Malta, An Island Where History Is Alive

25 Jan 2016 09:40am


As the aeroplane takes off from Hosea Kutako International Airport and heads into the open sky, my journey to an island rich in history is set. It is going to be some 18 hours of flying with various connection flights before I touch down in Malta and the excitement of discovering another country is simply overwhelming.

I was on a media assignment and ready for the challenges that come with a job of odd hours and less private time but the international travel to cover events is a perk that outweighs all negative aspects of working in the media. Camera equipment, notebook and all other tools of the trade were in tow and ready to 'serve'.

Sometimes, making sure all required equipment to do your media job is ready takes more time than doing the job itself, particularly when traveling to countries not mainstream in the global arena of business, politics and travel; will that power adapter to charge your camera fit and how slow is the internet connection there?

Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea south of the island of Sicily, was last year the centre of discussions as it played host to the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Namibian President Hage Geingob and other leaders of Commonwealth States attended the meeting, which took place towards the end of November 2015.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah accompanied Geingob to the high-level meeting. Also in attendance were Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip, who head the monarchy of Britain that established the Commonwealth of Nations in 1926, while decolonising the British Empire through increased self-governance.

Malta, which gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964, is not far from troubled Syria that has been witnessing heavy fighting and the realisation of this gave me some doubts, coupled with the expected tight security due to the high-level attendees at the meeting.

After connecting via Johannesburg, Dubai and a short stopover in Cyprus, the Maltese capital city of Valletta was finally in sight, even though rain and gale greeted us as the plane touched down.

Traveling with huge camera equipment in addition to personal luggage could be a schlep in such weather, as one has to cling on to the expensive technology while fighting the forces of a ghastly gale wind that feels like you are strutting down a high-end fashion runway in stilettos that require a lot of balance and strong calves; grip is essential.

Making it through customs was, however a breeze in comparison to trekking across the windy runway, as Maltese passport officials exude an aura of professionalism to be as efficient as possible and to welcome you to their country.

After being transported from the airport to the Media Centre at St. George's Bay, only then did I come to my senses regarding the importance of the event I was about to cover, as security remains tight all over and your every move is choreographed by a security official who escorts you from one point to another.

Formalities such as being accredited, registered and getting security clearance to walk among the world leaders is imperative and reminds you of what it means to be an international media practitioner who rubs shoulders with journalists who make it onto the high-definition flat screen television in your recently furnished Windhoek townhouse that you probably don't even own.

The insecurity of being a tenant in Windhoek, however dissolved when I entered my hotel room and fell in love with the comfortable bed; the only place to practice that well-deserved rest after a long flight and that is crucial when having to decipher the words of world leaders for the much anticipated report.

Frequent flyers will agree with me that it is a skill to sleep in various positions on an aeroplane without disturbing the passenger next to you and is a license earned after hours of flying; a license you are so proud of because once earned, all you need is a little nap to recharge for an exploration of your new environment.

Public transport in Malta is well organized with busses and taxis all over the place, but they will not stop anywhere to pick you up because that is against the road safety regulations; unlike Windhoek where anywhere is acceptable. Tariffs are fixed for public transportation but you are advised to be aware as some taxi operators still take their chances by inflating the tariffs for tourists.

Being a frequent traveller, I must however say the best way to see, experience and feel the history of a city is either by foot or on a horse cart. The latter is real fun in Malta as the cart operator stops wherever you want to get off and take pictures, but make sure you agree to a tariff in advance or you might walk away with a loaded camera but a flat wallet.

That said, communicating with the locals is not that hard as majority of Malta speak English and mostly very well but be prepared to drown in a language that sounds like a cross between Arabic, Italian and Spanish. Learning the language is not that important to get around but the locals do appreciate it when you try.

When paying at the end of your cart journey around the city, be prepared to hear a phrase of, 'and a tip for the horse?' which means the tour guide is not happy with your payment and wants more, but if you appreciate historical architecture and churches, then money doesn't matter.

