On 5th September 1800 the island of Malta, in preference to being under French Napoleonic administration, invited the British to rule the island as a Dominion of the Empire. Except for a difficult little period in the 1970s when Malta declared itself independent under the leadership of Dom Mintoff the Maltese have been inviting the British back ever since.
I am glad of that because in the 1990s I visited the historic island two or three times times and I am long overdue a return visit.
In 1997 we spent a week in a hotel in Mellieha Bay in the north of the island, the weather was perfect and our sightseeing trips to the historical sites were punctuated with lazy days at the hotel swimming pool or on the beach. In fact we liked the Mellieha Bay Hotel with its outdoor and indoor swimming pools, pretty gardens and scorching beach so much that we never choose to stay anywhere else.
Malta is only quite small, in fact it is the tenth smallest country in the World, the fifth smallest in Europe and the tiniest in the European Union but it also happens to have the eighth highest population density in the World (in Europe only the Vatican City and Gibraltar are more crowded) so this is not a get away from it all sort of place at all.
Being both small and crowded getting around was quite straight forward because up until 2011 Malta had a wonderful bus service with a fleet of vehicles mostly imported from the UK, privately owned, lovingly maintained and customized and painted in a distinctive orange livery.
Even in the late 1990s these old buses were, admittedly, beginning to creak with age, and by 2011 the majority didn’t meet EU standards on carbon emissions, but their fate was equivalent to the extinction of the White Rhino and the upgrade could scarcely have been more undignified.
Under the old system each bus was owned by its driver, who would decorate it himself, giving each its own personality and charm. Some buses had been passed down from father to son, or even been hand built by the family that owned them. The service was crudely privatised which meant that the Maltese Government no longer had to pay expensive subsidies (this is a lot like the sad demise of the old Greek Island Ferry service story) and was taken over by an inefficient, money grabbing private sector company called Aviva whose modern fleet has replaced Malta’s beautiful vintage buses, which have now been variously consigned to the museum or, worse, the scrapheap.
When, eventually, I go back to Malta I am going to miss those old buses. We used to use them every day to get around the island, up and down the busy coast road to the capital Valetta and sometimes into the middle of the island to the old capital of Mdina which was probably my most favourite place on the island.
The bus dropped us off at the main gate where there was a flotilla of horse drawn carriages called Karrozzins with pushy drivers waiting to ambush people as the stepped into the terminus and I am not sure how this happened but almost immediately we were sitting in the carriage and taking an unnecessary tour of the city and my wallet was a few Maltese pounds lighter. Unnecessary because it is only a small place and it is much nicer to investigate it on foot anyway which is what we did as soon as the trip was over.
Mdina is called the silent city because it is a quiet pedestrianised medieval walled city of golden coloured stone with twisting narrow streets, dead ends and crooked alleyways all of which lead inevitably to the centre piece of the cathedral of St Paul. St Paul is important to Malta because a shipwreck in 60 AD is recorded in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles, and a Pauline tradition of long standing supported by archaeological excavations prove beyond doubt that his arrival in Malta is a historical fact and that it is also true that during his three-month stay on the Island he introduced the Christian Religion to Malta.
Later in the week we visited the rock reef where his ship allegedly ran aground and later today we stopped off in the neighbouring town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers that were searching for him – a bit like Saddam Hussein hiding from the American troops two thousand years or so later – also in a cave!
So after we had visited Cafe Fontanella for chocolate cake and beer and sweltered in the pizza oven temperatures and when we had had enough of the silent city and the tales of St Paul we caught the bus back but made two more stops along the way. First we dropped off at the Ta’ Quali craft village which was a desperately disappointing place set on an abandoned World war Two airfield where the creaking old buildings had been converted into souvenir workshops which generally speaking I can do without. I did find one that I liked however, the Bristow Ceramics and given my passion for model boats I couldn’t resist buying a pottery fishing boat which started a collection of three which is still on display in my house today.
The next stop was at Mosta, for no better reason than to visit the Cathedral which was built in the nineteenth century and has a dome that is among the largest in the World – in fact (and you do have to be careful about theses sort of facts) it is the third largest in Europe and the ninth largest in the World. You can believe that or believe it not but the most remarkable thing about the Mosta Dome is the miracle of the unexploded bomb.
During the second world war it is claimed that Malta was the most heavily bombed place in the World and on April 9th 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (two others bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than three hundred people attending early evening mass. It did not explode. One version of this event states that, upon opening the bomb, it was found to be filled with sand instead of explosive and contained a note saying “greetings from Plzeň” from the workers at Škoda Works in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia who had allegedly sabotaged its production. A nice story!