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Visiting the Island of Malta

When I was first offered the opportunity to travel to Malta, I had a couple of immediate associations, neither of them saturated with the spirit of vacation. One was The Maltese Falcon, the quintessential film noir, in which Humphrey Bogart is betrayed by Mary Astor, and accompanied in betrayal by Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. I don't know about you, but when I think of a relaxing few days, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet aren't my companions of choice.

My second, vaguer association was with the Knights of Malta. I believed that people were made Knights of Malta primarily for having donated a lot of money to the Roman Catholic Church. Francis Ford Coppola must have had the same idea, because The Godfather, Part III opens with the induction of Michael Corleone-- after he has given millions to the Church to aid poor children in Sicily-- into the Order of St. Sebastian, a thinly disguised Knights of Malta.

I was also a little unclear as to Malta's exact location. I learned that the country is made up of three islands: one named Malta, and two smaller ones, Gozo and Comino. They are some 60 miles south of Sicily and 160 miles north of Libya. The main island is only 95 square miles.

Leaping from geography to history, as is my habit, I learned that Malta, like Sicily, has been repeatedly colonized, first by the Phoenicians-- from 800 to 600 b.c.-- then by Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and all of the grand European powers, until the islands came under the Aragonese (now Spanish) crown in 1282. Enter the Knights, to whom King Charles V gave Malta as a home in 1530. In 1565 the Knights repelled a Turkish attack on the islands, and they seem to have spent the next 250 years like fraternity boys on a spree. Coleridge said of the Knights (who were nominally supposed to obey vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience), "Every respectable family had some one knight for a patron as a matter of course; and to him the honour of a sister or a daughter was sacrificed, equally as a matter of course. But why should I thus disguise the truth?Alas! In nine instances out of ten, this patron was the common paramour of every female in the family." (At present, the Knights of Malta are engaged in charitable work; they are in charge of the St. John Ambulance Corps.) In 1798 the Grand Master of the Knights surrendered to Napoleon, and Britain and France fought over the islands until British rule began in 1800. Independence did not come until 1964.

What induced me to get on a plane headed for Malta was primarily two things: the assurance that the waters around it were the cleanest and the clearest in the Mediterranean; and the information that Caravaggio, who had been commissioned by the Knights, left two paintings there. The blue Mediterranean and my own (semi)private Caravaggios. And, crucial for me: it is possible to get around Malta by public transportation. That is to say, I could experience the Mediterranean without having to deal with those lunatics who drive at 120 miles per hour. Another plus: English is one of the two dominant languages.

I flew from JFK to Heathrow, where I learned while waiting for my connection that most of my flight companions were Irish bowlers on their way to Malta for a European bowling tournament. Somehow, this didn't make me feel as if Marlene Dietrich could have played me in the film. On board, I heard at least a hundred choruses of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." One team member had brought a guitar. It was, thankfully, only a two-hour flight.

My spirits improved when I reached Le Meridien Phoenicia, just outside Valletta's City Gate. The Phoenicia is a relic of the most agreeable aspect of British colonialism. A former villa, of honey-colored stone, marble-floored and surrounded by palms, it suggests the possibility of relaxation divorced from the anxiety of looking good in front of nubile European youths in Lycra. My room had a terrace and a view of Valletta's harbor-- encircled by walled fortifications, it was originally used for military defense, though the pleasure boats now docked there called up only peaceful associations. I made my way to the pool on a lush walkway past hibiscuses and oleanders, the cook's herb garden, and a pen of chickens that I decided not to get to know, in case they might be dinner. A young man with typical (as I would learn) Maltese coloring-- dark hair, ruddy skin, light brown eyes-- was happy to bring a Cinzano Bianco to my chaise. I was feeling much, much better. I was thinking of staying poolside for good.

But I am, by nature, too guilty a traveler for such a thing. If I can visit at least one sight on the day of air travel, I have broken the curse of the 20th century. So I showered, dressed in light clothing (at six, the air still held the midday heat), and walked through the City Gate toward the center of town.

Valletta has the charm of a second-string Italian city-- which is a very great charm indeed. Such cities provide a sense of openness, opulence, and grandeur without the pressure of 50 can't-miss sights you'd be a fool and a wimp to pass up. Though most of Valletta's architecture dates from the 16th and 17th centuries, the majesty of the Baroque makes itself felt without an overwhelming sense of monumentality. Wooden balconies, usually painted bright blue or green, give the great stone buildings a domestic personality. The streets are wide, and although Valletta after eight isn't Times Square (most younger people live in the trendy suburbs), the Mediterranean custom of taking a passeggiata gives Italophiles a taste of the pleasantly familiar. Valletta is built on a plateau, and the streets dip drastically down to the water-- some have steps cut into them. Everywhere there are delightful vistas and glimpses of the sea.

I came upon St. John's Co-Cathedral, whose severe façade looks more military than ecclesiastical. But the interior is splendid: in the grandest tradition of the High Baroque, every inch of wall is covered by arabesque carving. The floors are marble tombstones, tone poems in amber and black whose mosaic patterns allegorically depict the lives of the Knights buried underneath. Some are sumptuous, with designs of fruits and flowers; others are heraldic, based on coats of arms. On one a grinning skeleton holds in his bony hand an illuminated book.

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