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.

The Maltese Cross

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.
Don Mintoff had just taken Malta independent of the UK, there was no butter to be had on the island outside the NAAFI, and the power went off promptly at 10pm.
Being Easter it rained and was cold: altogether rather a grim experience.

In August 2005 we went back; hoping for a better time.

Gharb church tower  Cafe, main street, Rabat

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...
Amazingly, not all went the way of the crusher; some survive in Gozo.

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...
The road signs are rare, contradictory and confusing: place names change from signpost to signpost and roads, especially within built up areas, bear little relationship to their cartographic representations.
Malta is badly in need of a satellite-photo based map.

 

And they are truly dreadful drivers: not actually dangerous, because they never get up enough speed to be dangerous, just really dumb.
Pulling out unexpectedly without indicating, parking stupidly, stopping unexpectedly, driving along the wide roads very close to the centre line forcing unnecessarily extended forays in to the opposite carriageway to overtake (and you'll want to do a lot of that, because they drive really slowly).
And the white centre lines are all set to "No Overtaking" except where it is blatantly lethal to do so, so there isn't really a clue as to where it may be safe to overtake.
Indicators are simply not used. At all.
Vague hand-signals are occasionally used, but quite what they are intended to signify, only the driver knows: anyway they are universally ignored.
Lane discipline is non-existent, except that once a lane is chosen it is stuck to no matter what, even if you pass on the left.
Import taxes on cars must be high as very few decent cars were in evidence.

 Salt flats at sunset, Marsalforn
 Gharb village from across the valley. Lucy and I cycled up here

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 local cuisine's a bit unimaginative: except for the odd local pastry, you could be anywhere. Surely there must be native cusine beyond rabbit, which I can get fresh at my local butcher (excellent, organic, supplies all the Oxford colleges, strictly cash, mind you).
I am told that stripped of fur, cat looks and tastes remarkably like rabbit; not that I could possibly comment....

 

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 tension members).
The older houses are constructed entirely from huge arches very close together holding up short-span floor blocks. As Malta and Gozo were deforested a very long time ago decent wood simply did not exist, and the floors and ceilings are all stone. Floorboards seem an entirely alien concept and wood is only used for doors and windows surrounds. This does, however, make for excellent insulative properties, however, with the houses remaining cool throughout the day.




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.
In any other country (including / especially Wales....) they'd be clamouring for self-determination, for the furtherance of their own local language in written and spoken works, wanting Harry Potter translated in to Maltese, eager to be rid of the Capitalist Running Dog Imperialist English language, and keen to align themselves with Libya, or Italy, wherever they feel their cultural roots are.
But No, they don't.

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.
It's just not healthy: I mean where are the screaming Islamic Radicals, the Nationalist graffiti, the separatist movement, the martyrs, the overstuffed jails?

Housename and shadow in Rabat

There's something very "Soviet peasant rules the fields, hail the Revolution" about her

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 and experiences.
Given Malta's location I would have thought it would be a lot more of a problem, but cynically I would suggest this is because Malta is an island and traffic between it and the rest of the EU can be more tightly controlled than, say, Spain or Portugal. Mind you, that hasn't stopped them flooding Lampedusa, the poor buggers.

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.
The strong Catholic faith on the island, responsible for the huge over-supply of massive churches everywhere, provided us with the amusing spectacles of a pharmacy without condoms, and a health clinic without birth control posters. Presumably in some other country there are clinics without anti-smoking or "are you insulin dependent?" posters, for some strange sociological reason. Odd.

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.
Note to Maltese populace: Stop Breeding!
We couldn't wait to get back to our nice farmhouse at the far end of Gozo for some peace and quiet.

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 with pools.
Our farmhouse, despite its billing as "luxury" was pretty basic: 1970s standard British plumbing, wiring and internal fittings. For a tourist destination the wrong end of a £250 air fare and a £12 ferry ride, that's unsustainable.
Maltese TV is very much of the wobbly sets and Fast Show Channel 9 variety, (a very well observed parody).

 
 

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.
I took a few samples and ran them through the computer: Maltese shopkeepers tried for a 30-40% price uplift on joining the Euro. I'm not sure this fact percolated through to a)the Politicians and b)the Public.
European shopkeepers tried this, with some success, when they went over to the Euro in 2002, but caused a great deal of public discontent.

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...


Mgarr view - slightly surreal?
Mgarr ix-xini bay: steep road, jellyfish