Impressions of Malta 1929-2011
How to write an article for an archaeological newsletter without sounding like a travel guide or an in depth study of all the antiquities? I can only summon up impressions and memories of this tiny island with it's two sisters, Gozo and Comino.
Arriving there with my parents in 1929 , after an exciting journey on a large P & O liner, the Macedonia, I was rather more inclined to prefer the latter. However, as the years passed, I realised that Malta was rather a nice place to live. I was introduced to 'education' and this involved either a boat ride across the Grand Harbour and back across to Senglea or a mile long walk round Kalkara creek to Cospicua and down to Senglea. It was many years later than I realised I was privileged to have lived in one of the three Cities, though even then I was impressed by the ramparts. No need to worry about traffic because there was none, just the occasional bus; the donkey carts provided the transport.
The greatest hazards I came across were the herds of goats. These were driven round the streets and housewives would be standing at their doors with various sized receptacles ready for the goats to be milked into. Should you live in a flat, your receptacle was placed in a basket on a length of rope and that was lowered down. This was repeated many times a day in order to collect groceries if you were too old and infirm.
In a large town like Valletta, none of the roads were asphalted. I remember the donkeys pulling the water carts with water sprinklers around during the summer months in order to keep the dust down.
One of my mother's greatest grumbles was the amount of dusting and on many occasions I was pressed into service! This usually coincided with summer holidays. I seem to remember that we went half days starting in May then no school from June until end of September, which would have been the 'dusty' period. In those days, most of the population went about bare footed, some wore sandals and I suppose a certain number had to wear shoes because of their jobs. But such a change occurred on Sundays as Malta being a catholic country, every one went to church at least once. so the donkey cart was scrubbed up, a carpet placed across it for the ladies to sit on, the men too, if there was room and off the family would go. What caused hilarity to my parents was how did the ladies manage to squeeze those broad wide feet, daily seen barefooted, into high heeled shoes on Sundays?
Very few archaeological sites had been discovered or known about at this time. The Hal Saflieni Hyopogeum in Paola had been discovered tn 1902, and one wonders just how much was lost before that because although the island is mainly rock, it is not always the right type for building. If a building or it's remains were found, it was promptly dismantled and re-used. The building I always remember, Selmun, a copy of Verdal Fort, still stands.
So many memories remain. The women sitting outside their door, gossiping, fingers flying with the bobbins making their beautiful lace, seemingly without looking at the patterns. These same women going shopping, wearing their national headdress, the faldetta. The big procession on Festa days when their local church's patron saint was brought from the church and carried round the village or town with great reverence, with flags and bunting decorating the streets. And then the evenings would bring the fireworks! Most of the shop windows were filled with great heaps of sugared almonds and delicious pastries.
Malta was, and still is, the crossroads of the Mediterranean and in my time there, we had a Mediterranean Fleet. It was a wonderful sight to stand on the Barrakka gardens Valletta, and watch them either leaving or entering the Grand Harbour. Visiting Prime Ministers, royalty, film stars, all arrived by ship, and a lot of ceremonies were held on board; the evening times were best because everything would be decorated and floodlit and could be seen. The fleet also provided us children with the most wonderful parties especially at Christmas.
Alas this idyllic life came to an end in 1935, and we had to pack up our home, leave our lovely flat, with it's old Maltese wooden balconies, behind and return to England.
About late 1970, having following Malta's trouble time during the war and applauding her award of the George Cross, my husband instructed me to book up a holiday in Malta, and 'get it out of my system', and so began several enjoyable visits. Needless to say, he also got charmed by the Maltese people and their kindness. We found that Malta had indeed suffered and great areas had been damaged or destroyed mainly round the Three Cities which had been the Dockyard area. Valletta and out in the country had also been affected. We hired a car each holiday and would visit places again and again, and over the years we found that buildings were being rebuilt" repaired and new ones began appearing, and Malta was beginning to look more like it's old self again. With the exception of tire big hotels that had started springing up around the South and East coastline.
Some of the more main roads had been surfaced and there were quite a few regular bus routes. These were always a joke with visitors as it was reckoned that they were pensioned off British ones! The one think I noticed immediately on our first car ride was that all the street names had been changed. When I was last there in the mid 30's, they were mainly Italian but now most seem to have reverted to their old Maltese ones.
We went across to Gozo, passing my favourite palace, Selmun, which I was pleased to see, appeared unscathed. Gozo seemed to have escaped lightly, but even there hotels were beginning to sprout up around the coastline. We visited sever of the archaeological sites only discovered since the 30's. Opinions were divided about which island was the best. Most preferred Malta as there was more to do and see, others preferred Gozo because it was quieter - today there doesn't seem to be much difference.
Most houses received electricity, even in the country, the goats were no longer seen around the streets, and there seemed to be hardly any mosquitoes so that the old nets over the beds had been got rid of. As each year passed: more antiquities were found and were being displayed in small museums, fuelling my interest of things past. We duly visited each one and the sites were possible, our final holiday was in the early 80's.
Since my husband died, I have been holidaying with SAGA and have been on several archaeological weeks with them. This year I booked a week in Malta for archaeology and extended it to a second week in order to travel round and see all my old haunts.
This holiday has been quite a shock - I don't know whether now being in the EU has brought about so much change but since my last visit nearly all the roads have now been surfaced, there are road signs, traffic lights, street lights, roundabouts - just like home! Not all roads have been surfaces: when inquiring about the road up past Selmun, I was told it doesn't exist. Apparently where it was not necessary, that road was left as a by-road or lane and I understand this had happened many times.
Building is still going on but using the old stone is not allowed. The last quarry has almost ran out, and special permits are needed to use the stone, and is only used to repair old buildings. Houses not repairable have to have permission for demolition then rebuilt using the same stone again. Newly built houses have to use concrete blocks or reconstituted stone blocks that are shipped in. We visited a wonderful museum giving the history of Malta's Heritage in Stone and it covers much sf Malta's history. It is sited just near Siggiewi, and well worth visiting.
Festas are still held but having had a brief glimpse of one on the TV recently, which consisted of favourite film cartoon characters and the like, I feared it would be the same. Thus I was disinclined to watch the Feast of St. Paul Shipwrecked on 10th Feb, but I did go and visit the St. John's Cathedral in Valletta that day and saw all their decorations and banners-this is the one big day for the whole of the island. So much has been done in discovering the antiquities, restoration, opening sites and museums and is still going on. I wish an archaeologist and historian would put a programme on the history of Malta on TV. Although I have visited over the years and learned much, it is only this last holiday that I have realised just how old the island is, and how mixed up is it's culture and language.
It's been a long journey from barefooted children, dusty roads and donkeys to surfaced roads, ten, or more storey hotels and all the archaeological finds in between but I have enjoyed it, and so far there seems to be no sign of the bug's cure! I recommend a book by Sir Harry Lucke, "Malta, an Account and an Appreciation". A corgi book first printed in 1949,by Harrap & Co. Ltd. The ISBN no. is 552 07837 09. It gives a good overall account of Malta from it's earliest day to the present; I have yet to find a better book.