Sunday, May 6, 2012

Taxi driver/guide helps make white island of historical Malta memorable

Wednesday, May 2
Italy has a long history of foreign occupations, but located just south of Sicilia, the island nation of Malta may top Italy in that category. The known list, starting from around 700 BC, goes Greece, Phoenicia, Carthage, Rome, Byzantium. Then Goths and Vandals invaded and briefly took control before the Byzantines regained power, only to lose it to the Arabs. Then the Norman empire expelled the Arabs and Malta became part of the Kingdom of Sicily. Periods of German and Spanish rule followed. In 1530, the island was given to a military religious order which later became known as the Knights of Malta, but they were overcome by Napoleon’s French troops. The British helped toss the French out, and Malta asked Britain to provide protection and governance thereafter. Malta finally negotiated its independence from Britain in 1964.

While we are eating lunch with Orlando and Joy, our cruise ship docks at Malta’s main port, Valletta. With maps in hand, the four of us disembark with only a vague plan of attack. We could take the double-decker tour buses for 20 euro each, but we decide instead to share a 10-euro taxi ride to the other side of town and then walk back toward the ship. Once in the taxi, our driver, Patrick, tries to change our minds. For another 50 euro, he will take us to all the best spots on the island, each time waiting to take us to the next stop. At the end, he will take us back to the dock, and only then will we pay him.

At first we resist, but gradually we realize the logic of his explanation.  We had planned to go first to a one-hour movie called the Malta Experience, located on the other end of the city, but Patrick points out that two cruise ships have just landed, and everyone will be going to the movie. We might have to wait an hour and a half to get in. He recommends going to the 4 p.m. showing, when everyone else will be thinking about getting back to the ship. Meanwhile, he knows all the best tourist sites and can show us around. We talk it over and agree.

Big twisted trees and Lucy.
He takes us first to the upper presidential gardens, where we photograph flowers, trees, ducks and swans. Then we are off to Mdina, a walled city founded by the Phoenicians in 700 BC and for many years Malta’s capital. It sits on a hill overlooking Valletta. It is the highest location on the island, and during the ride, we see quite a bit of the landscape.

Valletta, where we are docked.
White is the first word that comes to mind when I think of how to describe Malta. The stone used as the primary building material is soft off-white sandstone that wears down more quickly than the marble and pietra serena usually used in Italy. The light color can be a bit glaring, but the finish is soft and porous and weathers unevenly, absorbing some light in its rugged surfaces.

Between locations, Patrick fills us in with more details about his island state. Children learn both Maltese and English at school, as both are official languages. Maltese is an amalgamation of many languages, mainly Italian, French, English and Arab. As it is located right in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has always been a key stopover for ships, and it once had a strong industrial base. Now, however, tourism is the far and away the top domestic product.

Saint Paul's Cathedral in Medina.
Catholicism in the main religion, and Malta has a Christian tradition that started in the first century, when the Apostle Paul’s prison ship foundered on the beach during a storm. He stayed on for three months, during which time he was bitten by a snake and preached the gospel, leading to the conversion of one of the island’s principle leaders. St. Paul’s Bay, though, is on the other side of the island, and Patrick says we don’t have time to go there. However, it is believed that Paul lived in Mdina, so we have come close to seeing his footprints.

We stop off briefly to watch some Phoenician glass blowers at work. Supposedly they use different methods than the glass workers of Venezia, but our expertise ends with the knowledge that it is one hot job, and we are clueless of the fine points of technique.

Then we are off to the Malta experience, a movie that we watch using headphones, because it is offered in about 15 different languages. It is here that I discover the historical information I cited earlier about the various civilizations that have coveted and occupied Malta, which actually consists of five islands, with Malta and Gozo being the largest. One particularly brutal event occurred in 1551, when invading Barbary corsairs enslaved the entire population of Gozo, deporting 5,000 of the healthiest inhabitants to the Barbary Coast.

Patrick returns to our ship and collects his well-earned pay. This is an example of a time it is worthwhile having a personal guide, because we have seen much in a short time, and with four us to share the cost, it was only 15 euro per person for the guide and transportation (the movie was extra).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome.