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Islands in the Sun

The program for "Valletta: History and Elegance" noted that the culminating event scheduled to take place in the squares and streets on the last day of the festival would occur "weather permitting." It had been unseasonably cold and windy during the fourth week of April, 1997. (This year's festival begins April 23, 1998.) But, on Saturday in late afternoon, the heavens cooperated and a brilliant sun warmed 350 costumed participants and thousands of Maltese who gathered to watch the marchers in the Grand Master's Pageant as they entered the walled ancient city and traversed Republic Street to Palace Square. The event commemorated the heroic victory of the Great Siege in 1565 against the Turks by the Knights of St. John whose leader, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de La Vallette, built the capital.

The hanging of colorful banners and flags signaled the start of the nearly week-long celebration of "history, heritage, music and dance." Featured each day were five or more free organ recitals; sunset and evening concerts with performances by instrumentalists, quartets and choirs; folk dancing; and walk-abouts by actors in period costumes. Guards in full regalia manned the entrance to the Presidential Palace, the Grand Master's state coach was on display in the courtyard, historic churches were open for viewing, the Visitors Information Office arranged city tours and museum hours were extended.

Those who miss "History and Elegance" can observe "In Guardia," a twice monthly reenactment at Fort St. Elmo of officers and men-at-arms dressed in 16th-century uniforms and performing military drills dating back to the time of the Knights of the Order of St. John Hospitaller.

Costumed participants, "Valletta: History and Elegance" (Credit: Edwin Fancher)

When the Knights were driven from Jerusalem they moved to Cyprus, later went to Rhodes and eventually settled in Malta, paying one falcon a year for rent to Spain's King Charles V. The movie "The Maltese Falcon" is an apocryphal tale based on that fact. The white eight-pointed Maltese cross on a black background represents the different tongues or nationalities of the members. After the Order moved into Valletta the city grew rapidly, becoming a microcosm of the great European capitals and was later described by Sir Walter Scott during a sojourn in 1831 as "the splendid town quite like a dream."

To this visitor Malta seems like a distillation of everything Mediterranean. A street reminds one of Rome; a restaurant serves food tasting of southern Italy; the harbor in a seaside resort is lined with cafes and hotels like those found on the Côte D'Azur; temple ruins rival the ones in Greece and Egypt; the walls of Valletta are strangely similar to fortifications in Rhodes; and the water in the Blue Grotto is as vibrantly indigo as its Caprian counterpart.

The itinerary that I followed during my five-day visit last spring nearly paralleled the typical one suggested at my hotel. Of the six islands in the Maltese archipelago only Malta, the largest; Gozo, rural, hilly and green; and Comino, home to a few farmers, are inhabited. Comino attracts divers, snorkelers and swimmers.

Begin your explorations with a stroll through Valletta, "a city built for gentlemen by gentlemen," whose streets are laid out in a grid-like pattern and whose buildings have been preserved to retain their centuries-old look. Many of the important sites are within walking distance of each other. Stop at the Upper Barraca Gardens, formerly the private grounds of the Italian knights and affording a superb view of the Grand Harbour; and historically important Cottonera, encompassing the towns of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. Visit St. John's Cathedral and Museum where the sumptuous interior is lined with colored marble mosaic crypts and a collection of Flemish tapestries, illuminated manuscripts and Carravagio's St. Jerome are displayed. Visit the Armoury and the Grand Master's Palace, now the seat of the President and the Parliament and housing a collection of vivid Gobelin tapestries. Built in semicircular classic opera house-style and said to be the third oldest theater in Europe, a guide will lead you through the Manoel Theatre. Take in Fort St. Elmo, which figured prominently in the defense against the marauding Turks, and the National Museum of Fine Arts. And don't miss the escorted tour of Casa Rocco Piccola, a small and still lived in palazzo, dating back 400 years.

Go to the Mediterranean Conference Center, previously La Sacra Infermeria (the Holy Infirmary), whose magnificent marble halls housed the great hospital ward, one of the longest rooms in Europe. A wax exhibition dramatically recreates scenes from the lives of The Knights Hospitallers and those to whom they ministered. Wind up your Valletta sightseeing with a viewing of "The Malta Experience," an audio-visual, multi-screen show, detailing 7000 years of the country's history.

