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Marvelous Malta

Words and Photos by: Lily C. Fen

We arrived under shroud of darkness, but Malta, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was aglow in orange lights, the historical buildings illuminated by a soft brightness.
Think Intramuros in Manila or the quieter towns of Italy, and that was my first impression of this southern European nation.

Everything reminded me of scenes from the Philippines in its tropical architecture. From the patterns on the clay tiles of floors, to the thin cotton blankets, the mild humidity coming from the sea.

All the buildings were made out of limestone, ubiquitous across the three inhabited islands of Malta—the main island, to the tiny Comino, and northernmost Gozo.

While en route to the tiny sovereign-state, I leafed through Air Malta’s in-flight magazine, “Il-Bizzilla,” and discovered things I did not know about the country until then.
For instance, did you know that Malta used to be under British rule until 1964? It fell into British hands in 1800 when the French, who had Malta, acquiesced to the Brits. The country used to be ruled by the Knights of St. John (today known as the Knights of Malta), dating all the way back to 1565.

Up to 365 churches are scattered all over Malta – one for each day of the year.
The Maltese language is a combination of Italian, Spanish, French, and Arabic. It is the only Semitic language written using the Latin alphabet.

Malta is one of the ten smallest sovereign states in the world, with only up to 500,000 inhabitants. The number triples in the summer, when one million tourists visit the seven islands.

We started off in Valletta, where the sun was blazing over the yellow limestone that lingered on our fingers when touched, as if the walls of the entire city were made of chalk. Bright red or cobalt doors punctuated the streets as we strolled through town.

Casa Rocca Piccola, a home with a bomb shelter that saw WWII, was great for history lovers.
Tour through the house to glance at ancient mirrors, old wooden furniture, and religious paraphernalia such as statues of the Virgin Mary or Jesus.

The World War II Air Raid Shelter was where our tour culminated. We were taken into the first bunk that stretched down to the depths, our voices echoing off of the cool stone walls. I looked up and imagined how the cavern must have sounded during WWII, when bombs were dropping all over Valletta. How did the city look today as it did, so intact?

Our visit to the megalithic temples called Mnajdra and Hagar Qin Temples on the main island of Malta was another surprise.

These megaliths dated back to 3500 B.C., a time so far away that I could barely fathom it. Impressive megalithic temples also awaited discovery on the northernmost island of Gozo. You can do as we did and rent a scooter to the Ggantija Temples from the port. Gjantija is known to be a set of the most ancient free-standing structures in the world, dating back to 3600 B.C.

The famous Azure Window is no longer standing, but equal to its sea and windswept beauty is the Wied il-Mielaħ window, a limestone formation that can also be sighted from the island of Gozo.

Do also head to Ramla Bay, where a great number of locals, families and singles alike, bask in the sun and swim in the warm sea, while chillout music wafts through the air from the shops.
For those with a SCUBA diving license, get into the water and see more of the Mediterranean with dive master, John Dilley, and Hanako Tomita from Malta Blue Diving. Dive off of Sliema, Malta, to see a place called the Coral Gardens. Explore coral gateways that stand nearly a meter tall once you are beneath the surface.

The seabed was rife with shades of the Mediterranean – visibility that stretched through miles of beiges, browns, and occasional pops of incandescent red. Bearded fireworms with striking white dots and vermillion streaks danced over the sand bed.

You could also dive off of Valletta. From here, visit the HMS Maori Wreck. This dive site showcased actual remnants of an authentic wreck from World War II. Watch out for the hulls of real shells that have the year “1941” emblazoned on them. The British Destroyer was gunned down a year after that.

Chance upon seahorses next to an old Vespa at the bottom of the sea. At a depth of 17.5 meters, plaits looked up from a bed of moss-colored sand and fireworms caught our eye. And there she was, the HMS Maori, all black and jagged metal teeth, the sea reclaiming it with seaweed and other ocean fauna, greens draped over dark steel.

We glided through one of her cabins, a craggy slice of her jutting downward, threatening to tear through my oxygen tanks, but I managed to swim through the berth unscathed. On the other side of the wreck, John pointed out the shells to us. They were larger than I expected – each nearly as large in circumference as my head. They glinted a faint golden in the seawater sunlight, sparkling their “1941” in the shadows of the ship.

At the end of the dive, we alighted onto a semi-enclosed space where divers let themselves get washed up on, grappling with our heavy tanks and grabbing onto metal railings.

Behind us was a British ship that the Germans had sunk in the 1940s. The entire Valletta was a city that fought against the Germans during WWII. I looked towards the blazing sun, hot on the yellow limestone buildings, ubiquitous throughout this country of only 500,000, and strip the tank off of my back.

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