May 1, 2006
David Rich 1500 Words
1 Maltese Pound/Lira=$3 US
C O C K - E Y E D M A L T A
Take a vacation from reality and pop over to cock-eyed Malta, Europe's most-densely populated part, which is not particularly surprising for a country more Catholic than the Vatican. Considering the dearth of movies and television programming in Maltese, what else is there to do for fun?
Though over-achievingly capitalistic, with the most cars per capita, the least land to drive them on, and don't forget their Catholicism, this newest member of the EU speaks a dialect of, gasp, Arabic. But then, Malta's closest southern neighbor is Col. Muammar Khadafy, the interesting leader of Libya. On the other hand, English is pretty much tied with Maltese for main language, which may be part of why its gorgeous bits have drawn Hollywood like a magnet. Plus the prehistoric Maltese built the world's oldest standing structures, now rather dilapidated apartments, a thousand years before the pyramids intruded on a pharaoh's dream.
The locals are addicted to fireworks, strangely shooting them off in broad daylight when they can't be seen. The Maltese also massacre every migratory bird venturing within the cross-hairs of their fanatic IRA look-alikes. Perhaps this loose canon mentality stems from a frustration borne of unending subjugation by successive waves of Phoenicians (think boats and Trump-style capitalism), Carthaginians (think elephants), Romans (weirdo emperors), Byzantines (Rome East), Arabs (think five prayers a day, versus one or two for Catholics), Normans (Vikings and horned helmets), Sicilians (It'sa Prizzi's Honor), Knights of St. John (Monty Python of the South), the French (baguettes and no foreign words) and finally the British (for stiff-upper-lip).
The Maltese, first and finally independent in 1964, harbor another dozen or so quaint quirks too numerous list. But they often pulled off major coups, including paying Middle Ages tribute with a couple of Maltese falcons. The Knights of St. John (the only occupier with whom the Maltese identify), beginning in 1530, paid for their rent of the islands by delivering one falcon to the Sicilian Viceroy and another to the Spanish Emperor. Falcons have since vanished like the red-herring proffered by Dashiell Hammett. But go to Malta anyway, because it's a hoot and a half.
The whole country consists of three inhabitated islands ranging from tiny to miniscule, covered with 359 Catholic churches like chicken pox on a mouse. However, several churches are sheer masterpieces, and all are unutterably medieval. The largest island (coincidentally named Malta) is a hefty twenty seven by fifteen kilometers (seventeen by nine miles), smaller than the Isle of Mann or Martha's Vineyard. The islands are literally jam-packed with ancient towns hewn from pale yellow stone sprouting scarlet-topped churches in every-which direction you happen to look. But they have a good excuse for their Catholicism, converted by a ship-wrecked St. Paul in 60 A.C.E. (See Acts 27-28), a Johnny-come-lately when the world's oldest temples sat ten miles (sixteen kilometers) away, overlooking the spiffy blue sea.
The dolmen-like Hagar Qim and Mnajdra were built from 5600 years ago, a concoction of fifty megaliths oriented to the winter-solstice sunrise, sitting on the edge of a cliff with a view: overlooking uninhabited and miniscule Filfla Island, a single kilometer from the soaring arch over the blue grotto on Malta's south end. Before moving on to sample Malta's scenic bits, check out its most visited antiquity, if you have the time. The Hypogeum is an underground acropolis discovered in 1902, also dating from 3600 B.C.E. But reserve your visit at least ten days in advance or you'll otherwise never see it. Gawkers are limited to eighty a day and bookings are backed up from ten days to multi-weeks.
The islands are pocked with grottos and decent beaches, attracting film-makers from Robin Williams' pretty funny musical Popeye (check out cutesy Popeye Village on the northwest corner of Malta), to Swept Away, Gladiator, The Spy Who Loved Me and a dozen others. Local Catholics are currently scandalized that parts of The Da Vinci Code were shot in Malta. Swept Away, Madonna's epic, was filmed in the Blue Lagoon, which sits between Comino Island and Cominito, just off the south coast of Gozo, the second largest island, seven by fourteen kilometers, or four by nine miles.
Gozo is worth a week of stimulating solitude. Its capital of Victoria is dominated by the Cittadella, a hunky castle punched-up on a flat-topped promontory, similar to Gozo's dozen other hill-topped municipalities. The Cittadella is a labyrinth of walkable ramparts encircling the Basilica of St. George, the usual ancient Maltese church strewn with inlaid-marble-floor tiles relating historical epics, many depicting skeletons, the Knights of St. John or St. George knocking off a dragon.
