The day Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States of America, we made our way to the charmingly decrepit beach side resort of Marsalforn to find our Air BnB apartment, which was called Sea Spray. The name didn’t quite do it justice on this occasion, as there was a violent storm offshore which had flooded our street with a lot more than spray – sea water, seaweed and rocks of different shapes and sizes. Outdoor furniture was being tossed down the promenade, while waiting staff attempted to secure remaining chairs and tables in between the swells. “Is this normal?” Catriona asked our waiter at a nearby bar. “Oh this is just a seven. It can get waaaay worse than this.” Worth remembering that.
Malta has had its fair share of batterings, from Nazis, Napoleon and Normans to name a few (well just the ones beginning with ‘N’). No invasions during the week we were there thankfully, just a storm to contend with and the great news regarding our pal Donald. Malta’s history makes for some pretty varied sight-seeing. The Maltese islands are home to the oldest free-standing structures on earth – although the one we saw was being helped along a bit by some very un-Neolithic scaffolding. This was on the northern island of Gozo, which is the diminutive, quieter version of the two main Maltese islands. Less than ten minutes away we found ourselves in the Victoria Citadel, a walled nub of fortifications and churches with views of every coast of Gozo from it’s almost perfectly central location. The Turks had besieged it in 15 hundred and something and the town’s elders hit upon a deal with them, where 40 of the besieged would be spared (I’m guessing the elders) while the other 5000 would be taken back to Turkey and sold as slaves. It really can get a lot worse.
The local men of Gozo have clearly taken this siege mentality to heart. Every time we found ourselves in the countryside there’d be a bloke in camouflage poking his head out from a makeshift stone hide. They shoot birds by the hundreds of thousands every year apparently. On one walk to Ramla Bay the path was lined by the primary colours of shot gun shells – really welcoming. Talking of primary colours, it was surprising to see the vivid red sand that made up Ramla Bay, a searing contrast to the white Virgin Mary statue peering out to sea.
The main island of Malta is a congested maze of roads too small for the traffic and towns that look like convoluted sandcastles. The capital, Valetta, doubled for King’s Landing in season one of Game of Thrones.
Streets run on top of each other, tiny staircases and shuttered windows run between red British phone boxes and signs for 10 Euro Maltese platters (anything salty and wine – perfect).
The Co-Cathedral of St John is the highlight. Another big yellow block from the outside, a gilded marvel within.
The place is adorned with the spoils of war and crusades, of which there were clearly quite the number. Anyone who thinks Christianity is or was a religion of peace, should witness the statue of a cute little angel crushing a turban and a human skull with its dainty little feet. In a separate chamber is the goose bump moment, the Beheading of St John by Caravaggio. This stark painting is fantastically minimal in comparison to the rest of the Cathedral. Caravaggio painted it as payment to the Knights of St John for protection essentially (he was in hiding in Malta after killing a bloke in Rome over a game of tennis). All was well until the law caught up with him and he was ceremoniously de-robed in front of this very picture. It is a story worthy of the image.
The rest of our time in Malta was made up predominantly of eating (fish, olives, pasta in buckets) and drinking (red wine, white wine, wine in buckets). I spent the last morning at St Peter’s Pool off Marsaxlott, which my dad later told me was where my grandpa learnt to dive when he was a boy. The sun was shining and the sea was blue, as it was for him I imagine, and I’m sure it will continue to do so despite Trump and all that follows.