Valetta as seen from the harbor - Photo by Burt Fine
"Vacationing in Malta?" our friends said. "Sounds great! (pause) Um , where is Malta, anyway?"
It's funny how a place that sounds so familiar can remain such an unknown. Most people get as far as connecting it to the
Knights of Malta, but then tend to get bogged down after that. And very few can even pinpoint it on the map.
Few Americans, that is.
Because European tourists have been flocking to Malta for years, lured by the guarantee of year-round great weather and beautiful beaches. Not to mention Malta's most remarkable history, a rich and dramatic saga that spans more than 7000 years.
And to top it all off, there's plenty of terrific Italianesque cuisine, prices that are significantly lower than those in most European countries, and the Maltese people are both welcoming and English-speaking. All elements that add up to making Malta the #1 candidate for next hot vacation destination for savvy American travelers.
WHERE IN THE WORLD...
To clear up the geography question: Malta lies about 60 miles south of the island of Sicily. We flew from New York to London and changed to an
Air Malta flight that, just minutes before landing, swooped in low over the three-island archipelago as if to dazzle us with the view. It reminded me of the fanfare a jeweler might display when unveiling his most precious gemstones. There they were, spread out for our inspection: Taaa-Daaaa: three islands ---tiny, bigger, biggest --- Como, Gozo and Malta --- each scalloped with golden beaches and set in a sea so brilliantly sapphire I had to keep reminding myself this was the Mediterranean, not the South Pacific.
On the ground and driving along the dusty road from the airport, impressions of the Holy Land and biblical settings kept flooding over me. Stretching out was an endless scene of low, flat-roofed buildings, all in a warm-toned honey-beige limestone, a monochromatic landscape relieved only by the occasional glint of a gilded church spire or dome. The silvery leaves of ancient olive trees shimmied in the dusty breeze kicked up by passing cars. Orange groves blurred off into the distance, and sheep and goats grazed the rocky soil.
In 1530, Charles V of Spain gifted Malta to the Order of the Knights of St John to serve as their permanent home base. In return for his generosity the king, who was a game-bird enthusiast, demanded the yearly payment of one Maltese falcon. A phrase that has since become part of the America lexicon, if for no other reason than the old Bogart movie. Odd then, that although we searched everywhere for a souvenir Maltese falcon to bring home. we came up empty handed. Puzzlingly, not a Maltese falcon-y gift in any form... other than a gift shop and a freighter that shared the Maltese Falcon moniker.
VALETTA: "QUITE LIKE A DREAM"
Malta's crown jewel is Valletta, the fortified city built by the Knights to defend their rock of an island. Originally there were Arab fortifications, later reworked by the Knights, resulting in an urban jumble of old-world Baroque buildings, all in the now-familiar warm-beige stone, and all rising precipitously above the harbor. In contrast to the mono-beige theme, bright green bursts of wild caper bushes sprout and flourish in the random fault lines along the limestone ramparts. Valletta's cobbled streets are steep and narrow, edged with baby-step ramps originally designed to help armor-encumbered soldiers navigate more easily.
History --- ranging from the merely-old to the awesomely-ancient --- is a casual, everyday element of living on this island. The longer we stayed the more we realized that, in Malta, today melts into yesterday without a trace. Everyone is so accustomed to the everyday presence of the past, things tend to blend together into a comfortable oneness.
For example: At the Knights' ancient armor display in the
Grand Masters Palace there's a missing sword, referenced only a cryptic sign stating that the missing sword that was given to Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Vallette by King Philip II of Spain. (This is the famous sword we see depicted in all those "with this sword I thee knight..." scenarios.) This plaque on the goes on to state that the sword is now "in the Louvre in Paris." "Bah! That's because Napoleon stole it!" our guide hissed with such vehemence one might think the theft took place last Tuesday. ( Inside the magnificently gilded and silvered and bejeweled
Co-Cathedral of St John, we learn that the clever Maltese once foiled Napoleon's light-fingered troops from walking off with more of their treasures by secretly coating all the precious metals with black paint. )
A wall plaque on a Valetta building quotes Sir Walter Scott: "This splendid town, quite like a dream." He lived here in 1831, not last year.
