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Visiting the Island of Malta

Back in Valletta that afternoon, I treated myself to a traditional date cake, whose anise smell had attracted me for days. If I say it was something like a hot Fig Newton, it sounds as though I didn't like it. But I did. It was warm, and sweet, and deep-fried, and it tasted of dates and anise. Delicate it was not, but I found myself looking forward to buying one for every bus trip.

I left the old-world comfort of the Phoenicia the following day to move to a new hotel outside the city. The taxi drive to the Westin Dragonara did not fill me with hope. I passed through Sliema, the desirable place for prosperous Vallettans, full of hideous contemporary architecture, including a series of jerry-built apartment buildings. The shopping area is crowded with McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wimpy Bar franchises. I became nostalgic for Republic Square, the Café Cordina, my date cakes. I feared for a Malta that catered, if not to American tourists, to tourists for whom McDonald's is the lunch of choice.

The Westin Dragonara, which had opened three months before my arrival, gave the impression of having been finished 10 minutes before I checked in. The paint didn't seem quite dry. It could have been a hotel anywhere in the world: the same overlarge hallways, the same polished faux marbre floors, the carpet with the residual smell of a new car, the queen-size beds with flowered spreads. But my view of the Mediterranean was spectacular, and I could see, beside a dock for swimming, a large, kidney-shaped pool surrounded by chaise longues to which waiters were bringing food and drinks.

My nighttime tour of St. Julian's, the village where my hotel was located, proved dispiriting for a person my age. Street after street was crowded with discos filled with students who had come to the city to learn either English or Italian, and with young (very young) travelers on cheap (very cheap) package tours. Music blared; video games buzzed, whined, and made exploding noises. I was happy to have a brandy on my terrace, and to make plans for a trip the next day to Gozo.

Gozo, at only 26 square miles, is less crowded than the main island. It's a place of farmers and fishermen. In spring it is green and flowering, but this was not evident in July. Tradition has it that Gozo is the island where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus captive for seven years.

My first stop was the unprepossessingly named Fungus Rock, where a supposedly valuable medicinal plant prized by the Knights was found. I took another boat ride, this one through the Azure Window, a natural rock arch leading to more grottoes with the same dramatic colors as the Blue Grotto. Everywhere I went on the island there were screaming birds, crashing waves, a pervasive smell of wild anise, and hypnotic views-- sheer cliffs dropping down to still, blue waters. I asked my driver to take me to the luxury hotel Ta' Cenc, a villa overlooking the sea, with stone floors that were marvelously cool, generous arches, bougainvillea in terra-cotta pots around the pool. I determined to remember it, because it struck me as the perfect place to begin a love affair, or perhaps a novel, or to get over the end of either or both. It would also be a good place to have a quiet, parenthetical nervous breakdown. It expressed a sense of luxury with the lightest possible touch; even asking for a brochure was a peaceful experience.

I spent my last day in Malta at my old stamping grounds in downtown Valletta, of which, I realized, I'd grown incredibly, protectively fond. There was something about the utter absence of pressure-- there wasn't even anything I particularly wanted to buy in the stores, lace doilies and brass knockers being the major exports. The only Maltese falcon I saw was a refrigerator magnet. I looked into the Grand Master's Palace, raced through rooms of armor, enjoyed the tapestries and the marble staircase and the courtyards with their opulent-- and, in midday, much-longed-for-- shade. I realized that I would miss the colorful blue and green balconies, the streets with their steps leading down to the sea, the polite, puzzled waiters with their light brown eyes. I prized the ease that I felt, the sense of calm and good order and gentle pleasures that soothed the overstimulated and abraded modern urban soul. Then, reluctantly, I went back to my modern hotel.

But modernization can often give with one hand a gift equivalent to what it has stolen with the other. On my last night, I had dinner at a new restaurant at the Dragonara, the Compass Rose. The young manager was terribly anxious that his new menu, a blend of Eastern and Western cuisine not familiar to the Maltese or the typical tourist's palate, would be appreciated. My meal-- tuna sashimi and chicken with lentils-- was first-rate, the best I had in Malta, the equal of any at fine restaurants in the world's major cities. I wished that this restaurant could be in Valletta's Republic Square, in an old palazzo with a marble staircase and a blue-green balcony.

The future of Malta, however, seems to be in Sliema and St. Julian's, with their international mega-hotels, health clubs, and ubiquitous discos. Perhaps the Malta I learned to treasure is on its way out. I recommend that the traveler who has a taste for one great painting, Baroque architecture, pleasant public transportation, and superb beaches get to Malta soon before it becomes another place whose quiet charm is rumor, lost in the vague accounts of visitors who stopped for a little while and then moved on.

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