Marvelous Malta

The sun-splashed Mediterranean archipelago is at the crossroads of history.

If you decide to visit Malta, a tiny Mediterranean island nation 50 miles south of Sicily, as my wife, Jessica, and I did last summer (and you should), whatever you do, do not rent a car.

I have driven in London, Paris and NYC, been run off the road in Irish moors, wrecked twice in France, dodged dog and ox carts in China and Romania, and even driven through the Sahara on a two-way 1½-lane highway. But as we discovered while making our way from the airport to Valletta—a town hewn out of stone set on a peninsula in one of Europe’s greatest natural harbors—there are even worse places to drive. Malta’s nerve-frazzling roads are marked by sparse, sun-bleached, often indecipherable road signs (in English and Maltese with distances in kilometers) and traversed by chaotic traffic and drivers with a penchant for playing chicken at intersections.

We had brought two of our four teenage daughters—Willa, 17, and Nora, 15—here for a week-long stay for a variety of reasons: They wanted beach and we wanted more; we were already in Europe; and Ryanair makes it fairly easy and affordable to hop down to this, one of western civilization’s most storied crossroads.

Malta is an ancient place—Odysseus visited and the Apostle Paul shipwrecked here—and it is the site of a strategic naval base wrestled over and ruled by everyone from the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and British to the French (Napoleon took it and melted down all its silver to support his war). In recent times, Roosevelt and Churchill held the Malta Conference here in 1945 to plot the end of WWII. After the British left in 1964, the island—or more properly, archipelago, as it includes two small satellite islands, Gozo and Comino—declared itself a non-aligned neutral nation, which is how it became the agreed-upon site of the 1989 Malta Summit, where Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush buried the hatchet and pronounced the end of the Cold War.

History is writ large here in the far south of Europe, where west and east and north and south have clashed and melded for centuries. The island’s most colorful residents were the Knights of St. John, a centuries-old European Catholic order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, whose mission was to protect and care for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem and later to guard Europe against the Ottoman Turks. Gifted in fighting and doctoring, the Knights, well known for their flags and shields marked with the eight-pointed Maltese cross, settled here in 1530 after a period of wandering and reigned over the island for a quarter of a millennium. In 1565 they repelled a massive Ottoman invasion known as the Great Siege of Malta. The following year, the knights began building the city of Valletta, the capital and centerpiece of the island, where we would be based.

Fortunately, when we parked our rented Kia at the soon-to-be-renovated 5-star Hotel Phoenicia, perfectly situated just outside the grand entrance of Valletta, we wouldn’t need it again. Buses and boats reach every nook and cranny of this tiny island (just 122 square miles large, with a population of 425,000).

Compact at less than 200 acres and with fewer than 6,000 residents, Valletta is packed with Baroque architectural gems. After the harrowing drive from the airport, we headed over the walled city’s dry moat and through its massive ramparts. Stumbling upon the charming Jamie Oliver-lauded bistro Angelica, we were soon seated at a streetside table, feasting on giant plump green and pink Maltese olives, crusty peasant bread, sheep’s milk cheese and olive oil. Entrées of crispy pork belly, roasted eggplant stuffed with beef, and rabbit cooked in Champagne, served in copper dishes, were all homey and flavorful. Malta, we would discover, has a gift for charming herbal-infused culinary experiences, inspired by its fresh seafood, locally raised meat, produce and cheeses, and its traditional Mediterranean influences.     

Revived, we strolled around the corner and into Casa Rocca Piccola, the home of a single family for 10 generations and four centuries. Luckily for us, it was a holiday, and the affable Marquis de Piro himself led us on a private tour of the grand yet quirky family mansion. First, he took us to the courtyard and introduced us to his wisecracking parrot, Kiku, who, when offended, grabs his water bowl in his beak and tosses it on the ground. (It happened right in front of us while the marquis wasn’t looking.) Piro waxed on about the family’s art collection and library, allowed Willa to try on the family’s faldetta, the traditional hooded cloak worn by Maltese women, and showed us the shoe of a pope sent to an ancestor as an honor for a long-ago service. But the family’s greatest claim to fame was more recent, we discovered, as Piro led us down to the palazzo’s underground cistern. In 1936, his grandfather, casting a wary eye toward Germany, was the first to urge the islanders to build bomb shelters. His refuge for 70 people, deep in the island’s bedrock, proved to be among the stoutest as the island and Royal Navy hub was repeatedly pounded by the Luftwaffe.

