The Harbor in Valletta
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Malta (Valletta) Overview
Sailing into Malta is akin to stepping through the pages of a J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy; once you are in the protected harbor of Valletta, it feels as though modern civilization has disappeared. Oh, you can see a car or two driving on the winding streets amid the limestone battlements, crenellated castles and hillside structures, but they seem terribly out of place and unexpected.
Never mind that the country, which has 7,000 years of intriguing history behind it, is fully modernized and contemporary. What you see when entering Valletta Harbor is cream-colored buildings climbing twisting streets and hillsides, pockmarked from centuries of cannon fire; ancient forts guarding the harbor entrance; and Malta's own colorful luzzo boats, fishing craft resembling nothing less than an elf's shoe.
The unique landscape and the buildings of Malta have even appeared in recent films such as "Troy," "The Gladiator," the 1950's classic "Maltese Falcon" and the 1980 movie "Popeye," starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall.
This tiny Mediterranean country is actually part of an archipelago of five islands, only three of which are inhabited (the other two are Gozo and Comino). But it's the island of Malta and the port of Valletta (designed by a colleague of Michelangelo) at which the cruise ships call. Knowing a bit of the history of this destination is helpful and makes the experience more meaningful.
Malta has been inhabited since 5000 B.C. and was colonized by the Phoenicians in 1000 B.C. Then the islands went in turn to the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish, who handed them over to the Knights of the Order of St. John in a "perpetual lease" in 1533; this lasted until Napoleon seized control in 1798. The Maltese did not like the French, rebelled, received aid from Great Britain, became a British protectorate in 1900, became a part of the British Empire in 1814, rebelled (a little bit) against the British, in 1964 was granted independence and in 1974 became a republic under the British Commonwealth.
The influence of all of these cultures is evident in Malta, with the Roman period seemingly taking precedence. Indeed, Malta itself is quite contemporary, particularly in the area where the major resorts and its casinos are located. But for cruise visitors with just a day to explore, stick to the old city for an escape from modern-day reality.
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Gozo Glass: A specialty made on the island of Gozo but sold in better shops throughout Malta, these silky, swirly and opaque glass creations use centuries of artistic skills passed from one artisan to another. You can purchase small items like perfume bottles or larger blown-glass sculptures.
Silver Filigree: Handcrafted jewelry made of fine silver wire in the Maltese tradition, which dates back to the time of the Knights and has been passed down through generations of goldsmiths and jewelers.
Both Maltese and English are the official languages of Malta, and English is widely spoken. Interestingly, Maltese actually traces its roots back to Lebanese and includes Arabic and European influences.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the euro. U.S. dollars are not accepted, but major credit cards are good for most items in most shops and restaurants.
There are several banks in Malta and several well-placed ATM's on the main shopping road and in the new Valletta Waterfront complex at the cruise ship terminal.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in Valletta, about half a mile below the main shopping street of the city at the newly renovated Pinto Wharf.
The Valletta Waterfront pier area makes this one of the nicest cruise ports in Europe. Filled with shops, restaurants and bars, the Valletta Waterfront is also a destination for local residents. On any given day there might be a festival of some sort or another, or musical performances: for example, a jazz band conclave or a classical recital. Filled with retail shops, bars and restaurants, you can take your time reboarding while you relax at the Hard Rock Cafe, or pick up some last-minute purchases at Pedigree Toys, the Agenda Bookshop or a branch of Mdina Glass. There is an ATM in the center, as well.
From the waterfront area you have three choices for getting around: on foot, by taxi or by horse-drawn carriage. The latter two are very expensive (10 euros to go up the hill in a taxi and about 50 euros to go on a horse and carriage ride). Walking into town is good recreation for reasonably fit travelers but can be very difficult for anyone who is even minimally mobility-impaired, as it is a steep and arduous climb. Additionally, where your ship docks can add as much as a quarter of a mile to the trek just to the exit gate and there are no benches for resting. It also gets quite hot in Malta during the spring and summer months; plan accordingly.
There are reasonably priced public buses that can take you to various spots on the island (you catch them in the city) and ferries that can take you to Gozo and Comino. Pay careful attention to the timetables so you don't miss your ship's departure time!
The Great Siege of Malta and the Knights of St. John (Phone: 21-247300): Join this interactive experience for a historic tour of the history of Malta, the Knights of Malta and the origins of the Maltese Cross. At entry, you'll be handed a portable CD player; you can choose from one of 11 different languages, and do the tour at your own pace. During this audio-visual presentation you will join a group of pilgrims in 12th-century Jaffa, travel to Jeruselem, get attacked by Bedoins, meet the Knights during the Crusades and travel with them to eventually end up in Malta. The tour will only take about 45 minutes, is located in the middle of Valletta, and barely puts a dent in your shopping and walking time.
