|Rating: (3.5) 6 Votes)
January 28th, 2003
Pros: Ample sites to visit
The trip has begun. It’s 7pm. Brian is showering in the impossibly small bathroom. I’m ready for bed with a space heater turned on high and the brown hotel coverlet snug at my throat. Our backpacks are stacked in the wardrobe with the travel guide on top.
Although the four-hour layover was tediously grueling, especially starting the trip on the red-eye and now with the time change, I am thankful we chose to travel the slightly more expensive route via Heathrow and not Gatwick. After 20 hours, we have arrived at Malta, the archipelago in the center of the Mediterranean, and feel in need of vacation more than ever.
Not that I’m a veteran of Air Lines of the World, but experiencing British Air to London then Air Malta on the second leg is as eating steak is to choking down a corn dog. Bottle of wine, travel socks and in-flight movies vs. cramped polyester seats and a hard bun with whipped cheese. At least everything is on schedule.
Charlie meets us at Malta International Airport, a tiny cream-colored building that echoes with emptiness at this late hour. While Charlie asks Brian about the flight I struggle with the automated bank machine. I struggle only because I’ve memorized my new card pass code by letter and the bank machine is numerical. I am so tired that I can’t figure it out and have to find a telephone with alphanumerical buttons so I can translate the puzzle and ultimately get me some of that Maltese coin.
Charlie drives us to his home in Rabat, which sits on the hill in the middle of the island. Charlie’s wife May and mother Paulie welcome us into their home, which is uncluttered, modest and cool. It’s been years since Brian visited Malta and there are a lot of questions, but it’s late and I’m grumpy from lack of sleep. Charlie has phoned hotels near Sliema inquiring about accommodation. However, I want to stay away from the tourist zone but still be central. After a cup of tea, our gracious host drives us to Valletta.
Everything on Malta is 30 minutes by car away from anywhere. The car hurtles at a bumpy clip to our destination through narrow streets, past velvety limestone houses and prickly pear bushes, then past car dealerships and concrete telecom buildings and parking blocks. Cars circa 1980 power speedily along the potholed road. I am apprehensive that our Renault might fall into one of the cavernous holes. The landscape ripples between town and farmland. More conspicuous are the lack of boundaries between towns. This country is so small, which at 320sq km includes the islands of Malta, Comino and Gozo, and the population is so concentrated that one town ends where another begins. Road signs simply define city limits. Rabat meets the walls of Mdina. The island’s bus terminus divides Floriana from its neighbor, the capital Valletta.
Palm-like trees line the road into Valletta. The cobblestone streets here seem even narrower than those in Rabat, especially when we find ourselves at the end of one road and the only return route is to drive backwards 30 meters. It’s past 10pm and the city is quite. After inquiries at several front desks, we choose The Grand Harbor Hotel, which offers a crumbly exterior with Juliet balconies and a sea view of…the grand harbor. The room is small, basic and clean enough. With no central heating, I roll the electric radiator close to the bed and turn it on full. Time for sleep for tomorrow is adventure day one.
The view from our hotel room is clichéd and wonderful. I wing open the doors to enjoy the rising sun glistening off the Mediterranean waters. Cranes tower across the harbor at the shipping docks. Below is a fantastic building flanked by a walk way and thin roads. A red phone box. Cats. Fresh air café. A belfry complete with an enormous bell joins the chorus of at least another half dozen clanging cathedral bells.
Valletta is a 16th century walled city that provides us with ample sites to visit. The city, once lorded over by the Knights of Malta (nee St. John), is almost entirely surrounded by water at the northeast tip of Malta, and today we will walk its entirety—less than 2km in length.
First, it’s the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which unfortunately are closed due to Work In Progress, even though I don’t see any work going on. We pass the formidable Auberge de Castille, a palace where the Knights lived that is now the Prime Minister’s office. Next door, the St James Centre for Creativity was originally built during WWII but has since been renovated. Unfortunately, its name is more interesting that the actual venue, which is sparsely appointed and feels uncompleted, one foot in the past the other sporting steel doors and fancy spotlights. A poster for a local production of Cabaret at the Manoel Theatre is tacked to the notice board, and I note that we should go.
Preparations for the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck are beginning throughout the city: lights are strung and podiums painted gold are being erected. Looks like luminous peace at night. As we’ll miss the February 10th holiday, we check out the church dedicated to the apostle who brought Christianity to Malta in 60AD. Maudlin, musty and dark, the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck displays religious memorabilia behind glass. Inlaid marble floors mark tombs, red and black and smooth with skeletons and fruit trees. Threadbare crimson curtains line an alcove, custodian to a simple wooden donation box. The church holds St. Paul’s forearm and part of the column on which he was beheaded. The bone is in a silver monstrance, so proves uninteresting. At least I learned a new word for ostensorium.
We make a quick trip to the internet cafe across from the Jesuit Church, but the computers are down.
When the heavy rain begins, we retreat to Lascaris War Room, where damaged or incomplete dioramas along with mannequins in 1940s garb illustrate this den of WWII strategy. We pay extra for the headset, and are glad of it. Despite the advertisements, I don’t believe it’s been recently restored and the exhibit is poorly identified. This dank and gloomy warren was the bastion for Britain’s naval fleet and Eisenhower’s invasion of Italy, and before that it served as a slave dungeon. Maybe this is a good representation of the actual environment.
The rain hasn’t stopped so we head back to the hotel for a nap, which turns into a four-hour slumber. It’s still raining when we wake to discover that dinner after 8 is hard to find in Valletta. Before the few open establishments—which are all expensive—close up, we finally decide on the subterranean Sasha’s Bistro where we share pizza topped with egg, anchovy and peas and have our first taste of farmer’s wine. As we are the only customers, service is excellent. The city streets is vacant on the walk home. We’ve chosen authenticity by staying in Valletta and snubbed the nightlife of St. Julian’s, and that’s just fine.