Holidays in Malta for the Children of British Service Personnel
- Are you an ex-member of the British Armed Forces once stationed in Malta? Or are you the child of a British serviceman or woman, who spent time in Malta? Then why not revive old memories and visit Malta for a holiday?
Malta is easy. It is probably the easiest place in the world, outside of the British Isles, for a British person to take a holiday. Much of it is strikingly familiar. They drive on the left, they use British style three-pin plugs for their electrical appliances - which means you don’t have to take European adaptors with you - while the sight of the ubiquitous red telephone boxes and red letter boxes on the street speaks clearly of their almost two centuries of close association with British life and British culture. They also have a taste for fried breakfasts, Sunday Roasts and tea with milk, and one of their favourite snacks is a mushy pea pasty! Except for the weather, and the elaborate baroque architecture which hits you in the eye at every corner, it is almost like being at home.
They also speak a very natural form of English, English being the official second language. It’s not the kind of English most foreigners speak, even the most fluent ones. It has none of the formality. It’s not like American English either, or Mid-Atlantic English. It’s not even like the Queen’s English. It is colloquial English, working class English, learned from their close association with British service personnel during their long years as a Mediterranean outpost of the British Empire. So you get called “mate” a lot, while a common greeting is “all right”, said in that vaguely non-committal way that every British person would recognise: not as a question requiring an answer, but as a welcoming noise, the equivalent of “hi” or “hello”.
The Maltese language is unique: based on Arabic, but with elements of Italian and English running through it, it is the only Semitic language in the world to use a Latin script. The Maltese people, too, like their language, are an interesting hybrid, with a Sicilian passion, an Italian style, a British sense of humour, and an Arab exoticism, they are a cultured, reserved and yet friendly people, worth getting to know.
I was there to discover my past. Like the majority of British people from my generation, my father was in the forces. He was a naval officer, and at some point he was stationed in Malta, so I spent two of my most formative years there, from 1957 to 1959: from the ages of four to six. I have certain distinct memories of the Island, which, to my childhood mind, assumed something of the quality of a fairy story. For years I would conjure images of the place out of my memory - remembering the memories, as it were - and going over them so often that I was no longer clear if the memories were real or not, or just the accumulation of layers of fantasy from my childhood.
So that was what I was doing. I was going back to test the veracity of my memories, to see if they were real.
As we landed there was a sudden theatrical downpour like a flash flood. It was like God was greeting us on our arrival. The downpour was so heavy that we got soaking wet on the transfer from the plane to the bus which was waiting to take us to the terminal building, a journey of no more than 20 yards. From then on it rained intermittently for the rest of the day. When people said, “sorry about the weather,” I was quick to reply: “I’m used to it. It’s just like being at home.”
The number 8 bus runs from the airport to the capital, Valletta, where you can get buses to everywhere else on the Island, so if you are paying a visit, don’t bother to arrange transport. The bus stop is right outside the terminal. You can’t miss it. But be warned, they will charge you extra for large items of luggage, so make sure you bring enough change with you.
The bus I caught had a pair of eyes painted either side of the number plate, and the words “Thank God” written on the bumper below. Many of the buses have slogans painted on them, but the eyes are generally reserved for the prows of the Maltese gondolas which bob about in the harbours, and which are based upon an ancient Phoenician design. Or, to put it another way, this was an ancient Phoenician bus.
The journey lasts around 45 minutes, as it wanders around the houses a bit. But it’s worth it as your first introduction to Maltese life. When I got off the bus the bus driver asked if I needed any help? He said this is a very friendly way. Again I took this as a sign of welcome as he didn’t ask anyone else. I said was staying in Valletta, and he pointed to the gates.
The bus station is just outside the gates. There’s a huge fountain in the middle, with the buses lined up in concentric semi-circles around it. The bus stops are all numbered so with the aid of the bus timetable, available from the tourist information office, it’s easy to find where you are going.
Valletta is an extraordinary city, and I would recommend anyone visiting the Island to spend several days there at least, as there is a lot to see.
It’s a walled city, a baroque masterpiece of 16th Century architecture. Built on a peninsula, it consists of a grid of rectilinear streets descending from the entrance gates down to the fortifications overlooking the Mediterranean. It was Europe’s first planned city, and has architecture to rival any in the world. Every turning is a revelation, every vista a delight, with squares and palaces and churches and great, weighty, imposing edifices, all built in the same soft, pale limestone which forms the bedrock of the Island.
