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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Malta.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Malta.
Thirty or so English-speaking visitors have gathered for a tour of Thrones sites in Malta’s ancient fortified town of Mdina, and right now we’re standing on Pjazza Mesquita. Before us hang the balconies where scheming Lord Baelish displayed his prostitutes and Ned Stark, lord paramount of the North, is horrified to find his wife. Everything around us—walls, arches, paving stones—is golden limestone, interrupted only by green shutters and black iron curving over windows.
Malcolm Ellul, a 41-year-old Maltese businessman and actor, points to a very un-Westeros mailbox.
“That’s practically the only thing they had to change,” he says—“they” referring to the film crew for the hit TV series. “Otherwise, you see? Malta doesn’t need anything done to it.”
This isn’t the sentiment I had hoped to hear. On my first trip to Malta, several years ago, I’d been struck by how out-of-date the place seemed, not just old but old-fashioned. Its history as home to the Knights of Malta and, subsequently, a British protectorate (English remains an official language), was fascinating. But there was something about this Mediterranean island nation perched between Sicily and North Africa that seemed stuck, its food and arts scenes undeveloped, its fashions several years behind, its tourism aimed largely at northern Europeans hellbent on sunburns and hangovers. Even Malta’s politics seemed retrograde: Divorce was illegal until 2011.
But in the intervening years I had heard rumors of change. The European Commission chose Malta’s capital, Valletta, as one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2018. Malta’s government finally legalized divorce. New boutique hotels were opening, major cultural initiatives were being launched, and, yes, Game of Thrones began filming here.
Together, all of these changes had me wondering: After so much time being known primarily for sunshine and knights, was Malta finally entering the modern world?
I ARRIVE IN VALLETTA as the sun is setting and head straight out to retrace a walk I made on my last visit inside the city’s fortified walls. Narrow streets are lined with baroque buildings, all ornate porticoes and wrought-iron balconies. Various doorways bear a plaque commemorating some long-ago event or person. Vintage hand-painted signs mark shops—Paul’s Store, Smiling Prince Bar—long departed. When I reach the Grand Harbour, the cobalt expanse of the Mediterranean Sea gives way to an astonishing panorama of tightly packed houses, church domes, and fortresses. It looks either medieval or Meereen —a city from the show—I’m not sure which.
Even for the Old Continent, Malta is dense with history. A republic centered on three inhabited islands at a key crossroads location in the Mediterranean, it has been a strategic prize about as long as there has been strategy. Archaeological remains place its original inhabitants in the Neolithic period; a progression of Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs subsequently populated it. Malta really came into its own in the 16th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted its two main islands, Malta and Gozo, to the order of the Knights with the hope that it would help protect Rome. Several sieges and 150 years of British colonialism later you have a place that bears hallmarks—an Arabic-inflected vocabulary, a taste for fish-and-chips—of the many cultures that have passed through it.
„Bhaag Basanti, bhaag!” Not words I would ever have imagined myself saying under any circumstances, but, here we are. Photographer Jerry and I are trying to coax our not-so-trusty white steed up a hill, and I’m mentally preparing to make the trek up under my own steam.
The 150cc scooter that we’ve (rather ambitiously) christened Basanti struggles to make the journey, burdened as she is with the combined weight of two travellers and about 15kg of assorted photography equipment. It’s just one of many rides that we’ve had fraught with equal parts anxiety and hilarity as we putter around this beautiful island we’re exploring, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The beautiful island we’re exploring is Malta, and its wee size makes puttering about on a two-wheeler an obvious choice – the distances to be covered aren’t vast enough to cause numbness in our delicate derrières, and it enforces a slower pace, which is exactly what we’re looking for. There’s such freedom to be found in coasting along quiet roads hugged by prickly pear cactii, a hint of the sea lingering in the air and the occasional cluster of beige settlements popping up around a bend.
Malta’s the sort of place that leaves me making tough calls every morning – I’m torn between heading out on Basanti, and letting the sun slowly darken my skin as I paddle aimlessly in the blissful blue Mediterranean that’s all around us. Malta might technically be in Europe, and it might have escaped the notice of us Indians, but it’s been coveted by a range of kingdoms and countries over the years, all of which have left indelible traces behind. Sited as it is at the cusp of Europe and Northern Africa, the fabric of this nation is interwoven with African, Arabic, Italian and, of course, British (where have they not been!) influences, which has resulted in a tapestry that is colourful, intriguing and fairly bursting with stories. Not that you’d know it when you first see it. As we arrive, looking at this growing speck of land floating amid the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, I was taken aback by just how beige it is.
The buildings begin to come into focus, and they’re all a uniform, dusty colour. What started as a practical and efficient use of naturally available resources has become the norm, and the widely accessible local sandstone is now what is used for all construction across the island. But even this rather dull colour can’t dampen my growing excitement – I’ve been happily sentenced to a week of ferreting out Malta’s secrets with no plans other than where we’re going to be sleeping. Well, we do have vague plans to travel inland, and end up at the formidable citadel of Mdina. This ancient city, once the island’s capital, is believed to have been first settled by the Phoenicians, and passed through the hands of the Roman and Byzantine Empires and then the Order of St John, which took over Malta, before the French, and later the British, arrived.
