The landscape of Malta is similar to Spain from the air; yellow and brown, with golden-cream coloured towns and patches of dark green that looked shrubby even from the air. As we descended the buildings became a mix of balconied Italian houses with Qatar-esque arches in the same shade of warm gold limestone. Cacti and eucalyptus trees filled in gaps, making the mix of familiar and foreign even stronger. As we bussed to the apartment where we would be staying, we caught glimpses of a calm blue sea and heavily populated bays awash with yachts. After missing our stop we caught another bus back and then found ourselves navigating around a dusty construction site to the apartment, where our hosts were cheerfully waving in welcome. After that we were very enthused about relaxing and washing off the muck of air travel and construction site, and so devoted some time to that.
Have you noticed that you never feel clean after a journey on a plane? Conspiracy nonsense aside, there’s something strange about passing through vast and then cramped sterile areas and feeling as though you’re carrying an inch of gunk on your skin. Rarely is a shower more welcome, and so it was for me on that first evening.
Outside the apartment, across the construction site, lay a very shallow bay, walled and bisected into large square pools. These, we learnt later, were 16th century salt pans which have fallen into disuse, though a small chapel still stands in the centre, blessing the quiet, salty water.
As there was no way over the salt pans we went around, again venturing into a construction site, which wasn’t very secure. Not enough to keep out two cautious tourists and various locals at least. I would like to point out that if there had been footpaths we would have happily used them, but there weren’t, so we didn’t. We passed through a ‘no trespassing’ into a park, past an incongruous memorial to JFK and bit by bit got closer to the living part of the area.
Terraced roads overlooked the bay, which deepened and filled with boats, and as we strode along families enjoyed their dinner in the sun, or cleaned out the motors of boats. We soon enjoyed our own dinner, pizza and local wine in a boathouse restaurant as the sun set on the other side of the island.
The further around the peninsula of Qawra that we went, the thicker the crowds of tourists became. Many were middle aged and Italian, strolling along with grandkids or in groups enjoying their holidays. It would be later before we started to see more of the younger crowds, and began to hear more snippets of English. At the tip of the penninsula, below street level and facing the sea, is Cafe Del Mar. We never got around to visiting, but even at 8pm it seemed to me to embody the sort of place that people imagine when thinking of Mediterranean islands in summer. A perfectly clear and calm pool, umbrellas and white deck lounges, with bars scattered among them prepping for the night ahead, and electronic music pumping away.
The hours passed and we walked further, stopping to listen to a charity gig opposing human-trafficking and stare at the horse drawn carriages trotting past. We ended up in St Paul’s Bay with a bottle of red and a sense of really being on holiday in a place that seemed stranger and more surprising with each passing moment.
The capital of Malta is Valletta, formerly the base for the Knights of St John, and was where we headed for our first full day. A bus took us through labyrinthine streets and stone walled garden plots and deposited us at the gates of the city. And they were certainly city gates, tall and imposing and flanked by deep moats. Inside my first impression was of modernity, the sharp edged building to the right and the touristy mall to the left not fitting with the image of ancient fortress. As we soon discovered, this was because the original buildings that had stood there had been destroyed during WWII. In fact a majority of the buildings on the islands had been bombed to dust by the German airforce, leaving the way open for new styles and architecture. As well as a lot of rubble, which seems to have been converted into the precarious stone walls that divide the islands. Despite this, most of the houses were built in what I think of as the old, Italian style, with tall narrow town-houses fronted by elaborate balconies.
Much of Valletta was made of these, the straight and hilly streets shadowed by brightly painted or scuffed, wooden or metal balconies in many styles. It being Sunday many shops were closed, but we managed to find the tourist office, which was mysteriously empty. When there were so many tourists around, why were none of them in here booking tours and asking the same questions over and over? The answer would become clear to us in time, but at this point we just grabbed some pamphlets, were vaguely helped by the receptionist when she glanced up from her phone, and then headed back out into the sunlight.
Our first attraction in this ancient city was almost on a whim, as we passed craft stalls and then turned to peer into St John’s Co-Cathedral. Why not go in, we thought. As I was wearing shorts (actual shortish shorts, for the first time in over a year. Truly summer had come!) I had to wrap a cloth around my legs, which turned out to be handy for clipping things on as we explored. As the tourist book said, it was elaborate, the walls decorated richly in gold and silver and bright colours, the floor covered with the tombstones of knights done in multi-coloured marble, each one individual.
I admired the chapels, each unique and elaborate, and soaked in the two paintings by Caravaggio that hang in the Cathedral. On one wall is a painting of an aged St Jerome writing in a dark room, and facing it across a large room is The Beheading of St John the Baptist. This second one of the most arresting, with the play of colour and drama and use of chiaroscuro clear enough even for untrained me to appreciate.
Out in the sunlight we sought and found a bar which offered tapas and the local beer for €6, and settled in. It is one of the first types of beer that I have ever liked, and so I was in no rush to move on with our day, snacking on local delicacies and watching the tourists and locals pass us by.