We see a crowd gathering by the Upper Barrakka Gardens, and follow suit to learn that there is a cannon salute fired from the Battery every day – a tradition that harks back to an age when the land kept time by the boom of a cannon as the clock struck noon. But the find I’m most pleased with is the Lascaris War Rooms, hidden away beneath the gardens.
World War II history brings out my inner nerd, and it’s very, very easy to geek out completely in this underground lair. For that’s pretty much what this is – the Allied forces command centre on Malta, an honest-to-goodness bunker that’s still full of incredible memorabilia. Now, for all my enthusiasm for the subject, I had no clue just how much of a role this island played in the war – and, let me tell you, it was considerable. Once again, Malta’s location made it a pivotal piece of the puzzle – it was the perfect place from which to intercept cargo ships carrying vital reinforcements from Germany and Italy to the North African front, the perfect location from which to invade Sicily, and the rest of Italy.
The Allied and Axis forces waged fierce air and sea battles – the Luftwaffe hoped to starve Malta into submission, and the Allied forces did what they could to keep the people supplied with essentials like grain and oil, while working the meagre Royal Air Force presence there was on the island into amazing defensive manouvres. So important was this war command that General Eisenhower himself was sequestered in these bunkers, fine-tuning the details of Operation Husky, the takeover of Sicily. The people at the front desk, seeing my enthusiasm, point us towards the Malta at War Museum and its extensive catalogue of WWII artefacts so I can further indulge my inner geek, but, interesting as the museum is, it doesn’t hold a candle to these storied war rooms.
I’m further struck by how far back the history of Malta runs when we arrive at the temple ruins of Hagar Qim.
These ruins, believed to be among the most ancient places of worship in the world, sit isolated along the side of a hill, and almost nothing is known about the people that once lived here. No human remains have been found, and theories abound about its inhabitants. What must have gone through the minds of our long gone predecessors, as they somehow managed to haul gigantic slabs of rock up and down these heights, what memories and wisdom have been lost forever to time once they abandoned their homes here? As I gaze out at the shining blue waters lapping the shore down below, I think it would have taken a lot to uproot me from a place as beautiful as this, but what do I know? There’s no denying that we’re surrounded by an exceptional beauty. We’ve been blessed by balmy, sun-kissed days, and can resist the allure of the Med no more. Today’s our day to celebrate the sea, which we do at the charming, sleepy fishing village of Marsaxlokk.
Brightly hued traditional luzzu fishing boats, identified by the eyes painted on the helm, bob gently in the harbour as fishermen haul in their catch of swordfish, lampuki (a local fish) and tuna – which go straight from the sea to our plates, lightly grilled and brightened with a squeeze of lemon. Our toes first get dipped into the brilliant blue waters at a nearby cove christened St Peter’s Pool, which we stumble upon by accident, and we’re immediate converts to the cult of sun worship. Malta’s gentle coastline has an almost unfair number of beautiful spots at which to soak in the sun, and, if you’re going to set yourself a mission, it should be to spend your days idly discovering the perfect one for you. Little do I know that I’m yet to find my personal paradise on the neighbouring island of Gozo.
Just like the names of the villages and roads (a fun game we play while motoring around is trying to pronounce the names of the hamlets we pass through).