Needing someplace at least a little
warmer than here in southwestern/central France, which has been inundated with non-stop heavy rains, plus fearing a 3-month attitude expat let-down (after the thrill of grocery shopping in new supermarkets has waned), and wanting to go somewhere I've never been, I chose a week in the Maltese Islands
-- of which Malta is the largest of five-- though the country is still the smallest member of the European Union.
I actually unwittingly chose to go the week of January 15-22, which turned out to be the launch week of Valletta as the "European Culture Capital of 2018". Located between Sicily and northern Africa, Malta is an island country with extraordinary history: the medieval (St. John) Knights -- or chevaliers -- of Malta; the Catholic Inquisition (noted as one source as "gentler" than the Spanish version); the 16 c defeat of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire; the ouster of Napoleon after just two years; more than 100 years as a British colony; and astounding bravery against the Nazis (and thus gleaning it the British St. George's Cross). Then there was the notorious "Strait Street" red light district (more British sailor bars and music than prostitution, but still a stain on Valletta's reputation). Malta is also the home of the "Blue Grotto" (which I saw -- or at least the entrance to it, as the boats weren't out in the choppy waters" -- and the Blue Lagoon, which I didn't see.
But then there is the tourist side -- and that's the side I saw first, and to which I had a strong negative reaction, even though it was only January (and by assumption, must be horrendous during the popular summer months). The residential areas are over-populated, over-built, strangled with pleasure boats in the bays and cars on the roads, despite the impressive public transport bus system. Construction -- new and restorative -- is underway everywhere. Bars, restaurants and shops everywhere. There is a large influx of immigrants who, of course, as with every country, become more "native" as still more "strangers" enter, and the one percent who are mostly at the luxury hotels, townhouses and villas in Sliema, which I liken to five-star tenements: everything is built on top of everything else. It is no wonder, therefore, that Malta suffers from a pollution problem (one does NOT drink the water, and there are now 4 desalination plants because there's "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink"). I kept wondering -- how can this island support all the infrastructure that's needed -- all the water, electricity, sanitation?! I can't breathe in "touristy" places -- especially high-end touristy places; for me, they are totally devoid of any character (as in history, personality, values, authentic life, etc.). Truly -- overpriced, "luxury" goods are available everywhere and are all the same. It's the village life, the street food, the activities of daily living, that are so different.
So, after my first three days, I decided to return to my natural approach, which is to travel, not be a tourist: that is, to listen, learn, read, explore, and talk to locals.
I purchased a wonderful book by a Maltese author, short stories about village life. I got another book about Strait Street, and its particularly notorious "Gut" -- which now has trendy bars and restaurants -- and followed its guided tour of the bars (with their famous bar-girls), music halls, and "artistes" (many of whom were gay and/or cross-dressed), taking pictures of what very little is left of the "heyday" of 50-plus years ago. I went to the number two island, Gozo, which is much more like what I thought Malta would be -- still highly concentrated residential areas, but interspersed with fields and ancient rock outcroppings (some as old as 4,000 years BC).
The walled medieval city of Mdina is a bit Disney-like and home of the Medina -- or Malta -- glass, very similar to that produced in Venice/Murano, Italy, but it's still called "the silent city" because apparently at night, it's absolutely -- silent. In fact, it was there that I had one of my most interesting conversations -- with an American woman who owned a glass products shop , one of several businesses she and her Comio (third largest island) husband of 39 years have. She is very proud that her four children are all international and speak several languages -- and very embarrassed by her countrymen (not just because of Trump) who don't know how to travel, and don't speak other languages. I learned how to take buses on Malta from her best friend, British Gwyneth, with whom I shared a lot of laughs. And yes, many of the once unspoiled fishing villages have become beach tourist hot spots, but still the bays are beautiful, as are the cliffs that embrace them.
Travelling solo and independently -- and, I suspect, also as a woman -- can be daunting sometimes, especially at dinner time. Dark comes early in the winter (even in Malta, sunset was 5:30 p.m.), and since I'm not comfortable dining well alone, I typically make lunch my main meal, and then just "make do" in my room (or apartment, in this case, though I didn't want to cook) for the evening meal. However, one evening I found the Italian "taverna" near me had a seat for one, and I started up a great conversation with Noreen, an Irish nurse, and her husband, Eric, a Scottish "busker" (street performer). They live in and he mostly works out of Kearney, Ireland, though he also likes to ply his trade in Las Vegas! He says his creative juices have been flowing, thanks to parodying Donald Trump.
Malti, the Maltese language, is a mixture of (North African) Arabic and (Sicilian) Italian -- though most speak at least some English (and many speak it fluently), and the Maltese are LOUD. Really, really loud (and will readily admit it). Thus, although my apartment was very attractive and well outfitted and centrally located, it was quite unpleasant for sleeping because it faced the "Royal British Legion" bar and pool hall, which drew exactly the kind of crowd you'd expect from that description -- until at least midnight, and starting up again at 7 a.m. And with single pane glass in my apartment windows...
The Maltese are basically village people and their values reflect that: strong Catholicism (especially saint feast days -- and the more ornate the church, the better), community bands (and thus a variety of music styles, including classical and jazz), competitive fireworks , soccer rivalry (of course), its history, and politics, and it's also Europe's online gaming center!
Traditional arts are lace-making, glass-blowing, filigree silver; traditional foods include a lot of different kinds of stuffed pastries (both savory and sweet),fish and vegetable soup, and...rabbit stew. I had a lot of the former, not the latter. In fact, the afternoon of my last day there, I realized I hadn't yet had any pastizzi -- puff pastry typically stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese or peas (sometimes with ham). So I went to the most famous cafe in Valletta -- La Contadina -- to have a coffee, and the pastry most tourists START with. Delicious! The waitress told me the cafe had been there for 180 years, and then she joked, "and I've been here since it opened". I complimented her on how great she looked for being more than two centuries old, and she said -- it's all the cream in the pastries! The servers also explained to me their tipping policy (I'm not a fan of obligatory tipping), which I'd never heard of before: they bring in their OWN MONEY when they come for their shift, and GIVE IT TO THE MANAGEMENT. Then, they hope to leave with enough tips to not incur a loss (much less a gain) -- i.e., a zero-sum game in which the management always wins! And the tips are not shared with back staff.
Some photos follow; more in my phone, that I'll eventually get to!
A la prochaine --
|Kitchen/dining area of apartment|
|Living area (separate bedroom and bath)|
|Exterior (red door) of apt. Valletta known for colorful balconies.|
|Valletta is steep; these stairs are adjacent to apartment.|
|Republic Street; main shopping street in Valletta.|
|Republic Street; on left are columns from bombed-out (WW2) Opera House; now maintained as outdoor concert venue.|
|Building on right is very modern Parliament Building; but architecturally, fits in well with the modern "city gate" see below, that also echoes the ancient walls.|
Is it easy to communicate with the locals, do most speak English? We thought so in our very short stop.ReplyDelete
Ah, Paulette, I don't know if my comment will stay on here. I hope so. While you may think it is daunting to eat dinner alone, I can't even imagine doing all that you are doing. I wouldn't know where to start or what to do next, even if I did start. "Good on ya'," as they say in Australia. Please continue sharing. I am learning so much.ReplyDelete