Malta In Its Every Little Detail

I learn this at The Malta Experience, an “audio-visual spectacular” that recounts the invasions (Roman, Arab, Napoleonic) and repulsions (Ottoman, Fascist, Nazi) that make up the better part of the country’s history; and at Malta 5D, a shorter film that  compensates for what it lacks in historical detail with lurching seats and wafts of Maltese bread scents piped into the audito­rium as a bakery appears on-screen (motion and smell being, apparently, the fourth and fifth dimensions).

Cockney’s Bar And Restaurant, a restaurant tucked into Valletta’s historic district

“There is a claustrophobia that is born of being so small, so packed in, and so old,” says Kenneth Scicluna, a veteran Maltese filmmaker whose work is deeply informed by his homeland. A sign outside the cafe where we meet up advertises craft beers, but instead of bearded bartenders pouring hoppy brews to an adult clientele, all I see around me is a nondescript interior filled with rambunctious children.

“I always have this sense of being watched,” Scicluna adds. “And not only by other people, but by the place itself. It’s so old. It knows things.”

I love the image of a place that watches over its residents, but for Scicluna, so much history can impede cultural change. “We are a country that wants so desperately to be modern but doesn’t always know how. There is always the weight of the past getting in the way.”

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO LESSEN that weight in this island nation? I think back to my first visit to Bilbao, Spain, in the 1990s, when its Guggenheim museum was just going up. Few could imagine that architect Frank Gehry’s undulating titanium walls and Richard Serra’s curving sculptures would transform a city that had been defined by its industrial history. Yet many now consider the Basque metropolis a cultural hub, with exciting restaurants, a lively market, and a number of new construction projects, all jump-started by a museum that draws more than a million arts-minded visitors a year. So significant has the impact been that the city inspired a phenomenon: the “Bilbao effect,” when a place remakes itself by attracting a world-class cultural institution, preferably designed by a high-powered architect.

Valletta recently got its own piece of starchitecture when powerhouse architect Renzo Piano reimagined the 16th-century city gate as a dramatic, clean-lined breach in the old walls. He flanked it with twin staircases that rise like austere wings and designed a new parliament building just inside, fronted with a perforated facade that some critics have compared to a cheese grater but that strikes me as both imposing and elegant.

Beautiful view of Valletta, Malta’s capital

I’m marveling at the coherence of Piano’s complex when I spy a young man eating a sandwich nearby. Ramon Vella is no fan of the new construction. “I know the experts say it’s art,” he says, “but it doesn’t fit the culture of the city.”

He’s not alone in feeling that way; the Maltese president who initiated the project lost an election in part because of it.

Piano anticipated some resistance. In an interview with the local Times of Malta newspaper he noted, “I like the idea of joining past and future, history and modernity. We don’t want a monumental parliament; that’s not the spirit. It’s more about welcoming people, about having spaces that are accessible.” “I wouldn’t call it conservatism per se,” says Toni Attard, director of strategy for Arts Council Malta. “But there is a strong bias in favor of heritage and tradition here. People will get more outraged over a bastion that comes crumbling down than over an artist packing his bags and leaving.”

So what would change that mind-set? Injecting more diverse ideas and voices into the country’s insular culture would help. Arts Council Malta, Attard explains, is trying both, increasing public funding for the arts from 100,000 euro to 1.6 million and training artists internationally so they may return home to invigorate the local culture.

“This may not be the most artistically refined cultural scene yet,” says Attard. “But it’s changing. There’s been quite a buzz building in the past few years.”

Contributing to that buzz is Valletta’s selection as a European Capital of Culture. For a tiny nation like Malta, this designation offers an opportunity to show the world what it’s up to.

“I think the selection panel was struck by the novelty we rep-resent,” says Karsten Xuereb, executive director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation. “Malta is known for its heritage and history; the panelists were curious to see how we’d spin it in a contemporary sense. Because you know what? The past is past. This gives us a chance to articulate what it means to us today to be Maltese.” Among other things, Xuereb told me, the designation will bring fresh cultural programming, a new contemporary art museum in what centuries ago was lodging for Italian knights, and a design center fashioned from an old slaughterhouse. Valletta 2018 also has inspired a reworking of the 19th-century covered market into a modern food hall that will combine produce stalls and trendy places to eat. I can hear hammers and drills busy at work as I walk past it on Merchants Street.

All this change prompts me to look for more in Gozo, Malta’s second largest island. Not as populated as Malta proper, it has a higher percentage of agricultural land, which confers a notably rural feel. Not surprisingly, the past remains decidedly present. In fact, my first stop takes me as far into the past as I can go.