The sword-stealing French weren't the only unwelcome guests to occupy these islands. Since the beginning of time, Malta's ideal location in the Mediterranean ----midway between Europe and Africa ----- has made it a strategic staging site for greedy colonizers from every country and every era.
A quick overview of these players reveals a steady procession of conquerors that began with the earliest Phoenicians, who were followed by Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, Crusaders, plus more recently, the French and British. Foreign domination did not end until 1964 when Malta became independent.
One historian has aptly compared Malta's complicated history to a vast multinational game of chess.
THREE ISLANDS - ONE ANCIENT HISTORY
Malta's earliest dwellers were probably the temple-builders of pre-history. The countrysides of all three islands are literally littered with stunning ruins and remains of civilizations dating as far back as 4000 B.C. (To gain a proper perspective on this, remember that the pyramids of Egypt weren't built until 2630 B.C.)
Although we can never know Malta's full story we can, however, wander through these roofless temple rooms built of gigantic megalithic slabs of ---- what else? --- honey-colored limestone. Fronting what might have been altars there are basin-like hollows believed to have been used to catch the blood of sacrificial animals. There are rooms within rooms, holiest of holies. Places for the worship of Earth Mother Ashtroth, perhaps? At the
Ggantija temple on Gozo we placed our palms atop a prehistoric altar and felt vibrations emanating from somewhere unseen and untraceable by modern man.
Malta tempts us with so much to see and learn. But we visitors have so little time. We knew we desperately needed an overview of Malta to help us get our bearings. To help put all these eons of history into some sort of perspective.
We actually found two wonderfully helpful stage-setters.
The first was a simple, basic harbor tour. Malta's harbor is the island's true center, a commercial port heavily trafficked with giant cargo freighters, cruise ships and recreational boats. But this harbor is also so clean and clear that you can see bottom --- dazzlingly cobalt blue, so clean that local families come here to swim from its steep breakwaters. The two-hour boat tour around this sparkling harbor helped us relate to Malta's time and place, as the narrator pointed out various sites and their historic significance while we cruised in and out of the various "creeks," as the waters between the harbor's peninsulas are called.
Our second get-acquainted aid was called, aptly enough,
"The Malta Experience." This is a brilliantly crafted multi-media production that manages to condense 7000 years of a history and the progression of its people into one brilliant hour of illuminating sights and sounds. It's created for tourists, obviously. But then, we are tourists.
Thus armed with a general working acquaintance with Malta we felt we were ready to explore and fill in some details. Around the old city of Valletta, the most important sites are the Co-Cathedral, the bejeweled and gilded "parish church" of the Knights of Malta. (The "co" part is confusing, but the bottom-line explanation is that this one shares importance with the original cathedral in Mdina, the one that was built in 1230.)
For me, the highlights of this cathedral were the floor, which was paved entirely of elaborately artistic grave-markers of the knights, and also the two "unknown" religious masterpieces, which just so happen to have been painted by none other than the famous
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Not all of Valletta is ancient. We passed dozens of boutiques, shops and outdoor cafes on our search to find Archbishop Street. That's where the now-famous The Pub is located, the bar that had everyone buzzing back in 1999, when actor
Oliver Reed (in town to film Dreamworks' "The Gladiators") died there after a night-long session of downing prodigious quantities of beer and rum. As with other bits of "history," people still remember that night as if it were yesterday.
And high above Valletta we also discovered Giannini, a thoroughly modern and very romantic hilltop Italian restaurant with fabulous seafood pasta and to-die-for views of the harbor.
