I have never been to Malta before. This is a real treat for me, going to a new place. I started with a pleasant experience aboard Air Malta, overlooking the turquoise blue Mediterranean Sea. The plane turned as it approached the main harbor and gave everyone a fine view of what was to come. Malta is a place steeped in history, war, religion and sun. It was governed and defended by the Knights of St. John for centuries, on the Pope’s instructions. After the knights were chased from the Holy Land and later Rhodes, they settled here and built seemingly countless churches and several forts. Eventually, the island was run by the British, and finally became an independent state, then later joined the European Union. It is financially fit, mostly efficiently run, and seems to be an interesting haven for money given the quality of the yachts in the harbor.
I had to stop unexpectedly at the baggage loss office. Yes, that’s right, we have a bag down. This is the second time I’ve had a hard-shell plastic suitcase crack to the point of unusability. Now what? I filed a claim with my American Express travel insurance and Air Malta. We’ll see if they ever reimburse me for the cost of a new suitcase. Somehow I doubt it, but you never know. I ended up with a fancy Samsonite Kevlar model that is part fabric, part hard case, waterproof and a lot closer to indestructible than the last case. Plus the gliding wheels are robust enough to allow me to basically blow on it to get to move forward. I like the new bag, but I was sorry to see my green, stylish Benetton suitcase left behind. I shopped at a nice luggage store in a prominent location at the front entrance to the airport. The salesman didn’t have the color I wanted because he’d sold so many of the bags that day and he was out until Monday’s restocking. Should the location and high rate of business at the luggage store be telling me something about Air Malta, I wonder, or the Roman baggage department? Hm.
After some navigating and a ride on the wrong side of the road (remember, former British colony), I arrived at the Hilton in St. Julian, Malta. What a hotel. Oh my – the view alone… And what beautiful people the Maltese are. There were many locals working at the hotel and after a couple of days there, I would say Maltese generally seem to have striking green eyes, classical features, golden skin and a ready smile. While I was relieved to have cleaner air to breathe, the diesel cars were not burning cleanly and there was still some smoking. I think people repair things here for the most part, but I can see there is some disparity between the rich and poor on the island. Not everyone can fix his smoking Peugeot sub-compact. I sat on the balcony of the hotel for a while, took some pictures of the incredible view, spent some time on the phone with AmEx, and then it was time to see the town of Mdina. A short ride later, I was wandering the streets of this ancient place: a walled town that was never taken by hostile forces (not even the Turks in the 1500s) until Napoleon came along. It was a place stopped in time. It was as if I could imagine the streets of Marrakech completely cleaned, new and swept, and made of finer bricks perhaps 300 years ago,then I might be in Mdina. The house doors were British and set into walls in the North African style. The streets were narrow with high walls (again like North Africa) but they had streetlights as you’d see in England and there were churches in the squares. The Mdina cathedral was having services, but after some polite begging and promises to behave appropriately, I was able to go in and sit down to look at the place. The floor was a mastery in Pietra Dura work (inset semi-precious stones carved to make two-dimensional “paintings”) and these pictures in stone were all graves. The whole floor of the church was a cemetery. Floor burial is not uncommon in old European cathedrals, but the gorgeous work of the artisans done on the tombstones makes Maltese churches unique. I was to see this over and over. Clearly there was a lot of money in Malta for a long time, because that work is not cheap nor are the artisans doing it commoners. I am not sure what it takes to be buried in the floor of a Maltese church, but given the number of bishop’s hats on the tombs, I think you had to rank pretty highly.
I did some more wandering and then it was time for tea. I ended up in a beautiful tea garden that overlooked half of Malta. I was high up, and it seemed like I could just sit there, have coconut cake and watch life pass indefinitely in this place out of time. Sometimes, when you’re really lucky, you find a place like that. I am not going to tell you where it is because I think it’s best you ramble through Mdina and look for yourself. Trust me, the cake will be sweeter that way.