Valletta – The Diminutive City of Knights
The advantage of Malta’s ‘size’ worked in my favor from the moment I landed. Upon my arrival, I took a taxi to the Seashells Resort at Suncrest, where I was staying during my vacation. The location of the hotel was excellent and enabled me to quickly get to anywhere I wanted to go to on the island. The hotel room was spacious, indulging, and had a balcony overlooking the sea. To get into vacation mode quickly, I took a quick shower and changed into fresh clothes. My experience taught me it could take some time to ease into the vacation mode, maybe hours or even days, as we continue to act as if we are still at work and under stress. We might take our busy daily routine into our vacation and the fear that our customers will leave us because we took a trip. We might overuse our cell phone or addictively surf the internet, as well as our social networks or news sites. This makes it difficult for us to relax into our vacation and to feel truly free. It can take our bodies some time to get used to the idea that we are away on a vacation. In the meantime the vacation is passing by quickly, as we miss out on activities and sites to see. The ‘quickness’ factor is an essential matter. Our brain takes time to synchronize with reality. It takes us about 15 minutes to feel full after we eat, for example, even though in reality the food is already in our body. Some people need several days to ‘leave the office’ even though they had already begun their vacation, boarded a plane or reached an exotic destination on the other side of the world. In their minds, they are still at the office, worrying about their clients or preoccupied with other things that trouble them. By the time they are set into the ‘vacation mode’, they find that it is already over and they need to get back home, to their daily routines. It takes time to get into vacation mode and let go of all the thoughts, tensions and the everyday burden. The time it takes us to lose all of those depends on our skill. When I realized this, I began exploring the things that helped me get into my vacation faster and over the years I improved my ability to shift from one experience to another in a minimum amount of time. I prioritize my travel over anything else, so I can maximize the vacation experience and avoid wasting valuable time.
First I slip into comfortable shoes and clothes that I enjoy wearing. Second, I make sure I pack as little gear as possible. Taking small and light suitcases makes the whole trip experience simpler and more enjoyable. I like to have my favorite music playing in my ears and a good book to read during the trip, preferably one that discusses distant locations that ignite my imagination. I also recommend taking a shower right when you arrive in your destination, it might help you adjust quicker. If a shower is not going to refresh you, try to find something that works for you like getting a massage or having a glass of wine to toast the launching of your vacation, maybe changing into more comfortable clothes, or walking around the hotel; anything that makes you feel fresher and allows you to enjoy all the beauty and richness the world has to offer you at your location.
The first item on my trip agenda was to visit the capital city of Malta, Valletta. Valletta is considered the smallest capital city in the European Union, at only about half a square kilometer, and one of the world’s smallest capital cities. The official name of the city was given to it by the Knights of Malta who used to entitle it as Humilissima Civitas, which means “the most modest city.” With the expansion and growth of the city it was given the opposite adjective of Superbissima, which translates into “the proudest.” Nowadays, residents of the city call it Il-Belt which means “The City” in Maltese.
The taxi driver dropped me off at the entrance to the city and at first glance I felt that I had gone back in time to the Middle Ages. Enormous historic buildings, monuments, and lively streets welcomed me as if the city had come to life in my honor. A distant ringing of bells greeted me and as I entered the old alleyways, I felt as if I was engulfed in the thousands of years of countless stories that had built this city.
One of the stories that drew my attention was the story of the establishment of the city of Valletta, following the Great Siege of Malta. In 1522, the Roman Emperor, Charles V, granted control over Malta to the Knights of Malta in order to restrain the conquests of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who was busy establishing his empire and had already conquered the Greek island of Rhodes. After the knights began attacking the Turkish ships, and even endangered their shipping routes, the Ottoman Empire decided to invade the island and to end the Knights’ rule of Malta. The Great Siege on Malta began in 1565. A huge force of about 30,000 Turkish soldiers landed on the island of Malta, and a month later another 10,000 Turkish troops arrived.
A Motorcycle Adventure
Having gone to bed so very late, I woke up later than usual to a dream about sailing at sea. My boat had capsized and was about to sink and just before I drowned I got rescued by a pod of dolphins. My imagination and mind were filled with my nighttime visit to the wrecked ship. For breakfast, I stopped at a little café and chose a traditional Malta breakfast of Sundried tomatoes, olives and Gozo cheese with freshly baked rolls. That morning I decided to rent a motorcycle for the day through my hotel. Driving in Malta is on the left side of the road, and the last time I rode a motorcycle was in Greece, where they drive on the “right” side of the road, so I knew I had to pay close attention while riding the bike. The young man who brought the bike to me seemed worried for my safety, but I got on the motorcycle and took off quickly. After a couple of meters I stopped for a moment to put on my sunglasses and as I was looking back I saw that he was still watching me, only this time he was smiling and waving. I waved back and took off again.
