A little treasure
The tiny yet entrancing island country of Malta punches well above its weight, writes Judy Bryant.
South African Garden & Home
But after nearly two weeks of exploring its ancient fortified cities, sampling fabulous food and meeting super-friendly people, I was amazed at how many treasures and surprises are packed into about 320 km².
Malta (with sister islands Camino and Gozo) is situated less than 100km south of Sicily, around 300-350 km from Tunisia and Libya and 815 km from Crete. This central location and natural harbours have attracted a succession of rulers: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St John, French and British have all left their mark.
I arrived in 37° heat, enticed from the Cape winter by a friend working on the island. Soon we were driving on roads edged with pink- and white-blooming oleander. In more rural areas, low packed-stone walls were overhung by huge prickly pear bushes and carob and olive trees.
Pale cream limestone forts topped the hillsides, with enormous flags flapping in the slight breeze. I thought how magical it must be to travel with children and tell them about the real-life Knights of St John! These soldiers took part in the Crusades, occupied the Greek island of Rhodes for two centuries, then wandered for seven years before finding refuge in Malta.
To the relief of the locals, the knights decided the old capital, Mdina, was too far inland. They settled on the coast and set about building numerous fortifications. Valletta, Malta’s current capital, is still enclosed by massive 16th and 17th century bastion walls, designed by French and Italian military architects to keep out the Ottoman Turks.
The knights were a multi-national force, each with their own headquarters and duties. Every knight, often from a wealthy European family, presented a gift on admission to the order. And their leaders, the Grand Masters, had money, ambition, and national pride at stake.
Vying to show who had the greatest vision and most bling has left a legacy of fabulous cathedrals, churches, palaces and official buildings that are layered with magnificent paintings, sculptures, furniture and tapestries.
Must-see St John’s Co-Cathedral, in Valletta, is a perfect example. Its austere exterior doesn’t prepare you for the dazzle of its baroque interior. Ceilings are extravagantly decorated, floors consist of intricately inlaid marble tombstones.
Each nationality belonging to the Order had an exquisite side chapel where they clearly competed to outdo one another.
Don’t miss a side room housing two magnificent Caravaggios: the famous ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ and a painting of St Jerome by this wild Italian (briefly a ‘Knight of Grace’ of the Order).
Malta, however, isn’t limited to historic treasures. It also serves up contemporary cool, including the best gin bar I’ve ever visited. The National Arts Festival, in full swing during my stay, was just a foretaste of the dazzling programme planned for Valletta’s reign as the 2018 European Capital of Culture.
Italian architect Renzo Piano (think Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and London’s Shard) is responsible for rejuvenating the city entrance. This includes the city gate, an open-air theatre within the ruins of the former Royal opera house and a new Parliament building. They’re also upgrading a deep ditch so you feel you’ve crossed a real bridge into the city.
Valletta itself is only about I km by 600 metres, with a straightforward grid layout, so easy to explore.
Start with the main, broad Republic Street, which runs from the city gate down to Fort St Elmo at the sea. Another popular (parallel) street is Merchant Street, where you’ll find a market, cafes and more shops. Some are delightful old family outlets (I fell in love with an old spice shop) as well as modern stores showcasing internationally branded shoes, clothing and cosmetics.
Look out for bright red British post boxes, still in use, and wooden enclosed balconies (gallariji), often painted in red, green or blue, overhanging the narrow streets. You can spot the famous eight-pointed Maltese cross on anything from the brass door-knockers to wrought iron balconies.
I was a guest in the delightful Sliema-St Julien’s area, about 15 minutes bus journey from the capital ‒ though I preferred a ferry ride, with a magnificent harbour view, for only half a euro.
Much of Malta’s coast is dotted with tiny bays, each with roped-off swimming areas. My morning ritual was to walk down a flight of stone steps alongside an old convent, cross the road and take a dip.
On the way back I’d greet the thyme honey sellers and jewellery makers then treat myself to a delectable ice-cream. I also looked out for the feral cats: they lived in tiny wooden houses, complete with handcarved window boxes and tiny pot plants.
Many parts of Malta can be reached on a standard €2 bus fare, or you can hire a car. On a public holiday, with other South Africans, we drove to the magnificent Dingli Cliffs, rising about 250 metres above sea level. Then we drove further south, to the Blue Grotto, a deep sea cave.
Our final destination was a picturesque natural harbour in the south-east, Marsaxlokk Bay. It derives its name from the Arabic marsa (harbour), and xlokk (south-easterly wind). It’s a photographer’s dream of traditional fishing boats, with mythical eyes painted on their colourful prows. This is a popular destination for Sunday family lunches (plentiful fresh fish and a market).
One day we caught the ferry to Gozo island (a trip of only 25 minutes). On arrival in the capital, Victoria, we fortified ourselves with coffee and baguettes (be warned – Maltese helpings are huge) and trudged up a picturesque street to the citadel, a massive fortified area. The European Union’s funded the restoration of 135,000 m² of elevated ramparts with wonderful views of yet more forts, and terraced fields with green crops and freshly harvested rolls of hay.
Inside there’s a magnificent cathedral, old law courts, prison and a knights’ armoury. A labyrinth of townhouses and rooms has been transformed into museums and craft shops. I loved an entire wall of long-necked terracotta Roman amphorae (oil or wine containers) in the archaeological museum and also meeting Maria Mizzi, a maker of and dealer in fragile lace.
Walking back, we ducked into cool shops stocked with traditional preserves and capers, as well as local prickly pear or carob liqueur, and craft beer. On the south-west of the island was Xlendi, a beautiful inlet with a sandy beach and turquoise sea ideal for swimming. On our return we passed 350-year-old salt pans cut out of the rock, and a deserted red fort.
The best destination was kept for last: the ancient Maltese capital of Mdina, still home to aristocratic families. It’s reached by a narrow stone bridge, over a moat dug out by the Arabs, with elegant homes, palaces and a few shops and restaurants. We arrived early in the morning as a florist carried armfuls of fragrant lilies into the cathedral for a wedding.
My favourite destination here was Palazzo Falson, the historic home of an artist, raconteur and collector. Open to the public, it’s a microcosm of Malta’s multiple treasures: naval paintings, knight’s armour, a kitchen representing the wonderful Mediterranean cuisine, reception areas with fine carpets and tapestries.
Thinking back, my memories of Malta are so varied: an avant garde Spanish dance group performing in moonlight at St Elmo’s Fort; chugging across a bay in a tiny boat; firework displays at midnight; delicious pasta eaten on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Mediterranean.
Whether you enjoy bargain-hunting in Italian discount outlets, poring over artefacts, drinking cocktails or just lazing in the sun, ancient and modern Malta has perennial appeal.
First published in South African Garden and Home November 2017
Images Judy Bryant