issues, Bill made his best guess for a flexible route and we headed for Pisa.

 


Ah, spring-green in central Italy after all the gray in Montenegro.

A Second Chance at Spring

We felt like we'd missed spring while we were on the less-than-lush Balkan Peninsula but we caught the tail end of it while biking across central Italy. We were transfixed by the stunning green cereal crops blanketing the rolling hills--we just didn't see that kind of green on the other side of the Adriatic. And the flowers..... Even the roadside weeds were vibrant.  Yellow, blue, and purple flowers were punctuated by red poppies against a bushy backdrop of foliage. In the urban spaces, it was the show put on by the lilacs, wisteria, roses, and other landscaping plants that had our eyes lingering on their uplifting presence.

Just as startling as the spring colors in Italy was the sudden change in temperatures. The Balkans had gotten more than their share of stormy spring weather and on May 1st we unexpectedly rode in snow flurries with big floppy flakes and a noontime temperature just above freezing. A week later in Italy my gauge indicated an almost 60 temperature increase at noon as it was about 90F.

The lack of heat acclimation while crossing the Italian mountain range just about leveled me. I struggled and strained on a steady 3% grade that felt like it was 8 or 9%. A check of my heart rate indicated that it was the same as when I easily bounded up the steep slopes of Ulcinj on foot but now the same rate felt miserable. 

There was nothing to do in response to the heat stress but to take frequent, short rest stops while climbing and to be patient over the next week while my body recalibrated to the temperature. Despite the discomfort from the sudden heat, we savored the brilliant spring colors, pondered the details at a couple of Roman sites, admired several charming hilltop villages, and then rode the last miles into Pisa on a train, not in the saddle.

A kind and energetic B&B host in Pisa stashed our bikes and excess gear and then in a flash we were off to Malta on RyanAir, one of Europe's deeply discounted airlines. As I read our Malta guide book in anticipation of our visit, I learned that Malta occupies space on 3 major segments of a historical time line and our disjointed encounters with Malta had covered all 3.

Malta's prehistoric finds, largely from 3600-3000 bce are its oldest big claim to fame. The Knights of St John setting up housekeeping on Malta after abandoning Rhodes in 1530 was beginning of the second important interval for the island. And while these first 2 eras were largely noteworthy for their building of monuments, the third historically significant interval--WWII--was largely destructive.

 


Cute to look at--not so fun to ride in.

The Buses of Malta

Iconic, But...              

Who would have thought that buses of Malta, which were the entirety of the country's public transportation system, would define our experience of this island nation. It wasn't the awesome 5,000 year old megaliths; nor the monuments from the sometimes heroic and sometimes decadent Knights of St John; nor the poignant images of "Fortress Malta" of WWII; it was the buses that occupied the most space in our awaking awareness of Malta. 

Malta's yellow buses are iconic, in part because many that rumble along the roads are from the 1950's and 1960's.  The rounded faces of their front ends and Chevy-like tail fins of a few models delight the nostalgic eye and trigger the clicking of camera buttons. Each bus has a hand-painted name on it and there are entire books photo-documenting every model of bus that plies the Maltese roads.


Souvenirs were the best experience of the buses.

Predictably, the "tourist tat" included freestanding models of buses as well as refrigerator magnets and key chains. We too bought a tiny yellow bus as a souvenir to decorate our Christmas tree.  But Bill picked out the smallest yellow bus replica he could find for our tree as he commented "It isn't exactly a pleasant memory", which was being kind.  

Best Laid Plans

It was my job to be Tour Guide for our Maltese visit. Bill usually does every inch of route planning and selects the key sights to see along the way. But occasionally when we hit a big city, he'll ask me to plan the visit to give Map Man a rest. Malta, with 400,000 people and us without our bikes, qualified as a big-city type of planning project and so I was on as trip planner. 

I read our entire guide book and parts of a second in preparation for the visit that would be shared with a long time friend, Denice. I settled on a 9 night stay convinced that it would allow plenty of time to leisurely see the sights as well as coordinate nicely with her travel plans and the budget flights available to us.


This is nothing like the interior of the buses back home.

