Magical Moments in Malta

Malta is an enchanting island nation. It’s a tranquil place where residents christen their homes with titles meshing a couple’s first names. Its harbors are studded with elegant white yachts, as well as humble and colorful fishing boats called luzzus. Despite its diminutive size, Malta has heaps of history and culture, marvelous architecture, and a dramatic landscape that Mother Nature painted from a vibrant palette.

Malta is located in the Mediterranean, close to Tunisia and just south of Sicily. Given its stepping-stone locale between Europe and Africa, the territory has been ruled by many different people — including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French, and the British. Over the millennia, Malta’s unique culture and language developed.

Traveling there solo several autumns ago, I snuck peeks of almost-forgotten lanes whenever I turned corners in the capital city, Valletta. Symbols of the famed Knights of St. John were everywhere — in Malta’s fortresses, its churches and on souvenir items. (The Knights of St. John operated out of Malta from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and are considered to be the oldest surviving knight fellowship.)

I quickly discovered that the preferred mode of transport were classic British buses —remnants of Malta’s 160 years of British colonization. Other traces of British culture could be seen in the cherry-red telephone booths in most cities, the vintage Mini Coopers that chugged along on roadways, and the left side of the street on which Maltese motorists still drive today. I used those shiny buses as my sole source of transportation — taking jaunts to the well-preserved walled city of Mdina and to a traditional cemetery.

One late afternoon, I had hopped onto a shiny, orange-colored vintage bus in Valletta’s transportation hub bound for a little place I had a hard time spelling and saying —Marsaxlokk. I had read that Marsaxlokk was a charming fishing village, a mecca for anyone with an interest in photography. When I arrived there, I could see why! The tiny harbor was embellished with a fleet of fishing boats painted in an array of primary colors ranging from cherry-red, to mustard-yellow to royal blue. How the colorful tones contrasted sharply with the emerald-colored water and the buildings fronted in limestone hues.

At the water’s edge, I was delighted to see fishermen at work. They were busily sewing cobwebs of fishing nets and touching up the paint on their colorful vessels.

Suddenly, a young girl rowing a boat with a dog at the helm caught my eye. I was amazed that the child was navigating through the sea of boats so skillfully! The girl saw that I was snapping pictures of the harbor and rowed the boat ashore so she could introduce herself. She spoke impressive English, and introduced herself as Yasmine. The white, brown, and black dog looked a bit like the pup featured in RCA’s vintage phonograph ads.

“What is your name?” she asked.

Within minutes, much of Yasmine’s family had arrived on the scene, including her mother and sister, aunt, uncle, and cousin. Almost immediately, the family proclaimed that I must ride out into the harbor on the grandfather’s boat, which would be steered by Uncle Joseph. So Yasmine and I hopped aboard, also accompanied by three canine companions.

It was a magical sunset ride. As the sun approached its slumber, the buildings were illuminated in remarkable shrimp tones. The sun’s glow reflecting on the water was breathtaking and the boat’s Maltese flag flitted in the breeze. Yasmine and I shared girlish giggles. Yasmine’s uncle remarked “Red sky at night, fisherman’s delight.”

Once the sky had darkened, the family again welcomed us to shore and invited me to come into their home for dinner. On the menu was fish caught just hours earlier. The fish was seasoned deliciously with olive oil, pepper and homemade sea salt crystals. The family must have eaten while the three of us had been out in the harbor, because now, I was eating solo, with six pairs of eyes anxiously gazing at me. My audience was trying to ascertain my thoughts about the dinner. I felt badly that we could not share the meal together but hoped that they experienced just as much pleasure by hearing my reaction, as by tasting the food.

Following dinner, the family crowded around the kitchen table and boisterously sang Maltese folk songs. I was struck how the Maltese language featured a variety of linguistic sounds — everything from Italian, Spanish and French, to even Arabic. After the laughter and singing had subsided, the family asked me if I wished to meet the patriarch of their family, who was bed-ridden with cancer and resting in an adjacent room.

The family led me into the hall and then the adult family members closely crowded around his bed. The girls showed me pictures of their grandfather in past decades. They explained that Grandfather had been a fine fisherman and that he had descended from a long-line of famous Marsaxlokk fishermen and women.

On the wall, a black and white photograph of his grandmother was framed. She had a prized catch in hand. Also within Grandpa’s line of sight was an image of his beloved fishing boat – the one we had just ridden that evening. The girls walked me to Grandfather’s bedside. I exchanged niceties and then debated whether or not to tell him about my excursion on his boat earlier that evening. I questioned if it would make him sad or long for days bygone when he regularly navigated his special boat on the water.

