It's hard not to stare at the well dressed man sitting on a bench one early morning in Upper Barracca Gardens in Valletta, Malta. He's concentrating on his needlepoint work. I had heard how friendly the Maltese were and keeping this in mind, but still considering the possibility of a rebuff, I decided to take the chance to speak him. Leonard turned out to be a gracious and charming man. After all, Valletta is "the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen". This refers to Knights of the Order of St.John, noblemen from Europe's finest families who established Malta. Malta, a stepping stone to Europe and North Africa, is made up of 5 islands with only two completely inhabited. "I come here most mornings unless it's raining. Good light is the most important element for this craft," Leonard tells me with traditional politeness. Except for the fact that Leonard is British, he says he has "become as Maltese as an expat can be after living here for several decades." With the sweet scent of hibiscus and oleander on the breeze off the natural Grand Harbour in Valletta, one of the world's first planned grid cities, he asks me to join him on the bench. His finished pictures are gifts to a children's clinic. As we speak, he continues to work on a canvas featuring Diana, the late Princess of Wales, searching for a lighter pink thread for her cheeks. Watching, I realize that this is an analogy of Malta - a variety of "stitches" and colours, textures and a history.
Malta's story goes back 6000 years, often with horrific invasions. With the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St. John in the l6th century and the victorious and prolonged siege of 1565 (known as The Great Siege), resisting foreign occupants, remaining as defenders of this Christian outpost, they are a hardy nation. Sunrise is early and sunset late, giving most visitors and more recently, the onslaught of British and American film studios many daylight hours.
From the lush Upper Barracca Gardens, the highest point of the 16th century bastion walls, I can see historic Fort St. Angelo across the Grand Harbour in Birgu (now Vittoriosa). Well positioned for defence, it dominates the strategic entrance to the harbour. The fort's story is filled with history. The Arabs arrived in AD 870; the Normans invaded in l090; replaced by the Sicilians in 1350. Later it was developed by the rich De Nava family, who built it into a grand home and chapel. However, by l530, the Order of St John (also known as the Knights of Malta) converted it into a fortress. That one building represents the complexity of this small island.
Hungry, I head to the bustling Bus Terminus, which resembles an outdoor plaza. The lines in front of the stalls selling pastizzi (.24), a local cheese filled pastry plus other buns, are a much sought after breakfast. It's here that the Republic Gate separates the town of Floriana and Valletta, the capital city. But there are so many towns and villages in the 27 KM (17 miles) by 14 KM (9 miles) island, that with a blink you can easily miss one of them. Probably the worst driving I've ever seen is in Malta. "We don't drive on the left or the right but in the shade," laughs my guide, Susan. In fact, they've kept the English tradition of driving on the left side. With a population of 300,000, who drive about 200,000 cars haphazardly, the number of accidents is proportionately high.
From the Republic Gate, I enter the main thoroughfare, Republic Street that gratefully is a pedestrian walk. This main artery goes to Fort St. Elmo (just over one mile walk) at the tip of Valletta's promontory. I pass by the remaining facade of the Baroque remnants of the old Royal Opera House, which was heavily bombed during the Second World War and never rebuilt. "No money," Susan explains. However, there's so little time and so much to see that we don't lament too long. With literally hundreds of churches and cathedrals (about 330), a plethora of statues and squares, fishing villages, beaches, resorts, I decide to start at the daily, early-morning, outdoor market on Merchantís Street before attacking the more serious sights. Loud music from the CD players blast, clothes of every description hang from racks and pole. There's a joyous, almost festive feeling even before the nearby stores open. But then there's a "festa" almost every day somewhere on the island.
The poet Lord Byron, wrote about, "those wicked steps of Valletta". From the main street, we head down a steep stairs of picturesque St. John Street to Old Theatre Street where the 18th century jewel, The Manoel Theatre (built in l731 and named after Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena). Along with various types of stage performances, there are daily tours. The Manoel Theatre eventually fell into a state of disrepair but it's back to its original grandeur. The courtyard, once part of the adjacent palace, has been converted into an atrium cafe and is now part of the 623-seat theatre, which boasts of perfect acoustics. The paintings on the tiers and the 24-carat gold trimmed ceiling draw "ahís" from the other visitors.
Few buildings can come close to the architecture of St. John's Cathedral, considered one of the most important monuments on Malta. The interior more than makes up for the unembellished exterior. There is a wealth of carved walls and frescoes dating back to the 16th century. The floor, featuring coloured marble designs, are in fact tombs of Knights and aristocracy. Unfortunately, Caravaggio's, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, is on loan in Rome. To miss a visit to Mdina is missing a town that truly looks like a model of the best medieval stage set. The local cream limestone houses along the narrow maze-like streets are often embellished with colourful flowers cascading down wrought iron balconies, which, because of their shape, are called "pregnant". An otherworldly stillness and silence in this fortified enclave has given Mdina the moniker of the "Silent City".
