Monday, March 19, 2012

Golden Malta

Not content to rest on our travel laurels, having ventured as far as Sicily, we continued our southern trajectory and journeyed an additional 50 miles to the Republic of Malta. After several bag drags, two bus rides, a two-hour high-speed ferry and an even higher speed taxi trip to our hotel, we arrived safely in St. Julian’s, Malta.

The Maltese archipelago of seven islands, three of which are inhabited (Malta, Gozo and Comino), is stuck in the middle of the Mediterranean due south of Sicily, to the north of Libya and east of Tunisia. For such tiny islands (the largest is just 95 square miles), they have witnessed more history than I’ll ever have time to digest. The country’s crossroad location has long made Malta strategically important, from the time of the first Phoenician settlements through today. During World War II, the islands played a key role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the Allies since from their shores they were able to disrupt critical Axis supply lines to Northern Africa. For its assistance, Malta paid the ultimate price; it lost thousands of lives and sustained serious damage all over the islands from German air attacks. A procession of powers (the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French and British) all laid claim to the islands at one time or another with each individual culture leaving its mark such that Malta became a uniquely Mediterranean microcosm. Finally, in 1974, the little island nation that could gained full independence from the UK and became part of the European Union thirty years later. Malta’s official languages are Maltese and English, the former of Semitic origin (as are Arabic and Hebrew) and many citizens also speak Italian. I naively expected the residents to speak with a British lilt, but perhaps because the UK arrived late to the game after so many others (it took possession in 1814), Maltese English is heavily accented with an eclectic mix of difficult to discern pronunciations. If you listen closely, their speech is laden with Arabic, British, Hebrew, Italian and Northern African influences all mixed together into a charming amalgam.

Our ferry from Pozzallo, Sicily arrived in Malta’s capital, Valletta, well after dark. The imposing walls of the fortified harbor were so thick you could drive a car atop them and, along with the city that rose up the hill behind them, were clad in enormous slabs of taupe sandstone. Given its vulnerable position in the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta’s busy port of Valletta was built and rebuilt, buttressed and bolstered, to always be on the defensive since it has seen its share of attacks over the course of its storied millennia. I almost expected to see the Knights of Malta standing watch over the harbor, arms at the ready, as we disembarked from the ship. We opted to stay in St. Julian’s, a bustling coastal town with cafes galore a few miles west of Valletta. When we awoke the next morning, the view from our upper story hotel room confirmed that not only was the main harbor a bastion of stone, all the construction along the northern coast was much the same. In the brilliance of the morning, however, what had appeared an infinite accumulation of drab beige and taupe in the dark blended into a golden ochre glow in in the sunlight. It was a perfect day for outdoor exercise, so we took advantage of the cool coastal breezes and wide waterfront walkway and did a long marathon training run. We hadn’t been in the company of so many walkers and runners since we’d left the States; clearly, Malta is a land of health-conscious enthusiasts like us.

Hoping to see as much of Malta as we could quickly, we took a hop-on/hop-off bus ride to visit the major sights. The all-day excursion took us across the main island’s low, rocky hills, terraced fields, shoreline cliffs and a few pebbly beaches. Officially Roman Catholic, Malta’s landscape is filled with churches, all of them prominently displaying twin clocks on their towers: one with the correct time and one the incorrect hour in a quirky effort to trick the devil and keep him away from the celebration of mass. Somehow I can't believe that wily Lucifer would be so easily fooled, especially by the old double clock trick. We walked through Mdina, the country’s former capital, a peaceful, stylish town still sequestered behind its medieval stone walls and set high on a hill in the island’s center. Every town we passed through was filled with residential buildings, each floor graced by distinctively Maltese loggia – shallow, window-lined front porches that must provide welcome drafts during the scorching island summers. Around the northeast corner of the big island, we passed by a rocky bay, the site where the Acts of the Apostles reports that St. Paul and his ministry were shipwrecked. Our bus ticket included an hour-long harbor ride on a colorfully painted wooden fishing boat the following day. In the few minutes we had while waiting to board, we enjoyed frothy Burger King cappuccinos on a sunny outdoor terrace overlooking the harbor, surprisingly the best and biggest coffees we’d had on our trip. As we sat sipping our frothy drinks and the seagulls swooped and screamed, I recalled the graffiti that quoted from Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Man and the Sea, and adorned the wall of the tavola calda where we’d eaten at the ferry port in Sicily, “Uomo libero, amerai sempre il mare!” – (Free man, you will always love the sea!).

Malta was as far south as we would venture until mid-April when Chris and Caroline make their encore Gap Year appearance. They’ll be with us for five days in Paris to cheer us on at the marathon, and then we’ll all fly far to the south to our next island destination: the Greece isles. In the meantime, our brief three-day visit to Malta complete, we needed to leave the fascinating melting pot of cultures to retrace our steps and head back north. Our island-hopping visits to Capri, Sicily and Malta had far exceeded our expectations but there were bottles of wine in Tuscany with our names on them and we were anxious to pull the corks. It was time to trade golden-hued Malta for the reds and whites of Chianti.

Pictures of our adventures:

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