Like many a former English schoolchild, I remembered the name of ‘the Knights of Malta’ from my youth. I could not, however, remember anything more than the name. Who they were, what they did, and where they came from had not remained in my conscious memory. What better reason to visit their island home and check it out? Throw in the fact that Malta is south of Sicily and thus experiences a Mediterranean climate, and that it has more medieval monuments that you can shake a stick at (within a week, anyway), and it was time to book a trip. My husband and I bundled our three-month-old son into his car seat, drove down to the airport, and hopped on a plane.
Malta consists of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. Only the former two have anything worth visiting. We had booked into the Mistral Village Complex, on the northern coast of the island of Malta at Xemxija. This would have been a great option with its large suites and sweeping views, if there had not been the ‘European Youth Conference’ occurring there at the same time. Our evenings were enlivened by the sound of teenagers shrieking by the pool until the early hours of the morning, amidst the half-hearted warnings from the night-guard, ‘Off you go, now kids, be good’.
Aside from our lodgings, Malta is an extraordinarily civilised and peaceful tourist destination. The only traffic jam we encountered was caused by a fellow almost driving off a hill, who only escaped total annihilation by impaling the right side of his car on an iron railing at the edge of the road. There would not even have been a traffic jam if inconsiderate passing motorists had not insisted on slowing down in order to check out his car. My observations are based on hearsay alone, of course, not my own behavior.
Our only other driving adventure occurred when we could not work out which exit to take at a roundabout in order to find the arts centre of Ta’ Qali Village. Our best guess soon found us on a tree-lined avenue that closed with a dead end. We stopped to ask the way from the first person we saw, a toothless, wizened old man out for a walk with his mangy dog. ‘Ay, yes’ he said slowly several times in a cracked soprano voice. He then gave us directions even more slowly, and repeated them three times. At first, I thought he was just a senile madman, but when his precise directions proved absolutely correct, I was forced to rethink, and wondered if he had been speaking slowly and repetitively for our benefit rather than his. Sadly, Ta’ Qali proved far less interesting than we had been led to believe. Preferring to buy nothing at all rather than tacky dolphins or heavy ashtrays made of the remarkably world famous leaden Malta glass, we left empty-handed.
Sightseeing in Malta is a blast. Every village has its own church and central square. Surprisingly for a European backwater that is only 125 square miles, Malta boasts two of the four largest domed churches in Europe. The larger one is in the town of Mosta. It was built in 1860 and is bigger even than St. Paul’s Cathedral. The people of Mosta must have been pretty annoyed to find that the village of Xewkija on the neighbouring island of Gozo decided to pip them at the post and build a slightly bigger dome in 1952. I feel duty bound to state for the record that the dome of Mosta still appears more impressive as the other has no interior decorations and thus is noteworthy on size alone, whereas the church of Mosta has interesting gold-inlaid panelling all the way up to its tip.
Aside from the size of the churches, the best thing about Malta is its panoply of medieval fortress towns. Mdina, the capital Valletta, and Victoria on Gozo, in particular. Valletta is the largest of the walled cities and boasts splendid monuments at every turn. Here, the Knights of Malta made their home, shoving the locals out of the way, on the order of Charles V of Spain, and obstinately refusing to allow any Maltese, irrelevant of their royal heritage, to join their ranks. The Knights were kicked out in 1800 to universal rejoicing, and not just because their quarters could then be taken over and turned into a youth hostel, public library and Italian Cultural Centre – visitors allowed only as far as the hallway, please.
Many a happy hour can be whiled away roaming the back streets of Valletta, or sitting at one of the numerous outdoor cafes. Jewellery shops, though prolific throughout the town, especially on St. Lucia Street, should be avoided as the same items can be found in St. Paul’s Bay for exactly half the price. I recommend ‘The Jewel Case’, situated just off the central high street.
Valletta is also home to the splendid Grand Master’s Palace. Its armoury has one of the most important collections of arms in the world, including an engraved chest-piece that I could have sworn was made of gold lamé in spite of a written explanation to the contrary. The upstairs rooms feature wall-to-wall Gobelin tapestries, detailing ancient myths and creating new ones in the process. The tapestries depicting the expeditions of a German prince in Africa were clearly not carried out by members of the hunting party as London zoo does not boast quite such a splendid hairy rhinoceros, nor tigers with snub noses and fluffy rounded ears.
In spite of Valletta’s many splendours, we found ourselves repeatedly drawn back to the smaller quainter town of Mdina, also located on a hill. Unlike Valletta, which looks down over the coastline, Mdina is centrally located and from its highest points, you can see over the whole island to the sea in all directions. It is even quieter than the un-noisy Valletta and we were often alone as we wandered the back streets. Once, we made the mistake of entering a tourist site just after a tour group had gone in. Worse, it was the Mdina Dungeon, Malta’s answer to the London Dungeons, and so we found ourselves squashed into narrow cells as we tried to admire the corny displays of torture instruments. Our viewing pleasure was not increased by the poor signage and waxworks which, unlike Madame Tussauds, where you could almost believe the figures move, here could have been creations of the local schoolchildren in their clay-modelling classes. It was good for a laugh anyway, and the rest of the town has more charming buildings.