Finally, I told him what an extraordinary ride it had been: feeling the light breeze on my skin, watching the sky turn from hues of blue to rose and peach, until there was no more light in the sky and it was time to disembark and return to the village. I told him that the special opportunity would never have presented itself had it not been for his children and grandchildren. I secretly hoped that my account could mentally transport him back to days when he was at the helm of his boat, in the prime of his life.

Grandpa had a twinkle in his eye when he heard this. He faintly smiled and gently clasped my hand in his. I was reminded of the fragility of life that evening. Following my introduction to Grandfather, one of the mothers asked me what I was doing the next day and if I was traveling alone. When I replied that I was hoping to visit the Blue Grotto, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, the ladies asked if they could join me. Of course, I said yes.
Having accepted the family’s kind invitation to spend the next day together, we six embarked on a girls’ day trip that took us deep into the Blue Grotto’s sparkling core by boat. Next, we boarded a vintage bus to visit Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples — some of the oldest freestanding monuments in the world. (Yes, they are estimated to be one thousand years older than Stonehenge!) There, the three girls wowed me with their grasp of English as well as Maltese and world history.

grotto in Malta with water

standing by manmade freestanding structure in Malta

When I returned to Marsaxlokk hours before my scheduled flight to Frankfurt, the girls ran off, bound for the bustling stands of the fish market I’d explored earlier in the day. It seemed that they were on a covert mission. I didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to them.

About a week later, a little box arrived to my home in Germany. When I tore open the brown packing paper, I was delighted to see a box that the girls had decorated themselves in bright collage fashion. Inside, were a mug and small plaque bearing images of Marsaxlokk’s colorful harbor. Now I knew why the girls had secretly run off the last afternoon I was visiting their families. In the letter, they wrote that they were saddened to have not gotten back in time to say goodbye.

Malta is a diminutive country, geographically-speaking, but as they say, good things do come in small packages…

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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

22 thoughts on “Magical Moments in Malta

  1. A really nice posting that gave me several memory nudges. I visited Malta twice in the 1990s and really like it. The yellow buses were a real favourite of mine and I loved exploring the island on them. I also went to Gozo which was perhaps even better than Malta. I am definately overdue a return visit – thanks for reminding me!

    1. Hi Andrew, glad the Maltese piece was able to transport you back in time! I didn’t have enough time to tiptoe to Gozo, but it’s on my must see list now.
      We’re off on our Asian trip in just over a week, but I look forward to delving into more of your beautiful postings chronicling your adventures soon!

    1. Sarah, I think that’s one of the beautiful gifts of travel, isn’t it (to mingle with perfect strangers who become friends and then learn about life and oneself in the process)…

      Malta is a super place, and as Andrew suggested, I think Gozo might be even more laid-back!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and look forward to reading yours on India soon!

  2. What a wonderful story, Tricia – and such beautiful photos! You’ve managed to capture what I love most about travel: the unexpected encounters with locals who elevate the experience to the realm of memories and dreams.

    1. Nancy, your comment about locals “elevating the experience” is spot-on! I’m really pleased you stopped in; thank you for your kind compliments. It’s a coincidence in that a friend referred me to Wanderlust and Lipstick several years ago when I was embarking on my first trip (solo) to India. What a super resource! I’ve also enjoyed perusing your personal website and would be interested to learn more about the educational cultural exchanges you facilitate. I’ll send you a message once the move we’re in the midst of is complete. (We are leaving our home in Germany and heading off on a sabbatical through SE Asia in about a week.) So excited to be feeding the wanderlust hunger for some longer-term travel! Again, thank you.

  3. What a great story!

    I visited Malta in June 2003 after finishing my first book — my reward! I spent a few amazing nights at the Xara Palace in Mdina — the name in the register before mine? Julie Christie, like many before and after her, there to make a film. I found Malta an odd place but very compelling in some ways. I loved Tunisia. Had I connected emotionally as you did with the girls and their family, I might have had a different impression. I had a meeting (and family embrace like yours) while traveling alone to Lisbon.

    1. What a fun name to follow after in Mdina – certainly a different landscape to experience from that portrayed in Doctor Zhivago! I went to Mdina for a day and found it to be a lovely city. Do you have any pieces to share about your Lisbon family meeting?

