This blog is dedicated to Malta - my island home. My aim is not to bore you with history but to share my thoughts and a few facts together with a photo or two. For a more in -depth background of the island please go here. The purpose of this blog is not to point out the short-comings of the island. There are plenty that do that already. My wish is to show you the beauty of an island at the cross roads of the Mediterranean, a melting pot of history; a place where fact and fiction are sometimes fused to create unique myths and legends; a country that has been conquered so many times that our culture is a mish mesh of the lands that surround us and of lands far away. I confess that my greatest desire is to make you fall in love with this tiny enchanting island.


Tuesday 25 August 2009

Castle of My Dreams

Situated in a wooded valley known as Buskett on the outskirts of the town of Rabat one can find Verdala Palace. That is the name it officially goes by but I like to think of it as a castle. It is normally not accessible to the public, but last October it was opened up for a weekend to collect funds for local charitable organisations. So like thousands of other families we got the opportunity to snoop around a place I could only previously dream about.

The image of the castle on the skyline was as familiar a sight to me as my own street as the castle is situated directly opposite my parents' house, as the crow flies, and its turreted walls in the distance greeted me on a daily basis. I had always longed to go inside and explore and I can say that when we did, I was not disappointed. Surrounded by centuries-old pine trees, the strong walls of this castle have been buffeted by many winds but its story is mostly a peaceful one. I like to think that it passes its days thinking back on by-gone days, of the knights who built it and used it as a hunting lodge and of the various dignitaries that have stayed there over the years. No cannons have been fired anywhere near it. It has had the privilege of being a place of retreat, a place where weary people could wander in its spacious rooms knowing that only the singing of the birds would disturb them, a place where the rich could pass their time idling away the hot summer days in its spacious gardens.

Verdala Castle (or Palace as people here are more wont to call it) is a peaceful place. There is about it an air of calm and serenity, a place where you can escape to and indulge in the notion that you're in a little world of your own, surrounded by lofty tress and looking out from the terraces to a most wonderful view.

The walls are thick, the air is clean and there is a feeling of utter safety and harmony. There is a legend that it is haunted(see below) but its ghost was utterly absent on that clear day last October when one of my childhood wishes came true. I continue to dream about it because if I could choose any of the castles in Malta as my own, without doubt, it would be this one.

Historical Note

A small hunting lodge, built by Grandmaster Jean de la Valette, originally stood in place of the castle. The present structure was commissioned by Grandmaster Hughues Loubenx de Verdalle in 1586 and it is from this Grandmaster that the castle gets its name. The area was chosen because of its natural vegetation and because a rivulet runs almost year round in the valley beneath the castle. This provided water for the wild game introduced in the area by the Order and used for hunting purposes. A small chapel is situated just outside the main entrance to the palace.

However, the most famous feature of this historic building is the elliptical staircase designed by Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar.
Most of the rooms in the palace have frescoed ceilings. Although some of these were whitewashed during a certain period in its history, they have now been restored to their former glory.

During the British era the castle was used as the Governor’s country residence and it is now the official summer residence of the President of Malta.
The Legend

Like most of the historical buildings on the island, Verdala Palace is said to be haunted. In this case the haunting is by a lady dressed in blue. This young woman, a niece of Grand Master de Rohan, was being forced into marriage with a man not to her liking. Tired of being rejected by the lady, the gentleman (if you can call him that) imprisoned her in her room in the castle. One day she tried to escape through the window and fell to her death. She was then supposed to have been seen wandering around the building and its grounds wearing a blue dress – the same one she was said to have been wearing when she died. Like all ghost stories, no one is sure whether this story is true or not. Neither does anyone seem to know whether it is based on an actual event. Having passed by the grounds of this isolated castle at night, I like to think that it is.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Operation Pedestal

