Ain’t holidays grand? One minute you’re on life’s non-stop merry- go-round, and the next you’ve not a care in the world.
There’s nothing more refreshing for the soul than good food, fine wine and interesting company, especially with a bit of sun, sea and sand thrown in, on an island with hospitality and beauty I’ve rarely seen equalled. You can see why, on a rainy winter morning, I found myself sitting on an overstuffed suitcase by a pillar in Dublin airport, bursting with anticipation at the thought of three days in Malta.
It seemed almost surreal that a few hours later I was checking into the five-star Crown Plaza, in Sliema.
Built within the historic site of Fort Cambridge, the hotel, like the island itself, is rich in history. It once housed the Royal Artillery Officer’s Mess, and a marble plaque on an arch, above one of the fountains in front of the main entrance commemorates the use of the mess as a military hospital during the First World War.
The fort also held one of the island’s two 100-ton cannons, allocated by the British in the1890s in order to keep an enemy fleet as far away from the island’s harbour as possible.
Today, though, walking into a room with a balcony overlooking the harbour, you’ll have more important concerns, like settling down on the balcony with a glass of cold Chardonnay from the mini-bar.
I felt like a cross between Bridget Jones and Shirley Valentine: day one, nine and a half stone, units of alcohol, one.
As if that didn’t make me feel guilty enough, before dinner I got a tour of the hotel’s amenities, which included a fitness centre, with squash and tennis courts.
Much better, instead, to concentrate on the four restaurants, private beach with two pools and direct access to the sea, massage rooms and sauna. In fact, just thinking about exercise was enough to work up an appetite for a meal in the Four Seasons Restaurant, which was a help-yourself buffet, with a variety of food and plenty of it too. Sod the diet, this was sheer indulgence. There were fresh breads, pastas, salads, steak, chips, cheeses, and that was only what I got through. Still, Bridget would have approved.
Come 11pm, after a full day and an even fuller stomach, you would have found me back on the balcony again, swaddled in an oversized fluffy bathrobe, looking out over the harbour lights.
Lunch next day was at the Malata restaurant in Valetta: a feast of pasta and wine on an outdoor terrace in glorious sunshine.
Mind you, they say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and in the afternoon it was back to school with the Malta Experience, an audiovisual guide to the history of this amazing and resilient little island smack bang in the middle of the Med.
Malta was first settled in 4000BC by Sicilian Neolithic farmers who built a host of megalithic temples then mysteriously disappeared. Next came the Bronze Age settlers, then the Phoenicians. The island’s strategic importance attracted the attention of both Greece and Rome, and St Paul’s Bay is named after the shipwreck there of the Apostle Paul.
The entire population was awarded the George Cross for bravery in 1942, following a siege which saw the people almost starve, so the island and its people have a right to be proud, and proud they are.
They embrace their mixed heritage and are renowned for their hospitality. The local language, il-Malti, is unique, though everyone speaks English.
But even if past times have been hard, these guys have it made. No wonder the islanders seem so happy and relaxed, with their dry and sunny summers, and winters which don’t seem too hard to stick either. A week in Norn Irn in January would soon show them how lucky they are.
Anyway, that was enough education for the day: it was time for the Meridiana Winery, where the owner, Mark Miceli-Farrugia, talked us through the wine- making experience as we sampled the results.
Having started the winery from scratch, with imported vines and no government backing, he, too, has every right to be proud. Looking over the expanse of the winery, it was obvious what a labour of love it had been.
While his wine may have been a little more costly than the average local plonk, it was definitely worth that little extra.
However, at this point I completely lost interest in wine, for possibly the first time in my life, when I somehow got engaged with Mark in a conversation about toilet roll, one of my most passionate subjects, though not one that often presents itself as a topic in conversation.
You see, Mark felt as passionately about Malta joining the European Union as I feel about toilet roll, although the chap who manufactures cheap and nasty toilet roll and has the island’s loos in the palm of his hands, so to speak, was among those against joining the EU, probably for fear that the hard done by islanders might discover the joy of Andrex.
I understood Mark’s anger, having experienced the dreadful stuff since my arrival.
By nightfall, I was in Medina, the island’s former capital, for another amazing meal in the Medina Restaurant.
You wouldn’t believe how exhausting eating and drinking can be, and it was all I could do afterwards to rouse myself for a wander around the beautiful old city of Medina.
And it was there that something else caught my eye. You see, Malta still has cloistered nuns, who never go out except to vote. Now, in Medina right up against the doors of where the nuns lived was a set of traffic lights, which was most odd. Why on earth do cloistered nuns need traffic lights?
The only answer, I imagine, is that when the lights go green they know it’s time to vote.
The following day was the last, and I was saddened at how quickly the days had gone.
I took the 20-minute ferry for a day on the neighbouring island of Gozo, greener and quieter than Malta, and famed for its glass, so a visit to where it was made was a must and a purchase hard to resist.
Back on Malta, I took a stroll along the sea front, thinking how sorry I would be to leave. There was so much more to see and do here than could be packed into a few days.
However, I was a little premature, for there was one more meal to go: a feast of seafood like none I have ever seen in the most rustic of settings, spoilt only, ironically, by Johnny Logan on the TV in the corner of the restaurant doing horrible things to the memory of Elvis.
You just can’t get away from your own culture sometimes, but I had enjoyed trying to. Too soon, reality and the reassurance of rain would beckon.
Oh, and that diet, too. Day of departure, 10 stone. Units of alcohol, lost count.
Belfast News Letter (Northern Ireland), February 6, 2003