Allot one morning and afternoon to exploring the eastern part of the island including a boat trip--go in the a.m. for the best light--at the picturesque Blue Grotto where six sea caves mirror the phosphorescent colors of underwater flora spilling coral and green onto sheer reefs. Include in your excursion the fishing village of Marsaxloxx and the Cottonera. Linger at Senglea Point to observe Valletta across the harbor. Visit the prehistoric temple (2000 to 2450 BC) of Hagar Qim in the Mnajdra Archaeological Park.

Set aside several hours to reconnoiter the narrow alleys of Mdina, the medieval capital, located in the center of the island. With only 400 inhabitants, it is now known as the Silent City. Attractions here include the Palazzo Vilhena, presently displaying natural history artifacts; the Cathedral and its Museum; the 12th-century Palazzo Falzon or Norman House and the catacombs and Museum of Roman Antiquities in the outlying area of Rabat.

Travel to the villages of Sliema and St. Julian's, west of Valletta, where both the seaside resort atmosphere and night life flourish and the colorful luzzas, the famous fishing boats, dot the harbor.

Luzzas, Marsaxlokk's harbor

And finally spend an entire day on Gozo, departing by ferry from the Cirkewwa terminal for a 30-minute crossing. Hire one of the taxis waiting at the terminal to take you around the island. Drive to Ggantija to wander through one of the oldest freestanding temples in the world, dating from 3800 BC and a World Heritage Site. Stop in Xlendi, one of Gozo's 15 villages, to sit in the sun at a waterside cafe. Go on to Victoria, the capital, where for centuries the Citadel served as a sanctuary. Inside its walls, the Cathedral with a magnificent trompe l'oeil dome painting can be found. Visit Calypso's Cave overlooking the island's best-known red sand beach. Continue to Dwerja to view the Inland Sea, a large expanse of water linked to the sea through a narrow tunnel; and the Fungus Rock, a sheer tall rock standing beside it. End the sojourn at the most photographed vista in Gozo, the Azure Window, two giant rock columns with a huge ledge resting over them.

Not many Americans have been to Malta; only 14,000 traveled there last year. Be one of the first to discover it.


St. John's Co-Cathedral & Museum, St. John's Square. Tel. 220536. Open weekdays, 9:30 to 12:30 p.m., 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 to 12:30 p.m.

Armoury and Grand Master's Palace, Palace Square. Tel. 249349.*

Manoel Theatre, Old Theatre Street. Tel. 246389. Tours weekdays, 10:45 and 11:30 a.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. From October to May a free concert is held every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.

Fort St. Elmo, St. Elmo Place. Tours Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call Gerald Miller at N.T.O. about weekend events. Tel. 237747, 226405.

National Museum of Fine Arts, South Street. Tel. 225769.*

Casa Rocco Piccola, Republic Street. Tel. 223309. Tours Monday to Saturday, 10 and 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m.

Knights Hospitallers, Mediterranean Conference Center. Tel. 224135. Open weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; weekends, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The Malta Experience, Mediterranean Conference Center. Tel. 243776. Shows weekdays, hourly 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Blue Grotto. Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weather permitting.

Hagar Qim, Mnajdra Archaeological Park.*

Palazzo Vilhena, Mdina. Tel. 459709.*

Palazzo Falzon, Villegaignon Street, Mdina. Tel. 454512 for an appointment.

Museum of Roman Antiquities, Museum Esplanade, Rabat. Tel. 454125.*

Gozo Cathedral Museum, Citadel, Victoria, Gozo. Tel. 556087. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

* Open Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.


Located just beyond the walls of Valletta in Floriana, the Phonecia is ideal for tourists who prefer a resort-like hotel, but wish to be near the city's hub. Built in 1920s style and surrounded by seven acres of landscaped gardens, the lobby, pool and sunning area are very spacious. There are fewer rooms and suites, only 136 in all, than might be expected in a hotel with such grand proportions. The recently refurbished accommodations are done in country-style, using lots of wicker. The main restaurant, Phoenix, has fine continental food and a bountiful breakfast buffet.

