YOUTH As the inaugural recipient of the 2012 Bishop Joe Grech Memorial Scholarship, I received $1,000 to put towards the cost of a flight and/or, accommodation in Malta and Gozo as part of the MCCV’s initiative to encourage Australian-Maltese youth to visit the islands. I recently had the pleasure of using my scholarship money when I visited Malta and Gozo in May this year for three weeks. Although I had been to the islands previously, it had been a few years since my last visit. In my family, I am the first generation of Australian-Maltese and was really looking forward to revisiting the place of my heritage, experiencing the Maltese culture first hand and connecting with my roots.
Obviously living in Australia, geographically, we are not exactly positioned next door to Europe, so my aim was to make the most of each minute that I had there, and savour everything Malta and Gozo has to offer – in particular its HISTORY. As many of you would know, its an old, long, rich and beautiful history… which means there’s plenty to see! So, I set off with a big list of sights and historical attractions to visit including ‘must do’s’ like The Hypogeum, Prehistoric Temples, Air Raid Shelters, St John’s Co-Cathedral, The Lascaris War Rooms, Mdina – The Silent City, Grandmaster’s Palace, Fort St Angelo and so on. The goal was to tick each one off, one by one!
Being May, it was a great time to be in Malta. Although windy at times, overall the weather was warm without being stifling hot, which made it perfect for running around all over the island. The joy of feeling the Mediterranean sun on your face, as you explore what to me, is a living history book, is by far one of the best feelings I got whilst there. It’s also not everywhere in the world that you can walk around and happen to pass a bastion or fort dating back to the 1500s, that also happens to be a part of a street’s everyday landscape. The shimmering, crystal blue waters of The Blue Lagoon, Blue Grotto, Mellieħa Bay and Xlendi just added to the bliss! I also learned that wherever you go there is a story to be told, something significant to see and someone interesting to meet. Each village is unique. Someone is always related to someone living in Australia.
The island was already rife with tourists of all ages, from everywhere around the globe including Canada, China, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, America, Australia, New Zealand, France, Greece, and Spain to name just a few. It seems Malta’s popularity as a tourist destination has increased even more over the years. This is always nice to see for the economy given the island relies heavily on tourism as one of its main sources of income. Although, I am not so sure if the locals always think so, when trying to get on a bus and can’t, especially when the proper Summer hadn’t even started yet! Arriva drivers were always busy directing passengers and buses were always full, particularly in the areas touristy areas or those where buses weren’t so frequent.
Having heard so much about the new Arriva buses and routes, it was good to experience the new system first hand, to get a proper appreciation of the new service and the changes it has brought. On the other hand, the roads do seem a little different now with the absence of the old, colourful buses missing. Occasionally, you will still come across a few of the old buses, and it reminds you of the character they brought to the islands.
These days, those legendary buses are solely used for private tour groups who hire them for charter. There is also one that lines Tower Road in Sliema, which has been converted to a moving souvenir shop aptly called the ‘Souvenir Bus’! I suppose changes like those made to the transport system have stirred a few differences of opinion and one can understand the arguments on both sides. Either way, you can still get around fairly easily, it may just take slightly longer at times, and it might be a bit more of a tight squeeze when passing through those famous narrow streets the islands are so famous for!
When looking back on the trip there were so many different highlights, that I found it hard to pin point just a few. I enjoyed it all. I loved the experience of the Limestone Heritage in Siġġiewi, where by day you learned about the history and process of limestone cutting in the quarries, and by night in the open air, enjoyed a Maltese folk evening with traditional food, dancing and music. It was the perfect setting.
One Sunday, it was all about Marsaxlokk, the famous fishing village and walking around the huge outdoor market which offers all sorts of goods and tempting treats. A perfect destination for fishlovers who are looking to buy or eat the fresh catch of the day. It is also probably one of the best photographic opportunities to capture a photo of the traditional Maltese fishing boat ‘il-Luzzu’.
The mesmerising Hypogeum that silently sits in the village of Paola. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, and dating back to over 3,000 years before Christ, I will never forget the sensation I felt as we entered into the dark and damp underground halls, passages and chambers to get a closer glimpse. A definite ‘must see’, I still can’t believe this sacred treasure lies in a normal residential area, beneath street level! If it weren’t for the name ‘Hypogeum’ above the main entrance that resembles a regular front door, you wouldn’t even know it’s there.
Then there’s the elaborate architecture of Valletta and its surrounds like the Grand Harbour – just some of the handy work the Knights of St John were responsible for. I could walk around Valletta all day, over and over. And, the more I learn about the Knights, the more it makes me realise how truly amazing they were for their time and for Malta.