Exploring further afield we headed to Mdina. (Pronounced "Mmmm-dina") which was originally built by the Phoenicians and served as the country's fortified capital until the Knights arrived. This ancient seat of power was known as the "Citta Notabile" or the home of the nobility. It continues today as an exclusive enclave for Malta's wealthiest and oldest families. It is awesomely quiet. Surrounded by almost unbroken silence, we wandered the nearly deserted curved narrow streets (cleverly designed this way to thwart the straight flight of an arrow), all of which are lined with windowless walls, behind which are hidden the homes and gardens of the privileged residents. The main site to see is the famous old Cathedral. But, for me, the best sights were the views from atop the ramparts of this hilltop city looking out over the plains and farmlands below that stretch miles and miles to the sparkling blue sea.
In the nearby town of Rabat there's a mini-museum built over the ruins of an ancient Roman villa. (The Museum of Roman Antiquities: Just another casual ho-hum bit of staggering antiquity.) And in neighboring St. Paul, there are miles of catacombs, some as yet unexplored, that honeycomb the city's foundations.
Another uniquely Maltese experience is the Sunday market in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. On this day of rest, the harbor bobs with dozens of gaily-painted luzzus (fishing boats) at anchor, each with the talisman eye of Osiris painted on its bow. The market stalls stretch for miles, selling everything from just-caught octopus to handmade lace. We shopped 'til we dropped, and then lunched at the local favorite, Ix-Xlukkajr, a seafood restaurant where the radio blared pop music, fishermen chugged their Cisk beers, and huge families gathered at tables to share fellowship and gossip while their Sunday-best-dressed kids darted among the waiters whose arms were laden with platters of garlicky pasta and grilled dorado.
ISLAND-HOPPING, MALTESE STYLE
We couldn't leave this three-island country without seeing at least one of the sibling isles. Gozo is ancient, inhabited, and accessible via regularly scheduled ferry-boats. So Gozo was our choice. The "voyage" itself is part of the fun because, en route, you pass Comino, the third and smallest of the islands. (We didn't select this one to visit because it's uninhabited, and our limited time in Malta squashed all hopes of being able to "dally" on a Comino beach even for an hour or two.)
Our ferry was named "Calypso," in honor of she who bewitched the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans). After he was shipwrecked on Gozo, legend tells us, Odysseus "dallied" for seven years with the beautiful sea nymph Calypso. Today, visitors can climb down into her seaside cave if they dare.
On Gozo, the
Ggantija Prehistoric Temple is one of Malta's must-see sites. Built from 3,600 to 3,000 BC, this structure is guaranteed to puzzle, amaze and inspire. (And just to amaze and inspire us with an historic prospective, this pre-dates Egypt's pyramids and England's Stonehenge by more than one thousand years.) We also trekked out onto Dwerja Point to see the
"Azure Window" carved by waves and wind, and then rode in one of the dozens of tiny boats that shuttle tourists in and out of the azure caves carved into the coastline.
Gozo is also famous for its religious festivals which seem to be planned so there's always one in progress somewhere on the island every day of the year. Even better, visitors are more than welcome to join in the fun.
As for this new experience: did we actually "learn all about" Malta on this eight-day whirlwind visit ? Not even close! I feel we just barely scratched at the outer layer. But, as the old saying goes, now that we know where to find it, we want to hurry on back very soon.
For more than 30 years, Brenda Fine has written travel articles on romance, honeymooning, adventure and pure love of travel for national and international magazines including Travel + Leisure, Islands, Caribbean Travel and Life, The Peak, Travel Holiday, Bridal Guide, Brides, Modern Bride, Endless Vacation , Diversion and others. Same for newspapers, which include The New York Times, The New York Law Journal, the Daily News and The Post.
In 1942 Britain was clinging to the island of Malta since it was critical to keeping Allied supply lines open. The Axis also wanted it for their own supply lines. Plenty of realistic reenactments and archival combat footage as the British are beseiged and try to fight off the Luftwaffe. Against this background, a RAF reconnaissance photographer's romance with a local girl is endangered as he tries to plot enemy movements.
The George Cross was awarded to the island of Malta by King George VI of the United Kingdom in a letter dated 15 April 1942 to the island's Governor Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, so as to "bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people" during the great siege it underwent in the early parts of World War II. The George Cross is woven into the Flag of Malta and can be seen wherever the flag is flown. - Wikipedia