Sarah Coles

MALTA 2014


Ryan Air is rough.  Hard narrow seats which do not recline.  Paid £2 for extra leg room, and £8 for priority boarding, and 4 + euros for tea & biscuit.  But it got us there on time.




IMG_3900I was in Malta as a baby and christened at the Holy Trinity Church, Sliema – then war broke out, and Pa who served at Bighi Royal Naval Hospital, was rapidly sent back to the UK.  Ma stuffed every crack in a room with paper, so we wouldn’t inhale poison gas if the Germans released it over the island (presumably we’d asphyxiate instead).  There she was with Robin 6, Lavender 4 and me 2, Nanny and Maltese maids, and what a sigh of relief when in due course we all went back too, leaving the maids to face bombing on a scale greater than the London Blitz. Robin, Pa, Ma – now all dead, Lavender like me remembers nothing – oh if only I’d asked and asked everything under the sun before they died, my lost filing cabinets!

Although I remember nothing, I wanted to go back to see it, to see if any sounds or smells floated me into the past.  So Bob, not that keen, and I flew there via Ryan Air.


IMG_3892Bus through this desiccated white landscape with dry stone walls, to this massive city. Malta, smaller than the Isle of Wight with ten times the population!  Struck unlucky with hotel – I’d booked at the British Hotel in Valletta  but no smiles from anyone, and a poky room at the top with sharp suicidal steps to the bathroom, and breakfast of stale bread and not much else.  Later we were at the Grand Harbour Hotel, almost next door, slightly pricier and far nicer, with from our room views over the Grand Harbour – with its prong of three cities facing us, and Pa’s old hospital perched on the white cliff.  It is the loveliest harbour ever.  Fortress Malta!  Every promontory is covered with limestone slabs of fortification, thick as marzipan on a Christmas cake.


Valletta is like a tongue in a slightly open mouth, with the Grand Harbour on one side and Marsamaxett Harbour on the other, and from our hotel we could see the three cities Vittoriosa, Senglea – behind it Conspicua – and nearer the harbour entrance on the cliffs the old Bighi hospital, bigger than the Royal Naval Hospitals at Haslar or Chatham, and instituted on the insistence of Nelson.


IMG_3827The whole city is ornate baroque, built in the 17th and 18th centuries after the Knights of St John under John Parisot de la Valette expelled the Turks in 1565.  It’s called Valletta after him, and like all places built within a narrow time scale has powerful character.  (This can be for worse – think of  post-war east Berlin, or think of some modern housing estates.  But Alresford, where we live, is very genteel 18th century).  Streets of palaces and houses with  glassed in projecting balconies reminiscent of Corunna in Spain, so the female inmates get a view left and right.  Steps climb up and down the streets, talk about keeping fit.  Being on this carved hill makes for excitement – Piranesi views as paths and roads go up and down and over and tunnel under fortifications.


St John’s Cathedral is Counter Reformation bling at its gaudiest, encrusted with gold arches and bubbled with decoration – splendid but I find all these over the top baroque churches (eg St Peter’s Rome), fun and totally unspiritual.  They are like Brighton Pavilion. They are about show, triumphalism, theatre, they want to manipulate you, seduce you into prostration.  Or perhaps I’m just too Protestant.  A fine Caravaggio of the beheading of St John – the first Caravaggio I’ve actually appreciated – if I didn’t know I’d think it was by Poussin. Elsewhere brown paintings by various artists of various flagellations.


Amazingly, or not, we did not experience post colonial blues from people anywhere, and sitting in the upper Barraca gardens old ladies talked about fathers working in the dockyards, or visiting England, and the man at a bus stop told us about having his head bashed in and being rushed to the Hospital.


We got a ferry across Marsamxett Harbour to Sliema, where Ma, Pa, all of us lived.  Now it’s all hotels and holiday apartments, and tourists.  Of course we are tourists too, but we never acknowledge it, even to ourselves.


IMG_3899IMG_3901IMG_3895Far better is the ferry across the Grand Harbour to Vittoriosa etc – oh the beauty of these buildings whether utilitarian warehouses or an aristo’s villa – hand carved from limestone, as in Valletta, all round the harbour.  Like Venice, but not so self-consciously beautiful, and no tourists.  We got to the Naval Hospital, now being done up as a science centre,  but the nasty woman guard would not let me in, even for a peep.  Started by Nelson (after beating the French at Aboukir Bay, Egypt?), it is 18th century British, grimly plain, and at its centre is the original IMG_3898Italian Villa Bighi, elegant, modestly decorated.




By one of these incredible buses (clean, no drink or food allowed) to Rabat, in the centre of the island.  The road marches beside an aqueduct that carried water to Valletta.  (This dry dry island – the bottled water in restaurants usually comes from Herefordshire!!)