I carefully selected a lovely 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment for the 3 of us that was a 5 minute walk from one of Malta's major bus stations but that was in a quiet and modern neighborhood. I  planned an itinerary which included all of the open megalithic sites, all of the major historical museums, 2 city walking tours recommended in our guide books as well as time for a couple of hikes along the cliffs in the more rural areas of the 2 major islands. But by the end of our first day in Malta I began whacking back our itinerary because of the buses. It was the buses that defeated us in our siege of Malta before it really got started.

Itineraries Driven by the Bus Drivers, Not Us 

It wasn't uncommon for us to spend 3 to 4 hours a day waiting for and riding the buses despite the main island only being 17 miles long and 9 miles wide.  Malta has one of the highest population densities in the world (vying for first with The Netherlands) and most of those people reside in or near the capital city of Valletta. There is terrible traffic congestion for miles around Valletta, which is the transportation hub. Having almost all of the bus lines essentially being "out and back" instead of some  routes being loops or cross-links usually meant "out and back" into the deepest corner of Valletta to transfer to another line. Poor road surfaces and the lack of express lines only made matters worse for us as bus riders.


A bus-recovery stop at the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta.

After our hour-long rides into Valletta we usually took a 15 minute rest in a city park. If we'd been on an older bus, between the 3 of us we'd collectively be recovering from motion sickness; headaches from engine fumes; generalized stress from unremitting, noise at ear-damaging levels; and fatigue from too much jostling. 

And as Tour Guide, I had to become extremely meticulous with my planning because of the buses. One of the more efficient buses for getting us to where we wanted to go--one of the few that bypassed congested Valletta--only ran 3 times a day in each direction. One of our critical sight seeing buses only ran from 9:15am until 3:45pm. Our average bus ride was 1 hour, the shortest hop to anywhere took 30 minutes. Under these transportation conditions, there could be no spontaneity; every move had to be carefully planned.

Our efficiency in using their system would have been a little better if there were printed or posted schedules but there were none. The one and only schedule we had was for an hourly bus on the weekend and was given to me upon special request at the tourist information office and was confirmed by the bus drivers, but it turned out to be wrong.

The readily available, though extremely cryptic printed route information included the starting and finishing time of the route and the briefest comment about its frequency. A "60" notation for the frequency was straight-forward for an hourly bus but "15/20/30" did nothing to help us predict a bus's arrival or departure.  


Bill & Denice searching for the right bus to board.

I whacked our itinerary and whacked it some more until it was in shreds. One of the destinations I eliminated was the "Three Cities" that were less than a half mile as the crow flies from Valletta. Incredibly it was dropped because it would take too long to get there. "As the crow flies" was across the harbor but we'd be taking a bus. It was one of those 'half day' activities that would require 3 to 4 hours in transit time alone and we were rapidly running out of big chunks of time to spend.

As we waited multiple times a day wondering if the bus would ever come, I frequently thought of our Lonely Planet guide book's liberal comments of many destinations being "a great place to chill out." I couldn't imagine spending as much time and energy as we spent getting places to just "chill out." Getting around in itself became a heroic effort and "chilling out" wouldn't cut-it as an objective for me.

Holding Our Own With the Drivers 

A handful of the bus drivers were helpful and pleasant but most of them added to the problem rather than diminished it. I started thinking of Malta's hospitality industry as a "hostility industry" after several bizarre experiences in the tourist information office and the frequent unpleasant encounters with the drivers. If we just got on the bus and paid our money it was OK but the situation quickly deteriorated if we wanted any information about the route other than what was cryptically mentioned on the bus map.

Some of the drivers would physically pull-back and turn away when I asked a "Yes/No" question about their route. Others would seemingly reflexively deflect me to another bus without addressing my question. And to add insult to injury, some of them would overcharge us. One had the gall to say the fare was 2.50 when the tickets clearly indicated it was 2.32. I let it go the first time but later in the day I pressed for my change when the same driver over charged me again.


It didn't look like they were enjoying the bus rides either.

