Sunday, 12 May 2013

Old Friends and New

We were really impressed with the ANZAC Day service in Malta.  Attended by the President of Malta and ambassadors from France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Japan, The Netherlands, Germany, China, Turkey and the High Commissioners from The UK, India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as military and community representatives, it was held in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Pieta. 231 Australian and New Zealand servicemen are buried here, most of them young men sent to hospitals in Malta after being wounded in battle in World War I.  They never made it home, and almost a century later it is still a sad and humbling experience to read the inscriptions on their graves.  The Australian High Commissioner spoke very movingly, reading from a letter sent home by one of these young soldiers.  The Turkish Ambassador quoted the famous words of Kemal Ataturk, wreaths were laid and we observed a minute’s silence followed by a rousing rendition of “Abide With Me” by a Maltese choir.  Afterwards we enjoyed a reception at the High Commissioner’s residence.

As you might recall, we were invited to the service by Victor Platen who works at the High Commission, and happened to notice our flag.  We met some more Aussies at the service, in particular Carol and Sean Richardson who had a wealth of valuable ideas and advice about things to enjoy in Malta, and were kind enough to invite us around for a family meal of traditional Maltese food, including a delicious rabbit pasta.

Another new friend turned up in a Brazilian-flagged yacht in the slip next to us in the Msida Marina. Elio Somaschini is sailing his Beneteau First 40.1 solo around the world.  A physicist and successful entrepreneur, he decided it was time to educate himself about the “human and cultural side of life” – and what better way to do it?  He is a fascinating character, full of entertaining stories and a true scientist’s curiosity.  He is now on his way to Lampedusa, then Tunisia.

And then there are old friends.  Back in the early eighties, we lived at Currie Hall, one of the residential colleges of the University of Western Australia where I was a Masters student and tutor. There were students there from all over the world, including an engaging young fellow with a mop of curly black hair – Tano Role, a geography student from Malta.  We got to know Tano well through the UWA Scuba Club and his association with a bunch of famous reprobates who shared a unit in C-House.  Well, here we were in Malta, where it seems there are at most two degrees of separation, so it was time to track him down.  First contact was a young guy who came to fix our AIS.  He’d been taught geography by a Dr Role and thought he might now be at the university.  Yes, there he was on the staff list, but without a photo… Next contact was a trio of sisters whom we met at the Australian High Commission when we called in to get some documents signed.  Ah yes, they had a brother working in the Biology department at the university, they would ask Mario… After a few more twists and turns, Mario found Tano, who emailed us, and shortly after, there he was on the dock ready to join us for lunch!  The curly hair was a little bit whiter, but it was unmistakeably our friend from 35 years ago!  We had a wonderful time reminiscing and finding out more about this amazing country, from the inside.

Tano and his wife Sharon, and their boys Alex and Stephan, live in a beautiful home in Zurreiq, just a few hundred metres above the famous Blue Grotto. Of course they designed it with the sun, wind and water in mind, and the bonus is a view that takes in a great sweep of the island.  Tano has installed a large solar system on the roof to sell power back to the Malta Energy Dept, (Enemalta would you believe) and has a water collection system under one his side buildings.  Tano’s field at the University is Soil and Soil Erosion in the Mediterranean.  He travels widely around the Med and was also a Ministerial Adviser for a time. Sharon is a chemistry teacher.  The house is huge and magnificently appointed.  The high balcony is apparently great for watching the endless fireworks competitions and displays that are a big part of Maltese life. Tano’s theory is that people have a subconscious nostalgia for the relentless bombing of the Siege of 1941-2, and perhaps even a race memory of the centuries of explosions before that.  We enjoyed a couple of great family meals, including fish couscous and a delicious broad bean dish called kusksu.  We spent one day at home with them entertained in high style, and then Tano took us on a tour mid-week when he had no lectures.

There is a lot to see and do here. In the interests of brevity I’ll try a sort of condensed photographic journal of some of the highlights.

Tarxien Temples and the Museum of Archaeology
We’re talking serious history here. The oldest of these temples dates from 3600 BC, making it older than Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid.  I had expected to have to use a lot of imagination on a few stone circles, but this is a clearly visible temple complex, with skilfully worked stone joinery and carved surfaces. The means by which the stones were moved are also evident – perfectly round boulders and the tracks in which they were contained – the first roller bearings?

Artefacts from this and other ancient temples are housed in the Museum of Archaeology. The most extraordinary are beautiful stylised women, popularly known as “the Fat Ladies”, probably icons of fertility goddesses.

This is Malta’s ‘other’ harbour, and its main commercial and fishing port. There are some touristy markets here, and a row of good fish restaurants along the waterfront, but the best thing is all the activity on the water, especially the colourful Maltese fishing boats with their watchful eyes.

This is one of the “Three Cities” that occupy the fingers of land extending into Grand Harbour across from Valetta. It is a picturesque old town with narrow streets and traditional balconied houses, and a fine marina where some seriously classy boats hang out. There is an excellent maritime museum, and also the Inquisitor’s Palace. The Inquisition was not so brutal here as in Spain, though there is a prison and a torture chamber. Apparently the Inquisitor’s main role was that of referee between the Knights and the Maltese Catholic hierarchy.  It was a bit of a stepping stone to greatness as something like 23 of the Inquisitors went on to become Cardinals and of those, 2 became Pope.  One of the Inquisitors’ roles was to instil a great devotion in the Maltese.  This sure worked as Tano said one of his friends passed a comment about a Patron Saint’s statue in his (his friend’s) wife’s suburb and she was outraged and refused to speak to him.  Every suburb has a Patron Saint (big festival on the Feast Day) and a Second Patron Saint (smaller festival).

Inquisitor's throne
The War Museum and “The Fortress Builders”
“The Fortress Builders” is a new display, built into the old fortifications near where the Sliema ferry docks in Valetta. We dinghied over from Msida and tied up at the old wharf where the Knights’ ships came to unload dutiable goods.  We walked up the hill through what was the old main gate to Valletta and came upon a new museum – the Fortress Builders.  We were shown around by an enthusiastic young guide named Pol who gave us new insights into Fortress Malta and how its towns and harbours have been shaped by evolving technology. After this tour, the structures we saw everywhere were much more meaningful.

The war museum is mostly concerned with Malta’s experience of World War II, where it still holds the record as the most heavily bombed area on earth.

Maltese camouflage - rubble pattern
Coastal scenery
Spectacular views of the countryside and the ocean from various places, especially the Dingli cliffs in the south west.  Tano took us to some rarely visited places not on the tourist trail where Bronze Age peoples had a fort of sorts, with water and food cisterns hewn out of the rock, and also down a gully to sea level where he and his friends from his Dive Club go cave diving in some deep caves.

Back to the New Friends, a UK flagged Hunter Legend, Moonglade Horizons, pulled in alongside us the day before yesterday and on board are two Australians, Ray and Lainey from Sydney and the Whitsundays.  Great to spend some time with them and their friends who called in also.

To top it all off, we were supposed to leave Malta for Gozo on Saturday morning.  However, we delayed to Monday and were wandering along The Strand in Sliema when we ran into our friends from Monastir, Benoit on Baba and Guy on Skaf IV!  Had no idea they were even there, and thought that Benoit had headed West to the Atlantic anyway.

It’s an interesting life.


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