malta, g.c.

The introduction on the summary page should already have made it clear why we regard Malta as one of the greatest destinations for a photographer, and there are various pictures of Malta in the Gallery section; but we suggest that before you read any further, you just skip through the pictures in this module and see if you agree with us that this is a truly extraordinary place. There's also more about Malta on our other web-site, Motorcycle Touring in Europe -- obviously with a motorcycling bias. Click here or at the end of the module for a free link to hop between the two.

Troglodyte cave, 'Clapham Junction'

This is the remains of a sea-cave, now well inland, near the mysterious network of lines known as 'Clapham Junction'. Apparently it was still inhabited in the 19th century, quite possibly after 10,000 years or more of continuous human habitation. It's hard to say how much of what you see is prehistoric, and how much modern -- the more so that 'modern' literally dates from the beginning of recorded history. One may fairly suspect that the oil-drum on the upper right is in fact not prehistoric. And yet, there are no barriers, no admission fees, not much in the way of explanation, except that a local resident will try to show you around and attempt to exact a couple of Maltese pounds for doing so. Give him a small tip and tell him you want to look the place over on your own. Frances shot this on Ilford XP2 with a Nikkormat FTn and 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor.




'Cart tracks' at 'Clapham Junction'

No-one knows who made these tracks, or how, or when. They are several thousand years old, but no-one knows exactly how many thousand: at least two or three, maybe ten or more. They may antedate the invention of the wheel, being worn by two poles trailed behind a beast of burden, with the load carried in skins between the poles (a 'travois'). Here, the surface is hard limestone, not soft tufa: such grooves would probably have taken centuries to form. In places, they end at one side of a bay, and re-start on the other; elsewhere, they appear to head straight out to sea. They are all over Malta and Gozo: Clapham Junction is merely the biggest concentration, named after the famous South London railway station. Roger used a Leica M-series with 35/1.4 Summilux and Kodachrome 64 for this shot.

what is there to photograph?

In a word: everything. Landscape, seascapes, mighty cliffs (100 metres/300 feet sheer at Dingli), buildings ancient and modern, festivals (with some of the best fireworks in the world), markets, caves and (above all) history that stretches back to the remotest past. Fifty years ago, the oldest ruins in Malta were dated at maybe 4,000 to 5,000 years old. Today, they are widely believed to be at least 5,000 years old, and a theory that is gaining popularity -- though far from receiving majority approval -- is that they may date back to the era when there was still a land bridge between Sicily and Malta: some 13,000 years ago.

Festa San Giuzepp, Rabat

The Maltese are incredibly inventive about fireworks, but are slightly hazy on health and safety at work. Things are much better than they used to be: walk through any old cemetery and you will see magnificent tombs, every few years, commemorating those who died in an explosion at the village firework factory. It was (and is) a matter of rivalry between the villages to create the best displays, with all kinds of contra-rotating set-pieces and the ominously named 'Mortali' or mortars, which consist of two powerful charges in what resembles a large metal tankard. The first charge throws the second high into the air, where it explodes with a deafening clap, rattling windows miles away if the firework-makers have done their job properly.

The Maltese also have a somewhat robust attitude to crowd control, taking the view that it is your problem if you want to go too close to exploding and burning fireworks. Frances was shooting once when she felt a total stranger brushing her head. He was removing burning embers from her hair... Roger shot this one with a Leica M-series, 35/1.4 Summilux and Ferrania/Scotch/3M 1000D.


Bottle aeroplanes

These lovely little bottle aeroplanes were a few score metres (yards) from the oldest ruins on earth at Ggantija. Malta is a living, breathing, changing country, not a sterile museum. As far as he recalls, Roger shot these on Fuji RF/RFP ISO 50 using an M-series Leica and a 90/2 Summicron.


Since those incredibly remote times, there are traces of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta (who were there from 1530 to 1798) and the British, for whom Malta was one of their most important naval bases and coaling stations from 1803 to the 1960s. The biggest muzzle-loading gun in the world is in Malta, the Hundred-Ton Armstrong, still mounted in the late 19th century fort that was built around it. Just outside the walls of Mdina is a Roman villa, excavated from under a Moslem graveyard of the 10th century. The history is many-layered as an onion.

Valletta from Manoel Island


The Maltese skyline is dominated by the spires and domes of churches, for it is a most Christian land; yet no longer repressively so. The state is determinedly secular; many alive (including Roger) remember when voting against the wishes of the Church was a sin that had to be confessed. Today there are far fewer priests, monks and nuns on the streets, but most Maltese have managed to square their political and religious beliefs. And Maltese politics are still a matter of conviction and passion. What can you say of a country where a former leader of the party in power used a casting vote to bring down the government on a vote of confidence? Roger shot this on Fuji RF/RFP with his usual combination of M-series Leica and 35/1.4 Summilux: both foreground and and sky have been cropped. The rich, moody colours, reminiscent of an 18th century painting, are explained by about a stop of deliberate underexposure.