My first adventure for the day was to ride the motorcycle to Saint Peter’s Pool, which is a beautiful natural inlet pool located between Marsaxlokk fishing village and Delimara point and fort, on the south of Malta. The pool is deep and is surrounded by limestone rocks and cliffs. It is not a regular beach like the ones you find in most tourist destinations; this one had only the cliffs, the rocks, and the deep blue-green Mediterranean Sea waters. It is a favored diving area by divers, swimmers and snorkelers. During the peak summer months (the tourists’ season), there are ladders available for swimmers to go down into the pool, but most travelers jump in and that is exactly what I did.
There are multiple heights to jump from, 10 feet to 20 feet, depending on your hesitance or boldness. I jumped from the highest rock and it was exhilarating. I then took a long swim in the beautiful clear sea water. When you swim in the pool, take your swim mask with you and explore the seafloor, as there are lovely rock formations in the area. There are no beach chairs or any amenities at Saint Peter’s pool since the pool is somewhat hidden, so be prepared to sit on the rocks if you want to sunbathe. After my swim, I sat on the limestone cliffs, sunbathing and watching the other travelers jump in and swim in the pristine turquoise water, listening to their excitement. I had a conversation with a nice couple from Canterbury, a small village in England, who had come to visit Valetta Island for the second time. It seems to be a recurring theme; Malta is not only a place for a one time visit but a location to which tourists keep coming back, especially the British. In fact, I remembered that Queen Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, had lived in Malta for a while before she became a queen. Years later, they both returned to Malta to celebrate their 60th anniversary.
I got on my motorcycle and rode to Marsaxlokk. It is a small fishing village known for its big fish market,which takes place around the whole village on Sundays, and for its many decorative colorful eye-painted boats called Luzzu and Kajjik. The village’s name comes from the word Marsa, which means south-east (its location) in Maltese and is related to the dry sirocco wind that blows from the Sahara Desert south of it. The villagers are mostly fishermen.
Gozo, Caves, Beaches & historical tale
The next morning after riding the motorcycle the day before, I decided to do most of my sightseeing on foot. I had breakfast of Cheese Pastizzi (they are a bit addictive) with a strong coffee. I then headed to the Cirkewwa ferry, which was only 4 km away from my hotel and for a few Euros it can take you to the island of Gozo. Gozo is the second largest island in Malta, on its north. The island’s size covers about 67 square km with a population of 37,000 people.Arriving in Gozo, I was struck by the different atmosphere it had, compared with the Maltese Island. It is more rural, with tranquility and calmness that I have not felt on its sibling southern island. I have read somewhere that locals in Gozo say that they operate on GMT, “Gozo maybe time”. Gozo is known for its peaceful scenic beaches, green landscapes, the prehistoric Ggantija temples, cobblestone streets and charming squares, old stone farmhouses, the Citadel, Baroque churches, century-old homes, spectacular coastline and luxury hotels. It has the best diving sites in Malta, but it is mostly known for being the home of the nymph Calypso, who detained Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, on the island for seven years.
I got off the ferry at Mgarr Harbor, climbed up a hill and looked at the scenery of the bay below. I admired the striking landscape of the Citadel of Victoria, as it rises dramatically above the island and dominates the skyline.
Gozo is the perfect island for walking, as it is small and distances are minor. The roads are not busy and pleasant to walk on. There is a whole footpath network and I had my comfortable shoes on and an appetite for exploring Gozo. One of the local legends tells of a Gozitan wanderer who planted the Spanish Vetch plant all along the footpath so that hikers would not get lost.
I took the road towards the legendary Calypso cave, as I was fascinated by the story and wanted it to be my first stop on the island. I passed through a tranquil countryside with pretty houses and found my way to the cave-home of the nymph Calypso, which Homer wrote about in his Odyssey, the epic Greek poem of the 9th century B.C. In Homer’s tale the beautiful nymph Calypso, the daughter of the Titan Atlas, bewitches Odysseus and keeps him as a “prisoner of love” for 7 years, wanting to marry him and promising him immortality if he stayed. She enchants him with her singing as she weaves her loom with a golden shuttle. But Odysseus wants to go back and reunite with his wife, Penelope. Calypso reluctantly lets Odysseus go but only after Zeus sent Hermes to instruct her to release him. This story spoke to me as a reminder of the bewitching powers of the Maltese islands and reminded me of my beloved awaiting for me at home.
