TIM MAGEE recommends where to stay and eat in Malta’s diminutive capital Valletta …
Pop, snap, crackle, then snap, more pop and crackle. Fireworks. At an airport. Not off in the distance but right beside the runway from which I’m leaving Malta. Daytime fireworks at that. The fireworks are hard to see – without sunglasses you can’t separate them from the eye floaters you get when you stare at the sun – and fireworks at an airport don’t seem like a brilliant idea. There are some nervous flyers but anyone who has been here for even a few days is now battle hardened to the pops, crackles and colours of this pyrotechnic-obsessed island.
You’d think Malta would have had enough gunpowder in its history. The island had two sieges that would seem too unrealistic for a fantasy novel. The Grand Siege of 1565 was very grand indeed – there was a Sultan, a Pope, an Emperor, a Barbary Corsair, a Viceroy, hundreds of out of date Medieval Knights, and one Grand Master. And they were just the headline acts. At the end, even people’s heads were used as cannonballs, which seems impractical, and they had named the main city Valletta after the winning leader, the old flash Grand Master.
That battle is one of the bloodiest in history but a much quieter affair than the last siege Malta endured, a siege that some of today’s pensioners can still remember – the heaviest sustained bombing of WWII, all 154 days of it. First came the Italian Air Force and Navy, each as ornate and useful as a chocolate teapot, then shortly after came a summer of living hell from the devil’s own army as Hitler tried to destroy the island and everyone on it.
Equal parts strategic and isolated, Malta has been a big piece in board games for most of Europe’s boys’ wars for thousands of years. It doesn’t wear this lightly. Valletta is an armoured city, handsomely stone clad but one bloody big fort and, history buff or not, that WWII summer defines and shapes both the island and its little capital.
Malta is a three-island republic as near to Sicily as Dublin is to Belfast but unlike anywhere else. Everything about it reads like a cheesy brochure. Bake on the sunniest of Europe’s island nations! Paddle in Comino’s electric Blue Lagoon! Go deep in the Azure Window, one of the Med’s best diving sites! For landlubbers it’s a living history channel that starts with prehistory and mighty megalithic gantija temples and through a warring time tunnel with all the big names – the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Normans, Arabs and all the forts, castles, palaces and churches they left behind. Watch the sun set from natural beauties like the Dingli Cliffs or explore Comino’s car-free coves. Wander around Mdina’s religious history or Maltese vineyards and olive oil farms. Hike, bike, rock climb and abseil. Or just sit on your tush on beaches like Ghadira Bay … Not for me though, thanks. Valletta, Malta’s diminutive capital, is where it’s at.
Valletta only looks armoured and hard on the outside. Its soft centre is stuffed with deliciously skinny streets and rope ladder-like lanes draping down to the cafés and bars of the promenades from the handful of main drags. There are tiny restaurants tucked into front rooms and sweet bars that one person could run blindfold. And the country’s industries may now be financial, tech, tourism and gaming but its capital’s streets are too narrow to be mucked up by modernity. Street signs on magisterial centuries-old buildings are the edited highlights of fonts and styles from the 19th and 20th centuries and they mind those signs. Local laws say all cultural features over 50 years have heritage value (nearly there myself), so there’s Perspex over the only surviving sign from the two-year French occupation – and that happened in 1798.
Street names come from a language that started its life in Arabic and picked up bits and bobs of English, Italian, French and Sicilian along the way until, like its home, it became its own thing. The untouched streets bear quiet, dusty and usually extremely hot witness to the British tars and sailors, the knights and wars of the past, and plenty of religion, all in a mixum-gatherum language that looks like nothing else – like Triq il-Kavallier ta’ San Gwann (St John’s Cavalier Street), Misrah l-Assedju l-Kbir (Great Siege Square), Triq il-Lanca (Boat Street) or Sqaq l-Inginieri (Engineers Lane).
Maltese is under pressure from English now and most natives speak Italian too, so when eavesdropping on some locals having dinner at another table at Rubino, the conversation was like being stuck in a lift in the United Nations.
I ate at Rubino for the first day of lampuki. Lampuki sounds like a pet name locals might use for loved ones but my little lampuki was a fish caught by the maddest of methods. During the season, fishermen collect fronds from palm trees and weave them into rafts, which are pulled out to sea, sometimes still by the traditional boats, the luzzu. Meaty, delicate and delicious and fortunately not very bright, lampuki use the palm rafts for shade until it is (net) curtains for them and they are scooped up from their shady hiding place. Rubino, although touristy, is still a little cracker of a restaurant with the standard beautiful time capsule signage outside. The owner, Michael Diacono, is a pro and will
slow-walk you through his blackboard menu.
If Valletta is a fortress then the Phoenicia is its keep, with bossy views over the city. Just by the newly Renzo Piano-fied gates into the old town at its wheeling triton fountain plaza, this hotel, with its own battle-scarred history, is now looking fresh and ready for action, in a genteel kind of way.
After lunch I was hanging over the side of the Phoenicia’s classy infinity pool at the bottom of its well-minded mini-botanical gardens staring out at Marsamxett harbour. Not content with the popping of dawn to dusk fireworks the dull percussion of the midday salute thumped over the water from the nearby gun battery.
Fireworks in Malta is their GAA. Local villages and clubs compete with each other. There’s an international fireworks festival every April, but after witnessing a quiet Monday afternoon looking like Sydney Harbour at New Year I’d say you can see the April festival from Dublin, or space. That midday salute doesn’t feel militaristic but more like a daily, communal “Yay, we made it”. And there’s plenty to be thankful for – despite being Europe’s punching bag, gorgeous golden Valletta looks unscathed and reassuringly out of time.
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