Island Explorer

Vol. 1

Introduction to the Maltese Islands

Written by Juan Dingli

 

The Maltese archipelago, the jewel of the Mediterranean sea, a retreat for many and a home to more than 436,000 inhabitants, 27,000 of which are foreign. The Maltese islands consist of three inhabited islands: Malta, the main island, Gozo, Malta’s sister island and Comino, a 3km2 island known for its amazing Blue Lagoon and a quieter sandy beach called Santa Marija (pronounced Maria) Bay. All three islands boast amazing scenery, clear blue skies, pristine beaches and great weather all year long; yes, you’ve read correctly, great weather all year long. Most locals have never seen snow and the temperature never goes below 4°C. Our winters can be easily compared to a British Autumn and summers to a North African heatwave.

People all over the world have heard of the tiny island of Malta, and the Maltese have also spread out to all of the continents around the world; from Canada and the U.S.A to Australia and England. It is said that there are around a million Maltese descendants living around the world. On the rare occasion that one would have never heard of Malta, the island North of Libya and South of Sicily, surely some questions would come to mind. What language do the natives speak? Is it a part of Sicily? Do they have internet or Wi-Fi? Honest questions that I have been asked myself, maybe the latter ones being more of a joke than anything else.

Malta is mostly underestimated due to its small size, what does an island with a total land area of 316km2 has to offer? Seriously, Malta would fit into its biggest neighboring island Sicily 81 times easily. What about London? Five times. Yet somehow, one can find around 365 functioning churches or chapels on the three islands meaning one would be spoilt for choice when choosing a church for Sunday mass.  A word about Malta’s amazingly delicious cuisine, sharing similarities with Mediterranean dishes and a hint of North African flair owing to our proximity to both sides of the Mediterranean. History can also be found in every corner of every town and city in Malta and Gozo. This is due to years of great civilizations and empires fighting for ownership of the country. Everyone wanted a piece of Malta, from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish, the Knights of the Order of St John followed by the French and finally under the British empire. Malta then received independence on the 21st of September, 1964. Each and every empire that ruled over our islands left their own mark which can be found till today, be it architecture, cuisine, mentality and traditions. Malta and Gozo are also host to some of the oldest free standing temples ever found in the world, dating back the 3600 BC, older even, than the Pyramids of Giza by about a thousand years. Imagine that!

Getting back to the present, Malta and Gozo consist of 69 towns scattered around the islands. I shall also be writing an article about each and every town in the upcoming articles. Of these 69 towns, 55 can be found in Malta and 14 in Gozo. Comino forms part of Ghajnsielem, the closest village on the Gozitan side of the island. Each town celebrates an average of two Christian feasts, sometimes even competing between one another; even in the same town funnily enough. Small as they may be, these towns all have something to offer and have that unique feature which makes them distinct and diverse from the neighboring town across the street. Due to our island’s size, towns literally touch, making it feel claustrophobic at times. A great example can be found in a quaint little crossroad close to Balzan. The name of a family run bar called “Three Villages Bar” shows the humoristic aspect of having three villages meeting in a single crossroad. Yes, this means you can be in three towns almost at the same time. How great is that? Small as the island may be, Malta has a strong North/South divide which can still be felt in mentality and attitude towards one another. The stereotype goes that people from the Northern parts of Malta are said to be more educated and aristocratic. This can be especially seen in Sliema with some locals being referred to colloquially as “Tal-Pepe” due to their choice of speaking in English with a ‘posh’ accent at times. The Southern part of Malta generally has a slightly higher percentage of middle class households. Residents are sometimes referred to as “Hamalli” by the “Tal-Pepe” people. Confusing much? Stereotypes apart, both sides of Malta have a sense of beauty and a certain feel to it that everyone can appreciate.

When it comes to language, we have two official languages. Our own language, “Maltese”, which bears no connection to English, is one of two local languages as well as English, this is a huge advantage for Malta’s bustling tourism industry as a good percentage of natives speak both Maltese and English, some even Italian as well. Maltese is an officially recognized language and secondly, a mixture of various languages. The origin is Semitic, but the French, Italians and British all left their mark in our language as can be seen in most borrowed words which have become part of our lexicon throughout the centuries.

Another interesting aspect of the Maltese islands is the fact that there is still a form of dialect present. Most of the elderly locals would be able to distinguish which town you hail from if your accent is strong enough but sadly, dialects are fading away by time and are being lost to the standardization of the Maltese language and the popularization of English. This is especially evident in the younger generation and it is quite common that 10 year old would have a better fluency of the English language, compared to their own parents.

The Maltese archipelago is a treasure trove ready to be discovered by first time visitors to the islands and hopeful expats. In the following articles, I shall be giving readers a peek into what Malta really has to offer, be it History, Culture, Nature and anything off the beaten track, obviously without exposing too much of the charm and secrets of the islands. I’ll leave that up to you to find out!

 

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