Malta is the oldest Christian nation in the world, having adopted the religion when St. Paul was shipwrecked there in A.D. 60; by tradition, the cathedral in Mdina was built on the site of the house of the chief man, Publius, whom Paul recorded 'showed us no small kindness', and you can see the cave (St. Paul's Grotto) where St. Paul was accommodated. Or to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, how about Popeye Village at Anchor Bay? This was the film-set for the Robin Williams film, now rebuilt and tidied up as a tourist attraction in its own right. It sounds tacky beyond belief; in reality, it is tremendous fun and has a surreal beauty all of its own. Incidentally, both Midnight Express and Gladiator were also filmed in Malta: it is a major shooting centre, because of its extraordinary range of locations and its reliable weather.

Changing tack yet again, there are countless caves, catacombs, columbaria (burial chambers) and even whole homes hewn from the soft tufa sandstone that comprises most of the island. Some of the caves may have been inhabited for 10,000 years or more; some of the houses were dug out only a few hundred years ago. Both caves and troglodyte homes were still inhabited in the early 20th century. There are so many of these natural or rock-cut structures that many are not even marked or fenced off: you just wander round until you find them, either with the aid of guide-books bought locally in Malta or purely by chance.

And all this in just 246 square kilometres, well under 100 square miles. No wonder Malta is often called 'a continent in miniature'.

Catacombs, Bingemma

We were visiting Malta with some very old friends (Dave and Mandy) when Mandy spied these catacombs from the car: they were over a wall, down a path and across a field. From what we have been able to discover, they are early Christian; but as so often with Malta, there is very little in the way of explanation, and nothing in the way of 'interpretation', to stand between you and something that is around 2000 years old.

Frances shot the picture on Ilford XP2 Super using a Nikkormat FTn and a 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor. The overhang had to be dodged heavily, and the sandy foreground burned in heavily, in order to even out the image brightness. Exposure determination was via a spot meter reading of the inside wall of one of the caves, near its mouth.


Malta's even smaller sister island, Gozo, is a mere 67 square kilometres in area (26 square miles) and is reached via a very brief ferry ride. It is in some ways even more attractive than Malta: calmer, slower-paced (yes, it is possible) and with a very great deal to see in its own right. The ruins at Ggantija (juh-gan-tea-ya) are the oldest on the Maltese archipelago and therefore the oldest on the planet. In the same village (Xaghra -- shah-hrah) there is a superb windmill, now a museum, that was working into the 1950s.

Citadella and Rabat, Gozo

For centuries, everyone in the island was suppose to sleep in the Citadella at night, as protection from Turkish marauders. Every night they would walk back there from their fields and houses; every morning they would set out for their work and homes. Roger shot this with a Nikon F and 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 on Fuji RF/RFP ISO 50, adjusting the contrast slightly in 'levels' in Photoshop to make the suburbs (Rabat) stand out more beneath the city walls. There's a hill on the road between Xaghra and the Citadella that has a wonderful belvedere or viewpoint, just next to the cemetery. We have shot countless pictures from that one place.

  < P ALIGN=LEFT>The Citadella, effectively the old capital of the island, surrounded by its own Rabat (also known as Victoria in memory of our dear late Queen) is now mostly in ruins, but there is still plenty to see there. The Folklore Museum is superb, and the house of Barnardo Milites, Bernard the Soldier, is chilling. The Turks used regularly to devastate the island, slaughtering all the men, old people and babies, and carrying the women and children off into slavery; or at least, the ones they didn't rape, murder or torture just for fun or because they didn't have room to carry them away. Bernard knew that Gozo would fall, and he also knew the fate that awaited his wife and daughters. So he killed them himself, as cleanly and quickly as possible, and then went out to die, determined to sell his life as dearly as he could. Anyone who thinks we live in a violent society today should think twice about this.

Gozo is also the home to some spectacular rock formations, such as the Azure Door and the Inland Sea. The latter is a sea-cave where the roof fell in, leaving a sea-lake connected with the Mediterranean by a long sea-cave tunnel. Boat trips from the glassy-clear Inland Sea through the tunnel are not expensive, and even though they don't really bring many new photographic opportunities, they are still worth trying at least once.

If we could afford it, we would spend at least two weeks a year on Gozo, but there is so much more to see in Malta that we wouldn't want only to go to Gozo.

where is it?

Malta is pretty much slap in the middle of the Mediterranean, and therefore, pretty much by definition, slap in the middle of the last 10,000 years of European history and pre-history. It is about 90km (55 miles) due south of Sicily and about 290km north of the coast of Africa.

Its position made it of enormous strategic importance once sea-going trade was fully established, and as a result it had to withstand two of the greatest sieges in history; possibly, indeed the two greatest sieges that ever were in all history.

