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Almost everyone in Australia knows someone who hailed directly from Malta or is the child of Maltese parents. There are about a quarter as many Maltese Australians as there are Maltese Maltese so it is an interesting place to visit; where almost every cab driver or waiter announces that he or she has relatives in Sydney or Melbourne.

Of course like Italian, Greek, German, Irish, Dutch or English Australians and so on and so on, second or third generation Maltese are not immediately identifiable; even though there is an active group of cultural supporters keeping Maltese traditions alive in Australia.  For more information follow this link...

As a result it came as no surprise to us that Malta is, at least outwardly, one of the strongest Roman Catholic communities we have visited; and this is still the case even after our recent trip to South America.  There is little reason to doubt this outward appearance. In Valletta shops selling religious icons; shibboleths; facsimiles; and reading materials seem to outnumber those of any other variety.  There are active churches everywhere with substantial congregations; and at at least one an apparent platoon of priests taking simultaneous confessions with parishioners waiting; like the emergency ward at a major hospital.  There must be a lot of sin taking place somewhere; but we never identified its source.

On the contrary, Malta is a very pleasant place to spend a few days.  It was the base for our 2008 trip to Spain Portugal and Morocco so that we visited the island twice; coming and going. 

 

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Valletta harbour (partial view)

 

Like Gibraltar, Malta once had major strategic significance for the British Navy having been acquired in 1814 under the Treaty of Paris after the defeat of Napoleon.  This remained so until Britain's potential enemies (past and future) acquired the Hydrogen Bomb. Now the presence of the British fleet would simply assure total annihilation in the event of a major conflict.  Even a contretemps with a North African or Middle Eastern power would put Malta too close to be used as a secure naval or airbase.  As a result the British pulled out in 1964 giving the country its independence.  Initially a constitutional monarchy with Australia's (!) Queen Elizabeth  as monarch, Malta became a republic ten years later. Malta joined the European Union in 2004 and the Eurozone in 2008.

It is striking that in this flag waving country there seem to be as many European Union flags flying as Maltese ones; indeed I had to ask what the flag was as I can't remember seeing it flown elsewhere.

During the Second World War Malta was besieged by the Germans and Italians.  Sicily is only 50 Km to the North. But Malta is a fortress and held-out against virtually continuous bombardment between 1940 and 1942.  Plaques on a wall in Valletta from the UK and the US mark the heroism of the people of Malta.

 

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The British plaque

 

Malta the Country consists of a small cluster of islands; the largest being Malta itself; then Gozo.

These have changed hands many times during power struggles in the Mediterranean. At each point state-of-the-art fortifications and defences were built by the current incumbents. 

The earliest human settlement appears to have been around 5200 BCE, during the early Stone Age, as this corresponds to the extinction of the islands' mega-fauna; particularly a species of small elephants; the bones of which can be seen in local museums. During the Bronze Age Greek invaders were followed by the Phoenicians.  The Punic Wars of the early Iron Age saw the islands come under Roman control. 

With the fall of Rome the Germanic invaders briefly held the Islands but they were then taken by the Christian Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople; the Greek speaking eastern Roman Empire. Byzantine rule was overthrown by Islam with the Arab invasion of 870.  Their descendants ruled for two hundred and twenty-one years.  The Islands were then taken by the Christian Norman Crusaders.  The two religions co-existed for a century and a third but then, during the sixth Crusade, all Muslims who did not convert were expelled; or put to death.

For a period Malta became a fortified garrison and pawn in the larger ebb and flow of European power struggles. At one time the island of Gozo was completely sacked.  On another, the island's entire population was taken as slaves by pirates (the Barbary Corsairs).

In 1530 Emperor Charles V of France ceded the islands to the Knights Hospitaller (the Knights of Malta).  To defend it new and vastly superior fortifications were constructed particularly around Valletta and the harbour. 

 

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A diminutive Malta Knight - he's on a plinth

 

The Knights held Malta for well over two centuries, until 1796, when the islands fell to Napoleon; and so in due course, with his defeat, they passed to the British. 

