Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, midway between Sicily and Tunis, Istanbul and Gibraltar. The island was colonized by Phoenician traders, Roman warriors, Islamic armies, and Norman warlords from Sicily. In 1530, the Emperor Charles V presented it to the Knights of St. John. The legacies of the invaders are still visible. The Phoenicians left boats, the Romans left villas, the Arabs left language, and the Knights left everything else.
Valletta was named for one of the sixteenth-century Grand Masters, Jean de la Valette. It rises behind huge honey-coloured walls on a rocky peninsula with deep natural harbours on either side. The coast on this side of the island is a maze of creeks and inlets. Beach resorts stretch away to the north; fortified towns crouch on headlands to the west. My friend Julianne and I are staying in Sliema, in a hotel astutely chosen (or so I thought) for its waterfront views. When we arrive, it’s already dark. The balcony is all we hoped, and the views of Valletta are stunning, but I am mortified to discover that the main road from the capital to the beaches thunders right beneath our windows. Booking.com didn’t mention that. We sleep with everything closed tight and the A/C on full blast.
Next day is Saturday: warm and humid and slightly cloudy. The hotel continues to be not quite what we hoped. The wifi demands a password each time you connect, the towels are threadbare, the toiletries meagre. The breakfast buffet features full-English grease, blancmange-textured yoghurt, flabby croissants, and miniature pea pasties (a bit of a shock, that one). Still, the room is spacious, and the staff are friendly. Crossing the harbour on the Sliema ferry, the sixteenth-century ramparts that guard Valletta take your breath away. Constructed in limestone by the Knights of St. John, they have been recently restored and they look fabulous.
The Knights of St. John were soldiers and monks, and their Order was founded during the Crusades. Kicked out of the Holy Land in 1291, they took refuge first in Cyprus, and then in Rhodes. In 1523, the Ottomans expelled them from Rhodes. They were settled in Malta seven years later on the understanding that they would keep on fighting. The road up the hill from the harbour is steep, and we opt for the shuttle bus to the city centre. In front of the Palace of the Grand Masters, musicians are setting up for tonight’s free concert. It’s the first weekend in October, the Notte Bianca. Museums will be open, restaurants will spill over the street, there will be strange art installations. The Palace is now the official residence of Malta’s President, but visitors get to see the State Apartments, which are suitably grand, and the Armoury, which is all right if you like armour.
Under the Knights, Malta served as a rampart between Ottomans and Christians, East and West. Between 1559 and 1565, three forts were built on adjacent headlands to repel the Turkish fleet. One of them was Fort St. Elmo, our next destination. In May 1565, the Turks began besieging the island. The Knights were vastly outnumbered, but all that summer they held out, despite huge losses. In early September, reinforcements arrived from Sicily, and the Turks retreated demoralized to what was left of their fleet. The end of the Great Siege is still celebrated on September 8. Fort St. Elmo has been recently restored, and now houses the Malta War Museum, which is amazing. The science of warfare is usually beyond me but thanks to an inventive range of audio-visual displays the Great Siege comes alive as if you were there.
The other highpoint of Maltese history was World War II. The island’s strategic importance came into play again: not East-West this time, but North-South. Malta served as a base for Allied planes carrying out bombing missions to Sicily and North Africa, and Allied submarines attacking Axis shipping. It was heavily bombed, first by Mussolini and then by Hitler. I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing at all about this. Starvation and lack of supplies brought the island to the point of surrender, but it held out, and was awarded the George Cross for bravery by George VI in 1942. One of the three antiquated bi-planes that defied the Italians is on display in the museum. Its name is Faith.
By the end of our history lesson, it’s three o’clock. Time for a late lunch of home-made pasta to get up our strength for more walking (no more museums today). Valletta is a city built “by gentlemen for gentlemen.” It was the brainchild of Jean de la Valette, who masterminded the island’s defences during the Siege. Small but stunning, it consists of high limestone buildings with shuttered gallerijas that overhang the street and lend an Oriental air. The Order of St. John was divided into eight Langues, one for each national group (Castile, Provence, Auvergne, Aragon, etc.); each Langue had their own Auberge, and there’s a palazzo on every corner. More recent constructions include Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building, which blends wonderfully well with its sixteenth-century surroundings, and his open-air opera space, built on the ruins of the opera house that was bombed by the Germans.
