The Air Malta flight from Rome, the closest major gateway to this speck of a state in the midst of the Mediterranean, arrives a little after 10 p.m. into the international airport in Luqa.
It’s close to 11 as the shuttle starts the shuffle to my hotel in Sliema, one of Malta’s major tourist-oriented suburbs. Half-asleep due to the hour and a horrendously long day of travel, I barely notice the standard-issue Southern European cityscape.
The van makes a turn and we’re now on a wider waterfront boulevard. We round a corner, and suddenly a stunning vista jolts me awake. It’s the moonlit, floodlit, Renaissance-era ramparts of Valletta, the capital, luminous across the narrow harbor. A cavalcade of cream-colored walls, topped by centuries-old structures straddling the steep hills, rises above the sea-misted waters like a modern-day Brigadoon.
So divinely distracting was the view that the driver, trying to figure out where I’m staying, has to repeat his queries. He might as well have been saying, “Welcome to Malta. Little country. Big impact.”
Europe’s southernmost sovereign state covers an area of 316 square kilometers, which is divided among three islands. Largest is the eponymously-named main isle; Gozo, the smaller one, is only about a third its size. Comino, the tiniest, is an outcropping with a permanent population of four, known mostly for the Blue Lagoon (a beautiful aquatic feature, not the Brooke Shields movie).
The “big” island of Malta can be circled by car in about an hour and a half, yet within its tiny confines can be found mysterious megalithic monuments dating back 4,000 years, a number of fetching fortified towns and cities, and some of the most historic churches in Christendom.
Most of the 413,000 Maltese are descended from Phoenecians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Knights of St. John, French, British, Sicilians, Corsicans and other races that through the years ran roughshod over these small but strategically-located rocks south of Italy.
They’re famed for bravery (Britain’s King George VI awarded all of Malta the George Cross, the UK’s highest civilian decoration, in 1942 for their heroic stand versus Axis forces), well-preserved artistic and cultural traditions (haunting g?ana folk music, delicately-embroidered lace, fine silver filigree, etc.), and prosperity (with a per-capita income among the continent’s highest).
For both historical and geographical reasons most natives are multilingual, speaking fluent English, Malti and Italian. Oh, and they’re also regarded as the world’s oldest Christian peoples, converted by St. Paul in A.D. 60 after he was shipwrecked on Malta on his way to martyrdom in Rome. Clearly, this minute nation is punching WAY above its weight class.
And I, due to a bit of dimwitted planning, had only three days to see as much of it as possible. On my first morning, I catch one of Sightseeing Malta’s hop-on hop-off buses, and head to the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village.
Mostly composed of World War II-era Quonset huts repurposed into combined workroom/showroom spaces, Ta’ Qali hosts artisans engaged in an array of time-honored Maltese craftwork. Unfortunately, the lack of a middleman doesn’t mean lower prices, but you do get the satisfaction of supporting age-old artistic practices (as in both the craft and, per my observation, most of the practitioners).
Nearby is the much-acclaimed Mdina Glass factory, where visitors are encouraged to see the gorgeous glasswork blown and shaped from scratch, then just as spiritedly encouraged to spend money at the outlet store.
Hopping aboard the next bus heavily laden with handicrafts, billfold begging for mercy, I hie off to Mosta. Situated at the heart of Malta, this market town is renowned for the Church of the Assumption of our Lady, commonly called the Mosta Rotunda, which is capped by Europe’s third largest unsupported church dome. In this roof is stuck, supposedly, an unexploded German bomb from the Second World War. Why parishioners would cotton this potential calamity hanging overhead is unclear, but perhaps it discourages priests from giving particularly agitated sermons.
Just a short bus ride away awaits one of the country’s crown jewels, the mystical walled city of Mdina. This is where architecture, atmosphere and ardent echoes of a storied past converge to conjure up Malta at its most magical. First fortified by the Phoenicians in 1000 B.C., and built on by the Romans after, it received its present name in the 9th century from its Arab occupiers-“Medina” means “walled city” in Arabic.
