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Maltese report Maltese report
by Euro Reporter
2013-02-24 11:36:09
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Malta’s many joys

Standing on a cliff overlooking the near-deserted beach in Ramla Bay on the northern shore of Gozo — the second largest of the islands that make up the Maltese archipelago — the mind easily wanders to the vast swathes of time that have passed while this tranquil scene in a little-known corner of Europe has remained unchanged, a sleepy witness to little of significance while the world developed at a frantic pace elsewhere. Yet Malta — a cluster of three inhabited islands in the central Mediterranean that together cover just over 300 square kilometres — has actually seen more human history than almost anywhere else in the world, around 6,000 years in total. Even the small slice at Ramla Bay is home to a story; that of literary hero Ulysses, who was reputedly shipwrecked there and spent seven years spurning the advances of the nymph Calypso — after whom the cliffs are now named. And that quickly becomes a recurring theme in Malta — it boasts a myriad of stories, some whimsical, some enlightening and some chilling, which are all fascinating to discover.

Back in my native United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, the archipelago gained an undesirable reputation as a destination for middle-class, grey-haired couples looking for some guaranteed sunshine but not a great deal of fun. And while Malta is still trying to find its niche in the overcrowded marketplace of Mediterranean destinations, it is quickly obvious there is more to discover than just its beaches and weather. I met Mariella Bose, the guide the Malta Tourism Authority provided to talk me through my busy few days on the islands, in the lobby of the Corinthia Hotel on the morning of my first full day in the country. The surroundings are grand and the view of the swimming pool and St George’s Bay beyond is a fine introduction to Malta’s charms. She reels off a list of some of the places we will visit — the nearby capital Valletta with its Grand Harbour and architectural wonders; the Unesco-protected Neolithic temples; the walled city of Victoria on Gozo; the tiny island of Comino — and we set off for our first taste of history. The eastern coast of Malta is something of an urban sprawl, with a cluster of once-distinct towns now squeezed together to form a mostly nondescript concrete path up to the crown jewel that is Valletta. Built as part of a defensive fortress in the 16th century by the Knights of St John, the entire city is now a World Heritage Site. It may only be 0.8 square kilometres in size, but Valletta is the heart of Malta. It houses the country’s president and parliament at the Grandmaster’s Palace, as well as St John’s Co Cathedral with its ornate, gold-plated interior and the Caravaggio masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist within, plus the National Museum of Archaeology and a host of other attractions.

Valletta’s narrow streets are busy and have the friendly feel of many other Mediterranean cities, but if anything they are even more relaxed than the likes of France and Italy — and safer too. Mariella waves and chats to a variety of laid-back, olive-skinned locals while we enjoy an al fresco espresso in the warm sunshine surrounded by an array of charming limestone Baroque buildings, the likes of which monopolise the city. The view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens gives you a sense of the scale of Valletta’s fortifications as you tower far above the Grand Harbour, which for centuries sheltered an array of war fleets and now houses the many giant cruise ships that release thousands of welcome tourists into the city and country beyond. A short ride in one of the island’s traditional water taxis (which are known as dghajsa, pronounced “daysa”, and are similar to gondolas) took us across the harbour to the area known as the Three Cities, where we visited the Inquisitor’s Palace, which played a key role in ensuring the catholic residents of Malta stuck rigidly to the rules of their religion during the dark days of the Roman Inquisition, but now includes a museum showcasing the Maltese way of life. The area’s streets are quiet during the day but, on the last night of my trip, the town of Birgu began its annual Festival of Lights, which has the feel of an old-fashioned community event, as residents of all ages and a smattering of tourists mingle amid the sounds of live entertainment and smells of local dishes being freshly prepared.

Outside Valletta and its adjoining towns, the regular theme of the rest of Malta quickly becomes apparent — dozens of bays and fishing villages on the coast and prickly pear-dominated countryside specked with pretty towns built on plateaus of rock that occasionally rise out of the landscape. The journey to Malta’s next-biggest island, Gozo, is best taken on the busy main ferry that heaves and clanks its way across the channel in about 25 minutes. As on Malta, the excellent hop-on, hop-off buses make seeing all the sights a breeze. Gozo is more agricultural and untouched than Malta, but there is still plenty to see — such as the Ggantija temples, which date back to 3,600BC, making them the second-oldest religious buildings on the planet. The island’s capital, Victoria, is a small town squashed inside the restrictive confines of its early 17th century fortifications. A tour on foot only takes half an hour or so, but that’s just enough to work up an appetite for a visit to the rustic Ta’ Rikardu restaurant on Fossos Street. After an extremely enthusiastic Scottish welcome, Mariella and I took a seat on a bench in front of one of the long tables in the upstairs dining room and delighted in sampling some of the island’s fresh local cuisine — including a platter of antipasti, homemade goat’s cheese ravioli and the area’s speciality, rabbit casserole.

