Magical Malta: the Crossroads of the Mediterranean

It’s hard to cruise the Mediterranean and miss Malta, an island literally at the crossroads of Europe and North Africa. There, it’s as common to meet sailors heading east for the Red Sea as those heading west to Gibraltar, as we were. From the very start of our cruise two months earlier, we had looked forward to visiting this small island that straddles the centuries.

For Namani, our 1981 Dufour 35, it was a six day, 630 mile passage from Milos in Greece, our longest passage to date in that 2007-2008 cruise and something of a proving ground for our plan to cross the Atlantic a few months later. My husband, Markus, and I were sailing with our three year old son, who proved undaunted by the landless horizon. Except for the occasional dolphin watch, Nicky focused entirely on the compact, cozy world of the cabin and his Lego collection. The passage started well despite headwinds that pushed us off course in long, fifty mile tacks. How far is Libya? we wondered upon reaching the southern edge of our Mediterranean chart - and tacked north again, just in case. Eventually, the wind veered enough for us to settle on a more comfortable beam reach and a direct course for Malta. We truly felt as though we were sailing in the wake of Crusaders like the Knights of Saint John, who headed for new start in Malta after losing their stronghold on Rhodes in 1522. What’s a few hundred years on the open sea?

The wind shift made sailing more enjoyable, and life aboard assumed a regular rhythm of three hour watches - with the exception of one thought-provoking incident. When we were 120 miles east of Malta, the quiet of channel 16 was broken as a drama unfolded not far away. A freighter had come across a dangerously overloaded refugee vessel in need of assistance. Despite his even tone, the radio operator gave away the anxiety aboard his ship. The crew were clearly anxious for their own safety and the prospects of unloading their unplanned visitors at the nearest port – in this case, Valletta on Malta. No doubt the 2001 Tampa case was on their minds: when that well-meaning freighter picked up 400 Afghan asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean, stubborn immigration officials subsequently denied entry to Australia for over a week.

An urgent but broken radio conversation ensued between the freighter and the Maltese authorities, whose approval was hesitant. The island nation’s resources were already strained by a steady stream of refugees, an ongoing issue that highlights the stark inequalities north and south of the Mediterranean. We waited breathlessly between long pauses in transmissions. The refugee vessel was approached; were there firearms aboard? Minutes ticked by. The refugees were from Togo, the freighter reported next: twenty-three men, seven women, and one child. My heart leapt as I instinctively associated that child with my own son, safely tucked into Namani’s comfortable, dry cabin. Eventually the freighter reported the successful transfer of all the people aboard and a course change for Valletta, permission granted at last. The radio drama ended, only for another uncertain chapter to begin for the refugees. Would they find a better life?

It was sobering to think of the reception each child would receive in Malta: my boy could show his passport and be guaranteed a welcome, but what of the other child? What formalities or camp experiences awaited him? What future? Such thoughts occupied my mind as we raced into Valletta ahead of a gale warning, threading our way through a dozen freighters circling off the coast. Customs procedures went as smoothly as expected, and, appreciative of our good fortune in life, we turned Namani toward a berth across from central Valletta.

From the water, Grand Harbour seems like one huge, bristling fortification, but we soon learned to differentiate distinct neighborhoods. We tied up at the helpful, family-run Kalkara Boat Yard, having made previous arrangements for mast work. Just across a narrow sliver of water from us were the Three Cities: Senglea, Cospicua, and Vittoriosa, where the Knights of Saint John first settled. These stone walled cities were veterans of the Great Siege of 1566, when the Knights held off the Ottoman Turks in a bitter, months-long war of attrition. Valletta is just the new kid on the block, built after the Knights’ victory. If history whispers from Valletta’s street corners, it practically calls from the winding, cobbled alleys and lookout towers of the Three Cities.

In terms of both history and culture, Malta is a fascinating place that reflects its location as a stepping stone between Europe and Africa. Imagine a largely Christian island where inhabitants speak an Arabic language, made completely accessible by the fact that nearly every resident also speaks perfect English (a legacy of the island’s long association with Britain). For this reason, we were able to get closer to Malta than perhaps any other island in our year-long cruise. It also helped that we tied up to a public quay with a cute three-year-old, an instant ice-breaker when it comes to making new acquaintances.

By that point in our cruise, I had concluded that Mediterranean residents were relatively indifferent to visitors. After all, their shores have seen ships come and go for centuries, even millennia. Every summer an armada of pleasure craft invades their quays and bays. So what’s one boat more or less? Yet, for us, Malta was different. From the first day of our visit, we found friendly, open locals who made us feel like welcome friends. Our second errand in town (the first being a shower) was to find a barber shop, and we hit the jackpot at a family-run business. There, a talkative couple and their teenage daughter introduced us to life in Malta while clipping and snipping away. When we compared Malta to the United States, it wasn’t big city living that interested them, but something much more modest: “Grass,” sighed the hairdresser. “It would be nice to have grass.” Travel introduces you to new people and places as surely as it provides a new perspective – and appreciation for - your own home.