Through all this, Mdina retained its medieval flavour, and is a sight familiar to fans of Game of Thrones – Malta was actually one of the primary filming locations for the first season of the hit TV show. We see the city looming over the horizon from its outpost atop a hill, slowly growing in size as we navigate the winding road leading to its now iconic gateway, made famous as the entry to Kings Landing. It is, like everything else in Malta, far larger in atmosphere than actual size, and a leisurely amble along its ramparts makes for a quick circumnavigation before we delve into its maze-like bowels, where all paths seem to converge at the stately cathedral at its heart. We have nothing to see, no sights to tick off a checklist, and that’s lovely. Cute stores displaying beautiful, delicately crafted Mdina glass beckon us to have a closer look, and charming cafés offer cool drinks and a spot to sit and just be, before it’s time to let Basanti take us where she may.
If you must see stuff, let it be in the small capital city of Valletta (so small that everything’s within a 15-minute walk). This ancient walled city is the island’s beating heart, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Not surprising, considering the beautiful architecture and history that’s everywhere here. Jerry and I quickly quash the thought of figuring out a route to follow, and ditch the map in favour of getting lost in this maze. What a wonderful way to spend your time in a new city this is. We stroll past achingly beautiful old doorways, bright green Venetian shutters and planters bursting with a riot of colours,
Baroque-fronted churches and grand residences with the names of nobility that once lived there etched into the stone. We were considering finding a hotel here, but now, I’m pretty thrilled not to be living in the heart of it. Not because it’s too frenetic, no – it’s got the laidback, typically Med vibe of taking your own time – but because I can’t imagine heaving my luggage up and down the narrow, sloping and often pedestrian-only lanes that it’s built around.
We wander into the stunning St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum to escape the bright summer sun and marvel at the beautiful artwork along the barrel-vaulted ceiling and the ancient treasures in the museum – including a huge painting of John the Baptist by Caravaggio! – and idly try and decide which of the lively cafés that spill onto the streets we should lunch at.
Foreign visitors per year: 1 million
Languages: Maltese, English, Italian
Unit of currency: euro (€)
Cost index: cup of coffee €1 (US$1.40), hotel double for a night from €30 (US$40), short taxi ride €10 (US$14), pastizz (traditional pastry) €0.30 (US$0.40)
You haven’t been to Valletta? If not, this oversight must be righted. As soon as possible. Thankfully you’re timing it right: the Maltese capital has had a sensational makeover.
Perhaps it’s to do with coming up to a big birthday. At over 450 years old, Valletta could be accused of going through a mid-life crisis. Over the past few years, it’s had a thorough overhaul, with architectural botox aplenty, not all of it to the local taste. The injection of contemporary architecture includes Renzo Piano’s graceful new gateway to the city, the Italian architect’s parliament building, faced with laser-cut stonework, and his open-air auditorium, a metal skeleton built atop the Opera House ruins.
This tiny capital is limited by geography, sitting as it does on a small, almost-island peninsula, so it’s never had the facility to sprawl inelegantly outwards. Valletta has thus stayed remarkably trim, with its unspoilt 17th-century buildings lining a beautifully laid-out grid of streets, at the end of which you can glimpse the cobalt sea. The contrast between the old and the new is what makes Renzo Piano’s new additions all the more startling. Visit and make up your own mind.
But the other reason that you should visit as soon as possible is that the city commemorated 450 years since the Great Siege. In 1565, a paltry number of Maltese Christian knights battled an army of marauding Turks, with much carnage, dirty tricks and bloodshed on both sides. This remembrance was particularly strong on 8 September, National Day, which is preceded by a special mass and literary evening the previous night.
Valletta was built and decorated during the 17th century, and celebrates its all-out baroqueness via the International Baroque Festival, centred on the ornate Manuel Theatre and St John’s Cathedral for the second half of January.
The Valletta Jazz Festival is held in July against the backdrop of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, with international and local artists jamming and playing every type of jazz, from flamenco fusion to traditional.
During Birgu by Candlelight in October, the tiny city of Birgu across the harbour is lined with candles, so that the beautiful narrow streets are entirely flame-lit.
Rich in museums, Valletta centres on one of the most fabulously decorated baroque cathedrals you are ever likely to see, St John’s Co-Cathedral, whose interior is a frenzy of decoration, a product of the Knights of Malta all trying to outdo each others’ chapels. It also houses Caravaggio’s largest painting.
Don’t leave without seeing a performance in the new open-air theatre, which rises, phoenix-like, from the ruins of the 19th-century opera house that was bombed in WWII.
Also make sure you take a boat trip around the harbour and a wander around the streets of Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa). This small town, the original Knights of Malta headquarters, has stunning views across to the capital that eclipsed it.
The Grassy Hopper sells healthy, organic vegan and vegetarian food. Their first outpost was a van on Ta’Xbiex waterfront and they’ve now opened an outlet on Old Theatre St. Not only is the food delicious, healthy and inventive, but they donate leftover food to the YMCA to feed the homeless several days per week.
Malta suffered 154 continuous days and nights of bombing during WWII (by contrast, London suffered 57).
The British king George VI awarded the George Cross award for bravery to the entire population of Malta after WWII.
Malta and its seas frequently stand in as film locations, with recent shoots here including Game of Thrones.
Classic restaurant experience:
The backstreet, old-school, unfussy ambience of Trattoria da Pippo means that dishes here are served with lashings of atmosphere. You’ll eat hearty Italian-influenced Maltese cuisine amid a hubbub of local clientele: a place for those in the know. Lunch only.
Among the National Museum of Archaeology’s most treasured exhibits are some perky prehistoric stone phalluses.