Discard that checklist of things to see and do – these charming islands lurking off the coast of Italy deserve to explored at your own pace
„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.