Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Valletta, Malta

Coming into the Valletta Harbor on the Island of Malta in the early morning on Day 6 of our Mediterranean cruise was like sailing right into the 16th century.  It looked almost biblical. The entire town was a tan-colored mountain of pueblo-style buildings all connected to one another like one giant block of stone, crowned with magnificent church domes, monumental towers, and guarded by a host of imposing forts with big black cannons and a monolithic wall that ringed the story book city of Valletta, starting at the deep blue water's edge.

Inna and I were standing on our balcony as the MSC Poesia slowly maneuvered into her docking station and I looked at Inna and shook my head in wonder.  "I think we went through the time machine while we were sleeping last night, dear."

Of all the magnificent places I have visited around the Med, Malta was by far the most impressive.

We arrived at seven and the ship was scheduled to leave at one, so this was going to be a very short visit.  We were standing at the departure gangway, like anxious horses waiting to be let out of the corral, before they had even secured it to the dock.  And we were literally the first ones off the boat.  We hadn't even eaten breakfast. Inna had gotten her coffee fix and we grabbed some fresh fruit to take along in our packs.  But there was no way in hell we were going to waste time eating aboard the ship when there was this magical city beckoning us a few hundred feet away.

I had been reading about Malta most of my life, starting when I was a young boy.  Coming from a naval town like Annapolis, and having grown up with friends and family at the Naval Academy, Malta was ingrained in my brain like a memory chip.

The island of Malta sits like a peanut with a mini hammer head on the top in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, about halfway between Sicily and the Christian realm of Europe to the north, and Tunisia to the south where Islam has reigned supreme since before the Crusades. And because of its strategic location, it has always been the staging area and gate keeper for whoever was the top dog nation at the time. Malta's temporary landlords reads like a who's who of empires ― the Phoenicians, Sicilians, Romans, Moors, Normans, French and British ― every king of the world wanted to rule it no matter the cost.  It was always considered the key to unlocking the African and European continents since humans took to the sea.

Malta was founded by Sicilian settlers in 5200 BC.  Geologically, it was part of a submerged underwater ridge connecting Sicily and Africa.  It is entirely made of the remains of dead marine organisms and that's why all of the structures on the island are made of limestone.  You build with what you have.  Prehistorically, Malta was probably once part of a land bridge between the continents.  That bridge has since been covered by the sea, leaving little Malta to sit like a Stargate between two worlds and countless eons of planetary history.

In modern time (starting in the 19th century), Malta was a valuable chess piece between Britain and France.  Napoleon planted the French flag on his way to Egypt.  But the Maltese people never really wanted to be French.  So, they eventually asked the British (be careful what you wish for) to help them.  The Brits ruled the world with their powerful Navy, so an island so close to Africa and Europe with a deep water harbor was a treasure to be held dearly.  And after the Suez Canal was built in 1869, the British turned it into a mighty fortress.  They were not giving it up. Nor were they going to let the people of Malta call the shots.  And the fact that the tiny, 120 square mile island has always been ten pounds in a five pound sack, with its people crammed on top of one another like sardines, its people have been plagued by hunger and disease for countless years.

During World War I, Malta was known almost reverently as the Nurse of the Mediterranean because many soldiers were treated there between 1915-1918.

But this all got incredibly tricky and dangerous when World War II broke out.  The Italians were aligned with Hitler and Germany.  And the British colony of Malta was the home base for the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet and sat right in the middle of the Axis shipping lanes.  

Starting in June 1940, the Italians and Germans began bombing the hell out of Malta, and many of the island's storied structures were destroyed during the unrelenting seize.  By 1942, Malta's desperate plight finally resonated with the Allies and they came to its rescue.  And on December 8, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt visited Malta and presented its people with a United States Presidential Citation that read: "Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone and unafraid in the center of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness, a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come."  The plaque stands prominently to this day in Valletta's town square in front of the Grand Master's Palace.

A few months after Roosevelt's brave visit, the invasion of Sicily and Italy was launched from Malta.  It was the beginning of the end for the Nazis.

And in 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt met together in Malta before the Yalta Conference where they and Russian President Joseph Stalin divided up the planet and created the new world order.  One could easily argue that no place in Europe or Africa played a more important role in World War II than Malta.

Malta became its own independent republic in 1974, and the Brits left on April 1, 1979.  March 31st, Freedom Day, commemorates the British departure and is a very popular national holiday celebrated with fireworks and sailboat races. 