At the end of each day, we inexorably made our way up the winding road to Mdina’s citadel, parked in the free car park, and headed to Fontanella’s Café for tea. We sat outside and admired the view from the North to the East coasts, and compared the domes of nearby villages, arguing over which one appeared bigger from the outside. The chocolate cake at Fontanella’s is exceptionally good, moist sponge with a dark chocolate icing. A comment on this from me might not warrant much attention, but my husband is a renowned chocaholic and assures me that it is the best he has ever tasted. We often spied Mdina’s residents guiltily tiptoeing away from the café with large cake boxes and chocolate stains around their mouths.
The food in our hotel was sufficiently revolting as to force us away for all of our meals. We ended many a pleasant excursion with a meal at a fine restaurant, though the prices were comparable to Manhattan. Local favourites are Savini in Qawra, serving fine Italian fare in an old farmhouse, and The Arches in Mellieha, where the service is impeccable and the portions are not only good but very large. Malteste dishes include roasted or fried octopus, squid and rabbit. For vegetarians, there is plenty of pasta and green vegetables, like asparagus, in cheese-filled pastry.
Our favourite haunt in Valletta would be un-findable were it not for a tip-off in our guidebook. South Street houses The Carriage Restaurant, located in the Valletta Buildings, by the crossing with Triq L-Ifran, through the brown doors, past an empty noticeboard to the lift at the back, up to the fifth floor by pressing the button marked ‘1’, and a sharp left when you get out. If you can manage all that, you will find a light and airy restaurant with superb views over the city. Eating options include a delicious wild mushroom pasta, and several chicken dishes.
You would have thought the medieval history alone would be enough for Malta’s tourist board to focus on. This is not the case. Ancient temples are also expounded in the literature and glossy brochures. This is a mistake. Neither the temples of Tarxien nor those at Hagar Qim are worth a visit to any but the most hardy neolithic buff, and the ruins of the Skorba temples at Zebbieh are nothing short of laughable to the average explorer: a mound of rubble enclosed by a wire fence with no written explanations of any kind. Still, the drives to all these locations are great fun, up and down unpaved roads, avoiding brushes with oncoming vehicles on paths almost too narrow to encompass one car, let alone passing vehicles.
The island of Gozo should not be missed. A short ferry ride, possible with car in tow, gets you over, and the ferries leave hourly so there are no worries about making an easy return. There are only two must-sees, but they really are ‘must-sees’. Firstly, the citadel of Victoria proves a worthy excursion. The seventeenth-century churches, homes and Knight’s bastions have been carefully restored, and it is possible to walk right the way round the town on the citadel ramparts. Secondly, visit the church of Ta’Pinu, Malta’s national shrine. This was built in the 1920s on the site where the usual Old Testament miracle (a woman heard a voice, prayed, and her sick mother recovered) occurred. Other sights such as ‘the natural wonder of the Azure window’ (read ‘rock formation with gap in it that juts out into the sea’) and the southern shore bird park, where the only thing in danger of being killed is a lost tourist by the local pigeon shooters, can be safely missed. For a good cliff view, you’ll have to visit the Dingli cliffs on Malta instead.
Nightlife is there for those who want it. St. Julian’s Bay is the centre point for clubs and bars. In fact, it is the only point for late night activities, with the whole of Malta’s youth congregating by the waterfront on balmy evenings. There are also a couple of good restaurants here, namely La Dolce Vita and Peppino’s, though sadly the well-regarded San Giulano, set right on the bayfront, is closed for renovations. Nowhere requires smart clothing, and we happily took our baby with us wherever we went, though we did not go out dancing. The only time he proved noisy was at the Gillieru restaurant in St Paul’s Bay, and that might just have been to make sure we noticed the waiter dipping his tie in my entrée as he served me a disappointing meal.
We threw in a couple of visits to palaces and gardens before we left. Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar is a beautifully restored example of a late nineteenth century family home. It is owned by the same family whose house in Valletta was taken over by Napoleon. This one in Naxxar was not stolen by a commandeering general, but rather, the family had to give it over to guided tours in order to finance the huge cost of renovating it. It was worth it. I can say that: it’s not my home that I’ve had to move out of, and I now get the pleasure of seeing it. Finally, the luscious gardens of the San Anton Palace, where the President lives, are the nicest grounds in Malta. I exclude the sorry in-garden zoo from that comment as its tottering cages house either decrepit birds, or, mostly, no animals at all. There are, however, a couple of well-groomed swans in the central pond, surrounded by species of tropical trees and brightly-coloured flowers.
All in all, a perfectly relaxing trip for those who want history without hassle, warmth without wetness and food without the fear of dysentery.