One of the traditions of Malta is for a soon-to-be-married couple to have a film documentary of their doing ordinary, everyday activities. It was surprising to see the young future bride in extremely tight pants and a very bare midriff top as she and her fiance pose in the shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral. (Hopefully, they will remain blissful forever since there are no divorces in Malta.) The inside of this spectacular cathedral, (originally built in l572 and redesigned in the 17th century,) with intricate stained glass windows and frescoed nave ceiling painted in the late l700s, is highlighted by a magnificent baroque dome created by Laurenzo Gafa. Mattia Preti was responsible for the apse and lateral panels of the Cathedral's namesake, the Apostle Paul. Assuming the sacristy door was metal, I was surprised when I touch and knock that it is in fact, Irish oak carved in l520.
One of the busiest sites in Mdina, with its population of only 400, is Doris's Grocery store where there always seems to be a crowd. Keeping with the historic facade is the recently opened, only hotel in Mdina. The former palace turned hotel, Xara Palace, with only 17 rooms, is an architectural gem.
I actually hear voices louder than a whisper at Fontanella Cafe, famous for their cakes and clients. I sit outside on the terrace and Susan says on a clear day you can see Sicily, 58 miles away. But with so much beauty, who would want to leave Malta? Certainly not before I see the 2500-year-old Hager Qim Temple and visit the island of Gozo, 5 nautical mile away and a 20-minute ferry ride.
Gozo seems undisturbed by time and it's called "an island of dreams" with good reason. More sedate and greener than its big sister, a good reason to visit is to see the 4000 year old Ggantia Temple, the oldest free standing structure in the world which pre-dates the pyramids. Since it's too windy to snorkel at the nearby Comino Island, (midway between Malta and Gozo), I take the opportunity to see the Citadel, the gigantic bastion which sits above the island.
Gozitans love colour and the fishing boats are a riot of hues of primary colours. But most unique are the two painted eyes on either side of each bow, done to ward off evil spirits. Malta may be small but everything about it is overwhelming from the intricate and long history to their close family ties and the very strong attachment to church and religion.
Story & pictures by Barbara Kingstone
OTHER THINGS TO DO AND SEE PRICES ARE IN MALTESE LIRA
l. See The Mdina Experience, an audio visual spectacular and discover the sights and sounds of the old capital city. admission l lira. 7 Mesquita Square, Mdina Tel 454322 Fax 450060
2. Don't miss The Malta Experience, an audio visual spectacular about the 7000 years of Maltese history. admission 2.50 Lira. Mediterranean Conference Centre, St. Elmo, Valletta Tel 243776
3. See The Knights of Malta, the amazing story of Knights through the ages. Admission 2 Lira. 14/19 Casa Magazzini, Magazines Street, Mdina Tel/Fax 350 451342
4. While in Gozo see the show, The Island of Joy -360 degrees.
Ferry from Cirkewwa to Gozo: 2 Lira one way.
5. The Mdina Dungeons, Malta's only Dark Walk attraction and a horrific replica of tortures. Admission l.40 Lira. St. Publius Square. Tel 450267
6. The boat to the Blue Grotto to see the really blue waters and caves. Admission 2.50 Lira.
7. Take the kids and stop at Rinella, a movie park and the poor cousin of any Hollywood studio but still fun.
8. The Xara Palace. Rates per room from CDN$200 Lira to CDN$400
9. I stayed at The Meridian Phoenicia Hotel perfectly located near the Republic Gate. The Mall, Floriana. Rates start at approximately CDN $200. The outstanding gardens lead to an outdoor pool overlooking the old wall and Valletta.
I stayed at Le Meridien Phoenicia , in Floriana near the Republic Gate of Valletta. Updated since it was first conceived in l936. Perfectly located with a fine garden and outdoor swimming pool and a huge vaulted saloon which belongs to that era. Starting price approximately $200CDN
PLACES TO EAT
l. Malata Restaurant in Valletta's large square
2.Grabiel, Mifsud Bonnici Square in the fishing village of Marsascala
3. Go to the Sunday open air market, watch the colorful fishing boats and eat at X-Xlukkaj, Village Square, Marsaxlokk, Malta
4.In Gozo Gesther's in Xaghra where Lily prepares the meals herself. Very local
5.Paradis fish Restaurant, Mount Carmel Street, Xlendi Bay Gozo tends to attract expats and movie stars. It's a mom and pop eaterie with great atmosphere.
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