Sailing to the Blue Lagoon
I woke up the next morning excited for a new adventure. I was meeting up with my friend Gil and some of his film crew to go yachting and sailing for the day. I had an English breakfast at a little café, a typical Malta breakfast of fried eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, that came with a small bowl of beans and toast. I was watching the wonderful sea views from the café while I was eating. The weather was beautiful as it was every day since I got here and the sea seemed calm and perfect for spending the day on a boat.
Yachting in Malta is very popular, as yacht owners find the weather in Malta and its location in the center of the Mediterranean, with its beautiful natural harbors, incredibly desirable. The accessibility to all of Europe’s marinas and the facilities for boats make it a natural choice for all boating.
Some say that yachting existed in Malta as far back as 1835, but only in 1896 a small group started the first Malta Sailing Club, which was mostly for cruising. This became a racing venue that attracted other sailing enthusiasts. After World War II, ‘The Malta Royal Yacht Club’ was formed and racing to various places such as Sicily, Libya and Tunisia resumed regularly. In 1968, the first Middle Sea Race set sail and became a premier international event. In 1987, the Rimini-Malta-Rimini race began. There is also an annual race from Malta to Tunisia, a country to which I hope to travel one day.
If you are a licensed skipper you can charter a boat through one of the private companies in Malta. If you are looking for a fun place to hang out, drink and meet other sailors from around the world, the Royal Malta Yacht club is the place for you. It is also a place where you can take a shower after a cruise, have a meal and use of the Wi-Fi service.
A Walking Tour on Comino Island
Getting up late the next morning, I headed to the Cirkewwa ferry, which I took to Comino, a small island situated between Malta and Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea. Comino is only 3.5 square kilometers in area. The ferry was quick; I was there within 35 minutes. I wanted to experience the island on foot, even though I already saw it from the sea. The island is the least populated area in the Republic of Malta and only has three permanent residents following the death of the fourth resident in 2017. As the ferry approached the island, I could see the rugged and rocky coastline with its limestone cliffs, the small sandy beaches, coves, and a shoreline dotted with caves.
Comino is named after the cumin seed that once flourished on the Maltese islands. It has a bird sanctuary and a nature preserve, and serves as a paradise for snorkelers, divers, windsurfers and hikers. Almost uninhabited, it is car-free and has only one hotel. There is also only one priest and one policeman, both of whom commute from the island of Gozo.
When the Knights of Malta arrived on the island, they used Comino as recreational and hunting grounds, as well as a staging post in the defense against the Ottoman Empire. The Knights were protective of the wild game on the island, which was abundant with wild boar and hares. If an unlawful hunter was convicted, he was harshly penalized by serving three years as a galley slave. Comino was also where Knights were imprisoned for minor crimes, or at other times, they were sentenced to the dangerous task of manning Saint Mary’s Tower. During the French occupation, Comino was used to quarantine the very sick.
Legend states that 700 years ago, a quiet, God-loving holy man named Kerrew was driven out of his home in Malta by less spiritual neighbors who did not understand nor like his God-fearing ways. His tormentors pursued him to the coast, but his mystical powers allowed him to cross the sea to Comino while laying a curse on his pursuers. He stayed for some time on the island, where he befriended a hermit and mystic by the name of Abulafia. Eventually, he moved to a cave in Gozo, where he lived for the rest of his life. Kerrew’s curse indeed came true: Malta was hit by a plague, attacked by Muslim Corsairs, and besieged by the Turks. Although Malta survived the siege and triumphed, it suffered heavy losses. The legend of Kerrew still lives on, and some claim they can see his resurrected body crossing over to Comino, just to have a chat with Abulafia.
In truth, from 1285 to 1290, Comino was the home of exiled Jewish Prophet and Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. It was on this island that Abulafia composed The Book of the Sign, and his last work, Words of Beauty. A mystic ahead of his time, he dreamt of unifying Judaism, Islam and Christianity into one religion. Abulafia might have been the founder of modern practical Kabbalah. I heard that in the Jewish community in Malta, lives an elderly man known to all as “The Admor,” who claims to be a direct descendant of the hermit.
In the 1960’ s, tourists rediscovered and revived Comino. It is perfect for people seeking a very tranquil vacation. The island’s main attraction is the world-renowned Blue Lagoon, and I headed there when I arrived on the ferry. A sheltered inlet that lies in the stretch of water between Comino and the tiny uninhabited island of Cominotto, it boasts of a brilliant, crystal-clear, azure-colored seawater, and a seafloor consisting of brilliant, almost-white sand.
The Western Secrets of Malta
On my 6th day, I wanted to visit the small village of Manikata in the northwestern part of the island. It is a typical Maltese rural village, close to the seaside, and is ideal for walking and enjoying the locality. Many tourists visit this village all year round. The word “Manikata” is derived from the Italian word “Manica,” which means sleeve. From my hotel, I rode a taxi across the island and within 15 minutes arrived at the village. The landscape reminded me of how I imagined Malta existed before modern times.