These days, the Republic of Malta is a member of the European Union and is still a place in great demand.  The rich and the powerful live there now.  Most islanders speak Maltese and they think of themselves in that way.  Nationalistic pride has blossomed like a sturdy oak tree, and the people are quick to point out that they are not British.  That said, the place is literally crawling with Brit expats and business people, and Malta is about as British as it gets, starting with the ceremonial firing of the cannons in front of the harbor every day at noon.  It's like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and drips with Colonial pomp and circumstance.  I guess that some habits are hard to break.

By leaving the boat right away, we were able to roam the city for over an hour when it was pretty much empty.  Most of the shops were still closed.  People hadn't started going to work.  And the hordes and I do mean hordes ― of tourons had yet to descend.

Getting from the ship to the old city of Valletta was an interesting ride. We began by walking the wall.  Cramped shops selling a myriad of inexpensive goods hugged the base of the wall in the narrow strip between the ring road that constantly changes names and the harbor

It was yet another sunny, cloudless day with temperatures in the 70's. You just can't beat the Mediterranean weather.

We came to a hole in the wall where there was an arch leading to a fairly large open-air square where we bought tickets for the Barrakka Lift, a 205-foot-tall elevator structure of glass and steel that took us to the top of the wall where the city perched like a mesa-top vision of prosperity and grace.  It looked like the kind of place where the Greek gods might have hung out. There are only two levels in the old, central city of Valletta ― the bottom by the water's edge, and the top.  There is nothing in between except the mammoth wall so thick that it could probably withstand a direct impact from a bunker buster missile.

We walked into the absolutely empty Upper Barrakka Gardens where grand sculptures and monuments from the past celebrated Malta's glorious history.  The flowers were all in bloom and the placed smelled like heaven.  It was a wonderful way to greet visitors and the spectacular views of the Kordin, Paola, Senglea, Brirgu, and Kalkara peninsula neighborhoods across the harbor, each with their very own walled fort, was like stepping back in time.  The architectural vibe was a soothing mix of Santa Fe meets Old San Juan, with some ancient Jerusalem thrown in for good measure.

Our original plan, when we thought we would have seven or eight hours to explore the city, was to purchase the 
City Explorer Virtual GPS Tour for 20€ per person.  It is a hand-held GPS unit containing a downloaded tour of the old city.  You just follow the tour like a google map with the little blue dot on your little high-tech device and when you get to each stop, there is a video narrative about each spot.  The video, featuring Christopher Columbus as our very silly tour guide, promised to take us to all the hot spots:

Valletta Waterfront 
St. John's Cathedral
Upper Barrakka Gardens (Best View)
Casa Rocca Piccola
Saluting Battery (Go at 4)
Fort St Elmo-National War Museum

Grandmaster's Palace
Siege Bell War Memorial
Republic Street
St George Square 
Valletta City Gate
Stray Street
St Paul's Anglican Church
Carmelite Church
Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Triton Fountain
Auberge de Castille
Our Lady of Victories Church
The Oratory of St Francis
Pjazza Teatru Rjal
Victoria Gate
St Catherine of Italy
St Andrew Scots Church

The GPS-guided tour looked really cool and seemed much better than a guided tour with an army of goofy tourons.  But we didn't have the time to see everything and watch videos. So, we decided to go for a power walk and cover as much ground as we could.

The old sky city of Valletta looks like a bishop chess piece, with a jumbo fort for its crown, and the rectangular body consisting of six main streets running east to west from the bishops' head and nine bisecting streets running north and south, with a maze of connecting alleys.  It's only about 0.5 of a mile by 0.3 of a mile, so seeing it all definitely seemed doable, at least in theory.

As we headed along Castille Street we soon came to a lovely tree-covered traffic circle in front of the stunning St. James Cavalier Center for Creativity and the lovely Our Lady of Victories Chapel and we realized how bloody foolish we were to think we could see the whole town.  Everywhere we looked there was something of incredible interest and beauty.

We continued on past the breathtaking St Catherine of Italy Church with its red tile roof standing next to the inviting Pjazza Jean de Vallett plaza where there were sculptures and polished white marble benches in the shade of the church.  We turned right onto one of the city's main shopping streets, the Triq Il-Merkanti (Triq is the Maltese word for street).  And after that, our plan pretty much unraveled.  

The streets were still pretty quiet.  The city felt almost abandoned.

"It's only eight o'clock," I said to Inna as we stopped at a cafe to have a bite to eat and watch the Vallettans head off to work.

Like so many European cities, many people walk to work.  And they all seemed happy.  I would be too if I lived in such a gorgeous place and didn't have to drive to my place of business like so many people do in America.

