I’m fairly certain that Cate and I are the only Notre Dame students who traveled to Malta this semester. I’m also reasonably certain that we’re some of the only Notre Dame students who have ever gone to Malta or will ever go to Malta. For those of you who are as geographically-uninclined as me, Malta is an island country in the Mediterranean about 100 miles south of Sicily and 400 miles north of Libya.
Ryanair and EasyJet offer cheap flights from Rome to Malta, so we decided that Malta would be as good a place as any to spend a relaxing weekend in the sun. After some cursory research, I learned that Malta has been inhabited for about 7,000 years. The island has passed through Greek, Phoenician, Roman, French and Ottoman occupation, but most recently, Malta was part of the British Empire from 1814 until 1964. To this day, Malta draws much of its tourist population from the United Kingdom.
I had envisioned Malta as an island paradise resplendent with palm trees, clear water and fruity drinks with umbrella. My experiences with North Carolina beach vacations have taught me to expect that beaches are wide stretches of sand that come equipped with boardwalks lined with ice cream shops and movie theaters for rainy days. I quickly learned that the Brits who rave about Maltese vacations are hearty people who enjoy hiking two miles over cliffs to get to rocks overlooking the sea. People who vacation in Malta do not do so in multi-colored houses with in-ground pools and barbeque grills. Once I realized this fact and got comfortable with the idea, I was able to enjoy the wild, undeveloped beauty of Malta and Gozo, the smaller island where we stayed.
People go to Malta to do nothing, so that’s pretty much what we did. I managed to plow through all 900-some pages of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, a massive and wonderful book about the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England. I did most of my reading on Saturday. We set out to find Ramla Bay, a red sand beach, but ended up walking on a rather dangerous path along the side of a cliff. When the eight-inch wide path abruptly ended, we turned around and picked our way back through the flowers and thorn bushes to the rocks below.
Cate and I found a sunny cove and perched on a somewhat flat slab of sun-dried clay that had been carved out of the cliff face by centuries of northwesterly winds. We had the beach to ourselves for a few hours until an old man climbed down and began wading in the surf, occasionally bending over and picking up small, dark objects. I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but when he straightened up, I waved. He waved back and began walking towards the rock shelf where we sat. He introduced himself as John, a Maltese retiree, and thrust forth his cupped hands. “I picked these up to show you!” he said, displaying five or six spiky sea urchins proudly. “Here, you try. They don’t hurt – well, only if you step on them. They live in the holes.”
John sat with us for a while and told us about the history of Malta and the geological structure of the island. As he talked, he twisted a bumpy node off the cliff face and crumbled the clay away to reveal glinting fool’s gold inside. According to some Dutch geologists who took core samples from the cliff face last year, the rock structure where we were resting was 16 million years old!
Besides our conversation with John, Cate and I didn’t do much in the way of learning in Malta. Most of our other weekend trips were filled with educational visits to churches and museums, but Malta provided us with the opportunity to take a welcome break from busy sightseeing. Although my visit to Malta wasn’t super exciting, it was a pleasant and relaxing way to wind down my travels for the semester.