The first Great Siege was in 1565 when the might of Soleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire was repulsed. Had Malta fallen, the Mediterranean would have become a Turkish lake and the fate of Europe might have been very different. But a few hundred knights, and the whole of the Maltese population, fought for Christendom, just as the Turks fought for Islam. The word for 'God' in both Arabic and Maltese is the same: Allah.

Forts St. Elmo and St. Angelo


After the the Knights Hospitallers had successfully resisted the Turks, money flowed into their coffers and Malta was massively fortified. The old fort of St. Elmo on Mount Sciberras (which had fallen during the siege) was rebuilt and incorporated into the new capital city of Valletta, on the left above: a perfect Renaissance city, 'built by gentlemen, for gentlemen'. For over 200 years, until Napoleon's invasion of 1798, the Knights fortified and ornamented the island; many of the most handsome buildings are late 17th and 18th century. The Maltese hated Napoleon (who stole a great deal, especially from the churches which were filled with gold and precious stones) and therefore welcomed the British with open arms. There was even talk of Malta becoming an overseas department of Britain, in the same way that the French did with some of their possessions. If you look at the tip of the spit of land on the right you can just see the cannon shown in the small illustration on the right. Roger shot the main picture with a 100/2.8 Zeiss Macro on a Contax RX.

The second Great Siege was in 1941-42, when it withstood the Axis Powers: first Italy, then Italy and Germany together. Churchill called Malta his 'unsinkable aircraft carrier': thousand-pound bombs slammed into centuries-old fortresses, and at one point the island was so low on light and heavy oils that she was just days from surrender. Operation Pedestal and the arrival of the SS Ohio is again the stuff of legend. With no power, no steering, no bows and no bridge, the crippled tanker was brought in lashed to three ships. Out of fourteen ships in the original convoy, she was one of only five that reached Malta, and she was so badly damaged that she settled on the bottom as she was being berthed. Despite heroic attacks from both Italian and German pilots, she was unloaded and Malta survived. If Malta had fallen, the Axis might well have won World War Two. This is why Malta is often known as 'Malta, G.C.': the entire island was awarded the George Cross for bravery on April 15th 1942.

Bomb damage, old dockyard

The dockyard area -- so called because it was indeed the heart of the British dockyard for over 150 years -- is today being heavily rebuilt and gentrified, but this picture, taken in the 1990s, shows how magnificent 18th century buildings suffered from wartime bomb damage combined with dereliction after the British departed.

We shot this as a joint effort with a 'baby' (6x7cm) Linhof and (probably) 105/3.5 Schneider Xenar, on Maco Ort 25; the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

To this day, there are more than just traces of bomb damage in Malta: the Opera House in Valletta is still unrepaired, more than 60 years on.

maps and tourist information

If you want to explore Malta seriously, buy a book (available, as far as we know, only in Malta) called the mAZe. It's more like a street map of the whole island than a conventional road map, and the layout is sometimes eccentric, but it is indispensable.

Tourist maps vary from indifferent to worthless, and the old Ordnance Survey map of the island is vanishingly rare: we have been trying to get one for well over a decade, without success.

Visually, the Insight guide is the best we know, but like all Insight guides it is short on practical detail and inevitably there is no room to include everything.

Dockyard Creek from the Baracca gardens

The fort jutting out into Grand Harbour on the left is Fort St. Angelo -- the one with the cannon bollards in the picture above -- and the tanker is in Dockyard Creek, close to the derelict building shown above. Roger shot this on Kodachrome 64 with an M-series Leica and 35/1.4 Summilux.

The Malta Tourist Authority is now in the Auberge D'Italie in Merchants' Street in Valletta, and operates or is associated with a number of excellent web-sites including, and Both domestic and overseas tourist offices are models of what a tourist office should be.

Popeye Village, Anchor Bay


Anchor Bay is towards the north of the island, on the east coast opposite Mellieha Bay. The Popeye Village ('Sweetwater') is a tourist attraction in its own right. As far as we are concerned, there is only one reason to go there, and a very good one it is: beautifully cobbled-together clapboard, shingled and tin-roofed houses, an unexpected paradise for photographers. We disdained to go there for quite a while. We were wrong. Frances shot this with her Alpa 12 S/WA and a 58/5.6 Schneider Super Angulon on 6x8cm Ilford HP5 Plus, using a yellow or orange filter. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, deliberately overexposed and then bleached back. Sooner or later there will be a free module on bleach-back.

when to go

The spring is delightful, and it comes early: by March it is well under way, and most reckon April or May to be the perfect time to visit the island. Average daily max/min temperatures in March are 16/11 C, 61/52 F, rising to 22/16 C, 71/61 F in May. It is one of the sunniest places in the world, with an average of at least five hours a day in the wettest, coldest months (late November, December and January) and over 12 hours a day in summer. Avoid July and August, when it is impossibly hot, as well as hopelessly crowded with low-end package tours. Average daily maximum temperatures are over 27 degrees C, 80 degrees F, from mid June to early October, and maxima of over 38 degrees C, 100 degrees F, are not uncommon in June, July and August. Nor do the nights cool down very much: average daily minima exceed 68 degrees F, 20 degrees C, from mid June to around the end of September. Roger lived there as a boy and remembers 100 degrees F on the roof at midnight in the summer.

