A trip to Malta

I am a passionate diver. I started this hobby not so long ago. In fact, at the beginning of this year I had barely made my Advanced Open Water certification and had logged just 12 dives. My dive computer was bought only in February. Now this computer has 98 dives logged. Diving is like an addiction. Once it gets you, you'll soon find yourself carrying 30+ kg bags full of almost nothing else than diving gear to the airport and investigate which airline has the best excess baggage rules only to get to your next diving spot. My last destination was Malta.

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The company I am working with, binary.com, has its headquarters in Malaysia. Naturally, I spend a lot of time there. I really like the country, and, it's a great location for diving. But this is not about Malaysia, it's about Malta. These little islands, situated in the Mediterranean just a little south of Sicily, are a diver's paradise. Really clear water providing good visibility and lots and lots of shipwrecks. Only, the marine life sucks, well, compared to Malaysia. After decades or even centuries of overfishing you can happily say hello to every single fish you meet during a dive.

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As it happens, our company has a branch also in Malta. So, when I told my boss I am going to Malta for diving, he asked me, why don't you stay a little longer and work from our office there. So, I went for almost 2 weeks in the beginning of December.

The diving was great as expected. I visited 4 wrecks. But I am writing this for a non-diving audience. So, no more about that.

The practical things

This was my first visit to Malta and I didn't know almost anything about the island. Hence, for convenience, I wanted a hotel in walking distance from the office. Our office is in Msida and there were not so many hotels available in the area for a reasonable price and the time I wanted to stay. So, I settled for the Bayview Hotel in Gzira.

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The shortest way from there to the office is about 1.7 km (~20 minutes). I tried it a couple of times but it's not a nice way. The streets in Malta are narrow and the traffic is heavy. In the end I preferred the much longer way along the waterfront. One of the reasons was the view. The view from Ta Xbiex (pronounced Tash Beesh) towards Valetta is magnificent.

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You stroll along so many boats and yachts from the smallest shallop to multi-million ocean-going vessels. I took pictures every day on that way, both in the morning in daylight and on the way back in darkness. Most of them repeated previous shots, yet, I could not resist.

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Next time in Malta, I'd probably stay at the same place. Although the room was small and the hotel didn't have too many facilities, it was clean and is perfectly located. That is what matters.

As I later learned, Malta has a pretty good public transport system. So, you could stay almost anywhere and still get to office in reasonable time. The regular ticket is 1.50 Euro and there are discount cards available if you take the bus more often.

The food

Maltese food is no good. It took me more than a week to get back to my original weight. It's way too yummy. A countless variety of pizza in all possible sizes, cheese everywhere, rabbit and lamb, salad, pasta, risotto. For the first few days I had breakfast at the hotel, 6 Euro per meal. That was not worth it. Later on I had my breakfast at a coffee shop a few meters down the road from my hotel. That was more yummy and only 1.50 Euro. And it filled me up for the day.

For dinner I usually went in the opposite direction from my hotel towards Sliema. There are so many places and in general it's delicious.

The office

Our staff in Malta is currently about 10 people. The office has enough space to easily accommodate all of them and a few more and comes with a separate meeting room.

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The people are super-friendly. At the time of this writing we are hiring staff for Malta. If that works out as anticipated, we'd probably need more space.

The touristy things

Besides my diving activity I didn't have too much time to do touristy things. That's a pity because Malta has a lot to offer. From my hotel I could easily walk to Sliema. St. Julian's is a little further away but still in walking distance. So is Valetta. There is also a ferry across the Marsamxett harbour to Valetta. But at this time of the year it went only twice a day or so. I didn't try to catch it.

Directly at my doorstep was Manoel Island. This picture is taken from the opposite side of the harbour, from Valetta.

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The island harboured quarantine hospital to care for victims of the plague and as a place for passengers from quarantined ships. Later, during WW2, the island was used as a naval base by British submariners.

