Content Warning (CW): Sexual assault
Arriving in Malta, one will realise how small the island nation really is. With a population of only around 460,000 and a little more than 300 sq. km, Malta is a destination flooded with tourists often there to escape northern Europe’s general coldness during the winter. However, getting to and from the airport is still a bit of a challenge. Despite its size, traffic is a major issue on the island. Most residents of driving age have a car, which can equate to possibly 3-4 cars per family. Thus, rush hour and morning commutes can be lengthy.
Situated between Tunisia and Sicily, the island has a long history of conquest and influences from its neighbours and various foreign forces including the Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, and most recently, the French and British. Phew. Actually, it was not until 1964 that Malta gained its independence from England. For this reason, English proficiency is extremely high on the island, as English remains an official language along with Maltese.
Maltese is currently the only Semitic language that is a part of the EU. And, it is rather unique to its family: officially written in a Latin script, with multiple loans from Sicilian & Italian. Listening to it spoken, it sounds beautiful and pretty unfamiliar if one is expecting something more of Romance origins. One can definitely hear the Arabic substrate (base).
In fact, Arabic speakers from Tunisia in particular can understand Maltese to some degree! However, this intelligibility is uneven, and unless one has studied Arabic, it is not likely that a Maltese person could as easily understand this sister language.
CW: Sexual Assault
Anyways, Malta is comprised of an archipelago with the main islands being Malta itself and Gozo. The first few days of my stay I actually stayed in Gozo to the northwest.
Following a long night in St. Julian’s, Malta’s nightlife district, I was unfortunately molested by my taxi driver. During the ride, he asked me weirdly intimate questions about my sex life and sexuality and grabbed at my crotch. Then after paying him for the ride, he took the back of my neck, massaged it, and attempted to coerce me into giving him a blowjob.
I told my host about the experience the next day and emailed Malta’s sexual assault victims’ support centre with an account and description of the man [named Charlie, wore a black beret, about 40-years-old, overweight]. Sadly, I have still not heard back from this service. Nevertheless, incidents like these are rare and should not deter anyone from visiting Malta.
I decided to still share this awful truth because stigma from sexual assault is real as well as the feelings of guilt and isolation that one feels after such events transpire. People need to be able to share these stories to prevent future incidents and raise awareness to how sexual assault affects us all.
For this reason, I was shaken the next day after calling friends at the wee hours of the night. Understandably, I did not want to be around that many people and wanted just to rest off the experience.
My host and his friend were heading to Gozo to make a delivery and invited me along. I jumped at the offer.
Gozo (or Għawdex locally) only has about 32,000 residents. For the Maltese, the smaller island is considered more laidback and conservative, and so many Gozians come to Malta for better work and a more lively social life. There are some stereotypes between the Maltese from Malta and Gozians, but overall, there is little tension between the populations. Many families have relatives on both islands.
To get to Gozo, one needs to head to the port at Cirkewwa, located on the northwest quadrant of Malta. Driving there is faster than taking the bus, which usually will require a connection in Valletta, the capital, or possibly Sliema. Multiple ferries operate daily, so there is no real need to rush.
The price for a single return ticket is only about 4 euros for adults. If one uses a car to get to the port, it is possible to drive it into the massive ferry itself and take it along to Gozo; however, the price increases by 10 euros. I personally would recommend renting a car and driving it onto the ship. Gozo has a much more challenging public transportation system to navigate given its general vacancy. A car is a plus to have at one’s disposal on the island.
Tickets are bought beforehand at the small office on the port or as one drives up to the booths (at least from Gozo-island terminal).
Ir-Rabat or Victoria: the Capital
The capital of Gozo is Ir-Rabat or Victoria as anglicised. It is a small city and contains the island’s Cittadella. A massive fortress and once the centre of the city, it is a popular draw for tourists to witness classic Mediterranean architecture and walk its majestic walls.
Other general areas of interest include Ġgantija, which are neolithic temple ruins in central Gozo, and the Ta’ Pinu Basilica, an ornate Catholic church located in L-Għarb to the west. Old and new religions in the same tiny place!
We stayed in the city centre at one of my host’s friend’s residences. Old-style Maltese houses are built for the summer, not the winter months. As a result, the high ceilings do not help much to retain heat, which means nights can be chilling despite 15 °C temperatures in the daytime. Bring sweaters and more than just sweatpants to sleep in!
For dining, we actually went out to neighbouring cities on the coast to eat. Eating out in the centre of Ir-Rabat can be a little expensive without much diversity from which to choose. Catering to tourists means a lot of fish and chips for the British populace that ventures down very often … also fried chicken sandwiches (that are pretty good actually)!
A Taste of Malta
Located in Marsalforn to the north, Pebbles is a quiet restaurant that is a favourite for locals and tourists alike. A great Maltese speciality is Hobz Biz-Zejt, which tastes like Mediterranean incarnate. It is simply tomato paste on Maltese bread seasoned to perfection and accompanied with additional nibbles. The one I ordered came with anchovies! Simply divine. Another delicacy to try is the (fried) cheese called Ġbejna (or Gbejniet pl.).
Gozian foodstuffs often include rabbit and of course, seafood! The dishes on Malta are similar, but Gozian cuisine is generally more rustic.
Located on the water, this restaurant in particular is a must visit with fast and friendly staff! It is also relatively affordable with fantastic desserts including waffles with ice cream. I saw a very British family order them along with a lot of amaretto!
As one might expect, Italian influences have been hugely constructive to Maltese food culture. Pasta is a must to try. The Maltese have excellently assimilated many dishes and sauces using their native island ingredients while still keeping the Sicilian aspects recognizable: strong sauces and spices.
Xerri I-Bukket is another iconic restaurant to try situated in the town of Qala. It gets very busy midday, as it overlooks the southern coast of Gozo with views of Comino (the primary island between Malta and Gozo) and the daily ferries coming and going. Comino is home to the famous Blue Lagoon, which is heavily visited in the summer for its crystalline waters.It also is a location where sharks come to breed.
I had a wonderful shrimp cocktail salad here and a huge portion of rabbit ragù! Desserts (mostly cakes) also looked amazing, but honestly, the portion sizes are so large, I had to skip it!
As my dear host informed me: “The Maltese love to eat. If we do not get enough, we complain.” My kind of people.
Mad Dash to Malta
Gozo is a wonderful place to unwind and take a breather. After the incident in Malta that night, it was exactly what I needed: few people, good food, and sunshine. Many Maltese like to come to Gozo for the same things. Weekend trips are not uncommon.
However, this tendency also leads to a mad dash back on Sunday with congested ferries and long lines. Be aware and allot enough time and don’t stress: everyone is headed to the same place anyway. The ferry operators will guide you!
The ferries themselves are quite elegant. The undercarriage houses the cars while the top portion has a small café and walkable spaces to enjoy the sea views. Talk of building a tunnel under the sea is happening, but even so, I would still recommend the ferry if the “chunnel” is ever constructed. Despite the windy nature of the weather in the winter, it is a lovely ride with clear skies and sufficient moonlight. Quite romantic actually!
More to come about Malta itself and some of its many interesting cities that I had the pleasure to tour! The nation has a rich history that I only barely touched upon. Rebellion, religion, knights, bread; glorious beaches always tend to overshadow these sorts of things! This little island ought to be on your radar for a multitude of reasons … Stay tuned for more and remember to also always report sexual assaults (or just don’t commit them) and create safe spaces to discuss this issue.