Saturday, May 14, 2005

Malta

When one wanted to arrive at the incomparable, the fabulous, the like nothing-else-in-the-world, where was it one went?

Back in time to that smouldering treasure island of dark intrigue, cheap wine, overcrowded churches and lyrical youth. Back to Malta!

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Malta used to be (twenty years ago) a quaint little island, the unique selling point of which was friendliness.

Now Malta has become a trifle less friendly.

But, go into a Labour Party club; and start talking.

"What do you think of that escape from the jail?" I asked the burly worker at the bar, who was drinking a Cisk beer.

"It's the Nationalist Party I blame," he said.

"Why's that?"

"Crime's gone up since they came in."

"Are you suggesting corruption?"

"Read a book called IL-HBIEB TAL-HBIEB by Glen Bedingfield. It's about the connections between drug smugglers and the relatives of certain politicians. Look at some of these PN people. Nice cars and big villas. How come a drug trafficker and attempted murderer gets a pardon and walks free?"

"Don't know. What about the Church?"

"The Nationalists mix religion and politics. Which is wrong."

"You're anti-clerical? Not keen on the influence of the Church?"

"That's right."

"The Church is against divorce, abortion, and so on."

"But doesn't the Church defend against wicked Western ways? Drugs and so on?"

Friendly? We got on like a flat roofed house on fire.

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Go into a Nationalist Party Club.

"What do you think of the General Workers Union?" I asked the middle class businessman at the bar.

"It's like Britain before Thatcher," he said. "The GWU are resisting necessary change."

"Change?" I asked.

"We need the European Community. To get the investment and the jobs. We need to upgrade everything. Eddie supported change. Sant only wanted to put up taxes."

Friendly? He invited me to his house.

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The BEST thing about any holiday to Malta is meeting the Maltese.

Invite yourself into one of their homes.

In Rose Marie's home, in a tenement in the dark back streets of Marsa, I supped Hopleaf, admired the plastic flowers and the photos of the Liverpool team, and chatted to the family.

The water had been cut off for several days and so washing the baby was a problem.

The baby had been to London for treatment for a heart condition.

Rose Marie was a sweet Maltese girl.

Rose Marie's family took me to their wooden hut in a dark fishing harbour beneath some cliffs. By the light of an oil lamp we dined off pesce spada and local wine.

"One of my brothers distrusts the Labour Party," said Rose Marie, "and the other distrusts all priests."

"All the money is in Swiss bank accounts," said one brother.....

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In a gloomy flat in dockland I visited an elderly gent called Joseph, a heavy character who claims he once helped to break into the headquarters of a certain political party.

Joseph told tales of alleged murders committed by supporters of one party.

"I will always support Labour," said Joseph, who was sitting on an old iron bed beneath a picture of Christ.

Over thirty years ago, Joseph's Labour comrades suggested he was gay.

A nervous breakdown was followed by shock treatment and strong drugs.

Joseph was out of work and sick for twenty years.....

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Did you read about the high-up clergy man and the catamite?

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The landscape (apart from Valletta) is not necessarily world class. It is not in the same league as Capri or Amalfi in nearby Southern Italy.

But, Valletta and the Three Cities are rather special. I know of nowhere else in the world to compare with the Grand Harbour in terms of harbours. Rio de Janeiro? Monte Carlo?

Then there are the walks and cycle rides along bosky lanes in Spring : poppies, geraniums, anemones, meadow saffron, tamarisks, wild orchids, narcissus... and then a glass of Maltese wine in a little bar called 'England Forever.'

There are dreamlike waterfronts, medieval hill top towns, giant red and golden flags, tall cacti....

There are cafes and bars hidden down back streets in remote villages; and there you may find antique juke boxes and cute Catanian girls playing pool.

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The hotels are often scruffy (although some have been updated). But, they are cheap! I don't recommend Bugibba as a place to stay, unless you like Margate.

You might like to try one of Valetta's hotels, such as THE OSBORNE.

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FOOD

1. Try Borda's bar in Birzebugia. Giant freshly caught Lampuka and a bottle of Special Reserve.

2. At Dingli, up among the winswept stone walls and the windpumps, I met a jolly Maltese family, the grinning Galeas.

In their garden was a hutch containing cute furry pet rabbits.

The Galea children were most proud of these rabbits with their shining eyes.

I was invited to dinner.

