I have been in Malta three days now so what are my impressions of the place? Where to start?
The pavements here are mainly concrete with scored patterns on them. Where they aren’t scored, it is smooth and when it rains smooth becomes slippy. My first experience of this was when I went to pick up my hire car, I stepped off the pavement onto the road surface via a curb ramp which was covered in smooth round knobbles. I put my right foot down on the ramp and barely got my left foot moving before the right foot slipped forward. I recovered a semblance of balance though nearly falling on a thick metal chain, that chain seem to come awful close to my face. It must have been quite dramatic because a young man (my, I am using the word young for somebody in their mid twenties) asked if I was alright and then advised me that I need to watch out because all the pavements in Malta were like that. Is this a sign of my age I mused when pavements start becoming dangerous even though I am wearing a pair of grippy trainers? I later confirmed that whilst knobbly ramps seem to be rather rare, slippery pavements were not and the top of curb stones could be particularly troublesome.
Driving in Malta is not for the faint hearted. They drive on the left (in theory) which for a British guy is fine but consistently well tarmacked, consistently wide, with consistently marked roads are rare (European funding does seem to have produced some very fine sections though). Speed limits are available but seem to be taken as advisory by most of the population and ten to twenty kilometres per hour above the speed limit seems to be safe if you want to go with the flow of traffic. Being slower than other traffic will cause drivers to seemingly attack you from all directions at will, undertaking or overtaking being a random choice rather than by design. Roads often follow the boundaries of fields and therefore can have sudden 90-degree bends and decreasing widths (barely a car wide) where two fields come together.
Hesitation at junctions is not tolerated. If you are the first at a junction and stay still for too long, the car behind simply drives alongside you and proceeds to show you how easy it is to get out into a constant stream of cars. It is a case of see one, do one, and you are now an expert. Spaces between cars are not there for safety but to allow another car into the traffic. Being British influenced, there are plenty of roundabouts here and whilst I think there is still priority given to the traffic on the right in theory, in practice if there is a space in the traffic you go into it, if there is not a space then you need to make one. A space is little bigger than the car you are driving, and is functionally defined by the size needed to get your car through quickly enough without being hit and may sometimes really on the car heading toward you having to slow down sharply.
When driving it is best to rely on satellite navigation and not intuition because you will often find yourself going in completely the opposite direction however this can fail in towns when the satnav will often want you to go down one-way streets the wrong way so a hybrid system is probably best. The amount of traffic on the roads is high in January, I cannot imagine how bad it gets in the Summer. Perhaps it is best not to drive.
The population is densely packed in large sprawling conurbations of rectangular multi-floor houses or apartments, gardens are not common. The main building material is limestone quarried locally with anything else imported. Roofs are flat, and floors are stone tiled. I think the buildings are designed to stay cool in the summer. Our apartment was built in a linear fashion, sitting room at the front door leading to the kitchen and a corridor down the side of the bathroom and three bedrooms. There were light/air ventilation shafts in the middle of the building which the interior rooms had windows opening on, and balconies at the front and back of the flat. I can image the air circulates well in the summer but it also does this in the winter and trying to raise the ambient temperature up to a comfortable level is proving to be difficult in January.
I do not find Malta beautiful as a place, aside from the walled towns and the churches (what is with the lightbulbs round the entire edges of churches?) there is little architecture merit in looks but I would imagine functionally it works at keeping people cool. I have to say that the colour of the sun on the various shades of limestone does look rather nice. The coast line, particularly on the south cliffs of the island can be beautiful but if you want to escape from people, really you need to look elsewhere. There is history here, but so far we haven’t been about to find out much of how it all flows together. People has lived here for a long time because there are large stone build temples dotted around dating back 7000 years which artefacts that had to originate in Sicily. It seems those temples fell into disuse 3500 years ago and the next visible stage seems to be the crusaders fortifying the place in the 16th century whose towers still dot the coastline of Malta, and walled cities like Mdina and Valletta still stand intact. I know the British ruled here until 1964 when Malta became independent.
Looking in a guidebook there were less visible rulers: the Phoencians, Byzantians, and the Arabs ruled in succession until the 11th Century. Then the Normans came over from Sicily, the Aragons from Spain, and the Knights of Saint John ruled until Napolean pushed them out. The British took over in 1800.
Malta seems to be heavily reliant on the outside world (it is hard to imagine “Make Malta Great Again!” campaign making much ground here), electricity is shipped in via a cable from Sicily as is most of the food from what can be seen in the supermarkets (food as expected can be rather more expensive here than Italy I am informed). Water is generated from desalination plants. There is little renewable energy generation here unfortunately. Tourism would seem to be the largest economic inflow of money here, with it seems 90% of people coming from the UK (no problem getting Tetley tea bags here). British rule presumably helped that, there is little to faze the package holiday maker here, everybody speaks English even though the Maltese language is an fascinating mix of Arabic, Italian and English (and the only Arabic based language to use a Roman alphabet). There are even red mail boxes, pedestrian crossings (where cars will stop for you), double yellow lines and the AA to rescue your broken-down car. It is a bit weird.
We are staying in Mellieha at the north of the main island and so far have travelled through the centre to visit Marsaxlokk, and along the south coast viewing the Blue Grotto (I don’t think this is worth a visit by boat for what I have seen from the land viewpoint) the pre-Bronze aged temples near Zurrieq, along to the Dingli Cliffs and Rabat with Mdina. Tomorrow we hope to go by bus to capital Valletta and later on to visit Gozo the north island.
I hope that Valletta will give me a better understanding of the Maltese timeline. I am also looking forward to not driving.