Due to the extreme summer heat in arid Malta, the population only really stirs into the open after sunset. At night, families lined the Kalkara waterfront, bringing coolers, folding chairs, and barbecues for elaborate fishing outings in which few fish were caught, but everyone was happy. Young children zipped around on tricycles under street lamps while the catchy tune of Tony’s ice cream truck (wartime classic Lili Marleen played in triple time) enticed customers, etching itself into my mind as another permanent impression of Malta.

At night, shadows play with time. History was no longer just a whisper: it boomed out in the dark as canons and fireworks blasted from centuries-old bastions. For a population that had endured merciless bombing and terrible deprivations through not just one but two sieges – most recently, in World War II – the Maltese are remarkably enthusiastic about explosives. During our visit, the artillery went on night after night, marking the feast of one saint after another. If the refugee incident reminded me to cherish my passport, the canons and nearby bomb shelters made me appreciate peace and prosperity.

One night, the sounds of a procession in honor of Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, drew us off Namani. Rather than being a solemn event, this was more of a boisterous sports celebration, with a statue of Saint Dominic in attendance on a bier. Bands following the statue wore blue T-shirts: printed on the front was the stern face of the saint, while the back credited sponsoring businesses like Tattoo Art Room or Take Out Pizza. Bands played, flags waved, and flares lit the streets where young men hoisted dancing girlfriends to their shoulders. The Maltese certainly know how to enjoy their religious ceremonies!

I wondered whether ancient religious ceremonies were as wildly cheerful as today’s when we rented a car to visit the five thousand year old temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. The spellbinding ruins high above the sea were now hushed but for the footsteps of endearing Maltese mutts wandering with the shifting shade. Finding the remote site took several attempts over a series of confusing roundabouts. On one extensive detour, we passed a refugee camp, perhaps the very one now harboring the child still present in my thoughts. I was glad to see that the camp was not a fenced, prison-like place, but open and adjacent to a public bus stop. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what impressions those “visitors” had of the Malta I found so welcoming.

We also took advantage of cheap, colorful public buses to get around town and across the seventeen mile length of the island. While Namani was having a second mast track fitted to accommodate a storm trysail, we caught a ferry to visit the small island of Gozo, a sleepy version of Malta. But for us, the highlight of our stay was simply drifting through the timelessness of our immediate area. Just as Nicky had focused on his toys rather than on the endless sea during our passage from Greece, our attention in Malta rested principally on “our” neighborhood of Kalkara.

We came to feel like part of the family, in a broad sense at least, during our stay. Every morning we sought out the bakery hidden in a nook of a nearby back street, guided more by the inviting smell than any outward sign of business. Days were dedicated to work on Namani: greasing the steering cables, insulating the coolbox, and installing cockpit speakers. In the evenings, we chatted with two couples who came regularly to enjoy the cool waterfront near Namani. They brought us cookies, filled us in on local news, and enthusiastically admired Nicky’s Lego engineering. Through them, we caught a glimpse of local life that we would have been blind to in one of the island’s marinas.

As good neighbors do, the friendly Maltese also kept an eye out for us. When a rough swell worked its way into the harbor, Claire, one of several siblings who ran the boat yard, offered us a bed in her house. We opted to stay on our floating home, but were touched by her kind offer. During the bumpy night, I thought of the travails of other sailors, such as crews in the convoy known as Operation Pedestal. In this 1942 effort to supply “Fortress Malta,” fifty British ships ran a merciless gauntlet of Axis bombers and mines. Only a handful of ships survived, a few barely afloat. The emotional cheers of thick crowds lining the walls of Grand Harbor to welcome them is the stuff of legends, like the bravery of the local population, who were collectively awarded Britain’s highest honor, the George Cross. This symbol proudly graces the country’s red and white flag to this day. In Malta, the past does not simply fade away, but lives on in today’s landscapes.

We had already extended our stay on Malta, but our new friends urged us to remain just a little longer for the annual regatta. That’s when the friendly rivalry of the historic neighborhoods takes to the water by way of dghajsa: traditional oared boats with sweeping prows. We eagerly took the excuse to stay put and cheered enthusiastically for our Kalkara crews. Waterfront embattlements came alive with more cannon fire and fireworks to celebrate the finish of every division while giant banners waved the colors of each competing neighborhood. We couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion to our stay!

Tunisia, the Balearics, and Gibraltar beckoned, so it was time to regretfully slip away. Ahead was a thirty-six hour passage to Bizerte and many rich Mediterranean impressions. But for us, Malta remained a sweet, special memory, like a visit to an old friend with riveting stories and a large, extended family who take you in as one of their own. May we meet again someday!

This article originally appeared in Blue Water Sailing’s January 2012 issue.

I enjoyed reading Peter Smith’s book about Operation Pedestal and can recommend it.