At the southern-most tip of the island, on the left side of the picture above, somewhere between the big ship and the sloop lies a wreck called X127. At the time of the sinking in 1942 she was used to transport fuel for the submariners. A bomb exploded at one side of the ship more or less in the middle. As a diver you can clearly see a gaping hole. Also, the whole ship has a slight kink as the result of that blast. Now she lies at a pretty steep angle. The deepest point is 23m and the shallowest around 8 if I recall correctly.

Sliema

Although all these places, Gzira, Sliema, St. Julian's etc. have different names, they are actually one big densely populated place. So, unless you look at the map, you won't notice leaving one and entering the next. Anyway, walking along the promenade towards the harbour exit soon brings you to Sliema. There may be a few living quarters along that way but most of the buildings are shops and restaurants.

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Most of the buildings along the waterfront are modern.

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However, if you stroll into the alleyways behind you find a lot of older houses with these typical Maltese balconies.

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At the end of the promenade where the promontory fades into the sea is Fort Tigné. I don't know anything about it except it has a nice view towards Valetta and Fort St. Elmo, especially at night.

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Sliema extends to the other side of the promontory and into the next bay. And there is a really long and wide promenade. I loved walking there.

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Valetta

I have to admit, when I planned the trip I didn't think much about what to see in Malta. I figured every Saturday morning I'll submerge in the cold Mediterranean and resurface Sunday night just in time to go to work the next morning. When I chose where to stay I noticed Valetta and remembered, oh yes, that's the capital. But it didn't look promising. Looking at the map you see mainly right angles. I imagined a modern, posh and slightly boring city.

Then one of my colleagues told me she was in love with Valetta. She urged me to forget Gzira, Sliema and everything else and go straight to Valetta. Now! Well, she was right. Yes, the city was designed and built following a master plan. That's where the straight and rectangular streets come from. But that was back in the 16th century.

So, one day after work I spontaneously decided to have dinner in Valetta. And I wanted to walk there. Now, the city occupies a small peninsula. What could be seen from the other side of the harbour were walls. Also, it looked like built on a small hill.

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A cursory look at the map showed a few green areas at the entrance to the peninsula and further crossing Floriana. That looked promising. I don't like to walk along busy streets. However, a closer look revealed all the paths in those gardens end in a wall. So, I had to follow the street.

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But once I got to Valetta I realized it was worth it. At the end of the day I knew I had to come again.

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For the next trip to Valetta on a Saturday after diving X127 I took the bus, though.

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On that trip, in one of the alleyways I found a interesting looking coffee-shop. On closer inspection it turned out to belong to the German-Maltese Circle.

So far I have seen Valetta mostly from the outside or at night. There are many more places to visit like the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens, Teatru Manoel, Fort St. Elmo and the many churches. But that has to wait until next time.

Today, the entire city of Valetta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Beaches

To go diving you need water and where the water meets the land there is usually a beach. At least that was my experience so far. And a beach means sand that creeps into your shoes and scratches your feet and that's why in general I prefer boat dives.

Well, Malta is different. The only type of entry from the shore looks like this:

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I liked that a lot because boat dives are usually more expensive.

However, when I asked at work if they have proper sandy beaches on the island I first earned a skeptic look checking if I was joking and then was reassured that, yes, there are. So, no worries.

A little bit of History

Back in Germany I decided to learn a bit more about Malta. First thing was to find out why it had such a density of ship wrecks. And second, what is the matter with the Knights of Malta. I had heard that a couple of times but had only a very vague idea about them.

WW2

At the beginning of WW2, Malta was a British colony. Although it has been a military outpost, the British regarded it indefensible. There were more important targets in the region like Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. The situation got worse when Germany and Italy conquered France in 1940, started an invasion in North Africa and were threatening British homeland. Suddenly, the tiny Malta was surrounded by enemy forces.

At the same time Malta's importance for both sides grew immensely. For the British, having an outpost in the middle of the Mediterranean would be pretty handy to wreak havoc on the German supply lines to North Africa. And for the Germans, well, a British outpost close to the shipping lanes to North Africa is quite a nuisance.

