John Carter: Exploring History in Malta

City of Mdina, Malta

Dementia Adventure Ambassador John Carter’s recent travel adventures in Malta caused him to reflect on his very first visit to the island, how much has changed since then, and how its rich history has formed the country it is today.

I went to Malta in 1963, in the early days of my travelling career. It was the first of many journeys, culminating in a four-day trip last month.

By coincidence, this latest visit was to attend the AGM of the British Guild of Travel Writers, which is why I first went to the island all those years ago. Then, we had no ‘British’ in our title, which says a lot for how we have expanded over these six decades.

However, the activities of a bunch of travel writers are probably of no interest to you — at least, not those activities I can write about. But Malta is a fascinating place, no doubt about it.

I imagine you are familiar with its World War II history, and the gallantry which earned it the George Cross. That was fresh in everyone’s memory back in 1963, but already the Maltese were trying to shake off the wartime reputation the island had earned.

The problem was that it was a perfect destination for people who wanted to go abroad, but didn’t like being abroad. Everyone spoke English, the money was more or less identical, and if you hired a car, you drove on the left hand side of the road. And, of course, the cuisine held no terrors, for it had been rigorously altered to serve the ‘chips-with-everything’ demands of British servicemen and women.

But Malta embarked on an ambitious programme of change, laying stress on its remarkable history. Everyone seems to have conquered it at some time or other — the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Normans. Not to mention the time it was under the influence of the Knights of St. John, before the French and, inevitably, the British had their turns.

That wonderful wealth of history was laid before visitors who gradually came to appreciate it and realise how it has shaped the character of that most unique island.

Why, even the thrilling yarn of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was discovered to have been based on truth. Once a year the Knights Hospitallers presented a falcon to the Holy Roman Emperor as ‘rent’. That it should have morphed from a real bird into a valuable, bejewelled token was, of course, inevitable.  

So as the years passed, the history of Malta was revealed to me, and I did my best to enthuse readers, listeners and viewers that it was well worth seeing and that time spent studying its past would be time well rewarded.

There have been unbelievable changes down the years — and I do not simply mean the plethora of fine quality hotels or restaurants that are now available. Malta has embraced its turbulent past and presents it as yet another reason to visit the island.

One of the changes I particularly ought to mention is that, way back in the 1960s, the main bus station in Valletta was a riot of colour. Used to the uniform red of London’s buses, I was quite unprepared for so many rainbow hues, and asked my hosts why this was so.

Their answers were vague, but basically that it was a quirky tradition of the island and that the fleet of multicoloured buses had become something of a trade mark, beloved by tourists, providing what, back then, was never called a ‘photo-opportunity’.

It wasn’t until some time later I learned the real reason. There was, back then, a high level of illiteracy in rural areas, so putting a number or destination board on the front of a bus would be of no use to the vast majority of passengers. So, each route was colour-coded. If a blue bus with a red stripe had brought you into Valletta, then all you had to do was get on a bus with the same colours in order to be transported home again. Simple!!

On the last evening of our stay, we dined in the great hall of the Holy Infirmary, one of the finest architectural legacies left by the Knights. It is now an excellent museum and conference centre, and — possibly inspired by my historic surroundings — I got into conversation with some of my colleagues and our hosts on a subject which has fascinated me ever since I was told about it on that very first visit.

In 60AD the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, en route to Rome (for his trial and execution). Chapters 27 and 28 of the Acts of the Apostles give a detailed description of the event.

Using that description, the authorities decided, many years ago, that the location of the shipwreck should be given the name ‘St. Paul’s Bay’. However, more recent research indicates they might have been wrong and that the true location is in the nearby St. Thomas’s Bay.

Why this particularly interests me is the story that, spending some time in a cave by the sea while waiting to make contact with the islanders, Paul took a charred stick from a fire and drew, on the wall of the cave, a portrait of Jesus.

Think about that. Somewhere in a cave on Malta there could be a picture of Christ drawn by someone who actually knew him.

If the success of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is anything to go by, there’s a best-selling novel there, just waiting to be written.

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