Upper Barracca Gardens: Take some time to explore the gardens located at the edge of the Valletta shopping and dining area. The bluff-side location offers an incredible vista over the harbor and across to the Three Cities on the other side. The gardens themselves are peaceful and beautiful, and offer shady respites from the Mediterranean summer heat.
St. John's Co-Cathedral: The odd designation "co-cathedral" refers to a church that shares its Bishop's seat with another. In this case, the designation was not applicable until the early 1800's, when the Bishop of Malta, whose seat is actually at the cathedral in Mdina, was allowed to use this one as an alternate when visiting in Valletta. Located near the center of Valletta, the austere exterior of the building belies its lavish interior, one of the finest examples of Baroque design in the world. This was the church of the Knights; it houses exquisite artwork, including Caravaggio's masterpiece, "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist." It's free to enter, open Monday through Saturday (but closes on Saturdays at noon). It's important to note the importance of Roman Catholicism in Malta -- 98 percent of the country's population is Roman Catholic.
Palace of the Grand Masters: Get another overview of the storied Knights of Malta, an internationally known Catholic fraternity, by visiting this grand old palace in Valletta with artwork and "apartments" from the period of the Knights. There are many displays depicting the Great Siege, and a room devoted to Gobelin tapestries.
Merchant Street Flea Market: Smack in the middle of the shopping area of Valletta, this colorful open-air market is set up daily between 9 a.m. and noon. Shop for bargains on laces, silver filigree jewelry, Gozo or Mdina glass and other Maltese specialties.
Republic Street: One of the main shopping streets in Valletta, it's fun to browse. Stop for a coffee in one of its leafy squares, just to sit and people-watch.
Been There, Done That
Mdina (Phone: 21-450707): This ancient walled and moated city is rich with history and architectural wonders. Take a bus out of Valletta to Mdina and its neighboring community of Rabat and wander through the medieval streets. It's a transforming experience because of its historical significance, and because of the unique architecture and layout of the city. You can still see the walls of the 10th-century "fortified belt" that the Arabs constructed to isolate the city (at that time named Medina), and view the opulent homes and castles of the Maltese nobility which settled here during the time of the Knights. You can also visit St. Paul's Cathedral, the Bishop's seat and center of religious life on Malta. Cruise ships offer the tour as a shore excursion, but buses to Rabat and Mdina leave Valletta frequently, are quite reasonably priced, and take about half an hour to arrive.
Victoria, Gozo: More placid and verdant than the island of Malta, Gozo is easily accessed by ferry, which takes approximately 30 minutes from Valletta Harbor. There is an open-air flea market in Victoria at It-Tokk, Victoria's main square. The Ggantija Temple, quite possibly the oldest manmade structure still standing in the world today (built around 3,600 B.C., more than a thousand years earlier than Stonehenge), is worth a visit.
Marsaxlokk Bay: Take a bus to this quaint village for a peaceful walk around the harbor and a terrific photo op of the colorful Maltese luzzo boats, with their curved prows and single eye painted on to safely guide the fishermen. This is Malta's main fishing harbor; early in the morning the streets are filled with open-air fish markets to showcase (and sell) the day's catch. The bus only takes about half an hour; plan on two hours in the village.
The Blue Grotto: A series of caves cut into rocks in the cliffs of Malta's breathtaking southwest coast, the Blue Gortto is accessible only via the sea. You board six- to nine-passenger wooden boats for a 30-minute ride in and around the caves. The grotto offers magnificent color. (Shades of the sea include the usual, though nonetheless beautiful blues and greens, but don't miss the fluorescent hues of more shallow waters around cave openings.) And, when your captain eases the boat inside a cavern and cuts off the engine, there's an eerie silence. The tallest of the arches spans some 140 feet; others, you can almost touch with an extended arm as you chug through them. The Blue Grotto is certainly doable for independent-minded explorers, though we do advise you to get there early in the morning, around 9 a.m. or so, to beat the busloads of tourists. It's located in the village of Wied iz-Zurrieq, about a 25-minute taxi ride from the cruise port. (Public buses are also available.) Most lines offer boat rides among the caves as a shore excursion option from Malta's Valletta.
