If you set out from Malta on a boat with no compass in hand – just the wind in your sails and the hand of fate on the rudder – you would eventually hit Italy, Tunisia, Libya or Greece. Or perhaps you would end up in Lebanon or Israel if you missed any signs of land before the Mediterranean abruptly ends at the Middle East.
It’s important to know the geography of Malta as the first step to understanding a bit more about it. Flying in over the islands, it resembles a North African outcrop with landscapes and architecture more similar to Tripoli or Benghazi than nearby Sicily.
Getting into a taxi at the airport, hearing the driver speak on his phone, the language resembles a hybrid of Arabic and Italian. Words have been borrowed from both languages – or, probably more correctly, forced into common parlance by years of trade and immigration.
And then there’s the English. Both the language and the race. It’s an unavoidable influence that is most evident in the small walled capital of Valletta.
The capital of Malta, Valletta, is not your usual political hub. With an official population of only 7,000 people, it has to be one of the world’s smallest.
It’s connected to the much larger strip of development along the stunning coastline that is the centre of the country’s tourist industry – and hence the centre of its economy. But Valletta itself is contained within the stone walls put there centuries ago by the knights who founded the city.
It was in 1566 that the first stone was laid in the formation of Valletta. The Knights of St John had been given the land by the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Charles V, and the city was not just a protective fortress but the first place the order could call home after many years of wandering the Mediterranean in the name of Christianity.
And so the city came to resemble an Italian religious community, with traces of Ottoman and North African influences that the knights had seen on their journeys. That continued for more than two hundred years but then the British came along. In 1800 they took over control of the islands (after two years of unsuccessful French rule) and Malta remained part of the Empire until independence in 1964.
British rule in Malta
It’s these 164 years which have had the most impact on Valletta since the city was originally built. The main wide boulevards and old churches look distinctly Italian or Spanish but the corners are spotted with red English phone boxes or mail boxes.
The signs hanging from shops alert you to traders in a fashion not out of place for a small English village – the greengrocer, the tobacco merchant, the drapery and the ironmonger.
It’s slightly odd to be surrounded by all the remnants of British rule – which have pretty much been integrated into modern Malta. Because, as a tourist, the main sights in Valletta revolve around the old buildings and original inhabitants.
It’s the churches, the forts and the museums that are the main reason to come to this part of the country – the beaches and nightclubs are a bit further down the coast.
As a visitor to Malta for a few days, you wouldn’t find yourself spending too much time in Valletta itself – although it does have a good selection of restaurants and bars if you’re staying inside the walls.
The city is mainly for tourists these days and there are large numbers from Italy, Spain and the UK. There’s also a fair share from North Africa. Again, Malta has become a mix of all the nationalities that once made claim and influenced its foundations.