In many countries I wouldn't have given the "rounding" some of the drivers were doing a second thought. In countries like Italy where 2000 Lira was small change in the past, many of the clerks don't bother with the pennies now that they use the Euro. But they both round up and down.

In Malta we quickly learned that their recent switch to the Euro meant that everything we bought was in odd pennies: 2.21, 1.16, and 0.47 were common prices. Most of the bus drivers were exacting in their change, with no fare in their system ending in a "0" or a "5" they were always dealing in pennies. But a few of the drivers rounded up--but just for the tourists and were they ever hostile when they got called on it. I don't have much martyr blood running in my veins but one of my causes for fellow tourists is to expose clerks who overcharge tourists when I can and the buses were the only place in Malta where it was an issue.

Our experience on the one private coach that we used for a day long tour of Gozo island was no better than on the public buses. When I politely asked our driver if a particular sight was included on the day's itinerary his come-back was "No, and you are lucky I brought you here!"

 

Alternatives To The Buses

We did dabble in transportation alternatives in attempt to salvage our itinerary, with limited success. I'd planned to price a taxi for a short hop between 2 coastal towns but we didn't find one available.  Instead we did it the Maltese way, which was to catch one bus back towards Valletta, get off it, and head back in the same direction on a second bus that terminated in a different town a couple of miles away from our starting point, which took about an hour altogether. We still don't know what a taxi would have cost, though Denice's 4 mile taxi ride from the airport to her hotel her first night cost a startling $33.  


Taking a tour bus bus-break in the shade on Gozo Island.

Denice found an all-day bus tour for us which we used for visiting the second largest island, Gozo, for 11 each ($15). This tour showed us much more of the island than I could deliver in the same amount of time using the public buses. Curiously, it was transportation-only without tour guide, which was a fine alternative for us. The predictable down-side was that I had anticipated that we'd need 3 to 4 hours at the top 2 sights on the island and our driver limited our time to these premier stops to a total of 90 minutes. We of course would rather have spent the time allotted at the requisite crafts shop touring the historic Citadel, but that isn't the way bus tours work.

On her last day in Malta our friend Denice couldn't bare the thought of another pair of long bus rides in the sudden heat and she came up with the creative alternative of valet service. For  about $55 she had a ride to and from the historic site (Hypogeum) and the driver waited for her during her hour long, pre-booked visit there.

Renting a car to solve some of our transportation challenges was a tempting option but the left-side drive in typically intense Mediterranean traffic was daunting and an option both our guide book and apartment host recommended against. Maybe Segway's would be the way to go....

 

The People

In contrast to an appalling number of people in the Maltese hospitality industry whose behavior triggered descriptors in my mind in a whole new league that included "surly" and "hostile,"  the Maltese people we encountered were delightful. We found ourselves tapping the arms of fellow bus riders to make-up for the information drivers wouldn't divulge and bugging people on the sidewalks to provide what tourist information clerks wouldn't provide. Anyone we asked was universally helpful; anyone outside the hospitality industry was gracious about answering our questions as best they could.

One bored clerk engaged me as I walked to our apartment one evening and just wanted to chat about our visit in Malta. The man in the park was welcoming when we asked to share his bench and was happy to talk with us. Our apartment host checked-in with us mid-visit and shared some of his knowledge of Malta. And I heard a woman on the sidewalk in Valletta asking if a map-toting tourist needed help, which further echoed the positive experiences we were having.

We did however regret one bad habit of the local people, which was to break into Maltese when consulting with another about a question of ours. We've often learned that the information 2 people exchange in discussing a situation is more useful to us than the conclusion they come to, in part because of the way we have framed the question. Rather than get "Yes" or "No" we'd liked to have heard the string of "Maybe's" along the way. 

 

"We've Been Civilized"

The Maltese man who shared his park bench with us while we recovered from yet another jangling bus ride into Valletta commented that the "British civilized us." Based on our observations in other Mediterranean countries, I certainly agree with his conclusion and his logic seemed credible as well.


These shouted "The Brit's were here."

