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Visiting the Island of Malta

As I walked up and down Valletta's streets, I was conscious of the island's British past. That cutesy side of the English sensibility-- you know, the one that invented tea cozies-- had made itself known here in establishments like Cuddles Nursery School and the Teeny Weeny Shop, which sells children's clothing. But there were hints that the colonial experience hadn't been completely digested-- little mistakes such as a hairdresser's called Noel's Talking Hair, and an ice machine in my hotel called the Sanity Dispensing Machine.

Reflecting on these signs, I went to St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral. Unlike St. John's Co-Cathedral and St. Paul's Shipwreck Church, the Anglican cathedral is in the British style: purposely simple. One wall is covered by a floor-to-ceiling gold-and-wine-colored brocade. There are needlepoint kneeling cushions with heraldic designs, and pencil drawings of Victorian ladies rather than saints. An epitaph to a governor's wife reads LOVELY IN SO MANY WAYS, which suggested to me more a soap commercial than the promise of eternal life. How different this airy, unoppressive openness was from the seriously decorated Baroque interiors of the Catholic churches-- as different as a pencil drawing of a lady in curls is from a reliquary with a wristbone, as different as LOVELY IN SO MANY WAYS is from the image of a skeleton holding a book in its bony fingers.

I paid a late-afternoon visit to my Caravaggio, swam in the hotel pool, then went to the Castille Hotel's rooftop restaurant. The view of the harbor was delightful; in the distance I could see fireworks. The dinner represented the best of British cooking. The grilled sea bream (a white-fleshed fish that tastes something like trout) was wonderfully fresh, served, in the British style, with boiled potatoes and two vegetables. My waiter asked if I was Italian.

At midnight, standing on my terrace for a final breath of night air, I noticed fireworks again. The man at the hotel desk told me they were for a festa, the Feast of St. Paul, which was being celebrated in Rabat, a city southwest of Valletta, next to the medieval village of Mdina.

Next morning I put my plans for the Mediterranean aside to go to the festa at Rabat. I decided to take a bus to the Mdina city gates. Maltese buses, painted yellow and orange, look like those anthropomorphic vehicles in children's books: their headlights seemed like smiling eyes, their fenders generous, laughing mouths. I enjoyed traveling with mothers and babies, with cuddling teenagers, with toothless grandfathers wearing caps and three days' growth of beard. Above the windshield, in script, were the words PLAY AS YOU GO.

Mdina on Sunday was a ghost town, and my heels rang on the cobblestones. The streets were treeless and austere; there was a distinctly southern feel to the village. I made my way down the road to Rabat and was told that the real festa would begin in the evening. So, in the spirit of the feast, I took another bus to St. Paul's Bay. Above the windshield of this one: LIFE IS HEAVEN.

St. Paul's Bay is said to be the location of the actual shipwreck. The beach is rocky; people were lying on large boulders, hard little islands over which they spread towels and drinks. In one secluded section a group of women sunbathed topless. I created a scenario in my mind: St. Paul, known for insisting that women cover their heads in church, lands here 2,000 years later, shipwrecked once again. Ragged, dying of thirst, he approaches the rocks. A group of topless women stand up and confront him. "Okay," they tell him, "we'll wear hats. But no tops."

The whole town of Rabat was out for the festa. Several strong young men, dressed in satin garments for the occasion, carried a life-size statue of St. Paul, teetering on their shoulders. This was not the ferocious pleasure-denying patriarch, but a shy uncle who's trying to enjoy the party. Everyone threw confetti at the statue. Houses were decorated with flowers, mostly artificial. People sold candy and drinks on the street. And everywhere, fireworks proudly declared the spirit of celebration. On the bus back to Valletta, teenagers flirted and grandmothers clucked their disapproval.

I felt I'd earned my day at the beach, and I chose one called Golden Bay. The sea was an opalescent green. Dramatic cliffs hung over the water, making for an exciting contrast with its calmness. The beach was crowded (it was, after all, July), but not unbearably so. And the water was, quite simply, heaven-- irresistibly warm, the waves playful but unalarming and so clear that you could see to the white, sandy bottom. One garish hotel stood in the distance, but tourism had not yet spoiled the pleasures of the place.

The next day I took a taxi, a Mercedes driven by a silver-haired man, to the landing for boats going to the Blue Grotto. We drove along a spectacular cliff road, past a small, rocky inlet full of traditional Maltese luzzu (fishing boats) painted in shades of dark blue, rose, yellow, and red, with the necessary evil eye always present on the prow.

At the boat landing was a typical collection of seaside establishments: fish-and-chips joints, T-shirt and souvenir shops. Five other tourists (two English, three German) and I sat in a peacock-blue motorboat. Sailing in and out of grottoes, I saw colors so bright they looked unnatural-- a metallic, chemical blue that seemed as if it must be manufactured. As the tide went out, the rocks revealed themselves in various layers to be rose-colored, purple, and bluish gray. My eye was fed with a procession of vividness: the color of the water, the rocks, the boats, the blue sky, and the threatening, gray, overhanging rocks.


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