The village’s main industry is farming and it oversees the farming in the valley around it. There are 40 families in the village, totaling into a population of about 600 people. The abundant and rich produce from the fields include grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, melons, apples, oranges, pomegranates, and many other crops that Manikata provides to the tourist industry on the island. There are also many beekeepers in the area.
There are structures reminiscent of the different occupiers of the island and the different periods in history. Seeing many cart ruts that date back from the Bronze Age, I followed one trail the long way from under a tree, towards the parish church, until it ended at the cliffs. There are also many Bronze Age defensive walls around the village, some 8 meters tall. This is characteristic of that period, where a village would be built on a hill and surrounded with defensive walls to protect it against their enemies.
I walked through the ancient Roman tombs near Manikata. Farmers have wrecked some of these tombs to create space for their fields; other tombs are found in caves and have been used for different purposes by later inhabitants. Some of these tombs were used as air raid shelters during World War II. In some instances, nature, trees and vegetation have taken over the old burial chambers. There are remains of Roman baths, some still holding while others crumbling.
In the Middle Ages, the farmers lived in the caves around Manikata alongside their livestock, cultivating crops and fruit trees through the fields that belonged to landowners from the capital.During the Knights of St. John’s time, the Turkish fleet dropped anchor on the bays around Manikata and launched their attack on Birgu. At the time, Birgu was the headquarters of the Knight’s Order. Subsequently, the Grand Masters of the Knights built watchtowers on the cliffs, Saint Agatha’s Tower and coastal entrenchments to prevent enemy troops from landing on the sandy beach. Ghajn Tuffieha Tower was built in 1637 on the cliffs of Ghajn Tuffieha Bay. It is one of the seven towers built by Grand Master Lascaris, during the times of the Knights of Malta. A tall tower, it was armed with a cannon and usually manned by four men. During the British period on Malta, many farmers in Manikata lost agricultural land, which was taken over by the British for the construction of a Royal Marines Training Center. During WWI, the center was used as a military hospital for wounded soldiers and employed nurses from Manikata.
Feeling like a movie star for the day
The island of Malta has served as a film location since 1925, and there have been over 110 movies and shows filmed here. Many dramas, documentaries, and television series have used the dramatic backdrop of the cliffs, the ancient landscape, and the Mediterranean Sea. In a way, they added another character to the story: the island of Malta itself. Besides the Popeye set that I visited yesterday, the list of films includes: Midnight Express, The Count of Monte Cristo, U-571, Gladiator, and Simshar, which you might not be familiar with but it was shot entirely in Malta, using mostly Maltese actors and the Maltese language. It is based on a true story of a shipping boat that goes missing with its crew, a real tragedy that happened in Malta in 2008. Other known films shot in Malta are Captain Phillips, Troy, and the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. Game of Thrones also filmed in the walled city of Mdina, which doubled as King’s Landing. The island’s forts served as the Red Keep, and the stunning natural arch knows as the Azure Window in Gozo was the setting for Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen’s wedding. On my last day on the island, I decided to visit the city of Mdina to see the locations where the first season of Game of Thrones was filmed. The history of Mdina is extensive and goes back more than 4,000 years. It is said that the Apostle St. Paul lived in the town after being shipwrecked on the islands. St. Paul converted the Roman governor to Christianity after miraculously healing his father, then converted the local population to Christianity, making the Maltese some of the earliest Christians and the island a Christian state.Mdina is referred to as “the Silent City.” It is fascinating to visit for the ancient atmosphere, its medieval and baroque architecture, and the cultural and religious treasures, as well as being a perfect example of an ancient European walled city.
As I entered through the main gate of the walled city, I walked down the same path that Game of Thrones characters did on the show. It was here where Catelyn rode into King’s Landing, and where the farewell scene between Ned Stark and Catelyn took place when she left King’s Landing after the death of King Robert. i continued walking for a few minutes before arriving at Mesquita Square, which was the setting for many scenes including the one where Jamie Lannister and his spearmen attack Ned Stark and his guards. It is also the setting for the trellised balcony of Petyr Baelish’s bordello. The square was quiet and unassuming as I walked through it in the sunlight.I continued strolling through the city and watched a black-clad priest passing me by with his head bowed. The streets were mostly silent; a decorated horse clopped by pulling tourists on a painted cart. My footsteps echoed in the gaps between the churches and the private homes until I rounded a corner into a square. Here, tourists taking photographs of the Carmelite Priory suddenly surrounded me. I walked down another block and it was quiet again. The small town with Arab influences among Catholic churches felt more like a fantasy to me than a reality. I believe this is what makes the atmosphere in Malta so unique.