What about Mdina? Another amazing place to visit, where it truly lives up to its nick name ‘The Silent City’. I could have stayed there all day. It’s a very calming place. I love the simple things like walking around a village and seeing the older generation sitting outside their front doors as they watch the world go by, pick up pastizzi to go and engage in general chit chat with people you happen to come across along the way.
At a meeting with the President of Malta, Dr George Abela, where after listening to him address the Maltese community in Melbourne on his Australian visit a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to meet him personally at his office in the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta … another architectural gem by the Knights. An experience I will never forget and a chance for me to fill him in on the Bishop Joe Grech Memorial Scholarship, launched the very same night he made his address in Melbourne. The breathtaking St John’s Co-Cathedral, informative Malta Experience, intriguing Tarxien Temples and much, much more.
Another significant moment for me was when I got to meet Rosette and Carmel – Bishop Joe’s siblings. In true Maltese fashion, Rosette and her family welcomed me into their home and extended their warm hospitality. You could tell Rosette was Bishop Joe’s sister. She resembled him very much as did Carmel. You could also tell how much they miss their brother. Unfortunately, Bishop Joe who resided in Victoria, passed away on 28 December 2010. We talked about him and the wonderful work he did throughout his career in the priesthood, with youth groups and his love for Malta. This is why it was so fitting the scholarship was named after him. Rosette has a lovely family and it was a nice meeting. Again, I will always appreciate this experience given the scholarship was a part of
the reason why I was there.
And what would a trip to Malta and Gozo be without eating fresh bread, ġbejniet, fenek (rabbit) and ħobż biż-żejt. Speaks for itself really! How I love walking in Hal Qormi, to one of the few remaining traditional wood fired bakeries with my qoffa in hand to collect a hot ftira and a loaf of bread. An always pleasant chore my grandmother used to reserve for me (and my stomach), when I was a little girl visiting Malta. This time I was fortunate enough to experience the inner sanctum of Maltese bread-making, when I got to watch the tradition of a father and son making the day’s bread, in the silence of their 60 year old bakery. With just the warmth of the light streaming in through a skylight above them, it truly was a beautiful thing to watch.
What about family? The ones who remind you of yourself, the ones who you liken to your parents and the ones who have all the stories! As much as family can drive you mad, they are one of your strongest links to your heritage and culture, and your reminder of the different generations carrying on your families’ name and traditions on the islands. They’re loud too! Seriously though, they are indeed one of the best links to your roots. Something that hits home, time and time again when you are around them. This is very evident for me also as most of my family lives in Malta, so I don’t really get to see my aunties, uncles, cousins etc… in person as much as I would like.
Needless to say, in 3 weeks that I was there, I crammed it all in – history, sights, family, food, people, stories and the language. Many a time people would be very complimentary towards the fact I could speak in Maltese knowing I had grown up in Australia. This trip was definitely a great opportunity for me to practise my Maltese and pick up on the language even more. There’s nothing like being around the natives!
I also learned, that apart from the recent change in government, it was quite evident to me that Malta has progressed in a number of ways, especially in the areas of restoration and upkeep of many historical sights, their professionalism with tourists and catering for their needs.
So, as you have read, my trip was extremely beneficial and rewarding on a number of levels, hence why the Bishop Joe Grech Scholarship is such a great opportunity for any Australian-Maltese youth like me to receive.
All Australian youth born of Maltese and Gozitan heritage should experience the islands at least once in their lives. There is nothing like experiencing a place first hand, because it is then that you truly realise what it means to be of Maltese and Gozitan bloodlines, and essentially, what you are a part of. You see, you smell, you feel, you experience, you learn, you understand and you APPRECIATE. Plus, it then all makes sense.
For those who haven’t had any exposure at all to their Maltese and Gozitan heritage, it’s a chance to make a start, as well as make up for lost time. It is a culture breakdown when people don’t know anything about their background, and quite simply, a real shame.
So, if you know anybody between the ages of 18 and 40 years who would be interested in experiencing Malta and Gozo, please encourage them to read this article and apply for the Bishop Joe Grech Scholarship like I did. Visit www.mccv.org.au. Applications close on Monday, 15 July 2013. Help us to keep the Maltese and Gozitan culture alive in Australia amongst Australian-Maltese youth.
I am so proud to have Maltese blood flowing through my veins and will endeavour to keep the tradition going when I have my own children.