Unlike other Mediterranean countries, we didn't see piles of roadside garbage or flagrant littering on either of the islands, Malta or Gozo. Stray dogs didn't appear to be a problem. The literally-underlying infrastructure, like the water and sewage systems, didn't seem to be the objects of rebuilding as in equally small Montenegro where we'd just been. There were no signs of toxic 'hot spots' from serious neglect of the environment. There was a 7 hour power outage in our district while we were there but the absence of generators humming in response validated that it was likely due to a project rather than being a common occurrence, as is the case in Albania or Montenegro.

In addition, the Maltese were reveling in the EU funds coming their way to spiff-up their country. Since the fundamentals already seemed to be in place in Malta, unlike in eastern Europe, the money was being directed to the more superficial details and overall the Maltese appeared to embrace the efforts to make them 'greener'.

One EU inspired project has been containing and covering an open, hilltop landfill that could be seen and smelled from the tourist district miles away; a site that had also been contaminating the adjacent sea. Abandoned limestone quarries are being filled with construction rubble to reclaim the land and plant much-needed trees. Recycling is underway and garbage pick-up is free to discourage roadside dumping.

Our park-bench-buddy pointed to the lovely, lush plantings that drew us to the small park and indicated that it and other such greenery were compliments of the EU money. Funds are also actively being funneled into tourist sights to improve the information available to the tourists and to protect the outdoor sites from further erosion damage. Unlike other EU fund recipients, our impression was that the Maltese "got it"--that what was good for the tourism industry was also directly beneficial to them and that they were cooperating with the changes.


"....and here."

I assumed that the rewired thinking that "getting civilized" had given the Maltese was making the EU efforts more effective. The logic of environmental sensitivity was likely more readily understood in Malta and the pay-offs from enduring the needed changes could be more readily seen by the Maltese than was the case in Montenegro where outhouses are still poised over the local creek.

We guessed that the 150 year presence of the British that overlapped with the era in which the Mafia became anchored in Sicily likely spared Malta from hard-core corruption. Our bench-buddy said that corruption was limited, that it was on the scale of a police officer excusing a violation because everybody was somebody's cousin or friend; in contrast he said that in the US or London the cop would write the ticket without a second thought.

 

The French

Unlike the long presence of the Brits in Malta, the French had a very brief domination with the arrival of Napoleon. But much to my surprise, "The French" were on the tips of the tongues of others at the time of our Malta visit. Our B&B host in Pisa, which was our departure point for Malta, spontaneously mentioned how much the French hated to speak English. He commented in disbelief and amusement that his French guests expected him, an Italian, to speak French and that they were deriding when he offered his English that was the most common second language among his guests.

It was only days later in Malta when sharing a park bench with the local man that he too spontaneously commented as to how much the French hated to speak English. I laughingly said that I thought it was only with Americans that they were reluctant to share their linguistic skills and he was quick to very earnestly correct that comment. He added that the French hate the Brits more than the Americans, something I'd never heard before. His theory was that it was because the French had never won a war against the Brits. We didn't know if his facts were right or not but it didn't matter as this was a fascinating though one-sided 'conversation.'

 


Malta tended towards being flat and monochromatic.

The Land

The scraps of information I had about Malta before arriving were only about its history and I hadn't thought much about what the land would look like. But apparently I had some expectations as I gasped at the sight of it from the air. "Oh no, what have we gotten ourselves into" wasn't a reaction unique to me as weeks later a German couple explained that they had had the same response. 

They, like us, were shocked to see that Malta was so small, so flat, and so monochromatic. From the air, and later from the ground, the limestone quarries were prominent. The open faces of the quarries summarized the look of Malta as almost all of the buildings are made from the local limestone, hence the monochromatic look.

The dreariness of the unicolor-theme was highlighted for us when we returned to Pisa 10 days later and we found ourselves naming all of the different colors we saw on the stone buildings that had painted stucco finishes, unlike in Malta. In addition to the liberal use of external color in Pisa, we also noted that the building facades were more textured than in Malta--there were more things jutting out, more decorative elements, more variations in window treatments. When I recall Malta's traditional urban spaces, I see smooth, light-yellow stone buildings that are 2 to 3 stories high with little in the way of balconies, flowers, awnings on the facades, or laundry hanging to dry.