Between the World Wars the British made Malta the main base for their Mediterranean fleet and hardened its defences with underground tunnels and installations; in addition to making vast concrete additions to the harbour defences. 

 

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A fraction of the Island defences

 

As a result Malta is one large museum; with remnants of all these civilisations and invaders still in evidence. The fortifications are particularly interesting and impressive. The Maltese language is also a blend of these many influences but English is also widely used and almost all public information and signage in the country is in English.

But it was not clear to me why Roman Catholicism has taken such a strong hold here.  Certainly the Knights held it for Christendom against the Moors and Islam. But in neighbouring Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain today the churches seem to be populated by the elderly if at all; while in Malta the whole community seems fully engaged.  This religiosity is quickly diluted in Maltese children in Australia much to the distress of the older generation.

Possibly it is because the education system in Malta is dominated by Catholic schools and the University and until recently the media has been largely domestic.  There also seems to be some censorship of the outside, more secular, world in place; although with satellite TV;  the Internet; and social media this obviously can't last.  As a result birth control is suppressed and abortion is still illegal.  Thus Malta has one of the highest birth rates in Europe; the highest population density; and a substantial Diaspora to other countries like Australia. 

There is a also a small protestant community as a result of past British rule and current British retirement to Malta, with its own Cathedral, but we saw few parishioners in evidence.  As a close English speaking country with a climate attractive to those who like to lie in the sun; Malta plays host to many thousands of English tourists a year and a lot of retirees.  Other Europeans visit as well and multi-storey apartment blocks are leaping up like mushrooms all around the coastline.

Surprisingly for a country that produces less than 20% of its food; relies on desalination and imported bottles for freshwater supplies; and has no source of domestic energy; the cost of living is relatively low; another attraction to the retirement market. Unfortunately this dependence on imported food and possibly years of catering to the British navy means that Malta, while providing adequate sustenance, is not a gourmands paradise. Nor was I overly impressed by the local building standards; property investors beware!

In addition to retirees, Malta attracts its share of young adults on their worst behaviour, apparently from the English provinces, who bawl and brawl out of bars and nightspots.  But fortunately they are gregarious, clustering in particular locations and nightspots, and can thus be avoided.

These are juxtaposed with a perhaps an even more bizarre group: the holiday package buying families and couples who make their way to the rock ledges that largely pass for beaches around the island, the sandy kind being in short supply, there to setup tents; or umbrellas; or just to spread beach towels and bask. There is no surf in Malta but even swimming seems to be unknown to this group; a barefoot prance across hot rocks and a paddle up to the waist is about as active as they seem to get; at least during the day.

 

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Scorched on the Rocks

 

Lobster red they make their painful way back, via some dubious package tour restaurant, to budget accommodation each night. Have they not heard of skin cancer or cholesterol? 

They seem to stay put. We saw very few of either group among the fit looking backpackers who explore the country on the very inexpensive, and wonderfully ancient, orange, yellow and white local buses; or on the ferry to Gozo.  One of these buses going North was obviously pre-war (WW2); its engine over the front wheels, accessed by 1930's style side opening engine covers; with a crash gearbox that had to be double-shuffled down to first gear on the steeper hills.  A ride on some Malta buses compares to an outing on an old steam train.  It will be a pity when these old-timers are inevitably replaced by more modern machines.

 

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A more modern Malta Bus

 

Despite the booming construction and tourism sector; and very strong competitive marine industry; there are still pockets of obvious poverty in the countryside. 

 

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Malta has a thriving marine industry - one of several large active dry-docks

 

Against the relative poverty adult literacy is very high and the average standard of living, as measured by the UN Human Development Index puts Malta ahead of Portugal; so fewer people are leaving than once did.

On balance Malta has a lot going for it; a visit is recommended.

 

 

More Photos of Malta

 

This was previously a slide show but that option has been removed by Google Photos giving me a lot of work to fix the broken links.  But you can now go to an external link and choose the slide show option; or simply view the album.  Click on the image below:

 

Malta boats 

 

 

 

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