A Walk on Marsaskala Harbor in Malta led me to fishermen with awfully long poles, salt pans, a raided palace, street art, the ghost of Muammar Gaddafi, and a Bulgarian stalker.
At sunrise, Bajja ta’ Marsaskala (Marsaskala Harbor) was calm, but I had a feeling of urgency. There were seven days left of my 30-day Malta trip, with so much left to see, taste, photograph, and experience.
I’d spent 2-weeks on Gozo, Malta’s little sister. I fell in love there. The people, food, history, and way of life felt like my forever home.
From Gozo, I ferried back to the main island of Malta to meet a close friend with her two companions arriving from Italy just 60-miles away. A travel writer from the US joined us in Marsaskala.
The following 7-days were a blur of sightseeing, busses, cabs, friendship, and Maltese food and wine.
Each evening I returned to my tiny harbor-front studio; happy I’d decided to bunk alone, rather than share with my pals.
Walking around Marsaskala Harbor
After the last of my friends headed to the airport, I began planning my slow, solo exploration of Malta’s southeast fishing villages. My walk, circling the village, would take all morning, returning to the harbor for a long lazy lunch.
At 6:30 AM, the sun was rising, gilding the clouds with gold below the cobalt blue heavens. After my €5, Full English Breakfast, in the pub below my apartment, I got a move on. Hey, I’m a photographer; we live for the light.
Promenade above Marsaskala Harbor
I headed east along the seawall promenade with its bright green railing and harbor-watching benches. I found stairs leading down to the boat shelters. The steps were sandstone, like most construction in Malta. The centers were worn down from thousands of feet walking up and down over the years.
It was low tide; a sandstone walk gave access to boat shelters. Small boats are stored in the arched havens. Most are dinghies that ferry fishermen back and forth to their fishing vessels moored in the harbor. They row from the shelter to a moored boat, tie the dinghy to the mooring, untie the larger boat and head to sea. I loved watching the daily fishing vessel rush-hour in the harbor with a cup of tea at sunrise on my balcony.
A couple of locals were there fishing with the longest poles I’ve ever seen. They didn’t mind me taking photos when I asked, but I had to be quiet, they said – “no talking.” They were using shrimp for bait. The fellas told me they netted the shrimp in the harbor the night before. It was the last of our conversation.
Salt pans on Marsaskala Harbor
I found the Marsaskala salt pans and wandered around them with my camera. At a little salt shed, a man was turning a pile of his bounty. Aaron, the salt farmer, told me it was a daily process to help the salt dry. “The salt pans belong to everyone,” he explained. He gave me a plastic bag of the wet mineral, with instructions to spread it on a clean flat surface outside for final drying.
When I returned home later, I dried my Maltese salt on the apartment balcony. I left most of the salt for the next occupants of the studio along with a note explaining where to get more salt from Aaron. I kept enough to use for pickling lemons when I returned to California.
The palace has been raided
The path began to head uphill. In the distance, I could see what I thought were apartments being built. As I got closer, I began to see graffiti and debris. It looked like an abandoned construction site.
Then I began to see not only graffiti but incredible works of art, some 2-floors high. My focus was on the building. I was looking for more of the stunning paintings to photograph.
The stalker appears
“That’s a great shot.” As I turned around, my camera lens scraped on the top of the cement barrier I used as a tripod. My heart was beating like a parade drum. A young man with a fluorescent-orange day-pack was standing 2-feet from me. I stepped aside quickly. He apologized for startling me, then began a story, telling me the building had once been a 4-star resort belonging to Muammar Gaddafi.
We chatted for a few minutes. He told me he was from Bulgaria and asked where he could find a cheap tourist meal. I suggested the harbor village and moved along. I watched as he headed towards the harbor and was out of sight before continuing my exploration along the bay.
Behind barricades on Marsaskala Harbor
I went around the barriers at the hotel property entrance. There was more art to see, more photos to take. (Not the smartest move, I know. Barriers mean ‘stay out.’) I was lost in the vibrant, scary, funny, and incomprehensible artwork. As I was shooting a 360° of the dilapidated resort’s seaside, the Bulgarian slid into my viewfinder. He was on the second floor, standing inside the beehive-like hotel shell, his feet wide apart, and his fists on his hips. He had the proverbial grin.