October and early November are both good, though: average daily max/min temperatures in October are 24/19C, 75/66F, with 6 days having more than 0.1mm rain (and a total for the whole month of only 63mm, 2.5 inches, at that), and in November, the figures are 20/16C, 67/60F, 9 days, 91mm/3.6 inches. Even December and January are not too bad, though they are the wettest months, and February can be quite pleasant again. If you have no heating in your room, you may be grateful for an affectionate bed-mate in the winter.

Breaking waves, salt pans, Gozo

Winter storms can be dramatic -- this is January -- but even though there can be overcast skies and rain, as this picture shows there are often blue skies too. If you can afford the time, a month in January can cost about the same as a week or two in June, and you will probably have a better chance of getting more good pictures as there are far fewer tourists around.

public holidays

Malta is generously endowed with public holidays, a mixture of the religious (no country is more staunchly Catholic than Malta) and secular.

January 1 -- New Year's Day

February 10 -- Feast of  St. Paul's Shipwreck

March 19th -- Feast of St. Joseph

Good Friday -- Movable feast

May 1 -- Mayday

June 7 -- Commemoration of 1919 Uprising

June 29 -- Mnarija (Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul)

August 15 -- Santa Marija (Feast of the Assumption)

September 8 -- Feast of our Lady of Victories

September 21 -- Independence Day

December 8 -- Feast of the Immaculate Conception

December 13 -- Republic Day

December 25 -- Christmas Day

Festa San Giuzepp

A colour version of the same display appears above. Frances used a Nikkormat FTn and 28/1.9 Vivitar Series 1 to shoot this on Kodak TMZ P3200.

practicalities and papers

Because Malta is in the EC, the vast majority of people require a passport but no visa. Only if you are flying in from outside the EU are customs of any consequence; otherwise, of course, the very purpose of the EU is the free movement of people, goods and services. The limits are the usual 200 cigarettes or 250g of tobacco, 2 bottles of alcoholic drinks, LM 50 worth (about 75 pounds UK, USD 135) of gifts. Oh: and one still camera.

The last may seem like a problem but we have never seen it enforced, even before Malta was in the EU. We have frequently taken half a dozen or more cameras with us -- at least three each -- and once again it was only when we were researching this article that we discovered there was any limit at all.

It may also be worth knowing that because Maltese alcohol taxes are so high, the 'voluntary guidance' figures about what is regarded as reasonable for personal consumption are in fact applied as hard-and-fast rules. On the other hand, 90 litres of still wine, 60 litres of sparkling wine, 110 litres of beer and 10 litres of spirits should be more than enough, even for a visit of two or three weeks.


Apiary, Xewkija

This is either Roman or (more likely) Phoenician: a good 2000 years old, maybe more. The bees built their nests in the 'windows': the honey was removed via the chamber behind the door on the left. It is in a public park: there is no admission fee, no controls on photography. We used a Toho 4x5 inch camera with 110/5.6 Schneider Super-Symmar, shooting on Fuji ISO 100 film.

photographic equipment

Quite honestly, Malta is so photogenic that you have to try fairly hard not to get good pictures with almost any camera. We have used everything from 35mm to 4x5 inch, via most of the medium formats (44x66mm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm, 6x8cm, 6x9cm, 6x12cm). You can either use your favourite camera/lens combination -- such as Roger's Leica M-series and 35/1.4 Summilux -- or use just about anything you have, as long as you know it is reliable. Don't take an untried or unreliable camera with you -- you'd be heartbroken if it failed to deliver the pictures you thought you had taken.

In general, we find that many of our best pictures in Malta are quite considered, often with the camera on a tripod, and this points us in the direction of medium format such as our Alpas or the 'baby' Linhof. On the other hand, there is so incredibly much to shoot that only 35mm or digital is likely to give you enough exposures.

Overall, we tend to favour medium format more for black and white, and 35mm more for colour. With MF you are constantly changing films, and cut film is a penance because it is like being a greedy child with free run of a candy store: you can't decide what to shoot (eat), and there isn't time to shoot (eat) it all. These arguments apply a fortiori to large format, which is one reason why we haven't yet taken a 5x7 inch/13x18cm camera to Malta, even though we are constantly tempted to do so. Of course, the weight of the camera and the hassle of changing films influence our decision too.