Mdina's architecture was about as decorative & colorful as it got.

Unlike Italy and much of the European Mediterranean region, the Maltese people themselves didn't decorate the streets either. In Spain, France, Italy, and Croatia we are accustomed to a lively street scene with cafes and vendors spilling out on to the sidewalks and parks and plazas buzzing with people, especially in the warm evenings.

Outside of the tourist areas in Malta, the streets often seemed deserted and there was little space for promenading or congregating. It was only weeks later that I wondered if perhaps Malta's social scene reflected what I think of as the North African/Muslim cultural standard of life being lived inside of private, walled courtyards whereas the on the European side of the Med life is lived outdoors and on the streets. The direct Arab influence on Malta has been gone for almost a thousand years and the people never surrendered their Catholic faith, but that is the most sense I could make of the difference.

 


Inside Ghar Dalam cave which was also carved out of limestone.

The History That Created the Sights

Amazingly, the historical sites that we came to see in Malta became a secondary issue. Just getting around was the focus of our days and the main topic of our conversations and concerns. Our severely whittled-down itinerary did however sample the major historical periods.

Pre-Neolithic Malta

Researchers surmise that, though Malta is only 60 miles south of Sicily, its small size resulted in it being settled relatively late. Though forested before the Neolithic cultures arrived with their farming techniques than began with cutting down the trees, Malta was probably too small to sustain earlier hunter-gatherers that were cruising the Mediterranean in search of suitable lands.

So the small Ghar Dalam cave we visited wasn't most noteworthy for its later human finds, but for its earlier animal remains. It wasn't an inhabited cave but, as a result of geologic quirks, it became a depository of river-carried animal bones through the ages. Its finds proved early habitation of Malta by mammals but not humans.


The megalithic-era Hagar Qim temple was closed to the public for installation of its new protective awning.

Neolithic Malta

However its not the skeletal remains of glacial mega-fauna that put Malta on the map for archeology enthusiasts but the island's megaliths, their ruins of ancient stone temples built by people's on the land from about 3800-2000 bce. We visited 3 main temple clusters and our last stop was to the pair of structures, Mnajdra & Hagar Qim.


The entrance to Mnajdra Temple.

Our 2 electronic guide books stated that these 2 megalithic temple clusters were the oldest and best preserved on either of Malta's 2 largest islands, but that understated our experience of them. I would bump them into a class of their own and say that "If you only have time to go to a single site on Malta, this is the one to see".

Hagar Qim was closed while they finished installing the EU-funded protective tent over it, though we were allowed to see it from behind a fence. Fortunately Mnajdra, which was a short walk away, already had its tent in place. Mnajdra was the better of the 2 sites anyway and it was stunning.

Mnajdra was the only megalithic site we visited that was awesome. At the others, I kept saying to Bill that the alignments and standing stones of Carnac in Brittany were much more imposing than the Maltese temples. The Carnac stones also gave a much more potent sense of the monumentality of the effort expended than our other Maltese sites, like the Tarxien Temples on Malta and the Ggantija Temples on Gozo. But Mnajdra was humbling; Mnajdra felt like a temple.


Malta's smaller, iconic "fat lady" figures from the megalithic era.

Our guide books lamented that the coming tents would spoil the evocative nature of the temples but we thought it enhanced the overall experience at Mnajdra. The shade at Mnajdra was extremely welcome in the mid-May heat and it made lingering to absorb the experience of the site possible. Additionally, the temples were originally roofed and completely enclosed, so having a high tent rather than a searing sun over head made it a little more like its original form. Additionally, the contained quality created by the tent made it feel more like a scared space than a ruins.

We were deeply disappointed not see the other iconic Neolithic site, the Hypogeum. In contrast to all of the information posted online, at the tourist office, and at the site itself, the booking for the underground catacombs was about 3 weeks in advance. Denice, who was staying a day longer than us, was able to secure the single available ticket.

Variations on a Theme

Malta's history after the temple building peoples disappeared (2000 bce) and before The Knights of St John arrived (1530 ce) reads much like the rest of the Mediterranean. The usual cast of fascinating cultures rolled through and did battle over strategically located Malta with the additions of brief appearances by St Paul and Napoleon.