The thing that immediately jumped out at us was how stylishly the people were dressed.  They all looked like Vogue and GQ models. Many carried fine leather briefcases and they acted like they couldn't wait to get to work.   Inna, of course, is always dressed to kill, so she just stared admiringly at the chic Vallettans and sipped her strong coffee.  I, on the other hand, felt like a total schlub.

After our brief stop to recharge, we continued on down Trig San Gwann to the must see St. John's Cathedral.  By this time, the city was really starting to come alive,and while there weren't a lot of of motor vehicles, and the streets were really just one way alleys, you had to be very careful at every intersection to avoid being run over.

We walked toward the water on Triq San Mark, passing a wonderful mix of new and old where people lived, worked, shopped and played. The neighborhood dripped with style.  At the end of the street was a ginormous limestone edifice ― part church, part fort ― called the Fortress Builders Interpretation Center, where they told the amazing story about how Valletta had evolved through time.

We had been looking for a nice painting for our house since we left Barcelona.  But nothing had struck our fancy. As we were walking up the steep sidewalk along Sir Ugo Mifsud Street we stumbled upon a grizzled old coot standing outside a cubbyhole gallery called Gallery G. His name was Winston Hassall, and he was like someone from the pages of an old novel about a British painter who came to Malta as a young man; fell in love with a Maltese beauty; married her and then raised a happy family while mastering his unique watercolor technique that blended abstract, impressionistic and classical styles together in a swirl of rich colors.  Winston was that guy.  He was all smiles and self-deprecating humor.  At first, we just chatted outside the gallery, but he eventually got around to inviting us into his studio that was covered from floor to ceiling with beautiful prints of scenes from all around Valletta.  He especially liked the fireworks over the harbor at night.

"I came here almost thirty years ago and I have been in love with the place ever since.  I love everything about it ― the people, the scenery, but most of all the pace.  The Maltese people always find the time to enjoy life."

We ended up buying three of his prints ― one of St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, a street scene of shops and apartments in morning light, and a painting of classic sailboats moored in the harbor.

Winston led us out to the street after he had finished carefully putting our paintings in an old green tube he found in a dusty drawer.

"Please come back and visit if you are ever in the neighborhood again," he said with a warm smile.  

And we knew that he meant it.

"We will," we replied as Inna gave him a kiss on the cheek and a big hug.

And we meant it too.

"Look how clean and well-maintained everything is," remarked Inna as we continued our now random journey.

I think we could have eaten off the streets.  I don't know how they do it.

"And look at the balconies," exclaimed Inna, pointing to several eye-catching red and green, wooden and glass-enclosed porches that hung out over the narrow stone street like bird nests.

"Man, these people really know how to live, don't they," I replied with genuine admiration.

A few minutes later we were walking down West Street, near the silver-domed Carmelite Church, when we stopped to check out an apartment building called the Orangeri Lodge with a FOR RENT sign on the door.

"I wonder what one of these apartments is like and what they charge?" asked Inna as she looked more closely at the sign

Suddenly, a young man opened the door.  His name was Steve and he was born on Malta.

The next thing we knew, we were getting the grand tour.  Steve managed the property and the whole place had recently been renovated.  Half the units were short-term rentals for vacationers while the other half were occupied by those who wished to call Valletta home for awhile.

"Would you like to see an apartment?" asked Steve.

"Absolutely," exclaimed Inna.

Steve led us up a sunlit circular staircase to the fourth floor and produced a ring of keys.  He selected a key and said, "I think this is the one," as he inserted it into the lock.

The apartment had just been given a major face lift.  Everything was marble, glass and stainless steel.  The rooms were spacious.  And the views from the bedroom and living room were like something from a glossy travel magazine.

"How much?" asked Inna.

I was wondering if she was planning on us staying.

"That depends," said Steve.  "Short-term rentals are about 150€ a night, and monthly rentals are about 1500€.

You couldn't beat that in the States ― I mean, in a comparable place. We were, after all, talking about Valletta on the dreamy island of Malta, with amazing water views.

Steve took us up to the roof where there was a communal patio with cushy blue lounge chairs and potted palm trees overlooking Marsamxett Harbor and the jet set Manoel Island with its shiny marinas filled with sleek pleasure craft, and just beyond, the luxury high rises along the beaches of the Qui-Si-Sana District.

There were just too many visual delights to take in with just one pair of eyes.

We took Steve's card as we left.

"We'll be back," said Inna with an engaging smile.

And I'm thinking that we will.

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