In fact, you get the feeling that Maltese civilisation has grown out of the living rock. Standing on the bastions overlooking the Grand Harbour and looking across at the cities on the other side you see it: the buildings pile up along the shoreline, the same colour as the landscape, like natural rock formations, like the regular striations in the limestone crags from which the stone is quarried. It is like the landscape itself has given birth to this riotous jumble of architecture, this joyous assemblage of form, as if the Island is expressing itself through the medium of carved stone.
When Disraeli visited the city in 1830 he described it as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen” and said that it bore comparison to any of the great cities of Europe, including Venice. This is true. It is a city of unexpected grandeur and elegance, sophisticated and international in it’s feel. Less enthusiastically, Byron characterised it as that “cursed city of steps”. This is because all the streets are dead straight: the main arterial roads leading from one end of the peninsula to the other, while the secondary streets criss-cross over from side to side. Consequently, while the main routes follow the ridge, and are generally on the level, or sloping gently down towards the sea, the side streets pitch up the slopes, are very steep indeed, and lined with steps.
This is all part of its charm, as it means there are very few cars in Valletta, making it a delight to walk around.
It is also very compact, meaning you can walk around it in less than an hour.
I was staying in the Valletta Boutique Guesthouse, which I would highly recommend. It owned and run by Luciano, a soft-spoken and cultured gentleman of the old school, with slicked back hair and pale skin. He was wearing pointed Italian shoes, which gave him the air of a dancer. He seemed to have a skip in his step. Very friendly, very welcoming, he took me on a tour of the guesthouse and even introduced me to his family, who were all sitting around a large table on the top floor. “This is my sister,” he said. “This is my wife. This is my son. This is my grandson.” I was too overwhelmed by it all to take in any of the names. There was one old man sitting at the end of the table. “And this is his father,” said his wife. “Oh yes,” said Luciano, with a bashful smile. “My father. I forgot to introduce you to my father because he so rarely comes to visit. I am always saying to him, ‘come to visit,’ but he never does. And today he is here. It is a rare thing.”
The Valletta Boutique is on Merchants Street, right next door to St John’s Co-Cathedral. I had a beautiful view of the square, though it had a sort of melancholic air today, due to the rain. What people there were, were wandering around with umbrellas. The streets were cool and empty and the air was fresh. I was tired after the flight so took a nap. It was then that I discovered the one drawback to the guesthouse: the Cathedral bells ring every quarter of an hour, extensively, persistently, and without any logical sequence I could make out. I mean: I’m sure there was a sequence, it’s just that, drifting in and out of sleep as I was, the hours seemed to be rung out in totally the wrong order.
Lord Byron described Valletta as a city of “yells, bells and smells.” I didn’t hear that many yells. The smells were mainly welcoming - being a combination of Italian cooking, sea air and rain washed streets. But the bells I could have done without.
Next time I will bring ear plugs.
It was two days later when I went back to the place where I had lived as a child. It was in a town called Kalkara. The number 4 bus takes you all the way there. It is the site of the Bighi Hospital, which every British serviceman who was ever stationed in Malta would recognise, as the place in whose echoing corridors they had to line up for their injections. It is now a building dedicated to the restoration of Maltese art.
Kalkara is the last in a line of settlements on far side of the Grand Harbour, which I had seen from the walls of Valletta a couple of days before. The Grand Harbour itself is a large inlet which is serrated on the South Eastern side by a series of bays and peninsulas, heavily fortified by the ancient bastions of the Knights of St. John, those urbane pirates of the Mediterranean who had ruled the Island from 1530 till they had been thrown out by the French in 1798. It is in these bays that you discover the secret of Malta, the reason why it has always been attractive to sea-going powers, from the Phoenicians, to the British. Not only is Malta in the heart of the Mediterranean - the navel of the civilised world, as it were, the very centre from which the sea lanes and trade routes can be controlled - but these bays and inlets provide secure anchorage for a whole fleet of ships. It was here that the British Mediterranean fleet was anchored during the Second World War, and from which it ventured to harry German merchant ships sailing to North Africa to supply Rommel’s army, and it was the reason why Axis forces attacked the Island with such ferocity from 1940-1942, flying a total of 3,000 bombing raids in this period in order to destroy the ports and defences.
Malta was the most intensively bombed country in the Second World War, and the cities and ports on the South Eastern side of the Grand Harbour the most intensively bombed part of Malta.
Not that I knew any of this when I had lived there. I remembered a dusty patch of ground where I had played marbles. I remembered a view across the harbour, and a big hill, and walls, and a back garden, and a church with a picture of Jesus inside.