On a Budget: Lunching in Valletta can be casual and charming by sitting al fresco at one of the many outdoor cafes, or casual and cheap by purchasing Maltese pastizzi (flaky pastries filled with meats and peas sold at little kiosks).
Upscale: Malata (Palace Square, Phone: 21-233967) is definitely one of the "haute cuisine" dining spots in Valletta, more expensive than most and from all reports, worth it. This is where the members of the Maltese Parliament lunch. Specialties are seafood and steak.
Al Fresco Dining: Caffe Cordina (Repubic St., shopping area; Phone: 21-234385) is Malta's oldest and most celebrated outdoor cafe, located on the ground floor of the old treasury building. Most people dine outside, but if you choose to do that, take a moment to look at the inside of the restaurant, with its ornate murals and ceiling frescoes.
Local Favorite: Lantern (20 Sappers St., Phone: 21-237521) offers reasonably priced Maltese dining in an 18th-century townhouse on the west side of Valletta. Owned and operated by two brothers for years, this is a local favorite.
Sweet Treats: Locals and tourists love the Perfection Cafe (Old Theatre St.), where you can sit for hours if you'd like, sampling the sweet and savory pastries. Burgers, chips and other plebian fare is available too, but it's the baked goods that make this place special.
At the Port: A picturesque string of cafes line the dock at Valletta's Grand Harbour; these range from the aforementioned Hard Rock (which serves sandwiches) to Chinese and Italian. (Casanova has excellent Naples-style pizza.)
Xara Palace Hotel (Mdina, Misrah Il-Kunsil): A trip to Mdina wouldn't be complete without lunching in the grand restaurant at the 17th-century pallazzo, now the Xara Palace Hotel. You can choose from its "fine dining" restaurant or its "trattoria" for a more relaxed (and less expensive) experience -- perfect for families.
Ix-Xlukkajr (Village Square, Phone: 21-612109): Here you'll find seafood, gloriously prepared, reasonably priced, and fresh, overlooking the harbor and the colorful luzzo boats.
Brookies (Victoria, Gozo, 1/2 Wied Sara St., Phone: 21-559524): Located in a stone farmhouse under the Cittadella in Gozo. Pricey and elaborate for lunch, Brookies offers fine fare of local seafood and steaks. There's also an outdoor terrace for wine and drinks.
Best Overall Tour: Vittoriosa and the Blue Grotto. This tour takes participants on a scenic drive around the island, stopping at the Blue Grotto, the Dingli Cliffs (Malta's highest point, with sweeping views) and the famed dome of Mosta.
Best Overall Runner-Up: A Taste of Malta. This excursion is a motorcoach trip to Marsaxlokk to shop and wander and photograph the luzzo boats, and then continues on to the Ta' Qali' winery for a tour and tasting after which guests are taken to see the production of hand-created glass at the Mdina glass factory.
Great for History Buffs: Prehistoric Malta. Anyone fascinated with ancient history will be thrilled with this archaeological excursion to some of Malta's wonderfully preserved prehistoric spots; caves that were home to the first inhabitants of the islands, temples built in the shape of the Fertility Goddess, and Haga Qim, with its preserved three-piece Megolithic entrance. This trip includes a stop in Marsaxlokk as well.
Off the Beaten Track: Malta safari in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. This trip is fun for the adventurous, stopping at Popeye Village (where the movie, starring Robin Williams, was filmed) and then at Golden Bay, where Brad Pitt recently romped in "Troy." It also takes you to sites of Knights of Malta artifacts not seen by most tourists, and includes -- weather permitting -- a swim near Golden Bay.
Staying in Touch
You can purchase telephone cards for public phones from "newsagents" (newspaper vendors in kiosks scattered around the city) at costs that vary by the amount of time you need.
There is an Internet cafe on Republic Street, in the main shopping area, just beyond the entry gates and main square. It's in a vertical shopping mall, Energy Shopping Complex, at the very top. Getting to it is not difficult as there is an escalator, but mobility-impaired travelers might want to try their hand elsewhere as the descent is quite steep and via stairway only. There is also an Internet cafe at the YMCA located on Merchants Street.
Most of the larger hotels in Valletta have Internet centers and most allow non-guests use of the facility, but the cost is substantially higher than at the Internet cafe on Republic Street, which runs at about 2 euros for 15 minutes.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitmalta.com
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The Independent Traveler: Europe Exchange
--By San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com. Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief.
All photos are (c) 2004 of the Malta Tourism Authority except image of Malta skyline, which appears courtesy of Jana Jones.