image_1Strangely enough bicycles have never been THAT popular in Malta and Gozo – which really defies logic in such small islands. But then, the Maltese and Gozitans have always defied logic – so, beside a new and gleaming Mercedes Benz it is not unusual to find a horse and cart or a fancy trap being drawn by a frisky pony, weaving in and out of the general traffic jungle.

It used to be donkeys and mules 80 or so years ago and as recently as 50 years ago but then people like Mr Ford went and spoilt everything by coming up with the economical family motor car and revolutionised transport.

External and internal transport communications have always been essential to the islands, miniscule rocks stuck in the very centre of the Mediterranean Sea, probably the remnants of mountain and volcano tops when the land bridge connecting Africa to Europe collapsed in what must have been a series of tumultuous earthquakes.

Where did the first inhabitants come from – probably from nearby Sicily a mere 60 miles away? Whatever, they must have been ingenious and left their mark in stupendous Megalithic Temples before the advent of the Iron Age. They are ornate, carved and elaborate, a feat of architectural engineering, oriented as they are to capture the rays of the sun in strategic positions in different seasons and World Heritage has designated them as possibly the oldest free-standing buildings in human history.

image_13Were the stones hewn from Maltese limestone or were they sea-transported? The mystery remains, thrown into greater puzzle by mysterious “cart tracks” still evident, hewn into rock and running on parallel lines like a railway system.

By the time Phoenician ships arrived from Tyre and Sidon (Lebanon today), various villages had sprouted about the coastline and hence the temple brothel at Marsaxlokk (later designated as a Temple of Juno) thrived to slake the wonton requirements of sailors and soldiers who had been at sea for many weeks – and possibly months.

The Phoenicians brought with them the lateen sails that many, many centuries later were still popular on the Maltese luzzu and provided the inhabitants with inter-isle sea travel between Malta, Gozo and Comino. These were sea-worthy boats used for fishing, passenger travel, mail and the carriage of packages and goods. The lateen sails were still in use 50 years ago but again, some spoilsport invented inboard/outboard engines and the sails died a natural death – although the luzzu is still widely used today for fishing.

image_21Inescapably, the marine transformation from sailing galleys to coal and steam and subsequent sea transport evolution had to involve Malta. The Knights of the Order of St John built the first dockyard in the 16th century to build and service their own galleys, a resource that proved to be a major colonial marine attraction to the British Government in the early 19th century and equally proved to be invaluable for troop movements particularly after the inception of the Suez Canal (as a quick route to India) and later as a ruling hand on general Mediterranean sea-faring.

During the Second World War the Malta Dockyard was one of the most heavily bombarded areas by Axis German and Italian bombers. In the early 1950s the ‘yard was employing over 25,000 Maltese personnel involved in ship repair and began to transform to commercial shipping by the late 1960s and British decline.

image_11Very sadly the dockyard has now also disappeared – despite having a China Dock that was amongst the largest in the world.

Road transport began to hot up in the early 1920s and 1930s and a faster pace of life saw the increase of motor vehicles – for those that could afford them. For those that could not – Malta’s own transport entrepreneur Mr Joseph Gasan stepped in and introduced bus transport at cheap fares which burst into popularity overnight.

This form of public transport also underwent its own evolution. At the time illiteracy was still rampant. Placards showing route destinations and numbers were useless. Instead, different coloured buses denoted different routes. The red bus went to Hamrun and Birkirkara; the light green buses to Sliema; the light/dark blue bus to Mellieha and the orange and green buses to Zejtun. They were a dash of colourful splendour on Malta’s roads.

image_21In stepped Malta’s Prime Minister Mr Dom Mintoff in the early 1970s who deemed the colour schemes had remained a remnant to the dark days of illiteracy and ordered all buses to be painted green and some years later a gaudy yellow.

Over the years bus ownership became the domain of a number of private operators, some of them still using buses that had been in operation since World War II. Two years ago, the Malta Government handed public transport to the international company “Arriva” in what resulted to be an expensive, controversial and mainly ineffective transformation. “Arriva” has now called it a day and pulled out and public transport is currently Government run until a new private contractor steps in.

And yes, in case you were wondering, Malta even had a coal/steam driven railway system in the 1920s and 1930s, admittedly limited to one line that ran from Valletta to Hamrun to Birkirkara to Attard and terminated at Rabat. Although popular, it’s life-span was short although today the old terminal station in Rabat is still around.

image_3Just as marine transport was essential, air transport was and is equally a vital link to the rest of the world. After WWII and a hive of military activity, commercial aircraft run by British European Airlines (BEA) (Elizabethans on a seven-hour haul to London with fuelling stop overs in Corsica or Sardinia or Nice) and a flight to Rome.

Nowadays, Malta has its own Air Malta and is serviced by British Air, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Emirates and a host of others. The majestic Grand Harbour has become a hub port for Mediterranean cruise liners and Malta has a wealth of yacht marinas whilst the fishing port of Marsaxlokk teems with multi-coloured luzzu boats bobbing around on the blue Mediterranean Sea. The horse-drawn karozzin still clip clops its way around Valletta and other areas nowadays for tourists of course but essential to the Maltese before the advent of motorised transport.

About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.