Turning and walking as fast as I could in the opposite direction, I made no attempt to avoid the broken bottles, cans, crumpled plastic, and copious debris from the decaying building. I was afraid. I was terrified.
Squeezing past the barriers onto the street, I saw an older couple unloading shopping from their car. I hurried towards them, pretending to need directions. The friendly folks chatted with me a bit, suggesting a nearby pub for lunch. It turns out, they were expats from England that had moved there a month earlier.
St Thomas Tower
I left the couple and headed across the street to St Thomas Tower. This massive sandstone tower and battery was built in 1614 to protect Marsaskala Harbor and St Thomas Bay. It was closed while I was there, but I enjoyed the structure and the photos I took.
I walked around the sandstone megalith, once again lost in my camera lens, and once again, there he was, my stalker. Hurrying away, I wandered through narrow residential streets, taking random turns, and following no planned route. I was sure I had lost my Bulgarian stalker and headed back to the harbor for lunch, saving the rest of my tour for the afternoon.
My favorite pub’s sidewalk café was crowded, so I decided to investigate a wetlands area across the street until the crowd thinned out.
Malta is working hard to preserve marshes, wetlands, and springs that have all but disappeared with modern development. In Marsaskala, I found il-Maghluq ta Marsaskala, a lovely restored marshland. The water is brackish, a combination of fresh from a spring and saltwater from the harbor at high tide.
The man made marsh was built centuries ago as a fish farm during the era of Knights of St John. It was used for fishing and shrimping in recent times. Today, it’s a protected preserve for plants, birds, and fish. The Mediterranean Killifish, Malta’s national fish, lives here. Locally known as Buzaqq, the minnow-sized fish is close to extinction in Malta. Maghluq is one of only three places where Buzaqq is known to live on the islands.
Escape on Marsaskala Harbor
Once again, I looked up the see the now-familiar, orange backpack, across the street from the preserve entrance. I shoved my camera into my pack and looked for a way to avoid my tracker. Making my way to the busy bus stop, I boarded a bus that passed my apartment. I got off the bus a few steps from my front door. I hurried to get inside; afraid the stalker would discover where I lived.
From behind curtains on my balcony door, I saw the Bulgarian standing in the playground two floors directly below me. That was the end of my exploring for the day. I stayed in and worked on a story, occasionally peeping through the curtains looking for that slice of orange. I finally relaxed when the rain that had threatened all day came down in buckets. The streets were empty. (Big sigh of relief.)
The following morning, Mr. Orange Backpack was sitting in the playground below my studio. I’d had enough. Using a back entrance, I went to the pub I had made my local. I talked with the fellows in the kitchen, asking if they knew the man with the orange backpack that had been following me. They did not know him. After the three men went to the park and talked with him, I never saw him again.
My pub heroes told me he was a homeless immigrant. They suspected he was looking for an easy target to rob. I guess I dodged a purse-snatching. Had he attacked me or gone for my pack; he might have been the loser. I had a good four inches on him and about 50-pounds.
So what about the derelict hotel?
Jerma Palace was built in 1982. Originally developed and operated by a Libyan Foreign Investment Company, it was a favorite playground for Libyan Dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. He maintained a Presidential Suite at the property.
After closing in 2007, ownership passed to the Montebello brothers. Several renovation schemes were developed but never came to fruition.
Once abandoned, the hotel and grounds became the target of vandalism and theft. Everything was taken or destroyed, even marble floors, doors, windows, and plumbing.
Jerma Palace has been marked for demolition, but so far, no one has the money to take down the ruins and haul them away.
Until that happens, it’s used for street art, parties, and shelter for the disenfranchised.
PS: Crime is VERY low in Malta
Malta is the safest country in the EU. Crime is low, stalkers are not the norm here. Petty crime is mainly purse snatching in the crowded tourist areas. My experience was unusual, according to the locals I chatted with, telling about my adventure and my heroes that chased the pest away.
If you are a regular reader of my work, you know how I feel about Malta and Gozo. When it’s safe to do so, I urge you to go and experience warm, welcoming people, and centuries of history. Malta has incredible food, luscious libations, and the impossibly blue Mediterranean.
PS – Did I mention that Arugula grows wild everywhere? Go!
To learn more about this splendid archipelago
check out Visit Malta.
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