The best thing about the British Hotel, the oldest in Valletta, is its location half way up the cliff that is the southern edge of the city. Our funky room, the only one located on the top floor of the hotel, wasn’t very large or comfortable. In addition, when leaving the room in the morning, we had to step gingerly around the piles of soiled sheets and towels the maids were sorting in front of our door. However, at the cocktail hour, we would take our plastic cups of scotch onto the large, adjacent terrace and enjoy a sunset view over the Grand Harbor that was second to none. We treated the terrace as our own private domain as no other guests ever seemed to come up there.
Although we combined a stay in Malta with a trip to Sicily, we experienced the two islands very differently. For one thing, Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the local government restricts motor vehicles to the periphery. As we strolled around this lovely, historic city, there was none of the incessant traffic with its obnoxiously loud motorbikes that plague Sicilian towns.
Another difference from Sicily is Malta’s history. The three islands that make up this small country were never invaded and colonized as avidly as was their larger neighbor. Malta is much smaller, stonier and not so suitable for agriculture. Then there was the Order of the Knights of St John.
Those of you who love 1941’s The Maltese Falcon will remember the unforgettable scene in which Sidney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman explains to Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade how in 1530 Charles V of Spain, as King of Sicily, gave the islands of Malta to the Knights Hospitaller in perpetual fiefdom after they had been driven out of Jerusalem and Rhodes by the Ottomans.
The knights were scions of many of the great noble families of Europe and the outlines of Valletta are the results of the ways the order fortified and endowed it with military, civil and religious architecture.
The arrival of the Order of St John came relatively late in Malta’s history. It was the Phoenicians and later the Romans who established what would later, under the Saracens, become the noble and historic city of Mdina. Mdina owes its tag line “The Silent City” as much to its restricted motor traffic as it does to the medieval walls that surround and protect it. It really was a charming place to spend a sunny day among its quiet streets and alleys with their intriguing doorways and mysterious courtyards.
It was in one of these courtyards that we ate one of our best Maltese meals, a lunch consisting first of a meze platter containing sausage, purple olives, garlic toast, tapenade, some interesting hard cheese coated with pepper, sundried tomato, and octopus. Bragoli, a Maltese specialty, followed: rolled beef stuffed with ham and hard-boiled egg and topped with a very tasty tomato sauce.
St Paul was shipwrecked near Mdina and spent some months there in 60 CE. The town’s impressive cathedral is dedicated to him. The vaults of its ceiling contain illustrations of scenes from his life and there is a great painting above the altar depicting his shipwreck.
One other attraction that really knocked us out was the personal trove of art objects and historical items that one very wealthy and discerning Captain Olof Gollcher installed in a restored Siculo-Norman palazzo near Mdina’s cathedral. The rooms in the Palazzo Falson are not large, but they are filled with beautiful and priceless objects of many kinds that constitute an exquisite small museum. As I recall, the very idea of a museum grew out of such private collections of wealthy Europeans, who would display and show them privately to their guests in their “curio cabinets”.
Back in Valletta on a Sunday morning I was fortunate in obtaining the last ticket to visit a rare and interesting prehistoric site.
The Hypogeum, located in what today is a non-descript suburb of Valletta, is the carefully protected underground burial site of an unknown prehistoric civilization. Only ten visitors at a time are allowed inside. Our group of ten was composed of some Germans, one Italian and a few English speakers. I know this because our docent programmed the audio guides according to the languages each person requested. These guides were entirely automatic and would give a short explanation at each stop on the tour.
On its three levels the Hypogeum provided a final resting place for the bones of 7,000 persons over a period of 2,000 years starting around 4500 BC. What is remarkable about the site is the sophistication of its construction. A couple of its larger rooms are really sculptures done out of solid rock with smooth walls and carved ceilings that replicate those of the Megalithic temples, which no longer exist on Malta’s surface. It is from the Hypogeum that scholars know what the ceilings of these temples must have looked like. Those who built this site over centuries had only stone and bone tools to work with. The work must have taken ages, and from experience the makers learned how to exploit faults in the rock to aid their task. This method allowed them to build strength as well as beauty. The evidence is that the Hypogeum has remained intact for more than six millennia even though Malta has suffered several earthquakes during that time.
In its more recent history Malta withstood two very determined sieges. In 1565, after the knights had been on the island only 35 years, the great Ottoman Sultan Süleyman, with his empire at its apex, sent an expeditionary force of 40,000 to seize Malta to use as a base to attack Europe. Malta’s defenders, 700 knights and 8,000 soldiers, were grossly outnumbered, yet they managed to hold out long enough that the intense summer heat and their mounting losses convinced the Ottomans to give up.
The second siege was far more recent. During World War II Malta had great strategic importance. Its harbor sheltered the Allied ships that were preventing the Nazis from resupplying their North African campaign. In an all-out effort to destroy Malta’s influence; the Luftwaffe dropped more tons of bombs on the island than it did on England during the all the months of the Battle of Britain.
Valetta is a distinctive and relaxed city to visit. Enclosed, wooden balconies, many of which are painted green, hang on the facades of many buildings and help give the city its special look. Other elements are the vintage store and business signs from another era done in styles and language that seem quaint today – “Haberdashery”, “Confectionery”, “House Furnisher”.
Like Sicily, Malta’s is a strongly Roman Catholic society with churches and religious symbols everywhere. There are raised statues of religious figures on building corners and Our-Lady medallions next to many building doorways.
Another interesting phenomenon is the cacophony of church bells that ring at length and at odd hours like 5 pm, all out of tune with each other. Though these irritated us at first, we ended up looking forward to their crazy rhythms.
When we travel in Europe some of our favorite places to visit are the grand old theaters dating from the 19th century and before. With their tiers of boxes, fanciful frescos of nymphs and muses, and royal insignia they are the stuff of romance. Valletta has such a theater, the Teatro Manoel, where we were lucky enough to hear several popular arias sung during a special performance on the evening of La Notte Bianca.
These “White Night” extravaganzas are becoming traditions in some European cities. The idea is to bring many different kinds of music and street culture together on a single evening and perform it until the wee hours of the morning. Except for food and drink one can buy from the local restaurants, bars, and cafes there is no charge for any of this. The museums and other historical sites stay open all night as well and with no entry fees.
The only problem that we experienced is that by 10 o’clock there were so many people attending that it became impossible to move on the main streets. All available seats in the restaurants and cafes were taken. We finally gave up and returned to our private hotel terrace for a nightcap.
We were happy in Malta and well into our travel mode by the time we boarded the ferry for the two-hour crossing to Sicily and our continuing adventure.