Galley slave quarters

Last time we were in Malta, this passage -- which goes through the solid rock under the old Birgu, just near Fort St. Angelo -- was closed because they were building expensive new apartments at the other end (on the right). This, however, is where the Knights kept their galley slaves. The Royal Navy used it as a rum store. We shot it as a joint effort with a Linhof Super Technika IV 6x9cm (with 6x7cm rollfilm back) and probably a 100/3.5 Schneider Xenar. The film stock is Fuji Astia, chosen for its low contrast, and even then, the darkest shadows have 'blocked'.

Another advantage of 35mm, especially the rangefinder cameras we favour, is that they are small and light. This isn't so important in the cooler months (though Malta is impressively hilly) but as the weather warms up it really can start to get a bit wearying if you have too much kit to carry. The Maltese are mostly very honest but you don't want to leave too much kit in any hotel room and only the bigger and better hotels are likely to be able to provide secure storage for even one decent-sized camera, let alone a camera bag. You certainly don't want to leave any equipment stewing in the trunk of a car while you are taking pictures.

If at all possible, try to get a room with a refrigerator to store all your exposed film and some of your unexposed film -- but remember always to have plenty at room temperature, ready to use. If you can't get a refrigerator, though, don't worry: you would need to stay for quite a long time in a very hot, non-air-conditioned room to do significant damage.

Inquisitor's Palace, the Birgu


It is all very well to take a romanticised view of the past, but as as evidenced by the story of Barnardo Milites earlier in the module, and indeed the picture of the galley slave quarters, life was often very unpleasant indeed. The Church was not blameless in this: the Inquisition had all but limitless powers, supported by some very dubious theology. The Inquisitor and his assistants sat on the dark-wood throne-like chairs: the accused -- or sinner, for accusation was usually taken as proof of guilt -- on a rough, crude stool. What is really terrifying is how long the Inquisition survived, and how much influence it had even into the 18th century. Frances chose to use her Alpa 12 S/WA for this, shooting 6x9cm Ilford HP5 Plus with her 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

As you can see from this module, we use both colour and black and white: about a third of the pictures here are monochrome. Roger tends to shoot mainly colour, Frances mainly black and white, but both of us will shoot either depending on what we think will work best. We normally carry two cameras each, one loaded with colour (usually slide for Roger, negative for Frances), and the other loaded with black and white. Sometimes, though, Roger will have two colour films (usually one fast, one slow) while Frances may load two black and white films (one fast, one slow, or one infra-red). If you are shooting monochrome, at least one 'sky' filter may be useful: we favour deep yellow or pale orange, as we find ordinary yellows to be rather weak sometimes, and deep oranges to be stronger than we need in many cases.

Carry all the film or memory cards that you are likely to need with you. There are two or three good camera stores in Malta (there's a particularly good one in Strait Street in Valletta), but prices are understandably high and choices are limited: it's a long supply chain, and the market is small.

how to get there

Most people will fly in to Luqa airport (Loo'ah) which is served by numerous charter airlines as well as Air Malta, the national carrier. Probably the easiest country from which to reach Malta is the UK, which supplies the majority of Malta's tourists every year, but the Germans and (to a lesser extent) the French go there in increasing numbers. There have been direct flights from the United States but they are a rarity. Most Americans don't even know where Malta is, and at the time of the Bush-Gorbachev summit (which was held in Malta) the Los Angeles Times began its report, "In Malta, far from the crossroads of world history..." You can't help wondering where they thought the 'crossroads of world history' was.

It is however entirely possible to drive down to Malta. There are car ferries from Sicily and in late 2005 they were charging 93 euros per person, return (call it GBP 65 or USD 115), and 140 to 155 euros return per car (around GBP 100-110, somewhat under USD 200); the price depended on whether you went to Pozallo (cheaper) or Catania (more expensive).

The big advantage of driving down is that you will have your own car when you get there. The big disadvantage is flogging the whole length of Italy. It's probably cheaper (and definitely safer, given Italian driving standards) to hire a car in Malta.


Back roads, Gozo

Gozitan roads are, if anything, still more primitive than Maltese -- though there isn't as much traffic, so the main roads are less potholed. This is in north-west Gozo, an example of a completely unsurfaced bare rock road strewn with other rocks. Your hire-car insurance normally exempts all damage cause by off-road driving, so if you plan to venture along tracks like this, you will need to drive carefully and slowly; but as we say, "This is the sort of road that can be traversed only with a Land Rover or a hire car..." Roger took the picture with either a Leica M4P or a Voigtlander Bessa-R and a 35/1.7 Voigtlander Ultron, shooting on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

motoring and car hire

Malta's roads are frankly abysmal, with huge pot-holes: enough, on one occasion in our experience, to burst a tyre and dent the rim, even on a main road. When we took the wheel in for repair we saw that it wasn't the first dent on the rim. In addition to the (nominally) surfaced roads, there are plenty of unsurfaced tracks, and there is even a good deal of off-road driving. Some of these tracks can be traversed by a conventional car, but others require a four wheel drive or an off-road motorcycle.

Another disadvantage is that Maltese drivers are, to be generous, idiosyncratic. The Maltese themselves say that the British drive on the left, the French on the right, and the Maltese in the shade. This is not entirely an exaggeration.

Maltese Bus

Maltese buses have always been impressive and elderly, and sometimes feel as if they are fitted with square wheels -- or maybe that's just the roads. Many years ago, when illiteracy was widespread, destinations were indicated by colour. Then the government decided to standardize the colours (they couldn't standardize the appearance any other way), and a lot of their charm was lost. Then, recently, they decided to go back to the old colour schemes. Combine this with finny, chrome-bedecked monsters and the buses are photogenic in their own right. It's also an excellent, cheap network, but it is dedicated to real travellers, not tourists, so they start and finish early. Frances shot this classic on Ilford Delta 3200 with a 14/3.5 Sigma on a Nikkormat FT2.

Speed limits are nominally 40 km/h (25 mph) in built-up areas and 65 km/h (40 mph) on the open road, but it is extremely easy to forget this. Indeed, we only discovered what the Maltese speed limits were when we were researching "Motorcycle Touring in Europe", and that was after well over a decade riding and driving in Malta. If you stay inside the speed limits you will be overtaken whenever conditions permit, and quite often when they don't.

Overtaking is is theoretically governed by the same rules as in Britain -- not on the brow of a hill, blind corners, or anywhere that it is specifically forbidden -- but (as ever) Maltese anarchy does not always obey the theory.

Despite this forbidding litany, we would strongly recommend that you hire a car if you do not take your own. There is so much to see in Malta that having your own transport leads to endless discoveries, and while the driving style is definitely 'up and at 'em' , it is surprisingly unaggressive. Enter into the spirit of the thing, and driving in Malta is really quite enjoyable. Wait politely for a gap in the traffic and you can be there all day.

Another possibility is a mountain bike. Distances are very small and even an average bicyclist could cross the island in two or three hours. A number of people hire out mountain bikes. They are an especially attractive option in Gozo, where you are unlikely to be more than a hour's bicycle ride from anywhere.

Troglodyte house, Gozo

We came upon this house totally by chance when we were driving around the back roads of north-west Gozo: it is only a few hundred metres from the picture of the road above. It is a rock-cut house with two rooms, designed with defence in mind: the second room has no door to the outside, and a narrow, crooked corridor (seen here) linking the two rooms. We have no idea when it was hewn out of the rock: we'd guess it was between the 15th and 18th centuries. Frances used a Contax and 35/2.8 PC-Distagon to shoot it on Ilford XP2 Super.


We would not however recommend hiring a motorcycle or moped unless you are already experienced on two wheels. The experienced rider can enjoy himself no end; the novice will spend so much time worrying about mastering the vehicle and fighting with the traffic that it is unlikely to be an enjoyable experience.

where to stay

The cheapest accommodation, by a very long way, is in package hotels. The trouble is, you have to buy the package. If you can travel at short notice -- a week or so -- you can often fly out from London to Malta on a charter flight and stay in an hotel for a week for less than the cost of a scheduled flight. Such are the bizarre economics of the travel trade that two weeks may be even cheaper. There are even deals for as much as thirteen weeks in the winter, at absurdly low prices for half board. Of course the hotels run at a loss for some of these deals, but as long as they cover all their variable costs (such as food and laundry) they are ahead of the game if they cover even a substantial fraction of their fixed costs (such as buildings and staff). After all, the fixed costs don't go away, and it's better to cover half of them than to cover none at all.

Some areas are much more attractive than others, and some areas -- Paceville is the worst we know, with parts of St. Julian's a close second -- really are given over to the most unattractive form of mass tourism, but the best of even the mass-tourism hotels can be very agreeable: the Mellieha Bay hotel, predictably at Mellieha Bay, is one we liked.

There is a good deal to be said for staying in or near Mdina (the old capital) or Valletta (the new capital), but parking may be a problem in Valletta Sliema and Gzira are the best of the mass-tourism areas. But we would recommend most heartily that you hire a car and get out and around as much as possible, so even the worst places aren't too bad.

View from St. James Cavalier, Valletta

You can see the sheer density of housing in Malta from this shot, taken from the top of one of the main fortifications of Valletta. If you walk from St, Julians through Sliema, Gzira, Ta'Xbiex, Msida, Pieta and Floriana all the way around the Marxamxett to Valletta, you will be walking through solid urban development the whole way; the walk will probably take you two or three hours if you don't stop to take too many pictures. And yet, as the picture at the end of the module shows, there is a surprising amount of open space too. Roger shot this on Kodachrome with his usual M-series Leica and 35/1.4 Summilux.