IMG_3866IMG_3844Rabat – Arabic name – means suburbs, because it’s the suburb  of Mdina the old capital, which is splendidly bastioned with a massive dry moat. Inside it’s a jewel box of exquisite buildings, churches, convents, a few houses, a  cathedral and a very fancy and pricy hotel – daytime it’s full of tourists following their leaders with banners, leading them into battle.  Many door knockers are formed as human figures and Bob spots one the penis hidden and therefore enhanced by a tiny blob of chewing gum.  At night quite spooky. The little twisting side streets so Arabic (we might be in Tunis), the names too, like the Maltese language which is the only semitic language in Roman script, and yet it’s all so Catholic.  Did at one point the Christian invaders kill off the Phoenician men, keeping the women who spoke their mother tongue to the children sired by the conquerors?  Mdina’s all very nice, but actually I find it too perfect and preserved, lifeless in fact.  Far better is Rabat itself with shops, cafes and the like.


We stay at the Point de Vue Hotel, just great, and have a huge room overlooking fields and dry stone walls and can see the sea glinting in the distance.  The place has a large bar where the locals come and where we eat.




Amazingly, none of our Alresford friends, naval types etc who have been stationed or holidayed on Malta, knew of the temples which are older than the Pyramids or Stonehenge, and where hugely fat female figures of all sizes have been found.


First, by one of these buses to Dingli Cliffs, high and white and the ground above studded with flowers, tiny, which I can’t identify because my Flowers of Malta is useless with lack of info and only line illustrations.  There’s a locked chapel and a radar station like a giant golf ball on legs.  In the distance we imagine we can see the coast to Tunisia, ancient Phoenicia.  We probably can’t.


IMG_3852IMG_3894Next day by another bus to Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, surmounted by a marquee with open sides – a pity but at least you see the sky and sea beyond.  Obese anonymous females, all sizes (mostly now in museum) are pure Henry Moore, with featureless pin heads.  Unnervingly, some have no heads (sex, all about the body not head), or just a hole where head might be inserted.  The doorways you step over and through are curved at the corners, and are like Barbara Hepworth holes or frames – you move from the profane to the sacred, you glimpse the dark from the light.  From here to beyond and back.  We are awed.  People speak quietly, as in a cathedral.  Beautiful stone slabs carved with tendrils (prototype of the meander pattern?).


All so ancient, any time from 5000 years ago.  Where did they get their water?  Springs?  How did they grow crops?


IMG_3868Last day to ‘Clapham Junction’, ‘the cart tracks’.  On this pitted limestone plateau are parallel lines like cart tracks or rail lines careering all over the place.  Couldn’t have been made by wheels of carts, not enough room for the draught, the tracks are too deep.  For pulling sleighs?  Mysterious.


Bus back over this dry strange land, with stone walls and small fields, each with its tower for shooting migrant birds.  Only towns do sparrows and pigeons survive.




IMG_3881Here, at the far end of this harbour, on the waterfront among cafes and estate agents, we rent a flat four nights.  Quite nice, decent view, though they needed advice on how to set it up. Bedroom, bathroom and kitchen/living room opening on to a balcony.


Saltpans carved from the rock.  What work to scrape just a little salt each time it dried out when the tide retreated!  One day I walk back from Marsaxlokk IMG_3875IMG_3877harbour (Napoleon invaded here).   Prows of bright fishing boats have eyes looking out for danger – from Phoenician times. I get lost, shouted at, am surrounded by notices saying DANGER (I bet, all that shooting), but get to St Thomas’s Bay where St Paul was shipwrecked & rescued, and then through the governor Publius converted the island (what charisma!).  I try to imagine it, though a bit hard with these people pottering with boats, the calm sea, & children paddling, sucking lollies.  So much happened, and so complex, compared with the neat trajectory of English history. Malta, omphalos of the Mediterranean.


We go to smart unfriendly restaurant – La Favorita – how smiles or just friendliness matters in the service industries!  Unripe avocado pear & prawns with any taste masked by sauce from a bottle.  Interesting to see these staid stocky types in black, and hugely fat girls with their beaux.  No one drinks much in Malta.   Better, cheaper and friendlier with fresh fish was Tal Familjal nearby.


Eventually home to Bournemouth airport, met by Keith with his taxi.


But how we need WiFi in this day and age!  Every hotel has it.  Bob likes the iPad for the Times and news and puzzles, and I feel aggrieved that he commandeers it and I am left with my grey old Kindle.  At first I was  pleased I had taught him how to use it, getting an 83 year old into the digital age, but I did not even get a chance to use it to write up a diary.  Will have to get a mini iPad.










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