My Mum and Dad had given me directions, but the minute I got off the bus I recognised it. There was the church at the bottom of the hill, at the end of Kalkara creek. That was the view of the harbour I remembered. And just to the left of the church was the little road going up the hill, which is where I had lived as a child.
My parents had also told me the name of the house: Casa Zammit. So I walked up the hill scrutinising all the houses on the way up, looking for that fabled place of my childhood. The street itself seemed familiar. It was clean and neat, narrow, with the characteristic Arabesque Maltese balconies overlooking the street. Maltese domestic architecture has a distinctly Middle Eastern feel, but the walls and the windows and the roofs of the houses were adorned with Christian images: statues of the Madonna and the Christ. The Maltese themselves are fervently Catholic, one of the most devoutly religious people in the world, and there’s hardly a house without some reminder of their faith. I wondered if my own on-going fascination with Christianity was born on these streets, with these people, with their deep spirituality and sense of the divine. Christianity is not an abstract idea to them: it is a living tradition, ingrained in their very sense of themselves, a daily ritual, an on-going dialogue with the mystery at the heart of life.
Anyway, I got to the top of the hill, and turned a corner, and there it was: Casa Zammit.
My heart leapt to see it. I remembered it straight away, although in this case, the memory was more recent. There’s a picture of my Nan and Granddad sitting on the steps of the house, which every member of my family has a copy of, although for years I thought they were church steps they were sitting on. It was only recently, just before coming on this holiday, that I had asked my parents where the photograph had been taken, and they had told me: “It’s the house where we used to live.”
So I had looked at these very steps, this very doorway, only a few days before, in a photograph of my Grandparents, taken during the time I had lived here.
But, looking at it now, I was struck by how decrepit it seemed. The paint was peeling off the door, and there was a window next door looking in to what I presumed was a garden. There were trees growing in it, and bushes. Except that, on closer examination, it wasn’t a garden at all, it was the interior of the house. The house had no roof. It was utterly derelict.
Across the road was a small park with a seating area. I sat down there and mused for a while.
Is my memory derelict like that building, I thought? Can a memory crumble with disuse, fall into ruin? Can a memory become overgrown? Behind that building there lay a garden. In that garden a well. And it was there I played a trick on my Mother. I told my friends to tell her I’d fallen down the well. And then I hid. It was in that garden, behind that door, a strange ritual of revenge carried out with all the fervency of a child. What was I thinking of? No doubt I got a good slap on the legs for that.
But I remembered that hill and those houses and those statues. Maybe I even remembered the people. Some of the people would be the same. And somewhere here I played marbles in the dust with the Maltese children. I even remember the game. You had to flick the marbles till they fell into a little hole, and I kept losing. And I remember the marbles, how shiny and precious they were, with that mysterious twist of colour like a secret wish on the inside. And some of the marbles were big, and they were the most precious of all. And then they had won all my marbles off me and they ran away laughing when my Mum came out to tell them off.
And somewhere around here on the hill on the way up I had lost a shoe, a brown leather shoe. I had tied the shoes together and slung them over my shoulder and one of them had got lost. My Mum told me off for that. It was a very expensive brown leather Italian styled shoe. And I don’t know now if I lost the shoe on purpose, or by accident. But the real question is, why was I not wearing any shoes? Why had I taken my shoes off?
That was the revelation that came to me as I was sitting in that park, on this bright Mediterranean day, looking at the empty carcass of the little house I had once lived in as a child: I suddenly knew why it was that I had taken my shoes off. I had taken them off so I could be like the other children. The Maltese children didn’t wear shoes. They skipped through the dust in bare feet. I wanted to be like the Maltese children. So I took my shoes off. I took my shoes off and slung them over my shoulder and walked home in bare feet like the Maltese children, with their bare brown legs, and their feet covered in dust. And I wanted to be brown like them, like the little girl I was following when I lost my shoe, the girl with the flowered dress and the brown legs, who was skipping up the slope in front of me, and who suddenly bent forward and with a flick lifted up her skirt to show she had no knickers on, the little brown girl with the bare bottom I’ve been following ever since.
So now Casa Zammit has died. No one will grace its kitchen or its front room any more. No one will entertain. No one will cook. No one will drink tea. No one will rest, and close weary eyes, and go to sleep. No one will play tricks. No one’s Mother will be upset. The voices will fade. The life it had will wash away, like the peeling paint on the stonework. The years will wear away the stone. The cracked arch above the door will fall, the brickwork will crumble, the creepers from the garden will weave all over the walls, covering them entirely, and it will be as if Casa Zammit never existed.