Over the course of the week, we passed through Valletta’s bustling, recently refurbished main gate and into the city center dozens of times (enough to get sick of a persistent busker there night and day), past the dazzling new Renzo Piano-designed parliament buildings, which are composed of glass below and limestone above in an airy grid. We visited palaces, museums, historic sites, shops and restaurants; ran and strolled on the town’s narrow hilly streets and along the harbors where halyards tinkled on yacht masts; relaxed at cafes and in public squares; and at night listened to performances at the outdoor theater in the ruins of the old opera house destroyed by some of the most relentless bombing of WWII. Enamored with the uneven character of the buildings and the play of bluish light among them, Willa photographed the streets to paint when we got home.

Gradually, we came to appreciate the vastness of the Knights’ influence. At the Baroque landmark Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, Caravaggio’s masterpiece “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” is just one of the gems amassed by these sons of many of the great houses of Europe as they protected their homeland from afar. The cathedral, as simple and severe on the outside as these warriors, inside is richly furnished and lavishly gilded, with marble floors made up of knights’ tombs all telling tales of glory and woe. Nearby St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church features a relic, a piece of Paul’s wristbone, and part of the column that Paul was beheaded on, a gift from a pope honoring the church’s service during the 1813 plague in Malta that killed 4,500 people over a 10-month period.

The most essential place to see, however, is the Sacra Infermeria, the “Holy Infirmary,” a massive 600-bed hospital erected in 1574. It was ahead of its time for its willingness to admit women, slaves and non-Catholics as well as for its use of complex surgical techniques and its diligence in hygiene—to prevent the spread of germs it employed silver cutlery at meals and installed private and semi-private latrines.

One of the unanticipated joys of our visit was simply taking a water taxi across the Grand Harbour to visit the Malta Maritime Museum, home of the largest known Roman anchor, as well as myriad objects and tales of sailing ships from the Age of Nelson, when Britain’s Royal Navy ran Napoleon off and made Malta its Mediterranean hub for the next 150 years. On one side of the harbor was a giant cruise ship; on the other were age-old stone buildings and the filming location of Gladiator (2000).

Around all of our sightseeing, we made plenty of time for leisurely meals of vegan couscous at the hip Soul Food, wood-fired pizza at airy Margo’s, and langoustine pasta and seared duck breast with orange gel and foie gras bonbons—yes, goose liver wrapped in chocolate—at the stylish Michael’s.

The Catholic Church still has an outsized presence on Malta. At night, from the balconies of our rooms at the Phoenicia, we watched the fireworks celebrating saints’ days bloom silently above ornate, brightly lit churches across Marsamxett Harbour. Set on 7½ acres with a swimming pool also looking out onto the harbor, the Phoenicia was our constant refuge.  

Built in the late ’30s of Maltese limestone (polished so smooth inside that no plaster was needed), it was converted into an RAF headquarters and bombed by the Germans in WWII, one wing getting blitzed by a hundred or so bombs in a single horrific air raid. Rebuilt after the war, the city’s grandest hotel, with an art deco feel inside, has since hosted such glitterati as Joaquin Phoenix (while filming Gladiator), Queen Elizabeth II and visiting diplomats and dignitaries.

On several day trips, we visited a prehistoric stone temple and Mdina, a well-preserved medieval town built by Maltese nobles and the Knights of Malta, the site of the island’s capital dating back to Roman times. But the most memorable was a cruise on a motorized teak sailboat around the three islands. The girls stretched out on the deck and sunbathed, and we all swam in Paradise Bay, whose crystal clear waters lap Malta’s most scenic beach but, alas, are also home to some wicked jellyfish that left welts on my back. The cruise gave us a comprehensive view of Malta, including its impressive (American-made) desalination plant and burgeoning fish farms, which produce tuna, sea bass and sea bream, maybe even for the restaurant where we would eat that night. Drinks were served on the sunset homeward leg, and impromptu dancing broke out on the decks among the happy voyagers.

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.

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