Meandering Around Malta, Then Off To Tunisia
By Liz Tosoni
For cruisers, winters in the Med are all about finding a good place for you and your boat to hunker down. It has to do with “location, location, location,” and Malta is one of the primo spots. Its strategic position between Africa and Europe has meant that this tiny group of islands with an area of a mere 122 square miles, has been coveted by many different nations as a stepping stone between the two continents. Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Norman, Turkish, French, and British armies and navies have trampled back and forth across Malta and claimed her for their own over the centuries, finally leaving her in peace with Independence in 1964.
Now, yachties from different nations can enjoy the luxury of trampling back and forth across the islands, afloat and afoot. Malta’s climate is reputed to be one of the best in the world; however, this past winter we were told by locals repeatedly “this is the windiest, wettest, coldest winter in decades.”
There certainly was plenty of the wet stuff along with strong winds, thunder, lightning, and hail. The world appeared drab as rain slicked decks and colored the sky the shade of aged pewter. For months we battened down hatches, used a heater, “cocooned” with indoor projects, watched DVDs, took in musical concerts and the annual international film festival. The Malta Cruising Club invited Tom and me to do a slide show, so one evening we did a Powerpoint presentation to a crowd of about 70, about our voyage from Thailand to Turkey. We loved the experience and hope to do it again some day.
The Maltese pride themselves on their winter weather and seemed almost embarrassed by the inclement conditions. The northeast gregale is the wind to be feared during winter as it blows at gale force and sometimes more, right into the main harbor with winds up to Force 9 and 10 recorded, and it lasts for about three days. Surprisingly, there were few gregales during our stay, just a lot of wet, grey, gloomy days.
There were glorious breaks in the weather too, usually lasting two or even three days, with brilliant blue skies and almost balmy temperatures. “This is Malta’s usual weather in the winter,” locals declared righteously. Then we could break away like birds being freed from cages, either by boat to nearby anchorages, or by foot to the many hiking paths around the islands. Because of all the rain, the countryside was verdant and bursting with wildflowers.
Special events such as feast day festivals (festi in Maltese) were welcome punctuation marks to the winter months. They take place in the numerous towns and villages and are dedicated to the anniversary of whichever saint is the patron of the parish and no fewer than 90 feasts occur throughout the year. Bells ring, bands play and everyone takes to the confetti-strewn streets as groups of men carry a statue of the saint around the town on their shoulders.
Most revered among the saints is St. Paul, the patron saint of the Maltese islands, and the cult surrounding him is Malta’s most rooted tradition. He was sailing from Anatolia (Turkey) en route to Rome in 60 AD when he was shipwrecked and ended up staying and introducing Christianity to the population. Hundreds of sites are dedicated to him including catacombs and a magnificent cathedral in the old town of Valletta. His statue is adoringly carried through the streets on his feast day, also a public holiday, on February 10. At anchor in St. Paul’s Bay you can view another statue devoted to him on the island within the very bay where the shipwreck took place, and walk the winding paths surrounding the lovely, historic locale. It has proven to be one of our favorite getaways, being just a couple of hours sail away from the marina.
One of the many jobs on Tom’s winter to-do list was to fix our ever reliable, stalwart autopilot that has needed little maintenance over the years, but has recently been behaving erratically. After several attempts at tweaking various things, Tom seemed to have the right solution; the unit was finally actually responding correctly while sitting in the marina, so it was time to give it a trial run. We got a beautiful three-day weather window and were off. We’d been eager to sail to the famous Blue Lagoon on tiny Comino Island since arriving in Malta and this was our chance. Because the whole of Malta – consisting of Malta, Gozo, Comino, and a few small islets – is so small, distances between bays and harbors are not great and daysailing is easy.
|This old map of the islands of Malta shows tiny Comino in between Malta and Gozo|
Winds were light, so it was a motorboat ride, perfect for testing the autopilot (Tom’s fix worked, by the way), and perfect for the anchorage, which is exposed to the north. Typically during summer months, the splendid coves of this small island of impressively eroded cliffs, natural arches, caves, and striated rock, are wall to wall boats. “You can almost walk from boat to boat, it’s so crowded,” we were told. But because it was off season, we had it to ourselves. Once tied to a sturdy mooring and after an exploratory dinghy ride, it was easy to understand why the Blue Lagoon is such a popular boating destination.
Dating back to the 1500s, Carnival week has a long and distinguished tradition in Malta. It celebrates the beginning of the Lenten season and is looked forward to by one and all. This was our very first Carnival and we were gobsmacked by the elaborate costumes and fabulous floats, parades, and dance competitions.
Another charm of Malta is that the past is everywhere – so visible and alive. Around every corner are ancient palaces, forts, churches, and temples. It oozes history. People live in stone houses and walk on cobbled streets smoothed by centuries of use. In prehistoric days, even as far back as 7,000 years ago, there was civilization in Malta. In fact, the oldest standing stone structures in the world are found here, built by the first inhabitants who probably crossed over from Sicily sometime before 5000 BC. The temples were built using limestone blocks, some of them being more than 15 feet long and weighing more than 50 tons! There are several temple sites around the islands dating to different periods.
One day, we hiked to the remarkable Tarxien temples, discovered in 1914 by local farmers who struck large stone blocks while plowing a field. It’s the most complex of all the sites in Malta and renowned for the detail of the carvings showing domestic animals in relief, altars, and screens decorated with spiral designs and other patterns.
Shall I talk about the people? Instead of saying, “How are you?” the usual greeting in Malta is, “Allright?” – spoken with their direct way of looking at you. I find it endearing and warm. There was a study that concluded that the Maltese were the happiest people in the world and Tom and I believe it. We’ve found them to be friendly, cheerful, polite, ever so helpful and what a bonus that just about everyone is fluent in English. Time and again in shops they go out of their way to help you find what you need, regardless of the cost.
You’re probably thinking “so what’s the down side of Malta (besides the winter weather ONLY this year)?” Well, pollution. There are more cars per capita in Malta than anywhere else in Europe, and traffic is bad. Drivers dart up to pedestrians and cyclists out of nowhere like bats out of hell, which freaks you out. (But because they are polite the horn honking is negligible.)The dust in the air is serious. There’s road and building construction all over the place, and plenty of roads with potholes. Fruits and vegetables are expensive, as are most things. Oh, and the doggie pooh is in the streets – very bad. Yes, there’s a law against it, but it’s not enforced.
Now we’re back at base camp, Msida Marina, and it’s getting closer and closer to departure time. Winter projects are complete, provisions have been laid on and Feel Free is ready to go. The only snag? It’s howling a gale right now and GRIB files tell us it’s expected to last for several more days and, you guessed it, the winds are out of the west, the direction we’ll be heading for our next landfall, Tunisia, North Africa. No problem, it gives us the chance to spend a few more evenings with our new friends and maybe explore some more of those meandering trails.