The Neolithic temples at Ggantija date back more than 5,500 years, making them older than Egypt’s pyramids. Many temple altars still stand, perhaps once decorated with the rotund figurines I’d seen at the National Museum of Archaeology, in Valletta. Pausing before one temple altar under the baking sun, I feel a chill run through me—all the millennia, all the ancient people who once stood, awed, in this very same spot.

In its own way Gozo is looking to the future. Instead of the nightclubs and bustling beaches that draw so many vacationers to resort areas on the larger island, Gozo is developing ecotourism and other forms of experiential travel. Chief among these is diving; the British magazine Diver recently named Gozo the world’s second best diving destination (after the Red Sea), thanks to crystalline waters and many underwater caves and tunnels.

Yet even here, says David Hayler-Montague, a Brit who moved to Gozo six years ago and opened the Bubbles Dive Centre, the real appeal is the past. “What I love about this place is how it seems like it could be 30 years ago. Things aren’t built up as they are on the other island, and people here are so laid-back, so decent, and so honest. The days on Gozo just seem to happen.”

Though I’m not a diver, Hayler-Montague invites me to accompany a group he is escorting to the Blue Hole, Gozo’s top dive site. We drive to a large parking lot bordered on one side by the sea and on the other by a sere landscape. Scrambling down rocks to the water’s edge, we find a pool that marks the entrance to the Blue Hole.  We also find the Azure Window, a massive arch carved from the limestone by centuries of wind and water.

Azure Window – Gozo Island, Malta

The divers sink beneath the water (later one will tell me it’s the best dive he’s ever made, with its grottoes), but I’m transfixed by that rock formation. Around me, kids jump into the turquoise sea. It is the most beautiful swimming hole I have ever seen.

And also, it turns out, the most famous. Two days later I’m back on the main island, Malta, in its ancient capital, Mdina, listening to Malcolm Ellul point out sites where Game of Thrones had filmed during its first season. When a girl asks why the hadn’t returned to film in Malta, Ellul looks momentarily pained. The scene in which Princess Daenerys marries the warlord Drogo was shot in front of the Azure Window, he explains. To make it look like a Dothraki desert, the producers laid down tons of sand, which damaged an environmentally sensitive area and resulted in fines against the local production company. Yet Ellul thinks there will be other opportunities. After all, Assassin’s Creed, the new movie based on the insanely popular video game, was filmed partly in Valletta.

ON MY FINAL NIGHT I RETURN TO VALLETTA. Renzo Piano, in addition to redesigning the old city gate and the parliament building, recast the once ornate Royal Opera House, which was largely destroyed in World War II by German bombs. Piano’s design kept the structure roofless, a choice that, dismayingly to some Maltese, makes it appear unfinished—but leaves it open to the oranges of a dawn sky and the pinks and purples of dusk. Piano said that he wanted to create “a place of virtual sound and virtual setting, including all the possible techniques that are absolutely new… a way to push Malta into the future.” I stand outside this reinvention as strains from Tchaikovsky’s

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” fill the night. To be honest, I have not found the degree of innovation I came looking for. There are no daring art galleries or hip neighborhoods, at least not equivalent to those in Brooklyn or London. No cafe spends 15 minutes on proper “pour-over” coffee, and few do truly new things with food. My most memorable moments connected with Malta’s past, not its future—especially a nighttime walk in Victoria, the largest city on Gozo, where, from the medieval citadel I took in a 360-degree view of the entire island. In the near distance, every few miles, I could make out the glowing dome of a church; beyond, I spied the sea’s edge. It was a sublime moment that came from an unmediated communion, I thought, with history. Later I learned the citadel had undergone extensive renovation and reopened to the public only two days before my visit. What had so moved me was not the unadulterated past but the past lightly reimagined for the present.

Then I remembered something Toni Attard had told me: that along with trying to build new cultural institutions, his Arts Council Malta was investing in a reinvigoration of the old. “The last purpose-built theater in Malta was under British rule,” he’d said. “We could spend the next ten years waiting to build a new one, or we could do what we did—maximize what is available. ”

So Malta may not experience the Bilbao effect. But perhaps I’d been wrong to think of the creation of some brand-new, clearly contemporary work as the only possible sign of modernization. The past and the future are not opposites, after all, but points along a continuum. Change doesn’t have to come only in the form of rupture. It can come gently, in small and slow reinventions of what has been.

Leaving the Azure Window in Gozo, I’d hopped in a taxi. The driver, Florian, asked what I thought of the formation. I went on about its beauty. He said geologists had just tested it and found that the top of the arch is so worn, it could collapse within months. I’d expressed my dismay; Florian agreed.

“But,” he’d added, “you know what we Maltese are like. We are used to making things from the past. So it’s not the Azure Window anymore? We’ll call it the Azure Door.”

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