How can you really know a place if you don’t know all of its anecdotes and secrets? For the first few Battles of Malta we took you around the island to discover a lot of Malta’s attractions: sightseeing, beaches, water sports, boat trips, spas, shopping, restaurants, bars, clubs. This year we'll shed a light on some lesser-known facts about the archipelago which will hopefully both amaze and amuse you.
Here are the 10 things you likely didn’t know about Malta
1. “Malta” Comes From a Color
The Phoenicians, who controlled the island in the 9th century BC, are thought to be the first ones to name Malta.
They called it Malàt, which means “safe place," “haven” or “port." Another hypothesis, more widely accepted, is a name derived from Greek and Latin: Mellitus (honeyed).
If there are indeed a lot of different varieties of honey produced on the island, Malta actually got its name from the golden/yellow color of globigerina, as you can see in the picture of the old capital Mdina above.
2. Joined the EU in 2004
Malta joined the EU in 2004 and started using the Euro (instead of the Maltese Lira) in 2008.
All the coins were minted in Paris before sending them in 45 containers with a total of 200 million coins (approximately 500/inhabitant).
3. More French Than You Think
You must have noticed the name of Malta’s capital, La Valette (or Valetta), sounds terribly French.
Jean de la Valette was the 49th Grand Master of the Order of Malta. He was born in the South West of France in 1494 and commanded the resistance during the Siege of Malta against the Ottomans in 1565.
After the Siege he built a new fortified city which then took his name.
Later, Napoléon Bonaparte - who colonized the island between 1798 and 1800 - banished the Grand Master and the Knight before losing against the English army, here to help the locals and annoyed by the privileges handed to the bourgeoisie.
If Maltese derives mainly from Sicilian Arabic and Italian it also features a few words with French origins: “bonġu” and “bonswa” (for “bonjour” and “bonsoir”) for example.
4. Older Than the Pyramids
It would take too long to list all of Malta’s heritage but you should know that the Ġgantija temples in Gozo were built in approximately 5,000 BC, which makes them older than the ancient pyramids in Egypt!
They are actually the oldest instances of monumental architecture still standing, and are of course part of the UNESCO Word Heritage Sites.
More recent, but still impressive, the Manoel theater in Valletta is the third oldest in Europe (built in 1731).
5. Bombs, a Record and a Miracle
Strategically placed in the middle of the Mediterranean Malta was relentlessly bombed by the German and Italian army during WWII.
To be precise, 6,730 tons of bombs were dropped on the island in the sole month of April 1942, which is a (sad) world record.
Yet, a miracle happened: the Mosta dome (4th largest unsupported dome in the world). Around 300 people had taken refuge there during the bombing, a bomb actually hit the cupola, went through and fell on the ground … without exploding.
You can now see a replica of the bomb there.
6. Crazy # of Cars by Capita
With eight islands (only 4 of which are inhabited: Malta, Gozo, Comino and Manoel Island), Malta is the smallest country in Europe (316 km²) with only 450,000 inhabitants.
And yet Malta is one of the European countries with the most motor vehicles with four wheels per 1,000 inhabitants (approx. 600 in 2014).
Malta was already in the top 10 in 2010 behind San Marino, Monaco, Lichtenstein, the USA, Iceland, Luxembourg and Australia.
Problem: Malta is also one of the countries with the highest densities in the world (1,143 inhab./km²) and only short distances between towns.
With its limited network of roads, very busy main roads and inefficient public transport, cars are becoming a big concern on the island.
It’s definitely one of the big issues due to the current lack of alternatives.
7. An Underground Labyrinth
Malta is a great spot for prehistoric archaeology as some of the oldest man-built constructions are found there. And it’s full of unearthed treasures.
Among these treasures is a large network of tunnels dug at various stages.
The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, with its catacombs and troglodyte temples, is obviously the first thing that comes to mind, but there is actually a whole network of underground passages that expanded during the time of the knights and World War II.
They are full of shelters and even living spaces that were set up to escape the bombings. These tunnels were dug across the whole island and rumor has it that some of them even go all the way to the Vatican.
More are still being discovered but most are closed to the public. However, there are always some stories about mysterious disappearances to entertain the paranormal aficionados.
8. Home of Playmobil
Playmobil may have been born in Germany in 1974 but the characters and accessories are now almost entirely manufactured in Malta.
Playmobil employs 800 people in Malta, which hosts one of the company’s four factories in Europe (one each in Bavaria, in Spain and in the Czech Republic).
Malta even has its own Playmobil Park, a theme park for children but also for adults, where you can actually visit a production chain.
Do you like fireworks? Well, if you stay in Malta long enough you might get over it.
Perhaps the biggest Maltese tradition, in summer there are always fireworks, even during the day and as early as 8 am.
Ever since the time of the Order, fireworks have been used to celebrate elections, important births, etc. Later they were used to celebrate all of Great Britain’s important days, as Malta was a British colony.
The main objective of all these explosions was to scare the devil away from the churches while the patron saint was away (or at least their statue) during the traditional Catholic processions (“festi”) acorss the whole island.
They lasted for several days, even once the Saint was back in its place. And never without (admittedly often beautiful) fireworks to conclude the celebration.
In 2011 Malta made it into the Guinness Book for the biggest St Catherine’s wheel (32m diameter).
The International Fireworks Festival is also set in Malta, and 6 factories from 6 different countries take part each year.
Fireworks is a huge industry in Malt as there are more than 35 specialized companies on the island (programming, pyrotechnics, etc.).
10. Setting for Game of Thrones
What is the common trait between Popeye, Cutthroat Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Midnight Express, U-571, The Spy Who Loved Me, Troy, Gladiator and Game of Thrones?
They’ve all been (entirely or partly) shot in Malta! With picturesque landscapes still (relatively) unspoiled, medieval cities and sunshine all year round, no wonder Malta is a TV/movie producer’s dream.
If Popeye’s village is still here to show that the crew were present (it's now a tourist attraction), very few people know that such great films as Midnight Express or Gladiator - among others - have also been shot in Malta.
Midnight Express is set in Turkey but was filmed in Malta after Turkey’s refusal. The very memorable first scene of the film was shot in Luqa airport, the market scene in Valetta, and St Elmo’s Fort (recently reopened to the public) served as the prison.
Fun fact: some of the airport staff, supposed to be speaking Turkish in the movie, actually are and speak Maltese!
As for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, one street from Ancient Rome and a third of the Coliseum were recreated in the Ricasoli Fort in Karkara (South of Valletta). Oliver Reed, who plays Master Proximo, actually died in Malta of a heart attack during the filming.
The Mediterranean Films studios are located near the fort and have harbored about a dozen film crews since they opened in 1963. Their large pools with views to the horizon are perfect for giving the impression that they’re in the middle of the sea.
More recently, most of you will remember Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding in Season 1 of Game of Thrones, filmed in front of the famous Azure Window in Gozo.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie fell in love with Gozo too and came to live there, but they’re also filming their most recent movie, By the Sea, there. And as a conclusion here’s a mix of scenes shot in Malta: