John Deiner, Washington Post Staff Writer
So how small is Malta, anyhow?
You can see most of the country, about twice the size of D.C., from its citadels just by arcing your neck. You’ll bump into that couple from Muskogee you met at Customs so often you’ll be old friends by trip’s end. And after a day or so, once you’ve gotten a handle on this secluded outcropping 60 miles south of Sicily, you may feel something you haven’t felt for a while.
Malta, cocooned by the Mediterranean and an infrequent topic on CNN, is Europe for scaredy-cats. As travelers grapple with the code du jour (is it orange or yellow today?) and second-guess plans to visit perceived targets like Paris or London, Malta is a low-key way to get your annual Euro-fix.
Relatively few Americans go there, and for no good reason. English (along with Maltese) is the official language, getting around is simple and cheap, there’s little crime, and everything you’ll want to do — from snorkeling and museum-hopping to touring ruins and tchotchke-hunting — is in close proximity.
Need more? Fine hotels are less than $ 100 a night, even in peak summer months, and off-season packages are inexpensive (a couple of months ago, I snagged a $ 699 deal that included air and seven nights’ lodging). If you don’t get too fancy, dinner for two is about $ 30, and lunch can be had for less than a buck by grabbing a few pastizzis (pastry crammed with cheese or mashed peas) from street vendors. Museum and church admissions are usually a lira (about $ 2.55) or two.
Things may be about to change. After a divisive referendum was narrowly passed in April, Malta stands poised to join the European Union next May, opening the door to more industry . . . and possibly more tourists.
For now, though, it’s a gloriously isolated place, where conversation drifts more toward local politics and soccer than Basra and al Qaeda — and where size really does matter.
«Oh, thank God . . . Americans!»
I’d actually had the opposite reaction to the five other Yanks on my coach tour, but Brian Melton was ecstatic. The New Yorker, whose would-be companions refused to make the trip because of security concerns, was reluctantly traveling solo.
«Nobody wanted to come. They were afraid to get on a plane,» he said. «But I wanted to get away, and Malta is so far removed from everyplace else, it’s easy for me to forget about the rest of the world.»
If only Malta had been so lucky. With a history predating the pyramids, it has been occupied by one uninvited guest after another, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and British (from whom it gained independence in 1964). Each left its mark, none more so than the Knights of St. John, the European noblemen who ruled starting in 1530. Driven away by Napoleon in 1798, the group lives on as the Order of Malta, a Christian organization that provides humanitarian aid around the globe.
Today, Malta is a smorgasbord of cultures, from the Arab names of many towns to the British phone booths on street corners. Italian trattorias and English pubs vie for diners tired after a day of exploring walled cities, baroque churches and ancient monoliths.
Although Malta comprises five islands, only two Malta and Gozo are populated year-round (a third, Comino, is primarily a summer resort). Malta stretches 17 by 9 miles and has 370,000 residents, while smaller, sleepier Gozo is home to about 30,000. It’s one of Europe’s most densely populated nations, but it’s not another Hong Kong. Just minutes outside the busy capital of Valletta and its suburbs, I was surprised to see miles of empty fields and terraced gardens roll by my tour bus windows.
The only reason I’d taken the seven-hour excursion was because I thought it would help me plan the next six days, and it did: no more coach tours.
I wanted to spend more time everywhere, but especially in Mdina, a magnificent citadel that once served as Malta’s capital and remains a working city. As I strolled the wheat-hued labyrinth of narrow streets, businesses and private homes, I became almost envious of its residents. Thousands of years after Mdina was founded, living in a walled city still seems like a good idea.
Reality intruded at the Cathedral of St. Paul, whose remarkable interior all gold and deep red, with floors covered by vivid marble tombstones is as gaudy as the day it was completed around 1700. A member of our group collapsed near the altar (don’t worry, he was okay), and while our guide waited for an ambulance, we had some extra time to explore.
I rushed to a plaza atop the city walls where I surveyed the vista below. Straight ahead sat the village of Mosta and its massive domed church, which was pierced by a World War II bomb that was a dud — or was it a sign from God? Valletta and the fishing village of Marsaxlokk rolled to the east. To the north, the bay where St. Paul was shipwrecked in A.D. 60 (the country is more than 90 percent Catholic as a result) glimmered in the sunshine.
Then the guide beckoned, and we were off for hurried visits to some nearby catacombs and the Dingli Cliffs, which plunge more than 800 feet into the sea. She gave us eight minutes to ooh, ahh and snap a picture.
Inasmuch as I had just seen most of the island simply by standing on tiptoe, I decided that Malta would now be a do-it-myself kind of place.
One of Malta’s most endearing attractions are its prehistoric buses, which look and sound as if they carted the knights around.
More than 500 of the bright yellow heaps, many owned by their drivers and dating to the 1970s, hiss and wheeze their way throughout the country. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one with shocks. If you’re not . . . well, just hope you get one with shocks. With a fare that tops out at a dollar, it’s worth the gamble.