After that I went back down the hill. I wanted to go in the church to look for the picture of Jesus that I presumed was in there. I had a clear image of the picture in my head, of Jesus with bare feet. But the church was locked up. So I went looking around the area to see what else I could find.
I sat by the creek for a while reading a book and listening to the heavy green sea sucking and breathing against the dock. I found a nest of roads up on a hill, where a man was taking his pony and trap out for a ride. There was a bay there and some industrial buildings and the remains of an ancient fort built of blushed stone, the colour of the morning. The bay looked familiar. It was no more than a few hundred yards from Casa Zammit. No doubt we would have come here often to lounge by the sea to feel the welcome sea breezes on the stifling endless days of summer. I spent the day there, exploring the landscape and the shoreline around the ancient fort, while the sea crashed itself against the rocks, sending sea sprays into the air, and making great sucking and booming noises. I burnt my nose and my forehead in the fierce Mediterranean sun, not being prepared for such intensity of heat.
Later I went back to look again at the church, which was now open.
And yes, there it was, the picture of Jesus I had seen as a child, exactly as I remembered it.
Jesus is standing in a small dip before some steps, wrapped in robes, making a symbolic gesture with his hand. Behind him is a distant landscape, which could easily be Malta. His head is haloed in light and he carries a little lamb and a shepherd’s crook in his arms. His feet are bare. This is the feature I particularly remember: his bare feet.
For some reason this picture must have impressed me very deeply as a child. I have dreamed about it more than once. I’ve imagined photos with it in that actually do not exist. In one of them my Nan is standing in front of the picture and all you can see are Jesus’ feet. And in one intense dream I had in my teen years, the sight of Jesus’ feet were a precursor to my meeting with the divine, as I am dissolved into nothingness in an ocean of ecstatic light.
But there was no ocean of bliss now, in the shady interior of this oversized church, rather the fear that I might get locked in. The church was empty, except for me, and I wondered if anyone knew I was there. So I left the church fairly rapidly, and caught a bus back to Valletta.
So that was it: a reintroduction to the Island of my past.
I spent nine days in Malta altogether. I saw Mdina, which in an exquisitely preserved Medieval walled city. I stayed in Mellieha, in the north of the Island, famed for it’s gourmet restaurants, near Mellieha Bay, the largest sandy beach on the Island. I spent a lot of time in Valletta, wandering it’s noble streets. I was in love with Valletta. I went to the Malta Experience on the St Elmo bastions, which is a film giving the history of Malta. I went in St John’s Co-Cathedral, which I would highly recommend. It’s built of the same plain, blushed stone as all the other buildings on the outside, but inside it’s made of Jelly Babies and Liquorice Allsorts. Honestly. It is in all the colours of a bag of sweeties, like a giant sugar candy cottage, a riot of inlaid marble and gilt. It’s so sweet you want to eat it.
But of all the places I saw in Malta, it was the sight of a little derelict cottage on top of a hill, in the rarely visited and unfashionable town of Kalkara, which most impressed me.
I am certain I will go there again.
Where to stay
21, Merchant Street, Valletta.
Tel: (00356) 77111110
Fax: (00356) 27012345
A charming little guest house in the heart of Valletta, five minutes walk from the bus station and within sight of St John’s Co-Cathedral: I can’t recommend it highly enough. Friendly people, spacious rooms, affordable price, great restaurant. But bring your earplugs: the Cathedral bells chime every quarter of an hour throughout the night.
Around the Island:
Holiday Lettings have Villas and apartments throughout the island
I stayed in Mellieha in the North, in a modern apartment within walking distance of the bus stop and the shops:
A great place to explore the island.
Mdina is commonly called the "Silent City" by natives and visitors. The town is still confined within its walls, and has a population of just under 300, but it is contiguous with the village of Rabat.
- Visitmalta - The Official Malta Tourism Website. Information on Malta, Gozo, Comino
Information about Holidays in Malta, Gozo and Comino. Book online your Flight, Hotel and Car Hire.
- City of Valletta - Home
Valletta, Maltas capital and a World Heritage site, is nothing short of an open-air museum.
- St John\'s Co-Cathedral - Home of the Knights (Grand Masters) of Malta
- The Malta Experience
Maltas first and foremost audio-visual attraction, The Malta Experience has delighted over four million visitors since it opened in the 1980s. The Malta Experience could be listened to in your own language as it is offered in 15 different language
- Malta by Bus
Your guide to public transport in Malta and Gozo