Owing to their enigmatic and absolutely enthralling accounts of prehistoric temples, the Maltese Isles, also known as the Islands of Dreams (a book by Francis Xavier Aloisio) are internationally renowned for their unique and stunning natural beauty, their fascinating ancient history, their endless summers of golden sunsets and stark contrasts of turquoise and the Mediterranean blues against the smoky-cliffs. The name Malta presumably originates from the Greek word meli, which means honey. The Greeks used to call the island Melite which translates to honey-sweet. Another interpretation of the name Malta can be traced back to the Phoenician Maleth, which means haven. Both sweet and haven evoke compelling images of warmth and happiness: of sultry sun-filled days spend on the beaches relaxing and/or exploring the wealth of historical mysteries this tiny Mediterranean country has got to offer.
Despite the recent attempts of modernization, which may have obscured a few nature sites and monuments of historical evidence, Malta has prevailed and has managed to maintain its allure and magic, as more tourists than ever are frequenting the isles all year round, with the peak season being the summer months.
Being presented with such an abundance of history and natural beauty while simultaneously finding yourself under time constraints, you may feel a tad overwhelmed when having to pick which places to visit on the islands. For this reason, we have done our homework and have gathered the most fascinating tidbits of Maltese history, magic, and mystery for you to explore and enjoy.
Mnajdra, Hagar Qim Temples and the mystery of Filfla
According to the World Heritage Site, Mnajdra is an ancient (pre-dating Newgrange, Stonehenge, and even the Pyramids) sacred megalithic temple complex situated on the untouched southern side of the island of Malta, overlooking the mysterious and unreachable island of Filfla. Being one of the oldest religious structures in the world (4000 BC), the temple was built to receive rising and setting of the sun (a.k.a. solar orientation), which became of a particular significance upon the Summer and Winter Solstice and during Spring and Autumn Equinox for the purposes of worshipping the sun gods and for helping agrarian societies to pinpoint the change of seasons for planting and harvesting. As there are no similar structures to be found outside of Malta, the inhabitants of the island must have created these temples for their own specific purposes presumably as sites for religious rituals.
During the seasonal changes, visitors can witness a spectacular sunrise phenomenon: the temple is suddenly submerged in a veil of gold illuminating every nook and cranny thus creating a unique, energetic and profoundly spiritual experience.
Just a stone’s throw away up the hill from Mnajdra, and about a mile away from the quaint Southern village of Qrendi, lies the 5000-year-old Hagar Qim, which translates to standing stones. Unfortunately at some point, the standing stones were covered with soil for agricultural purposes (one can still see the imprints of plough on the stones today) until the archeological discoveries of 1885 led to a discovery of stone peaks and a four-sided ancient limestone altar.
Today the site is deemed a “unique architectural masterpiece” by the World Heritage Sites (Wikipedia).
There are several myths surrounding the construction of Hagar Qim. Since each upright stone is estimated to weigh over 10,000 kg, how could humans of that time period with limited tools at their disposal have done it? Some speculate that Hagar Qim along with the mysterious cart ruts found in various parts of Malta was created by extra-terrestrial forces. Others believe that Hagar Qim was erected by Homer’s Cyclops, the giant, one-eyed monsters who supposedly used to live in Malta at some point.
Regardless of their origins and the mysteries surrounding the temples, a visit to these UNESCO World Heritage Sites would be well worth your time. Even if to just get a glimpse of the remote and enigmatic island of Filfla (the name is presumed to originate from the Arabic word filfil which means pepper). At first glance, Filfla might seem to be just an insignificant rock in the sea though it offers a rich and fascinating history. It appears that originally Filfla may have been deemed a sacred site, which would explain the construction of the two sacred temples Mnajdra and Hagar Qim directly across from Filfla. At one point in time owing to a calamitous natural disaster, Filfla was separated from the main island of Malta leaving all the inhabitants on that part of the island to fend for themselves. There is even a legend explaining the creation of the islet. Originally while still a part of Malta, this area around the Qrendi village was populated by people of loose moral character, who ignored God’s warnings to repent from their sinful ways. Consequently, they were punished by their piece of rock being separated from the mainland and thrown into the sea. Some sources with maps even mentioned a church existent on the island of Filfla, which according to Joseph Borg, senior curator at the National Museum of Natural History, was a mere cave with a protective wall in front of it, most likely built by someone who had found an asylum on the little piece of the rock from a violent storm.