As a result, Malta and its capital Valetta and neighboring cities in particular suffered the heaviest aerial bombing in history.

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These 3 pictures show more or less the same place.

The siege of Malta lasted for 2.5 years from 1940 till 1942. Malta was on the verge of surrender multiple times but never succumbed. It is said, had Malta surrendered, the war in North Africa would have had a different outcome.

The Great Siege of Malta

Okay, what actually sparked my interest in Malta's history was one of my dive guide mentioning that it was the heaviest bombarded area in the world. At first I couldn't believe that, thought it must be an exaggeration. But it turned out to be true. While investigating I soon met the word siege. Then I was searching for Siege of Malta. And guess what, there was another one and it led to the foundation of the City of Valetta.

In 1530 Malta was given to the Order of Saint John after they had to flee from Rhodes. These guys had a long lasting history of conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Anticipating an invasion, the order started immediately to fortify the island. In particular they built Fort Saint Elmo at the tip of the peninsula where now Valetta is located. They also build Fort Saint Micheal and Fort Saint Angelo.

Mid of May 1564 the Turks decided to wipe this nuisance off of the face of the Earth once and for all. Their first prey was supposed to be Fort Saint Elmo. No longer than a few days it was expected to withstand. However, it didn't work out that way. After prolonged bombardment it was finally taken on 23 June, about a month into the campaign. By that time the Turks had depleted their resources, human and material, so much that they lost in the end.

It is said that had Malta fallen to the Turks, all of Europe would be Muslim today. Yet, opinions differ.

Immediately after the victory, Grand Master Jean de Valette, who had led the order during the siege, set out to build a new fortified city on the peninsula where Fort Saint Elmo had been. It was designed on a rectangular grid. That's how Valetta got its straight streets and right angles.

The Knights of Malta

Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, Order of Saint John, Knights Hospitallers, all these names and many more variations describe the same group of people. The longest name I have seen so far was The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. Their mark and influence can be found everywhere in time and space in Malta. It's an amazing story how a religious sect can amass power and fortune and survive over a period of a thousand years.

In the beginning there was a hospital in Jerusalem next to the monastery of Saint John the Baptist. It was built in the beginning of the 11th century by merchants from Amalfi in modern Italy who also brought in their flag better known today as the Maltese Cross.

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The hospital took care of Christian pilgrims. Right after the First Crusade in 1099 a monastic hospitaller order was founded. Initially caring for the sick, the order soon expanded its activity providing armed escort for pilgrims. Many of the European nobleman were attracted by the ideals of the order, serving for the poor and sick and protection of the faith. So, wealth started pouring in and the military arm of the order grew quickly and participated in subsequent crusades. Soon they became so wealthy and powerful that they could ignore kings and felt responsible only to God, the Pope and themselves.

When the crusades finally failed, the hospitallers had to flee the country. The fighting had left them substantially weakened. After a brief period on Cyprus to rebuild strength, the order settled on Rhodes and became sovereign in the early 13 hundreds.

By then also referred as Knights of Rhodes, the hospitallers reigned over the island for about 200 years. Defending the faith, they successfully withstood many invasions by the Ottoman Empire. However, in 1522, after 6 months of siege they had to surrender and withdrew to Sicily.

Finally, in 1530, they were given Malta by the King of Spain and Sicily.

Malta was ruled by the Order of Saint John for nearly 270 years until it was taken by Napoleon in 1799 and the Knights were expelled.

In 1834, the Sovereign Order of Malta settled in Rome. Even today, Villa del Priorato di Malta and Palazzo Malta in Rome are not part of Italian territory, just like the Vatican. The Order and the Islands of Malta are 2 different countries.

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Unfortunately, the most exclusive passport in the world is not recognized by Malaysia.

Today, the Order's focus has shifted back to humanitarian and medical activities.