In the halls of the Knights of St John's Armory .

The Phoenicians established a hilltop fortress at Mdina somewhere around 800 bce that was later occupied and enhanced by the Romans who were on the scene in the 3rd century bce. The North African Arabs left a permanent imprint on the island as the current Maltese  language is a hybrid of their form of Arab and Sicilian, which is a variation of Italian. The Normans chased out the Arabs and and then the era of feudal lords was dominant, as in Sicily.

The Knights of St John  

The Knights of St John have worn many hats over their roughly thousand-year history. They began in the Holy Land as a pious group of monks providing hospitals and advanced medical care to wounded Crusaders. Being chased out of Jerusalem and later off the island of Rhodes by the Ottomans prompted them to become militant, to become warriors. Hard times and perhaps a loss of clarity about their mission saw them recast themselves as pirates. Ironically, it was breaking their promise to "be good" to the Ottomans that prompted the Great Siege of 1565, a siege that the Knights eventually won with the arrival of reinforcements from Sicily. Though it was the betrayal of trust by the Knights had provoked the Siege, all of Europe hailed the Knights as heroes once they achieved victory over the Ottomans.


St John's Co-Cathedral speaks to their decadent phase.

The military success of the Knights against the Ottomans resulted in an outpouring of funds and resources to fortify Malta against further Ottoman attacks. No one knew it at the time, but the last big battle, the last big threat from the Ottomans would be less than 10 years later at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. But the fear of the Ottomans was immense and the money kept rolling into Malta as the Ottomans lost power.

It wasn't long and the once monastic lifestyle of The Knights gave way to decadence and indulgence--so much so that they surrendered without a fight when Napoleon showed up on their doorstep and seized the island from the former brigands.

Fortress Malta

The Brits soon responded to the Maltese request to be rescued from the abuses of the folks Napoleon left in charge and and that laid the groundwork for Malta being a colony of Britain for about 150 years, beginning in the early 1800's.

Being in a strategic position for both north-south and east-west traverses of the Mediterranean kept Malta in the sights of maritime powers for millennia and things were no different in the age of radar. The Brit's considered abandoning Malta early in WWII as they thought it indefensible but once it was attacked by Mussolini, the Brits hung-on. Malta had the misfortune of ranking as the most bombed country in the world during WWII. Like many countries, their WWII story is full of tales of heroism, sacrifice, and near starvation and is documented in the island's museums.

 


 Salt crystallizing from winter wave water as it has for millennia.

It's a Wrap

Accumulating the history that drew us to Malta took about 6,000 years; the build-up of our own experiences that brought us to Malta took about 6 years; our trip planning occurred over several months; and the 10 day visit itself was dominated not by the history but by the unexpected obstacles created by the buses. The montage of memories, new thrills, and unexpected disappointments was over in the blink of an eye as we said good-bye to our friend Denice and our plane took-off for Pisa. 

As we were leaving I made my "Next Time" list of things we should see should we return and I also made notes as to how the visit might have been made better in our "Country Details" file. After that, all that was left to bring closure to our Malta visit was to cull the photos during the next weeks as we made the awkward transition back to being cyclo-tourists in Italy.

 

Where We Are Now July 7, 2009:  The Dolomites region of the Italian Alps
    We've just arrived in our favorite area, the Dolomites, and hope it will stop raining soon. Fortunately it isn't constantly raining but the intermittent downpours and daily threat of thunderstorms are keeping us off of the high peaks, which is where we hoped to be. Bill has plans for Via Ferrata routes and a 2-night stay in a mountain hut....if the weather improves. But this is a gorgeous area and we'll make it a memorable stay regardless of the weather.
    My shoulder injury isn't on the list of things that will keep us off the rocky faces but it still wakes me up several times every night despite being massaged daily by Bill. Fortunately it doesn't keep me awake as long as it did a month ago, but the ready access to pain is annoying. Yesterday was the 3 month anniversary of the injury and despite daily exercises and daily progress, being completely healed still seems a long way off.

Our best to all of you,

Barb & Bill

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