Gozo's coastal attractions begin with Dwejra's Azure Window, a humongous arch jutting into the Med, next to the Inland Sea, a lake-like cove accessible from the ocean by a labyrinth of colonnaded tunnels. Unfortunately, Dwejra's pulchritude beckons an unending procession of tour buses, trundling up for the day from Malta.
Gozo's north coast is dotted with idyllic refuges ranging from inexpensive beachside guesthouse, most with balconies, to upscale resorts overlooking the translucent turquoise sea off Marsalforn. Stroll along a kilometer of cliffs west from Marsalforn for fair-to-middling views of the ancient, and still operational, salt pans on the windsurfer haven of Xweini Bay.
The aquamarine waters surrounding the Islands are a pristine diver's paradise, for those partial to seahorses and sharks. This means summer is packed with Europeans escaping the madhouse of Europe for its most densely populated enclave. But you can still find remote corners with walks along sheer cliffs with 280 meter (900 foot) drops, pounded by unruly surf where few venture and solitude remains for the asking.
When finished with quiet Gozo, with a mere 30,000 residents, return to tightly-packed Malta for upscale seaside resorts. The photos most often seen on glossy tourist pamphlets are taken in Marsaxlokk on Malta's southeast coast, a harbor filled with vivid boats painted blue, yellow, green and orange, uniformly protected with all-seeing eyes to ward off evil sea-spirits, bobbing on crystal-clear waters reflecting the magenta cupola of the local church. The many fishing boats swirl purple nets to snare the catches available in every sea-side restaurant.
Malta's capital city of Valletta is a world heritage site, completely walled, sprouting thick-skinned forts on the battlements, and narrow streets overhung by a thousand balconies. In the center sits St. John's Co-Cathedral, the world's most sumptuous, making the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica look pale and wan, turning gaudy into mundane. The floors are marble-tomb lids in pink, blue, yellow, red, white and blue, stretching the eye to walls covered in gold Maltese crosses and curlicues over a blue velvety background , topped with vaulted ceiling panels painted in all the Sherwin-Williams colors by Carvaggio. Impressive, of a kind, and what a photographer's paradise.
The Knight's Grandmaster's Palace is practically next door, housing five hundred suits of original Knight's armor. These reverted to the Order upon the death of the Knight. There'd be thousands more clanking clunkers, except for looting by Napoleon. Valletta's walls enclose a hundred antiquities converted to museums, musty government offices, ritzy clothing stores and decadent restaurants.
Opposite Valletta's peninsula, across Grand Harbor, three additional fingers stretch into the Mediterranean, the middle one named Vittorioso, where the Knights first settled into ritzy auberge apartments. But the most opulent walled city on Malta is Mdina, the headquarters of the powers who now run and have always run Malta, built atop the original Roman capital. To get there, or anywhere, take an orange Bedford bus. The Maltese-bus fleet is itself mostly an antiquity, typifying the quaintness of pop-eyed Malta.
When you go: Generally pre-see www.aboutmalta.com, www.gozo.com, www.visitmalta.com, www.malteseislands.com, www.searchmalta.com, and www.starwebmalta.com. The last is billed as "Malta's first online concierge". You can fly to Malta from London for $300 roundtrip, or take a ferry from Sicily or Tunisia for much less. Accommodations range from cheap ($30 and up) guesthouses to fancy resorts. The Gardens Guesthouse in Victoria, Gozo, offers penthouse apartments with a view from $30 a double with sundeck and large attached bathroom. The food is excellent for those who love piquant local cheeses smothered in peppercorns, pasties and lavish salads accompanied by crusty Maltese bread.
Malta is best known for the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. Johns of Jerusalem, aka the Knights of St. John, the Knights of Rhodes (where they camped for two hundred years, awaiting the chance to snatch Jerusalem back from Islam), the Knights of Malta, and the Knights Hospitallers—originating with the Christian Crusades of the 11th and 12th Centuries, pre-mimicking a post 9/11 world. Rather like modern day suicide bombers, a Knight killing an infidel won glory for Christ. Dying in battle while defending the faith guaranteed heaven, though a heaven bereft of seventy-two virgins. The Knights were European noblemen living as monks and soldiers with a motto: In the service of the poor, and the defense of the Catholic faith. The Order has diplomatic relations with ninety-three countries and has been a permanent observer at the United Nations since 1994. Go figure.