      Like you, I also loved Tunisia. I had a very rich experience in Tunis and its outskirts in 2008, and hope to write about it soon. Even though some of these encounters with the locals occurred months, even years ago, the connections were so strong. I’ll never forget how special the families made me feel. I’m still in touch with the Maltese family. The girls are now in high school, and one is off to college to become a nurse.

      I’m always left with the feeling that I would like to give back in some way.

    1. How lucky that you lived in Malta, Laura! I’d be curious to learn what brought you there? Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to make it to Gozo as I was just in Malta for 3.5 days, but from all accounts, it is a gem. Certainly, it makes a return trip necessary, and I would love to see the Maltese family again that was so kind in befriending me several years ago.

      1. We moved there when I was 10, I was there for four years (in Gozo) and I still go back almost every year. Whenever anyone I know goes to Malta I worry they will end up in the touristy areas and will see the wrong side of the island, but you clearly did not from your photos! I still have family and lots of friends there so it is a home from home. Definitely go back if you can, Gozo is gorgeous, and Comino is also great first thing in the morning before the crowds get there.

      2. That’s fantastic that you lived in Gozo for so long and that you head there regularly even now! Has it changed much since joining the EU?

        I had the same concern about getting stuck in a tourist trap hotel and area, but I was very fortunate to link up with some local residents during my visit. I stayed in a small, stone guest house owned by a widow in Valletta, and rode the local buses to the villages. Such fun!

        My husband really wants to visit Malta and I’ll happily return. Gozo and Comino sound like the exact kind of spots we’d enjoy.

      3. oh then you should definitely go back. If you need any tips or advice let me know. Valletta is such a beautiful city. It has changed so much since joining the EU, or Gozo has at least. The old buses have sadly been replaced in Gozo and a lot of the roads have been re-done. It still has a lot of charm though and I’ll always love it.

  4. Thank you for such a heartwarming post. The photographs and story are equally beautiful. I’m currently planning my first trip to Malta; my maternal grandfather was Maltese, so this will be an emotional trip. Did you try the pastizzi while you were there?

    1. Carolyn, how lovely to be exploring your roots in Malta! When do you think you’ll be headed there?

      One of my lovely readers (Laura) used to live in Malta, for several years. (You’ll see her comment on this page, as Bavaria Blogger.) I bet she’d be happy to assist with any questions you might have about your upcoming trip. I’m happy to assist as well, but I was there for such a short amount of time.

      I don’t recall having tried pastizzi – was that a dish your grandmother made? The fresh fish dinner sticks out in my mind as one of my trip’s culinary highlights. Oh, I think you’re going to love it! I went to Malta before meeting my husband, and someday I hope we can return, to explore it together.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

  5. I’m hoping to go either during the spring or autumn of 2014. We’re saving up so we can go for at least two weeks and possibly combine it with a week in southern Italy. It’s such a long way off, but I’m excited nonetheless. Thank you so much for your offer to answer questions – that’s truly appreciated. I noticed you were there in the autumn; was it very crowded with tourists? My mother’s best friend – who’s also of Maltese descent – has told me to go during Easter for the good weather, but to avoid the summer as it gets bloody hot (her words, not mine). I’m wary of Easter, as I’d like to avoid crowds.

    Pastizzi are a very traditional Maltese snack – a delicious golden oval of flaky filo-like dough filled with ricotta cheese. They sound very simple, but are incredibly difficult to make (the dough is a lot of work). I love them! The fish dinner you had also sounded marvelous. My grandfather always ate a lot of fish due to his heritage. Growing up, people tended to think my family was a bit weird because we served our fish whole. To this day, I love fish cheeks!

    1. It’s always nice to have something to which to look forward! If you go in 2014, you’ll also have a chance to do a lot of research beforehand. (We’ve been so on the go the past year, that we sometimes lament that we wish we had more time to absorb each place’s special memories and do even more learning beforehand.)

      I hadn’t heard of fish cheeks, so I had to Google them, but they sound like a popular treat.

      I don’t remember Valletta, Marsaxlokk, or Mdina to be overcrowded with tourists in November, and the weather was quite comfortable. (I don’t recall even having to wear a light jacket during the day.) My friends told me all about the lively village festas, which I think start in the end of May. You can learn more here:
      It might be fun if you can incorporate some of those into your visit, Carolyn. :)

      1. Hi Tricia, me and my husband really want to go diving there, but we still dont know when we are going, we have some other trips planned this year, but I really hope to go soon!! I hope you can also come back there soon, it seems you loved Malta…I only hear good things about it!! Allane :)

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