When I recently had an opportunity to go to Malta (pre pandemic), I could not help but reminisce about the movie, the Maltese Falcon. Perhaps it was an opportunity for me to see the fabled icon, however I have been let down in the past. I was shocked to learn Dracula was not in Transylvania, after bringing a wooden stake and cloves of garlic with me, or to learn Quasimodo was a work of fiction, as I looked down from Notre Dame. Surely though, the Maltese Falcon was real.
For those who have not been to Malta, it is located in the centre of the Mediterranean, halfway between Turkey and Gibraltar, and Italy and North Africa. This, of course, has always made it a strategic stronghold during any conflict, especially World War II.
There are actually two main islands and one smaller one. Malta, the largest of the landmasses, first gained importance when the Knights of St. John, the medical branch of the Knights Templar, made it their home in the sixteenth century. They stayed for several hundred years, and built hospitals and schools, and were largely responsible for the infrastructure which exists today.
The population of the country is just over 500,000, and the capital city of Valletta, which has been the capital since 1571, has a total of 6,500 inhabitants. Valletta has some spectacular sights, such as the Grand Master’s Palace, built in 1571, which currently houses the office of the President of Malta and the House of Representatives. The palace is allegedly haunted by a number of ghosts, but that didn’t hold me back from visiting.
Malta has 359 churches, more per capita than any other country in the world. In fact, you could attend a different church almost every day of the year without setting foot in the same one twice. In my travels around the globe, I have seen many churches. Very few however, come close to the splendour of St. John’s in Malta. The knights of Malta built the cathedral in 1573, with an extremely ornate interior.
The entire floor of the Church is covered with marble tombstones, commemorating 395 of the most illustrious knights of the order. There is also a crypt containing the tombs of Grand Masters.
If you plan to visit Malta, spring or fall are your best seasons. In the summer, temperatures climb to 35 degrees and it is very dry. In winter, it only gets to around 13 degrees. The houses are built with very thick walls to protect the inhabitants from the elements, as there are virtually no heating systems.
During World War II, the country was a strategic British stronghold. It was heavily attacked, enduring over 3,300 air raids, which destroyed nearly 11,000 buildings. 9,000 People were killed during the constant attacks, which took place between 1940 and 1944.
Continuing south, I stopped at some fascinating rock formations, known as the Blue Grotto, which are actually a number of sea caverns on the south coast. This is a popular destination for tourists, and has some fantastic sites for diving.
There are many small villages in the country and Rabat, is one not to be missed. It is where St. Paul the apostle, allegedly spent three months while being shipwrecked. The main reason one visits Rabat is to see the ancient catacombs of Saint Agatha. These caverns were used in Roman times to bury the dead, as according to Roman culture, it was unhygienic to bury remains within the confines of a city.
My Last Stop on the south island was Anchor Bay, the site of the famous Popeye Village, constructed for the Robin Williams movie of 1980. Today the site is a popular tourist destination.
I took the ferry to the island of Gozo, passing by the smaller island of Comino, the third of the Maltese Islands. Gozo is 14 km long and only 7 km wide, and exactly half the size of Malta’s main island. The ferry ride will accept cars, and to my surprise, was only 25 minutes long.
The main city of Gozo is Victoria, a city of just under 7,000 inhabitants. The city was named after Queen Victoria, in 1887 the occasion of her golden jubilee. For me, it was another opportunity to enjoy local ice cream, something I try to do everywhere in the world.
I proceeded to the Citadel, the fortified historic City Castle, which lies in the heart of Victoria, and dates back to 1500 BCE. The massive defensive stone walls of the stockade, which rise above the town, were built to protect the village communities from a threatening invasion of Muslim forces fighting Christendom in the 1500s.
My last stop in Malta was the Azure Window, a natural limestone Arch, which was formed when two sea caves collapsed. The arch was disintegrating rapidly, as large pieces of rock continued to fall from the underside. Sadly, it finally collapsed when rough seas lashed the country during a storm a few months after I was there.
Just as I was leaving the Azure Window area, I saw a man with a falcon who, for a few Euros, would let the bird sit on your arm and pose for a photo. Although this particular falcon is not native to Malta, once it rested on my arm, I knew I had at last discovered the Maltese falcon.
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