Valletta was hard hit by the war: some residents moved out to new beach resorts like Sliema, and many gracious old buildings were left uninhabited and decaying. But Malta joined the European Union in 2004, urban renewal is well under way, and boutique hotels and chic restaurants are springing up. What you see at street level still tends to be backpacker bars and restaurants displaying plastic pictures of the food, but that may be about to change. In 2018, Valletta will be a European Cultural Capital. The New York Times recently ran a travel piece proposing 36 hours in the local hotspots. No doubt the buzz will create a new kind of tourist.
As things stand, Malta’s infrastructure is basically that of a package holiday destination. Until now the island’s attraction has resided in warm climate, blue lagoons, good diving, cheap alcohol, and of course the English language. The Knights were expelled by Napoleon on his way to Egypt in 1798, Malta fell to the English a few years later, and in 1814 it became a British colony. Nearly all Maltese speak English, and Marks and Spencer occupies central locations in Valletta and Sliema. But the mood is Mediterranean and it never feels as though you’re in England. (Sometimes you could be in Sicily.) The island became independent in 1964. They still drive on the left, admittedly, but with southern panache. Maltese is the only Semitic language with a Latin alphabet. Apart from a sprinkling of Italian and English words (palazzo, pjazza, computer), it is deeply incomprehensible.
Back at the hotel, we collapse on the balcony to drink the duty-free gin that Julianne picked up in Madrid airport (always a wise precaution if you’re not sure of the wine). Over the water, the lights go on in Valletta. Somewhere beyond the headland, fireworks explode. The area round the Waterfront Hotel is beset with noisy plastic restaurants so we settle for dinner in the hotel, which proves disappointing. The buffet offers quantity rather than quality: everything from leek soup to chocolate gâteau, via overcooked vegetables and some rather nasty fish. Our fellow diners are mainly older British couples. Some of the ladies have dressed for dinner, with interesting results.
Sunday is the day of the fish market in Marsaxlokk. Succumbing to one of the touts on Sliema waterfront, we take a ride down the east coast from Valletta to Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock). It’s not entirely pleasant. The sea is choppy and the boat is small. The Brits are out in force. The gents wear checked shirts and baggy shorts, and the ladies step out self-consciously in patterned resortwear. Seen from the boat, the land looks stony and arid. The market is less exciting than promised (only three or four fish stalls, buried in several acres of cheap T-shirts), but the village is pretty, fishing boats lie at anchor in the bay, and the port is lined with open-air restaurants. In 1989, George Bush met Mikhail Gorbachev on a Soviet cruiser anchored in the harbour. The Malta Summit signalled the end of the Cold War (or so they say). The sea was rough then too.
By early afternoon, we’re back in Valletta. The weather is clear, and the sun beats down. We stop for iced coffee in a café on the square opposite the Parliament. After that we attempt to catch a bus to the Three Cities, which is not as easy as it sounds. Knowledgeable informants all assured me that you can get round on local buses. This may be true, but it’s hard work. (Oddly, none of my informants could remember where they’d been.) For a start, there’s the name thing. Once upon a time, the Three Cities (villages really) were called Birgu, L-Isla, and Bormla. After the Great Siege, the Knights re-christened them Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Conspicua. The guidebook adheres to Knightly usage, but the bus company prefers the original. Thankfully, the locals are helpful. “Stick with me,” says a lady on the bus, “and I’ll tell you where to get off.”
Entering Birgu/Vittoriosa by the main gate, we find ourselves on a narrow street lined with ancient buildings of golden stone. One of them is the Inquisitor’s Palace. Malta is a Catholic country with restrictive laws on abortion and divorce, and the exhibition is determined to show the Inquisition in a favourable light. Unblinkingly placing the Inquisitors on the same footing as missionaries, it claims that really they just had the welfare of their flock at heart. We are informed that the kindly Inquisitors built comfortable cells for their guests, and restricted whenever possible the use of torture – even though a tantalizing list of victims and sins is provided. Particularly mystifying is “abuse of sacramental oil.” (How did they abuse it?? To do what??) I’m also intrigued by the case of Massimo Herrich, a 27-year-old sailor from Provence, who was accused of apostasy to Islam and infringement of abstinence on 19 September 1641. Why was a sailor supposed to be abstinent? Why would a Provençal convert to Islam? I will never know. We wander back to the bus stop along the marina, past spires and masts and honey-coloured walls, all gilded by the misty evening light.