While listening to bawdy folk music on a record player, we dined on farm wine and stew.

I noted that the youngest child was a vegetarian.

I supposed we had just eaten one of his pets.

3. The CASTILLE in Castille Square in Valletta has a wonderfully old-fashioned restaurant with interesting views.

4. Malata, opposite the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta, is favoured by politicians. Try the ravioli. Few tourists.

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The beaches tend to be covered in litter. But, there are some super beaches on Gozo.

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AIR MALTA is excellent! Much better than flights by BA.

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Malta has some of the fattest people in the world.

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The bus drivers are the rudest in the world and can ruin anyone's day.

But, you can walk most places, or hire a bike.

If you must take a bus, the main bus station is at the gates of Valletta.

Some of the buses look glorious old things and are well maintained.

But try the number 11, and see if you notice the grafitti and litter and exhaust fumes.

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The Maltese were lucky enough to get rid of the British/Nato bases, which makes them less of a target.

To make up for the loss of the British naval base, Malta has developed industry and tourism.

Industry contributes 40% of the GDP and employs 27% of the workforce.

Industry includes Malta Drydocks, Malta Shipbuilding, the container terminal at Marsaxlokk/Birzebuggia, textiles, leatherworking...

Wages tend to be low, but so are prices, and the GWU and Labour have tried hard to ensure a comfortable standard of living for workers.

Tourism brings in about 40% of Malta's national income.

Agriculture is hindered by lack of soil and water. But there is production, part of the year, of tomatoes, cabbages, onions, strawberries, cut flowers, potatoes, vines....

The biggest landowner is the Church.

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Drugs, murder and rape have come to Malta.

And nastiness on imported TV.

Malta is becoming grumpy like Italy and Britain. But, Malta's still one of the safest places in Europe!

% of the population who are victims of crime in one year (International Crime Victims Survey 1995)

Austria 18%

Belgium 19%

Finland 18%

USA 24%

Malta 23%

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It is not unknown to come across islanders, old and young, who will be abusive to tourists.

On my last visit a number of tourists commented on their shock at the lack of manners of some of the islanders.

It can be a bad-tempered little place with frequent strikes.

BUT, there are still some nice people who will go out of their way to give directions to lost visitors.

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Religion is on the decline. Sadly.

But, the churches still get crowded with people of all ages.

The youthful choirs are lyrical!

And, there are still some interesting religious festivals.

Go to GHAXAQ on Festa night, when all the little hobbity creatures with their white faces and bent backs, and all the beautiful girls in their best dresses, pack the square in front of the baroque church.

It grows dark.

Suddenly she appears.

Mary! Cheers are followed by wild clapping and singing; and deafening fireworks as the statue progresses through the narrow streets.

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LEAD POLLUTION

Coal fired power stations and the exhausts from buses and cars have meant lots of lead in the air and the soil. The concentration of lead in the blood of the Maltese is three times higher than in the blood of the Swedes. But, if you come from London or Athens or Los Angeles, you won't notice the difference.

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DAVID BECKHAM

The excellent travel.telegraph.co.uk has an article by David Sandhu from which I quote: "Compared to, say, Sardinia or Corsica, there isn't much glamour in Malta: it's cheap, mass market....even in the relatively upmarket resorts such as St Julians, the beaches are unimpressive, the luxury hotels rather impersonal.

"You certainly wouldn't go for the nightlife - Valletta shuts down after dark and Paceville (patchy-ville)...lives up to its pronunciation. It's little wonder that the local press is feverishly speculating about whether David Beckham is about to follow his fellow Manchester United team mate, Pil Neville, in buying one of the new luxury penthouses at Portomaso, near St Julians...."

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MALTESE BIRDS

The Maltese love to shoot birds. Or, put them in cages.

My friend Angelo showed me his pigeons which fly regularly from Sicily and win lots of cups which are displayed in a room full of marble and copies of French Rococo paintings.

Angelo's son goes to a private school, but he votes Labour.

"Didn't Labour used to be best friends with North Korea and Libya?" I asked.

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Maltese girls?

There are no nude beaches, according to Baedeker.

In fact toplessness is frowned upon.

But, actually there are places.... If you want to see nude cherubs, look up at the ceilings in the churches.

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My advice would be to give Malta a try.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I bet you came to Malta some twenty years ago. Your comments describe Malta back in the 80's.