When I was first offered the opportunity to travel to Malta for a holiday, 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 in Malta, 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 Malta 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.
What induced me to get on a flight 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 the painter, Caravaggio, who had been commissioned by the Knights, left two paintings on Malta.
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.
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 of the 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.
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.
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.
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 wrist bone.
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 feast 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.”
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 un-alarming and so clear that you could see to the white, sandy bottom.
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.
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 holiday in Malta through WholeMalta.com 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 future of Malta holidays, 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 vacationers who stopped for a little while and then moved on.