At the very least, they get you where you want to go. One afternoon, I hopped on a bus to the Blue Grotto (more cliffs, with a spectacular arch carved by the surf) and the ruins of the Hagar Qim temple. Instead of stopping in a nearby town, as my route map said, the bus proceeded directly to the grotto.
«The last bus leaves in two hours,» the driver warned. «Don’t miss it or you’ll be out of luck.»
I didn’t miss it, but being stranded would have been okay, too. When winds are calm and the sea cooperates, locals carry visitors out to the grotto in their boats. No such luck for me, but I was content sitting on a rock overlooking the chop, enjoying a silence that comes all too rarely these days.
Another morning I headed into Valletta, traveling a couple of miles from my hotel in St. Julian’s, the over-disco’ed suburb that serves as Malta’s party district. The crammed bus became mired in traffic. When one tourist on board became particularly antsy, an elderly Maltese gentleman tried to calm her.
«Don’t worry, we’ll get there. This is nothing,» he said. «Remember, you’re on Malta Time now.»
I’ll say. The Maltese are so laid back you may think your plane took a wrong turn and landed in Jamaica. And like other Mediterranean countries, Malta rolls over and takes a nap every afternoon, with many shops and churches, markets and even some restaurants shuttered for a few hours.
By the time the bus deposited me in Valletta, it was perilously close to siesta, but at least the driver apologized for the delay.
Begun in 1566 by Jean Parisot de la Valette, the capital is built high above Grand Harbour and fronted by massive Fort St. Elmo. But walls and other battlements couldn’t protect it during WWII, when Malta served as a key base for the Allies. For nearly five months in 1942, tons of bombs were dumped on the country, including Valletta. For its bravery, Malta received the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honor, a distinction duly marked on a memorial near the mouth of the harbor.
Having survived the war with most of its treasures intact, the city today is a splendid, hilly maze concealing open-air markets, museums, forts and, of course, churches.
Before the «closed» signs made their midday appearance, I squeezed in a visit to the Co-Cathedral of St. John. Considered the pice de rsistance of the islands’ 360-plus churches, it doesn’t impress from the street, but inside with its intricate carved walls and lavish paintings it’s a knockout. In the adjoining museum, the Caravaggio masterpiece «The Beheading of St. John the Baptist» is one of the first works encountered.
Another brush with greatness awaited at the Grand Masters Palace, begun in 1571 for the knights and now the seat of Malta’s parliament. Having gone through security, I assumed I’d have to go into do-not-touch mode. For the most part, that held true. But not always.
After a quick look at a few rooms in the palace, a guide led me and 10 others into a chamber used by the Maltese president to greet guests. He pointed to two ornate red velvet chairs. «These, my friends, are the chairs that the president used when Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul II visited our country. Very important chairs,» he told us. «Feel free to sit in them and take a picture.» Was this guy serious? That’d be like putting your feet up on the Oval Office coffee table.
I was the second person to take a seat.
It was dinnertime at It-Tmun, a cafe in Xlendi on Gozo’s southern coast.
Owner Leli Buttigieg had pressed me to order the grilled calamari «They’re fresh off the pier down the street, caught one by one on hand-held fishing lines» but neglected to mention that the tiny squids would be served whole, including the head. I peered down to discover three tentacled gray blobs splayed on my plate.
«Go ahead, enjoy,» Buttigieg said. «Just pretend they’re angry at you.»
That’s sooo Gozo. As congenial as the Maltese are, I found Gozitans (as they’re called) even more eager to please, and always with a spot of humor.
I’d arrived that day on a morning ferry, one of the few tourists who wouldn’t be catching a boat back for the night. Most of the other passengers were day-trippers bound for a flurry of sightseeing; some were booked on Jeep safaris of the island, while others planned to bus from one attraction to another.
Bad idea. As I learned the easy way, Gozo can’t be rushed.
Market vendors are more eager to chat than move merchandise, and getting a check at the end of a meal takes longer than the time it took to consume it. Even cars move slower, though there are few stoplights to impede them.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the power of Malta Time are the Ggantija Temples in Xaghra. Built a thousand years before Stonehenge, they’re believed to be the oldest free-standing structures on Earth. Just knowing that they’ve survived for millenniums did my soul good, even as a chattering parade of tour groups came and went.
In Victoria, the hub of island life, I wandered the ramparts of the Citadel, dating to the Middle Ages and housing museums, a cathedral (naturally) and shops, including one cubbyhole occupied by the same family of lacemakers for generations. (Lacemaking is common throughout Malta, but in Gozo, the craft reaches its zenith. If you ask nice, or at all, you can get a demonstration.)
Elsewhere, I bargained for woolen booties at an artisans market in Fontana and caught a solid night’s sleep at the Andar, a lovely three-story hotel near Xlendi where I’d booked a room for $ 40.
But all too soon it was time for me to ferry back to the main island, and eventually the flight home and a return to security alerts and news bulletins.
As the boat pulled away from the dock, I scanned the coast. Somewhere nearby in a tiny restaurant by a dock, Leli Buttigieg was serving someone squid caught with a hand-held fishing line, and I wanted it to be me.
The Washington Post, June 15, 2003, Sunday