Malta has history dating back centuries, functioning as a fort and hideout for many during wars. The Romans, Phoenicians and even the Moors left their footprints on this historical island, while the Spanish Aragonese ruled Malta from 1282 to 1409. The influence of ancient ways of living on Malta is clearly visible through the architecture, complete with thick stonewalls in the shape of forts to protect the people from their enemies and large heavy doors that when shut, is as good as a wall.

A city like Valletta is, for instance, only accessible via a handful of controlled entrances. Some buildings in Malta date back to 1686, and are still in use - a clear indication that the Maltese value their heritage. According to the Malta Tourism Information Centre, Malta consists of an archipelago (group of Islands), but only the three main ones: Malta, Gozo and Comino are inhabited.

The total surface area of Malta is a mere 316 square kilometres, meaning it could fit about two thousand times into the Land of the Brave. Churches and statues are all over Valletta, providing a feast for the eye and a track for the imagination. In many cases, the 'Mother Mary' and 'Jesus' statues are erected at almost every corner and doorstep; the relationship between religion and war is reflected no better than a city covered in churches and statues of deities that are surrounded by the monstrous walls of a fort.

Apart from all the statues and buildings, the hundreds of doors, each with its own character and design of metal plaques, washed-out colours and symmetrical shapes that lead to various houses, businesses and government offices, are also an attraction. Here, a door is not just a door but what permits or prohibits the openness of a portal that takes your mind into the mysticism of a building that if personified, could tell more stories than you could ever imagine.

Intriguing it sounds but what happens behind the hundreds of doors remains unknown as you walk down the cobble streets, as I did not during my few days here, see one single door open, except those of the churches.

Walking around absorbing the rich history and detailed architecture does require a refreshment and during my few days on the Island, I learnt not to convert the Euro into the Namibian Dollar as a glass of beer will cost you around N.dollar 110.00, while a simple tomato, cheese and salami sandwich will cost anything between N.Dollar 70 and 85.00, depending on the filling and outlet.

That said, having a proper budget of about N.dollars 300 per meal would be fine but not grand and being Namibian, you would be prepared to push that budget for an extra beer to not miss something we deeply value in our country: the sunset.

Sitting at one of the hundreds of cafés and restaurants and absorbing the last rays of the golden sun, you become part of a city that is also alive at night as locals and tourists flock to every food outlet for dinner. Here, every square inch is occupied with little and intimate tables on the walkways where you can sit down to relax while enjoying a traditional meal.

As expected and being along the Mediterranean, seafood is a specialty here but a French influence of Western Europe is also very popular: rabbit cooked in wine, originally inspired by the French dish of chicken cooked in wine, Coq au vin. Go to almost any restaurant, ask for rabbit and the person in charge of the kitchen will cook it any way you like: boiled in wine, braised in wine in the oven or just fried with garlic and onion.

Walking back to my hotel room was a memorable experience on its own as the scores of street musicians entraining the tourists and locals are everywhere, and coupled with the sound of the crashing Mediterranean waves make the perfect lullaby to the end of my last night in Malta.

During my ride in a taxi to the airport, the driver was intrigued by the name 'Namibia', as he had never heard of such a country, and bombarded me with questions about our beautiful country that could be regarded as a desert jewel at the foot of Africa.

But where do you start explaining Namibia to a European who has mostly likely not once in his life left the island country to explore the world? Shall I start with the Namib Desert or the green Zambezi Region? What about the south and the vast open spaces that are mostly dry and dead but come alive at the fall of the smallest raindrop?

And the locally produced beer that is exported to Western Europe and Asia plus the flavourful beef produced by the beautiful people of a country? He wanted to know it all but time was limited.

My conversation with the taxi driver ends as he pulls up to the drop off zone at the airport and is perplexed by the distances between Namibian towns; Malta's coastline is a mere 196 kilometres (excluding the 56 km of the Island Gozo), while Namibia's coastline stretches over 1 572 km - and that is only one side of the country.

Valletta spans over less than one square kilometre. To put this into perspective, the capital, Valletta, will fit in the Central Business District (CBD) of Windhoek, with some space left for a few blocks of flats. Now, try and explain that to an island man. (NAMPA) FL/CT/LI