For quite some time the islet was used as a rest stop by fishermen to hear the mass and even by pirates, as they could easily conceal their vessels between the cliffs and help themselves to a rare luxury: a water source from a freshwater spring, which unfortunately was later destroyed by the British Forces.
For over 200 years Filfla was also used by the British and other naval forces as target practice which damaged and destroyed large parts of the flora, fauna and the rock itself. In 1970s the bombings were finally prohibited yet considerable amounts of unexploded bombs and shells are still believed to be found in the shallow waters around the islet presenting dangers to those willing to approach the mysterious isle. As if bomb threats were not enough, in 1987 a great white female shark was caught by a local fisherman Alfredo Cutajar near Filfla. The waters around Filfla are supposedly the only part of the Mediterranean Sea where sharks can occasionally be found. Today fishing and approaching the isle closer than one nautical mile radius of Filfla is prohibited by law yet it can be clearly viewed and photographed from the legendary Dingli Cliffs and the breath-taking Blue Grotto. Whether a sacred site or a sinners’ rock, the mysterious little isle is a treat for the eyes, particularly during the sunset time.
(Sources: www.guidememalta.com, Bizzare Malta by Fiona Vella and Oliver Gatt)
Villa Frere: A Garden of Secrets
At the back of St. Lukes Hospital, lie the gardens of the once monumental Villa Frere formerly known as a prime gathering place for royalty, scholars, artists, poets and other dignitaries. The villa was proudly was featured in Country Life Magazine in 1930).
The creation of Villa Frere was a loving tribute to Hon. John Hookham Frere (hence the name) to his late wife. Owing to its lush gardens and expansive views of Mdina, Valletta, and the Msida Bastion Cemetery where Frere’s love of his life was laid to rest, the villa soon became a welcome refuge for artists and academics whose company was greatly enjoyed and appreciated by Frere himself. However, after Frere’s passing in 1846, the visitors stopped coming, the once magical and romantic atmosphere slowly dissipated, and the gardens were left to their fate until later taken over by Captain Edward Price who is an avid botanist and plant enthusiast, revived the estate by turning the grounds into a magnificent botanical garden. The exotic garden, unfortunately, could not be maintained as St. Luke’s Hospital soon claimed the grounds for building additional hospital wings. Most of the gardens were destroyed in the process and the little bit that was still viable (merely over a third) had been left at the mercy of vandals and nature elements for almost 70 years. Today an NGO called the Friends of Villa Frere has been formed in order to protect and restore the remains of the villa and the gardens. Guided tours of the Villa Frere are available daily between 9am and 5 pm (Sundays 4pm). Please note that the tickets need to be ordered and purchased from Heritage Malta Museums or from Heritage Malta Website before arrival to the villa as there are no tickets sold at the door. Villa Frere is open to the public every first Saturday of the month 9am-12.30pm (the entrance to the villa is through St. Luke’s Hospital). Exploring the lush enchanted gardens tucked away behind the hospital grounds, holding secrets of long-ago love and mystery can be a magical experience transporting you back through time to a different era of opulence, romance and love for all things beautiful.
Strait Street, Valletta (aka the Gut)
Source: https://www.fodors.com Courtesy of George Cini, author of Strait Street: Secrets and Stories from Behind Closed Doors; Viliam.M/Shutterstock
(Once known as Malta’s Ghostly Red Light District)
Strait Street, (Strada Stretta in Maltese) is one of the most renowned and notorious areas in Valletta, as it contains a wealth of colorful history of different nationalities (including British and American military men, Italians and Maltese) mixing and mingling celebrating their livelihood during the times of war by indulging in different facets of the vibrant nightlife Strait Street was offering, which was often starkly in contract to otherwise strictly conservative and Catholic Malta. Due to the various fun yet often morally questionable activities involving heavy drinking, partying, prostitution, and even cross-dressing taking place here on a nightly basis, Strait Street had earned its nickname The Gut thus accurately reflecting the tenor and the character of the place. One has to understand though that despite its seedy reputation, Strait Street was also instrumental in providing a haven for those trying to escape (even if just temporarily) and forget the horrors of war. In contrast to death and destruction, Strait Street was bustling with life, music, jazz, in particular, general rowdiness and hilarious daily dramas. Although after the withdrawal of British forces Strait Street suffered an economic and social decline as many of the bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues were abandoned to fate or forced to close down, many of its juicy, funny, drama-filled stories of that time have been preserved in a number of books written about it. Recently even a TV show called Strada Stretta has been created with weekly episodes airing on Maltese TV.