As well as all the history and culture, the islands also boast a series of spectacular natural wonders, particularly where the soft local limestone has been eroded by the clear blue waters to produce the cave-like Blue Grotto on the southern coast of Malta and the near-perfect arch of the Azure Window on Gozo, which is also one of dozens of popular dive sites located all around the archipelago. After a satisfying taste of Malta’s history, culture, food and nature, I just had time to sample the surprisingly active nightlife of the Paceville area and some of the country’s excellent local beverages before my time there was up. So while the story of Calypso’s Cliffs may be nothing more than a myth — and finding a spare seven years to match Ulysses’ stay could prove tricky — Malta remains both a relaxing and enlightening destination, with plenty to offer no matter how grey your hair.


Malta bans Trafigura, Total unit from oil supply tenders

Malta's state-owned energy group said it has excluded two trading companies from oil supply contracts pending the conclusion of police investigations concerning alleged illegal commissions in 2004 and 2005. "The Fuel Procurement Committee has decided to exclude Trafigura and TOTSA in view of the current investigations," a spokeswoman for Enemalta said in a statement on Thursday. TOTSA is the oil trading arm of French oil major Total and Trafigura is a top five private oil trading house. "Trafigura recognises that these are serious accusations," the trading house said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

"In Malta, fuel supplies to Enemalta are made through a public tender process managed by the Government's Fuel Procurement Committee; Trafigura has regularly submitted bids in accordance with this tender process and when successful has delivered fuel to Enemalta," it said. "We are keeping the matter under review." The Enemalta committee also decided to cancel its most recent fuel procurement tenders, even though some offers had already been received, as a precaution. "The process precludes the corporation's Procurement Committee from knowing who made an offer. No offers were opened and all invited suppliers were informed accordingly," the Enemalta spokeswoman said.

"TOTSA learnt via the press its exclusion from Enemalta's fuel supply contracts. Totsa is not aware of being part of an investigation. We have no knowledge that illegal commissions were paid in 2004 and 2005," a spokeswoman for TOTSA said. Malta police on Tuesday arraigned in court former Enemalta Chairman Tancred Tabone and his adviser Frank Sammut and accused them of bribery, corruption and money laundering. More arraignments are expected, legal sources told Reuters. The arraignments followed a government decision to grant a pardon to Total's former local agent, George Farrugia, in return for information given to the police and to a court.


Job creation in Malta ‘robust’ and will outperform eurozone average

Malta's economy will register economic growth of 1.5% in 2013 according to the European Commission's winter forecast, second only to Estonia's 3% inside the 17-member eurozone, and the fifth highest in the 27-member bloc. After the failure of the budget to receive parliamentary endorsement, Malta's deficit in 2013 is expected to widen, but spending will fall thanks to tighter recruitment policies inside the public sector, and less pension spending due to the 2006 pension reform. Again in 2014, the deficit is expected to narrow on the back of increasing demand but also due to less state aid going into national carrier Air Malta.

The EC also said that job creation will remain robust and outperform the euro-average, having reached 1.7% in 2012 on the back of the services sector, but industrial employment kept shrinking. "As the economic outlook brightens, employment and average wage growth are forecast to strengthen and move towards their pre-crisis average. Unemployment is projected to remain among the lowest in the euro area and further narrow to 6.1% in 2014."

National debt is projected to increase, as a percentage of gross domestic projects, mainly due to the financial situation of Enemalta, which the EC believes could entail subsidies. The EC said consumer confidence started improving in the final months of 2012, and added to increasing disposable income, is project to support household consumption in 2013-14. "In particular, construction investment is forecast to pick up slightly o the back of EU-funded projects as well as the electricity interconnector with Sicily, which is schedule for completion by end-203. By contrast, housing investment if expected to remain subdued, in line with the expected moderate outlook for the housing market," the EC said.

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