On Monday we head inland on the Hop On Hop Off bus, which does tours of the island, and gives you some potted history on the way. Leaving Valletta, we drive past run-down apartment buildings, well-kept baroque churches, glossy office complexes, and billboards attesting to European funding. The urban sprawl peters out, tidily-laid stone walls edge the newly-paved road, and Mdina (pronounced EM-dina) rises from the plain on its fortified hilltop. Before the Knights came to Malta, Mdina was the capital of the island. The Phoenicians, the Romans and the Arabs all had their fortresses here. The city is a maze of winding streets lined by high stone walls that open into quiet squares and hidden alleys. Great painted doors open on to mysterious courtyards and mediaeval palaces. The city is home to a cathedral and several convents. It has a population of 400. From the café perched high on the ramparts, you can see the sea. Just outside the city walls is the Domus Romana, which houses the remains of a Roman villa from the 1st century BC. Little is left but an impressive mosaic floor. Part of the site was damaged when the British blithely laid tracks for a railway which soon went bankrupt.
Time for lunch. We find a café in the shade serving Maltese Platter (a kind of Mediterranean ploughman’s lunch), with a soundtrack of Sixties pop hits for the current tourist intake. The balding gent at the next table wiggles his shoulders with discreet abandon to Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Ah, those were the days! Neil Sedaka! After lunch, Julianne visits some catacombs, and I do not (claustrophobia). Back on the bus, we head for Bugibba and the north of the island. After the manicured time-travel charm of Mdina, it’s a bit of a shock. The Maltese began developing the area for package tourists in the 1960s, and a tacky strip of hotels and bars sprawls relentlessly round every headland. People supposedly come here for the beaches – which is odd, because viewed from the bus the beaches seem to be pure rock. Occasionally there’s a watchtower built by the Knights.
By the time we get back to Sliema, our heads are aching from too much driving and too much concrete, and we have no desire to go out and forage for dinner. (In Sicily, there’s always a little trattoria round the corner.) Last night we walked across the headland to a place called the Electro Lobster Project, for swordfish and our first taste of light crisp Maltese white wine, but it was a very long way. They’re re-developing the area behind the hotel, and seem to have ripped a few roads off the map in the process. Cravenly we repair to the balcony with supermarket cheese and crackers and vodka (the gin ran out) and read our books. Mine is Martin Cruz Smith’s Havana Bay. Different waterfront, different island, very different rules.
Tuesday is our day off. Definitely no buses. After a peaceful morning at the rooftop pool (stunning views, but bring your own towel), we take the ferry to Valletta to see the sights we missed the other day. The co-cathedral of St. John (the other co-cathedral is the one in Mdina) has a bling-bling interior decorated by the Knights, a shiny chapel for each of the Langues, and an oratory housing two paintings by Caravaggio, who was himself briefly a Knight before being arrested and excluded from the Order. It’s all rather splendid. Knights lie under marble tombstones beneath our feet. Tourists wander round with their audioguides, and a school group shuffles past ignoring everything.
In the Archeological Museum, a Sleeping Lady, Neolithic, 5000 years old, lies curled up on her side. She has a tiny head and hands and feet, and enormous hips. She wears a pleated skirt. The Maltese are reputed to be obese as a result of too many pea pasties, and it’s true that the people on the street are a little bulky, but seeing this statue makes me wonder if they’re not just reverting to what nature intended. We solve the dinner problem by staying in Valletta, killing the hour before dinner time with an apéritif in the café opposite the cathedral. Dusk falls, the air is soft, the lights go on. It doesn’t feel like October. In Scoglitti, the Italian restaurant by the Sliema ferry, the mood is more serious, and the bustling, stone-faced waiters make it plain you’re in their way. (“Glassy and classy,” says the New York Times.) We eat our fish, drink our wine, pay our bill, and amble over to the landing stage in good time for the ten p.m. ferry.
Wednesday is our last day. We had planned to make a day trip to Gozo, the next island along, but this would have involved either all-day buses (which I veto), or else an all-day sea trip (which Julianne vetos), and that makes things tricky. Instead we stick with the Knights. Back in the Three Cities, we have lunch on the marina in Birgu. Two ferries to get there, two to get back, no buses, only sea. The sun shines on the ochre stone and the masts glitter above the water. The Knights sleep undisturbed. The ferocious old religion that made them fight to the death is on the wane. Church attendance is down these days, and the new craze is casinos.