|The Ballards - Malta and Gozo|
2 hours and 45 minutes from Gatwick, the world's busiest single runway airport, lie the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino. Strategically placed between Sicily and Libya they are, apart from the tiny island of Lampedusa, the Southermost outpost of the EU.
Fought over down the centuries, owned by most of the Eurpean countries you've ever heard of and a few you haven't, they ended up asking the British to colonise them in order to throw out the French, and in 1955 even asked to become part of the United Kingdom (which would have been of huge benefit to both countries) but when refused entry (no one seems to know quite why) they promptly sued for independence, which they gained in 1964.
They joined the EU (that great Socialist experiment seemingly designed exclusively to transfer money from Northern Europe to Southern Europe) in 2004 (along with most of the rest of the world) and the Euro in 2006.
In 1974 my parents took us to see our relatives who were
in the UK Forces out there. My memories are of endless cold Easter rain,
Sorrow by David Bowie and For
ever and ever by Demis Roussos being played endlessly on
the hotel PA.
In August 2005 we went back; hoping for a better time.
Have you ever wondered where all those old 1970s British
cars, vans and trucks went? AECs, Fodens and Leyland trucks, Hillman Imps,
Austin 1100s and 1300s, Marinas, Hillman Avengers, Vauxhall Vivas, Vauxhall
Crestas, AEC coaches with fins like F86 Sabres, MkII Cortina Estates with
the unmistakable staccato-sounding starter motor...
Spared the ravages of cold, wet English winters and salt on the roads, the bodies have survived, and whilst the commercial vehicles have had to have had engine transplants by now, the antique cars look staggeringly original. Specialist shops have sprung up to support them, offering spares (and sympathy, I suspect).
It's amazing they survive at all because although the
road system, in spite of being quite well planned with wide carriageways,
roundabouts and no traffic lights, is totally unmaintained and has universally
appalling road surfaces. My theory is that Malta joined the EU just to
get some funding for new road surfaces...
And they are truly dreadful drivers: not actually
dangerous, because they never get up enough speed to be dangerous, just
In so many ways Malta is more English than England: a little like Barbados, it seems rooted in that Morris Minor Traveller, warm beer, nuns cycling to church on misty mornings past the village green, smack of leather on willow, jolly hockey sticks, Marquis of Queensberry rules olde England that disappeared in the long-haired, groovy '70s.
Whereas on the mainland we've Moved On: punk, yuppiedom, Acid, Cool Britannia, Blair, global recession. Maybe not better, then: just "On".
The food shops contain all those 1970's vital food groups
you thought were extinct: Birds custard powder, Spangles, Oxo cubes, gum
drops, Pale Ale Party Sevens.... all UK packaged, so there must be big
business in FMCG exports to Malta.
The buildings are, without exception, constructed from
locally quarried sandstone blocks, which may be indented by fingernails
and sanded with the naked palm of your hand. The softness and lack of
tensional strength in relation to most building materials makes for interesting
architecture (where they haven't resorted to pre-stressed concrete in
The salt air ablates the sandstone soon after quarrying and creates an attractive hardened skin, with every block a slightly different shade of brown, which makes the house a whole lot more interesting to look at than breeze block.
We had a Kia Sedona as we were 5 and the difference between that and a FIAT Stilo were Night and Day: the Kia had great seats, bags of grunt from a 2.9L, 16V turbo diesel engine, flexible seating, bags of headroom and separate air-conditioning settings for front and rear passengers. If it had rear wheel drive (and was built by BMW) it would be perfect.
I don't understand Maltese politics at all: they speak
some weird lingo that sounds like Italian, but you very rarely see any
language written other than English.
They stick to English, drive on the left (thus Japanese
grey imports in the form of ex-Tokyo street cleaning wagons covered entirely
in Japanese H&S notices); they use English square-pin mains plugs
and light switches, the newspapers are in English and in them, once Local
news is covered, the main International news is always English stories.
Malta is getting its share of "Irregular Immigrants":
"poor souls desperately escaping from torment in Africa to a brighter
future in the EU", or "feckless spongers after an easy life
in the EU sponging off the state", depending on your point of view
Gozo is caught between the friendliness of the little
shop 3 doors down that sells everything and the glittering mall and supermarket
you must drive to; between going four times a day to the local Catholic
church for smells and bells, and the necessities of modern eCommerce;
between the traditional English influence and the perceived economic necessity
of joining the EU.
We only visited Malta once (to see the Villa Rosa
hotel in Sliema, which has not changed a bit: I'll swear I heard the strains
of Demis Roussos as we drove past...), and found it to be depressingly
built-up and overpopulated.
Most houses in Malta and Gozo are staggeringly
small, ridiculously expensive (even by UK standards) and have no gardens
whatsoever; most however do have roof terraces and/or small yards, many
In the run up to Euro membership, we noticed Maltese
shopkeepers were up to something: their prices were quoted in LM (Maltese
Lire), £ (UKP) and €(Euros), and the sums just didn't add up.
Interestingly, the greatest price hikes in living history were the fruits of decimalisation in the UK in 1971: here, shopkeepers managed a 65-70% rise before it all fed back through the system and became inflation. But for a while, they were sitting pretty.
We bicycled around the island: the distances are small and the hills not too strenuous. Bikes are cheap and of good quality, and cycling is a good way of burning off the holiday lunches.
So: Malta and Gozo for a holiday?
Go once a generation, don't go at Easter, go to Gozo, get as far West as you can, rent the nicest farmhouse you can, and visit Malta for a day, no more. Oh, and don't bring back any glass: Gatwick baggage handlers drop all luggage marked as coming from Malta especially hard...