I had just returned to Naples after touring Sorrento and Capri (Gracie Fields wasn’t in) and planning to take the ferry to Sardinia to visit a friend in Caligiari, when a waiter asked me if I had been to Malta yet. When I said no, he proceeded to tell me he was from Malta and how he got over there at least once a month to see his family.
Sounded like a nice side trip, and as I was in no hurry, I took a bus from Naples down the coast to Salerno where I booked return passage on the Grimaldi Ferries “Malta Express” that sails from Salerno every Thursday. You can make the return trip in three days, with a day in Valetta the Maltese capital.
Leaving Salerno at noon Thursday, it takes nineteen hours to arrive in Malta. The Malta Express is what is known as a Ro-Ro (Roll on – Roll off) and the vehicles are mostly truck trailers, although there was a big shiny black Mercedes which really looked out of place. It has passenger accommodations which are spare but adequate and reasonably comfortable. There is a TV in the lounge and of course some slot machines. There was a poker game going the entire trip in one corner of the lounge. Apparently the Captain allows it as long as the crew do not play, and it stays relatively quiet.
You get three meals a day served in a spotless dining room. The mess staff are Filipino, the deck crew mostly Italians and Maltese, and the officers Bulgarian. I never recognized any engine crew so I don’t know what they were. The meals were quite good by the way, and served “family” style.
A blast of the horn signals our departure for Malta, and as we get under way, there is a welcome cooling breeze on deck. The scenery is exceptional along the coast. It’s just at dusk as we pass Stromboli and then we are passing through the Straits of Messina and on to the open sea.
After a few hours of sound sleep (I always sleep like a log on ships and trains), we enter the harbor of Valetta. The first things you notice about entering Valetta are the massive walls. The Island of Malta was a veritable fortress in the Mediterranean Sea, and was attacked repeatedly by corsairs, knights both en route to and returning from the Crusades, and apparently any riff raff that could sail a boat near the island. Some were successful, most not, but the most successful were the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. They arrived to stay in the eleventh century, kept the various enemies and corsairs at bay, and finally gained complete control in the fifteenth century, by which time they were known universally as the Knights of Malta. They ruled the island until the close of the eighteenth century when the British made Malta a colony which is how it remained until granting its independence shortly after the second world war.
Arriving in Malta on schedule we have a full day to explore as we will. Customs is quick and courteous (they love the dollar there) and we disembark. A German chap I met on board and I decided to share a taxi to just outside Valetta a short ways to a stone chapel which marks the spot where St. Paul came ashore after being shipwrecked on his way to Rome. On the return trip, the taxi driver insists that we visit a church named after St. Barbara. There are paintings inside done by a Maltese known as the Cavalier of Calabria, because he was apparently as good with his sword as with his brush. The legend has it that on a trip between Rome and Malta, with a brief stop in Naples, he dispatched more than a dozen who had managed to arouse his ire. He died at eighty from an infected nick he received from his barber.
Back in Valetta, there was plenty of time to spend in the market place where there are open air stalls selling everything you could imagine and a few you might not. I’m a poor prospect when I’m travelling as I don’t want to be weighed down with “stuff”, so I usually have a trail of merchants haranguing me as I walk along the alleys of a market place. I make frequent stops to inquire politely about prices, shake my head sadly, and go on my way having added another haranguer beseeching me to buy his “stuff” at half the price he first quoted. I’ve been told this is not good behavior on my part, but I find it a cheap source of entertainment; besides I’ve learned some excellent additions to my multi-language vocabulary of swearwords and arcane curses.
Stopped for a late lunch at a Trattoria Parolaccia (my notes say this might mean “the Talking Place” or “the Place of Words) which was very good. The chef himself came out and described the specials. Good food, good wine and excellent service.
Walked through a park with formal gardens and monuments dedicated to the brave men and women who defended Malta in WWII. Among those were F/O Buzz Beurling, a Canadian fighter ace who downed over twenty aircraft while flying a Spitfire out of a Maltese airbase.
Arrived back on board after a fairly exhausting day, we were served dinner and I headed for my berth. The sea came up a bit after midnight but by daylight it had calmed down and we could see the Italian Coast off in the distance. Arrived in Salerno at 4:00 PM right on schedule. Although the entire trip had been less than three days, it seemed like a much longer enjoyable vacation. I must remember to thank that waiter in Naples.