Tales of the unexpected

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

TWO CARAVAGGIOS IN a church. That’s one of the surprises of exploring Valletta – if, like me, you knew virtually nothing about Malta before landing there. Neither did I know that what I thought of as Malta, a single island, is composed of three: Malta, Gozo and Comino.

I did know however, from prior perusal of the weather app on my phone, that the temperature was going to be 30 degrees in early October. For someone who had spent the summer in Ireland getting rained on non-stop, this was a very happy piece of advance information.

The walled city of Valletta is a Unesco World Heritage Site, with most of the buildings constructed from a distinctive pale gold limestone that’s long been quarried on the islands. The city glows early and late like trapped light. As a heritage site, it’s protected from development, and there’s an aura of time preserved in the small, charming and walkable city centre. Cafe Cordina, founded in 1837, is a tiny jewel-box of a place with painted ceilings and glittering with blue Venetian chandeliers, where an espresso costs a modest €1.40.

It’s not just the listed buildings that are atmospheric, but also the many quaint shop signs advertising shops that no longer exist, such as “For hire, Morning and Dinner Suits”; “Playtex Girdles and Bras, Sole Malta Agents”; and “Pearl’s Gowns”.

Only 7,000 people live in Valletta, many of them in preserved traditional houses with wooden balconies, but the famous deep and historical harbour receives half a million cruise ship visitors a year. Churchill and Roosevelt once met here for war talks, in the sternly imposing Grand Master’s Palace, but it’s tourism that now drives the trio of islands.

My highlight in Valletta was the two Caravaggios in St John’s Co-Cathedral. The church itself is an overwrought, hyperventilating, magnificent example of high baroque architecture. There isn’t a surface left unpainted, ungilded or undecorated with semi-precious stones, including an altar of cobalt blue lapis lazuli.

Don’t exhaust your eyes by looking at it all for too long. Save the focus for the oratory chapel that holds the largest Caravaggio in the world. It’s a giant, wall-sized slab of dark, medieval brilliance, with a suitably baroque theme: The Beheading of St John the Baptist. And there’s more. Turn round in the oratory, and there’s a second Caravaggio, St Jerome Writing.

Mdina, a small, gorgeous walled “city” is located high up on Malta, and was the island’s first capital city. It’s known as the Silent City because only the lucky people who live within its medieval walls can take their cars inside.

There are views out over the island from the fortification walls, but the pleasure of tiny Mdina is wandering through its maze of streets lined with impossibly tall buildings, each one more cliff-like than the last, and listening to the mantra of the ever-ringing melodic church bells.

As Valletta is protected from development, most people stay elsewhere on the islands. There are some frenetically busy places – such as St Julians, which has an artificial beach containing sand imported from Jordan, and a nightclub strip – or quieter places such as those near Golden Sands Beach at Mellieha Bay.

There’s also the smaller, more serene island of Gozo, a short (and cheap – €4.25 one-way) public ferry ride away from Valletta. We took a private boat to Gozo that stopped at Blue Lagoon Bay on Comino so we could swim. The Blue Lagoon gets crowded with boats and swimmers even in October, but it’s popular for a reason: the water is utterly clear and bewitchingly cerulean blue.

The best example of local produce I came across in Malta – and I ate great oysters, ravioli, seafood, and ftira (savoury-topped bread) – was a simple round soft cheese made of both sheep and goat’s milk. These white discs of cheese glory are made fresh every day on the premises of Gozo’s Ta Rikardu restaurant in Victoria, formerly a family home. It was so fresh, the cheese was practically bleating. Dribbled with oil, and eaten with locally-grown olives and tomatoes, simple as it was, it was superb.

You’re never far from either a view or the sea, on the Maltese islands. Perhaps it’s the fact that we’d been squeezing water out of our own skin all summer, but it was an exceptional pleasure to eat outdoors in the warmth at evening time, looking at the waterfront.

A particularly beautiful spot is the laid-back strip of seafood restaurants under colonnades looking down over Xlendi Bay on Gozo, dramatic even in darkness.

Overlooking Ramla Bay on Gozo is the site of what is purported to be the cave of Calypso, a nymph in Greek mythology who seduced Odysseus there.

“Even a god, who lives forever, coming there, would be amazed to see it, and his heart would fill with pleasure,” writes Homer in The Odyssey of the site.

This small cave in a piece of stone hillside, overlooking a wide rock-edged beach, was a ritual stop on the educational Grand Tour undertaken by young men of means in Victorian times.

Elsewhere on Gozo are the prehistoric Ggantija temples, now propped up by girders and scaffolding while archaeologists try to decide how best preserve them.

There are two complexes, each constructed with stones the size of cars. They are the most-visited cultural attraction on the islands, and their original purpose, apart from being a place of ritual and fortification, is unknown. The lack of knowledge regarding their purpose doesn’t really matter to the visitor, or didn’t to this one. There is something both humbling and visceral about looking at gigantic pieces of stone that were hauled into place by man some 5,000 years ago.

So humbling and visceral in fact, that I had to go lie under a parasol by Gozo’s Ta’Cenc hotel pool with a book for the rest of the afternoon. That’s what made me like Malta so much I’ll return: an easily-accessible and surprising combination of beguiling culture, history, beaches, scenery, and a World Heritage Site capital.

ROSITA BOLANDwas a guest of the Malta Tourism Authority. visitmalta.com


STAYThe Relais Chateaux XaraPalace in Mdina is within the former walled capital of Malta and is both historic and fabulously picturesque. Doubles from €265-€440. Tel: +356- 21-450560, xarapalace.com.mt

In St Julians, where there are dozens of hotels. The Inter-Continental at St George’s Bay has 450 rooms, several restaurants, and a rooftop pool. Doubles from €100. Tel +356-21-377600, intercontinental.com

The Ta’Cenc Hotel on Gozo has 83 rooms – many in lovely thatched huts throughout the grounds with views of one of the two pools. Doubles from €100 a night. Tel +356-21-556819, vjborg.com/tacenc

EATOne of Malta’s specialties is the ftira, a delicious bread-based pizza. Nenu the Artisan Baker is a restored old bakery where ftira is the speciality, with a glass floor looking down at a reconstruction of the old bakery. Ftiras from €6.50. 143 Dominic Street, Valletta. nenuthebaker.com

Ta’Rikkardu serves a sheep and goat’s milk cheese – my favourite food on the trip. Rikkardu makes his own wine, cheese, and olive oil and olives, capers and tomatoes are locally grown. They specialise in home-made ravoli – and that cheese. Ta’Rikkardu, 4 Fossos Street, Victoria (also known as Rabat).

FLYRyanair fly direct three times a week from Dublin to Valletta. See Ryanair.com

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