Haven for the non-heroic traveler

Anders Overgaard

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.

My heart beat faster as I walked toward the cathedral museum, where the Caravaggios were exhibited. The museum was closed, but the guard told me it would open in the morning.

"The Caravaggios are there?" I asked excitedly.

"Oh, Miss," he said, and his light brown eyes were sad. "Only one is there. The better one, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, is being restored in Florence."

I felt like someone who has seen a silver bowl full of caviar at the head of the table, and when it's finally passed to her, discovers that it's empty. There was nothing to do for my sorrow but drink a pistachio milk shake. I sat in Republic Square, at the Café Cordina, under a leaf-covered arbor; a man on a portable organ played once-popular Italian songs-- "Volare," "Santa Lucia." The waiter asked if I was Russian. No, American, I said. His reply was music to my ears: "Not many Americans come here." Another good reason to visit Malta. There aren't many places left where an American seems exotic.

In my fatigued state, the safety and quiet of the Valletta streets were a relief. No one was shouting; no one was begging; the store windows and walls were free of pornography. It was perfectly possible for a tired, middle-aged woman, even a New Yorker, to make it to her hotel without feeling the shadow of menace over her shoulder.

I dined at the Phoenicia's restaurant, the Phoenix, which has a shipboard feel to it. Green-and-white awnings flapped, and a breeze cooled the sultry evening air. The specialties were enjoyable but unremarkable-- I had a tomato-based octopus stew and the local Maltese white, a light and quite pleasant Pinot Grigio. My waiter was young, eager, and friendly. He asked if I was German.

i had an early breakfast on the terrace, watching the white sails in the harbor; then I took a swim-- by eight the weather was more than warm enough-- and decided to devote my day to a walking tour of Valletta.

At 9:30, the cathedral museum opened. If the St. John wasn't there, at least the St. Jerome was. I stood alone in a dark room, part of the cathedral. Rows of religious paintings from the Renaissance covered most of the walls. And there, lit by a bulb that seemed to be the pure light of artistic inspiration, was a painting whose obvious greatness made my heart stop.

Caravaggio's St. Jerome is bare-torsoed. His hairless chest is muscular, his arms strong. He is not a young man. His baldness makes a wrinkled plane of his forehead, furrowed from the labor of writing. He grips a pen; his other hand is tense with effort and concentration. On his table are a skull, a crucifix, a rock, and a candle in a brass holder. In the dark background is a red hat, which relates to the red of the cloak covering the lower half of his body just as the wrinkles of his belly rhyme with the wrinkles of his forehead. This is a painting about no longer being young, about the struggle of writing in the face of death, whose approach is not distant.

The painting is in Valletta because Caravaggio, who had what might be called impulse-control problems (he left Rome for Naples after killing a man in a drunken squabble), jumped at the chance to be named Knight of the Order of St. John and thus endowed with respectability. The painting is marked with the Maltese cross, symbol of the order. Unfortunately, Caravaggio got into trouble in Malta; he is said to have fought with and wounded one of the Knights. The story goes that his brief bid to improve his reputation ended in a prison sentence, and that he escaped the island in secrecy.

After my siesta I changed into a sleeveless blouse, then set out for St. Paul's Shipwreck Church. Cheerfully, the caretaker showed me a variety of silk remnants: printed ones, pastels, and bright monochromes. I could have my pick to drape over my shoulders-- women can't enter a Catholic church in Malta with bare arms.

St. Paul is an important presence in Malta. The Acts of the Apostles tells of his Maltese shipwreck, probably in a.d. 60, as he was voyaging from Jerusalem to Rome to stand trial for inciting a riot in the Holy City. Once in Malta, St. Paul cured the father of Malta's Roman governor, Publius. The governor converted, and Christianity was established in Malta.

One church altar displays a silver reliquary. Through its central glass window, surrounded by diamonds, I glimpsed what is believed to be St. Paul's right wristbone.

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.

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.

The Facts

Air Malta flies to Valletta from London (3 hours), Paris (3 hours), Rome (1 hour), and Frankfurt (21/2 hours). Pack for warm weather. Thankfully, when Valletta's streets were designed in 1566, it was with summer heat in mind-- a gridiron pattern allows breezes to pass through the city.

Le Meridien Phoenicia The Mall, Floriana; 800/225-5843 or 356/225-241; doubles from $195. Recently bought by the Meridien chain, this colonial building near Valletta has 136 rooms, eight suites, and a pool set amid seven acres of private gardens.
Castille Hotel Castille Square, Valletta; 356/243-677; doubles from $82. The largest of the 39 guest rooms in this converted palazzo are on the first and second floors.
Westin Dragonara Resort Dragonara Rd., St. Julian's; 800/228-3000 or 356/377-884; doubles $116. This resort, with 311 rooms and 30 suites, opened in April 1997. It has the only casino in Malta.
Ta' Cenc Hotel Sannat, Gozo; 356/556-819; doubles $112. A modern resort with 64 rooms, and 19 suites in individual beehive-shaped buildings called trulli.

The Phoenix Le Meridien Phoenicia, Floriana; 356/225-241; dinner for two $30. French/Mediterranean fare with a five-course prix fixe dinner. Try the Maltese octopus stew.
Castille Hotel Rooftop Restaurant Castille Hotel, Valletta; 356/243-677; dinner for two $11. While the restaurant usually serves French and Italian food, a special national menu is offered on Fridays. Have the rabbit stew (Malta's national dish), made with potatoes and other vegetables in a wine sauce.
Compass Rose Westin Dragonara, St. Julian's; 356/377-884; dinner for two $46. Start with the Mediterranean dim sum (there's even a rabbit spring roll) at this fusion restaurant. Another favorite is the beef fillet on fried Chinese noodles, with black-bean sauce and locally caught prawns.

St. John's Co-Cathedral St. John's Square, Valletta; 356/225-639. Don't let the austere façade fool you; it hides a Baroque interior and an extensive selection of Flemish tapestries-- not to mention the Caravaggios, both of which are now on view in the museum.
St. Paul's Shipwreck Church St. Paul's St., Valletta; 356/223-346. Local lore has it that St. Paul was beheaded near this lavish church.
Grand Master's Palace Palace Square, Republic St., Valletta; 356/222-294. Erected more than 400 years ago, this is the magnificent home of Malta's president and parliament.