Phonecia, The Mall, Floriana, VLT 16, Malta. Tel. 356-225241, 800-253-0861. Rates start at $130.

Other five-star properties are the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza and the newly-opened Westin Dragonara and Radisson SAS Bay Point Resort in Malta and Ta'Cenc and L-Imgarr in Gozo.


In a brick-walled cellar room Trattoria Palazz serves both Italian-- pastas and risottos--and Maltese food, including the national dish, rabbit, and outstanding Gozo cheese, made from sheep's milk. Denser and more savory than goat cheese, it is flavored with pepper or herbs.

Food used in Maltese cooking

The mainstays at Bologna, on the second floor of a typical old building, are fresh fish and seafood.

Caffe Cordina is Malta's favorite place for ice cream, pastry and candy. Light meals are also available.

The specialties at the informal La Cave are very tasty pizzas and pastas.

Because it is located in Malta's most important fishing village, Marsaxlokk, Ix-xlukkajr offers an extensive menu of superbly and imaginatively prepared fish. Service is slow.

Bacchus, Malta's largest and fanciest restaurant and reputed to be its best, is known for almond soup and filet of pork with mustard seed.

Rising above picturesque Spinola Bay, San Giuliano is located on top of the ancient arches of the fishermen's shelter. The chef, who was born in Palermo, concentrates on Mediterranean fare.

Gemma & Esther Said, owners of Gesther, cook delicious home-style local food.

Trattoria Palazz, 43, Old Theatre Street, Valletta. Tel. 226611. Open lunch and dinner. Moderate.

Bologna, 59, Republic Street, Valletta. Tel. 246149. Open lunch and dinner. Moderate.

Caffe Cordina, 244, Republic Street, Valletta. Tel. 234385, 241359. Open daily until 8 p.m. Inexpensive. www.vol.net.mt/caffecordina

La Cave, Castille Square off Republic Square, Valletta. Tel 243677-8. Open daily, lunch and dinner. Inexpensive.

Ix-xlukkajr, Village Square, Marsaxlokk. Tel. 612109, 807839. Open daily, lunch and dinner. Moderately expensive.

Bacchus, Inguanez Street, Mdina. Tel. 00356-454981. Open daily, lunch and dinner. Expensive. www.maltaonline.info/on_line/Restaurants/Bacchus/Bacchus%2520Company.htm

San Giuliano, Spinola Bay, St. Julians. Tel. 332000. Open daily, lunch and dinner. Moderately expensive.

Gesther, 8th Sept. Avenue, Xaghra, Gozo. Tel. 556621. Open Monday to Saturday lunch. Inexpensive.


Merchant Street Market is junky (inexpensive clothing), but fun.

At the Marsaxlokk Waterfront Market two dozen plus vendors sell tablecloths in many sizes, shapes and patterns. Prices subject to discussion.

Gozo Glass features a beautifully designed line of museum quality glasses, bowls, vases, napkin rings, perfume bottles, trays, candleholders, earrings and paperweights in artistic shapes and eye catching translucent and opaque colors.

Cassar Weaving Limited manufactures yarn and knitwear. They have a large selection of sweaters in a distinctive Maltese style. Lace is also sold here.

Merchant Street Market, off St. John's Square, Valletta. Open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to noon.

Marsaxlokk Waterfront Market, off the Village Square. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Gozo Glass, Gharb GRB 102, Gozo. Tel. 356-561974. Open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Cassar Weaving Limited, Factory E, Industrial Estate, Xewkija, VCT 110 Gozo. Tel. 356-556687. Open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.


There are no direct flights from the United States on Air Malta, the national carrier. Connecting flights are possible from about 40 cities in Europe and the Middle East. 800-756-2582. www.airmalta.com


Weather is optimal during the months of February to June and in September. It rains intermittently from October through February.

Winter 1997-98