The Strait Street of today has “shaped up” by having revamped and spruced up the abandoned and haunted Gut, which now boasts a number of chic, high-end bars, restaurants, live music, jazz festivals and other hip events such as art exhibits and pop up art shows. And once again the legendary Strada Stretta is buzzing with vivaciousness and happy energy while still occasionally echoing the spirit of the olden days in all its debaucherous and haunted beauty.
The Mosta Dome Miracle
Designed in the 1830s by a famous Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vasse who was in awe of and greatly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, the Rotunda of Mosta also known as the Mosta Dome is the third largest unsupported dome in Europe.
Upon entering, most visitors and regulars alike are taken aback by the beauty and extravagance of the church: the rich marble floors, the endless rows of pews, the majestic altar…all of which invoke an aura of almost surreal celestial beauty and presence.
A small part of the dome still bears and proudly displays a battle scar from World War II when on April 9, 1942, a German Luftwaffe bomb was dropped on the island hitting the church while around 300 parishioners had gathered there for service. Although the impact of the bomb caused considerable damage to the structure of the church, none of the 300 lives were affected as the bomb failed to detonate.
Today one can see a reproduction of the bomb in a back room of the church as a tribute to the 1942 “Mosta Bomb Miracle”.
Many parishioners and visitors still frequent the Mosta Dome (Holy Week with Good Friday usually bringing particularly heavy “traffic” to the church) to show their respects and acknowledge God’s great mercy and His unfailing love for humanity.
Secret History of Manoel Island
Today a picturesque yet, for the most part, an abandoned sliver of an island between Sliema, Gzira, and Valletta, originally was used as an ideal place for an isolated hospital Lazzaretto in order to protect the rest of the island from those affected by plague and cholera. Once the outbreaks were contained and eradicated, the hospital was torn down and then later again rebuilt to be used for general hospital purposes.
During the 18th century, the little sliver of the island was claimed by the Order of St. John. The Portuguese Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena designed and constructed the mighty Fort Manoel (hence the name), which became a mysterious residence for around 500 men (no one knows what transpired behind the walls) and served as a vantage point to protect the Maltese coastline.
Later the island was taken over by the British military and served as their Royal Navy Base during World War II until 1964 when Malta became an independent republic and the island was returned to the Maltese.
Until today the fort (which was only recently restored) is shrouded in mysteries and folk tales about a Black Knight of the Order of St. John haunting the fort and the little island. The sightings of the Black Knight have been supported by stories from British and Maltese soldiers staying on the island as well as workmen doing repairs and tourists just visiting. Some even claim it’s the Grandmaster Vilhena himself
Today, Manoel island hosts a yacht repair facility, a couple of government buildings and the grandiose fort itself which is open to public only on certain days and has also become a popular place for private functions e.g., weddings due to its stunning skyline views of the old city Valletta. Otherwise, it is simply an island with lush greenery and flower bushes in the winter months and gorgeous rocky and almost empty beaches in the summertime where you can go for a swim while watching the sunset wash over the magnificent old city Valletta.
As for the ghost of Grandmaster Vilhena, you are at your own risk.
Shortletsmalta ltd. would like to pay our gratitude and our respects to the contributor of blog.shortletsmalta.com, the author of this blog-post and our friend – Ivy Evison. Ivy Evison tragically passed away on the 22d of August 2019. She was a bright, kind, talented, inspiring person and loved by so many that knew her.
Always in our hearts ♥