Celebrated during the Middle Ages as Cittá Notabile- “The Noble City” -this was the sumptuous seat of Malta’s aristocracy and government. Many of the picturesque palazzos and public squares were erected during this era, and even after the capital was moved to Valletta in the late 1500s, Mdina continued to be a popular retreat for Malta’s upper classes.
And it is this subtly nuanced, seemingly effortless layering of the ages-bisected by endlessly charming cobble-stoned lanes, punctuated by shaded piazzas where secrets shimmer and whisper from every corner-that imbues Mdina with incalculable enchantment.
Rabat, the town outside the walls, is nice enough. But after Mdina, most locales would pale. So I get on yet another bus and wend my way back in the late afternoon to the more populated eastern half of Malta, passing pebbly beaches with overly-evocative names like St. George’s Bay and Spinola Bay, until I’m dropped off where I began in touristy Sliema.
A quick nap and a nibble later, après a change into something suitably slinky, I board an elegant Mercedes-Benz E-Class taxi that whisks me stylishly-and expensively!-toward the pulsating nightlife of St. Julian’s and Paceville (pronounced “pa-che-vil” as the cabbie repeatedly stresses). I alight at the border of the adjacent towns with the unique air of someone who has simultaneously arrived in style and in sudden poverty.
The narrow streets, or triqs, teem with barhoppers and club goers, parading between establishments named “Axis” and “Bar-Celona” and “City of London” in a nonstop, night-long procession. Finally it’s 5 A.M., the frenzy dies down somewhat, and I prepare for the long return trip to my hotel-this time by public bus, to save myself further sticker shock.
I wake late in the morning to venture across Marsamxett Harbor into Valletta. A water taxi makes the crossing in 15 minutes, and I am soon striding up steep streets on my way to the city’s main triq-Ir-Repubblika, which cuts a swath through the capital and dead-ends at the 450-year old Fort St. Elmo.
Unlike Mdina, with its multicultural origins, Valletta owes its genesis mostly to the efforts of the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. In fact, the city was largely the idea of then-Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette (i.e., “Mr. Valetta”), who in 1566 began fortifying the areas around a small fishing village called Birgu. This was eventually expanded into the nearly invincible, interconnected network of fortressed cities surrounding the redoubtable bulwark that is St. Elmo.
Over the years, in between repulsing assault by everyone from the Turks to the Nazis, Valletta was endowed by the well-off Knights with an exceptional assortment of art and architecture, turning it into one of Europe’s most beautiful small cities. Pride of place is usually reserved for the grandiose 16th century Grand Masters Palace, now the seat of Parliament and residence of the Maltese president. When not in use for official functions, the public is allowed in to gawk at the supremely posh State Apartments and the superb collections of the Armoury housed on its lower level.
Valletta’s most awe-inspiring church, the Co-Cathedral of St. John, is just a few steps away. Its rather austere façade hides a resplendently baroque interior, highlighted by a series of strikingly-decorated chapels. While Mdina’s Cathedral of St. Paul was the traditional seat of the Archbishop of Malta, a Papal Decree in 1816 raised St. John’s status to equal that of St. Paul’s, hence the term “Co-cathedral.”
Looking for a slightly less stunning, if no less religious, experience? Two blocks away is the somber 16th century Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, which honors the apostle that brought the Christian faith to the islands, and houses a number of precious relics. Including, supposedly, some of the saint’s wrist bones, and part of the column on which he was beheaded. How joyous. I made up for this by spending the afternoon languorously lost in a trek from triq to triq.
While I felt that I’d merely begun to delve into Malta’s marvels, all of a sudden it was my last day, and I was on the stern of the yacht taking a relaxed farewell cruise around the Grand Harbour. It was then and there, as I gazed upon Valletta’s bewitching waterfront panorama framed by an amazingly azure sky and sea, that I realized this miniscule realm would leave one massive hole in my heart. •