There are some very expensive 'palace' hotels in Malta, and even quite ordinary three-star hotels can be surprisingly expensive if they don't cater to the package market: LM20 and more a night, even in the mid-season, and a lot more in the summer. Look out for full board, which can be quite a good deal, especially at the quieter times of year.

Sometimes you can arrange to rent or borrow a flat (apartment) for a week or two or even longer at an advantageous rate: this is particularly valuable if there are two or three couples (or even individuals) travelling together. Look at the magazines that cater to property owners abroad, and at small ads in local papers in the UK: it is quite surprising how many people offer places to rent.


Maltese is a very difficult language, essentially Phoenician and Arabic (its closest relatives are Lebanese and Palestinian) with a good smattering of Italian, written in the Roman alphabet. As the examples already given indicate, the spelling is distinctly interesting. Useful menu terms are fil-forn, baked ('in the oven', but be careful because 'fil' also means 'elephant' and 'thread' -- the Maltese work their words hard); mimli, stuffed ('filled'); stuffat (stew-fat), stewed.

Once you know the rules, it's fairly phonetic, but for example 'ghaxra' (ten) is pronounced 'ashra' -- the gh is treated as a single, silent letter, with a line through the upright of the h to remind you -- and you need to be Maltese before you can hope to pronounce words like qaqqoc (artichoke) and dqiq (flour): the 'q' is a glottal stop, rather like a Glaswegian saying 'lo'a' for 'lot of'. But even a couple of words, such as 'yes please' and 'thank you very much' will be greeted with delight if you try them out. Fortunately all road signs are international or bilingual Maltese/English. For a ten-word capsule vocabulary, look to the right of the picture below.

Hagar Qim

The prehistoric temple of Hagar Qim is pronounced Ajjar 'eem; a few hundred yards further down the track is Mnajdra, pronounced Mmm-nye-dra. Roger used Fuji RF/RFP in an M-series Leica with 35/1.4 Summilux.


Please: jekk joghgbok  (yekk yozh-bok)

Thank you [very much]:  grazzi [hafna]   (gratzi [hafna])

Yes:  iva   (ay-wa)

No: le   (ley)

Where?  fejn?  (fayn)

Room:  kamra  (kamra)

toilet: toilet  (twa-let)

More: iktar   (ik-tar)

How much [money]?   kemm [flus]?   (kemm [fluce])

Eat/food: kiel/ikel


Few people have ever gone to Malta just for the food, but even modest restaurants are often quite good nowadays. This is very different from the past, when the food was a good reason to avoid Malta. To a large extent this improvement is because restaurants have started serving good Maltese food, rather than bad, cheap imitations of British food designed to appeal to unadventurous Jacks and squaddies.

The menus are heavy on pasta, but there is a distinctly Maltese (as distinct from Sicilian) flavour. Seafood can be excellent, especially if you like octopus (quarnita, pronounced 'arnita). 'Fenech stuffat' (fenek stoofat, rabbit stewed with red wine) is generally very good indeed. Look out too for mqarrum fil-forn, macaroni baked with egg, meat, onion, rikotta and other cheese.

The cheapest way to eat at lunchtime, and one of the best, is to buy 'pastizzi', flaky pastry turnovers filled with rikotta cheese. Frances loves these with coffee; Roger prefers rosé wine. There are tiny shops selling nothing but pastizzi and other small pies ('qassata', pronounced 'assata, filled with vegetables or anchovies) all over the island, often tucked away in back streets. Ask any local where the nearest pastizzi shop is and they can probably direct you to one five minutes away.

Other picnic foods can also be good, if you like your picnics fairly basic. Maltese bread (hobz) is the finest in the world; small goat cheeses (gbejna, 'jurh-by-nah') are world-class; you can buy all kinds of stuffed olives; and fruit and vegetables are good and not too expensive.



Lunch before we shot this on Maco infra-red film (with an Ilford 715nm filter) was pastizzi and a bottle of Verdala rosé; the blood alcohol level for driving in Malta, incidentally, is the same as in the UK, 80mg/100ml. As far as we recall Roger used a Leica M2 and 35/1.4 Summilux. Malta is a great place to shoot pictures for 'alternative' processes, or to see what new films can do under bright, clear sunlight. Unbelievably, this temple was defaced by born-again 'Christian' vandals who sprayed crosses on stones that were thousands of years old when Christ Himself was born. It would be interesting to know what Christ would have thought about this. He'd forgive them, obviously, but He probably wouldn't be very happy.


In the better restaurants, wines are mostly imported, and there is a good reason for this. The best Maltese wines are undistinguished, and as a waiter once said to my father of the majority of Maltese wines, "Sir, they are a penance." They are not even cheap: Malta has the sixth-highest alcohol duties in the EU. But Maltese beer is pretty good and not overpriced.

Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can get country wines by the carafe, or in unmarked (or simply recycled) bottles. The whites are quite pleasant on their own; the reds generally taste better when diluted with water.

Even so, Maltese wines are improving: they could hardly do otherwise. The rosés are generally the best of a bad lot, and some -- especially Verdala -- really aren't too bad, especially well chilled. Another one to look out for is Lachryma Vitis, the 'tears of the vine'. Cynics reckon the grapes are crying because they know they are going to be turned into Maltese wine.

Local spirits are neither particularly cheap nor particularly expensive, but they are particularly undistinguished: only the rum is really drinkable. If you like a night-cap in your room, bring your own bottle with you from Britain or Italy.

The water is usually safe but always unappetizing -- particularly in the summer when they rely on a desalination plant -- so bottled water is a good idea.

In cafés, beer is often a favoured choice, because the hot weather makes you thirsty. It's not cheap, but it's not expensive either: a bit cheaper than the UK. The local brewery (very competent) is Simmonds, Farsons, Cisk (pronounced Chisk). Coffee varies from abysmal (instant) to excellent (fresh ground).

Field near Mdina

Although Malta is one of the most densely populated countries on earth -- quite possibly THE most densely populated -- there is still quite a lot of agricultural land and a fair range of crops are grown. There is little mechanization, because the fields are often too tiny to accommodate a tractor, so it remains very much peasant farming. The reason for putting this in the 'Drink' section, even though it isn't a vineyard, is that while grapes are gown in Malta, it is widely believed that not enough grapes are grown to account for the volume of wine that Malta produces. This may explain the quality of some Maltese wines... The prickly pear (Opuntia) seen in the foreground is common throughout Malta and its fruits are indeed eaten and enjoyed. Roger shot this with his usual M-series Leica and a 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon, on (because he had it in the camera) Ferrania/Scotch/3M 1000D daylight-balance ISO 1000 film.

money, shopping and tipping

Money is the Maltese Pound or Maltese Lire, often abbreviated LM. For rough calculations, reckon on GBP 1.50 or 2 euros or USD 2.50 to the LM. Credit and debit cards are more and more widely accepted, even in supermarkets and petrol stations, but there are still plenty of places (including small restaurants and cafes) where they aren't. There are hole-in-the-wall machines (autotellers) in Valletta and elsewhere.

There are countless opportunities to spend your money on souvenirs, with lace and filigree work (and other jewellery, especially in gold) being the most typically Maltese. Alas the wonderful old Malta Weave cotton has completely died out, and we bought two of the last Malta Weave tablecloths on the island in the early 21st century.

Prices tend to be fairly high on imported goods -- designer clothes and the like -- but at least they are available. We can't say much about this sort of thing as we can't see the fun in shopping abroad for stuff you could buy at home, probably cheaper.

Tips are normally 10 per cent, and may be automatically added into the bill as a service charge: always check, though this is less likely in the cheaper restaurants. If you are a bit short of change and only have (say) 5 or 6 per cent, don't worry about it. At least, round the bill up a bit. Only in the expensive places are you expected to go to 15 per cent, and even then, 10 per cent will not attract the kind of dark muttering that it does in some countries.


<<--Street of steps, Valletta and Shop, Valletta-->>

Big, flashy shops are unusual in Malta because they don't fit very well in essentially mediaeval and renaissance street plans, though some of the shops on the main street -- Republic Street, which is not stepped and runs along the 'spine' of Mount Sciberras -- are well up there with the more expensive parts of London and Paris. Unfortunately some of the most charming shop-fronts from the 1950s, like the one on the right, are being replaced and 'improved' out of all recognition. Roger shot both with Leica M-series, 35/1.4 Summilux and Kodachrome 64.

the bottom line

Put it this way: we have seriously considered moving to Malta, or maybe even to Gozo, simply because the Maltese archipelago is one of our favourite parts of the world with endless opportunities for photography. We moved to France instead for a variety of reasons: to be nearer the UK (which turned out to be an unnecessary priority); to have better, faster communications with the rest of the world (especially the United States, because Frances's mother was still alive in those days); and, we must say, because Maltese summers are insufferably hot and Malta wasn't part of the EU when we decided to move.

Even so, it still exercises a strong fascination, and we have by no means rejected the possibility that one day, we may move there. That's how much we like the place.

Terraced fields, sunset


Perhaps more than any other picture in this module, this supports Malta's claim to be a 'continent in miniature', with spectacular geology, towns, cities, agriculture, and (of course) history. Already some of the terraced fields are falling into decay as Maltese agriculture cannot complete with the great agri-businesses of Spain and indeed Sicily, but there will still be plenty to photograph for many decades yet. Roger shot this with his usual M-series Leica and 35/1.4 Summilux on Fuji RF/RFP ISO 50.

click here for free link to motorcycle touring in europe module in

Go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.

© 2005 Roger W. Hicks