Malta today celebrates the feast of Santa Maria and with it, the 67th anniversary of Operation Pedestal or, as it is known amongst those old enough to remember it, the Santa Maria convoy.
In the summer of 1942 the war in Europe was at its peak and Malta had experienced its fair share of bombing. Hunger was rife and the island was in dire need of food, grain and oil. Two supply ships had made it to Malta in March 1942. However these were sunk in the harbour with only a fraction of the supplies unloaded. A further two supply ships arrived in June of 1942 with much-needed food. However no fuel oil made it through. In August of 1942 Malta was on the verge of surrender. Operation Pedestal was the final effort to supply the island with the supplies it so urgently needed. Fourteen merchant ships, two battleships (HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson), four aircraft carriers (HMS Eagle, HMS Victorious, HMS Indomitable, HMS Furious), seven cruisers and 33 destroyers set out from Britain entering the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of August 10-11. On August 15 the crippled American Merchant ship SS Ohio
(on loan to Britain from the United States) entered Grand Harbour to cheering crowds, supported by the two destroyers Ledbury and Penn. You can go here for the timeline of their passage through the Mediterranean. In all nine merchantmen, one aircraft carrier (Eagle), two cruisers (Manchester and Cairo), and a destroyer (Foresight) were sunk by the Axis accompanied by the loss of 400 men.

The food and fuel brought in by the convoy sustained the island, although its siege was not yet at an end. The ultimate result of Operation Pedestal was that it ensured that Malta stayed in the war. Tacticians say that this helped shift the balance of the war in North Africa just prior to the second battle of El Alamein. Operation Pedestal was the subject of a 1953 black and white British film, Malta Story, which interspersed archive footage of the SS Ohio with scripted studio scenes.

The damage sustained by the Ohio from Stuka bombers was too great for it to be repaired. In 1946, after the war was over, it was towed 10 miles off the coast of Malta and sunk by naval guns. A sad end for a ship with so much history but, perhaps, if it had a choice it would want to lie on the bottom of the sea, close to the island to which it brought so much more than food and fuel.

Sixty seven years later the only bombs that shatter the silence are the petards let off for the feasts of Santa Maria held in 5 villages in Malta and another 2 on the neighbouring island of Gozo. Those who are old enough to remember this event still talk about it with awe and gratitude. Most of the younger generation prefers to ignore the importance of this feat. The rest only vaguely remember it from history class at school. I suppose it is hard to expect today’s generation to be interested in great depth about events which took place so long before they were born. But I was brought up on stories of the war and when the British forces were still in Malta my dad would take me to Grand Harbour to see the aircraft carriers and the battleships and to tell me stories about the war. I was very young at the time, but the names of the Ohio, the Eagle, the Indomitable and the rest still send shivers up my spine - for I am able to acknowledge what they, and their crew of brave men, were able to do that August of so long ago.

Monday 10 August 2009

The Blue Lagoon

Crystal clear blue water ... A cool refreshing swim in the deep sea ... If I had a choice where to spend summer it would be here. On the shore of this turquoise sea.

This is our own little portion of paradise, pathetically tiny, when compared to what the world has to offer. But this little gem is all ours.

Unfortunately, it does tend to get crowded in the summer months, because few can resist its bewitching allure. But a visit in early to mid-June or in early October will find the place almost deserted. A place to relax and dream. This is the place that has become known as the Blue Lagoon. Perhaps lagoon is a misnomer as this is actually a stretch of water between the small island of Comino and its smaller sister island Cominotto, both of which are a few miles to the north of Malta.

Currently there are four people that live on Comino year round. Cominotto (seen in the photo above) is uninhabited. The sea bed between these two small islands is covered in a very fine, very light grey sand. This and the lack of rocks and seaweed gives the water its characteristic turquoise colour.

All photos by Darin Dykstra

Sometimes I wish I could pack up my bags and move there, year round, to enjoy the solitude of the autumn, winter and spring days, exploring this little gem of an island with no one to disturb me and spending the summer days swimming in the crystal clear waters of this sweet little bay. But some dreams will remain just that, dreams - wishful thinking to brighten up dreary days. Because, after all, I think life would become pretty boring if all our dreams came true. Don't you think?

Note on the Blue Lagoon

Tour boats to the Blue Lagoon leave Malta daily during the summer months. There are also two hotels on the island which cater for visitors who wish to spend more than one day on Comino, although these close down during the winter months. Visits to the island between mid-October and mid-May can only take place by prior agreement with a boat owner. The Blue Lagoon has a rich marine life which makes it popular with snorkelers and divers. This picturesque location has also featured in the movies Troy, Swept Away and The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Azure Window: the end of an icon

The Azure Window was a natural limestone arch that rose majestically out of the blue Mediterranean sea to a height of 28 metres (92 fee...