Malta’s capital, Valletta, is a grande dame undergoing rapid change. With more than 300 monuments crammed into the city’s small peninsular borders, Valletta has one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. This means that there are lots of things to do in Valletta, whether you’re an architecture aficionado, military-history buff or passionate wanderer eager to see a city reawakening from a long slumber.
Shawn and I called Valletta home for one year. We lived on Strada Stretta, which was once one of the city’s most infamous streets. It’s a narrow lane that used to form part of Valletta’s red-light district—a magnet for sailors.
When we first learned we’d be moving to Malta for Shawn’s studies, we thought we might develop island fever by spending so much time in a tiny island nation. Surprisingly though, there was so much to experience in and out of Valletta that our weekend calendar was consistently filled with activities. We left at the end of 2016.
A decade before actually moving to Valletta, I also played tourist in the capital city, making it my home base for a long-weekend visit. Back in 2006, Valletta was eerily quiet. Half of the city’s buildings were boarded up and abandoned. Accommodation in Valletta was so scarce that I literally had to sleep in a spacious maid’s closet for one night, until a proper room became available. Coincidentally, ten years later, my future in-laws would choose to stay at a boutique hotel located just across the street from the same guesthouse in which I stayed as a solo female traveler in 2006. It’s funny how life comes full circle like that.
It was a sweltering September afternoon on the sunny island of Malta when we headed to St. Peter’s Pool. With its dramatic limestone cliffs and access to the Mediterranean, St. Peter’s isn’t a pool in the conventional sense. And at this point, it should ceremoniously be renamed ‘Titti’s Pool’ in honor of its celebrated diver: a Jack Russell Terrier dog who has captured the attention of animal lovers worldwide.
Upon reaching a point overlooking the picturesque swimming venue, I had already spotted Titti – a stocky, black, white and brown ball of energy. St. Peter’s Pool is photogenic in its own right, but the swarm of swimmers sporting mobile phones and cameras instead tried to capture Titti’s every move. This proved to be tricky because of the dog’s sprinting maneuvers and high jumps alongside her master’s ankles.
Anticipating her owner’s hand signal, Titti waited at the jagged cliff’s edge, an impatient aura about her. With her master’s motion now executed, her stubby little legs launched her into the azure water below. Titti’s makeshift paparazzi documented the split-second maneuver, and applause and yelps of delight followed as Titti’s head emerged from the foamy water. In her mouth, she carried a prized plastic water bottle which she’d just fetched out of the sea.
Malta was ruled, occupied and colonized by a great number of different peoples throughout the last few thousand years. Not surprisingly, since the island is in the heart of the Mediterranean, the Romans were among them.
Situated just outside the popular and atmospheric walled city of Mdina is the small Domus Romana Museum. It was once a townhouse for a Roman aristocrat living in the ancient Roman town of Melite, in what is now Mdina and Rabat. (In Latin, domus means ‘home’ or ‘residence’.) It’s believed that it was built in the 1st century CE.
On the northern coast of the Maltese island of Gozo, mounds of snow-white salt sparkle under the summer sun in salt evaporation pans. About 300 of these pans cover a section of Gozo’s northern coast, called the Xwejni Salt Pans. It’s believed that such pans have existed here since Roman times.
When we visited the Xwejni Pans last month, three of the family members who manage them were carefully sweeping the moist salt. Like gardeners raking the pebbles of a Zen rock garden, the men and women methodically moved the salt crystals to ensure the water evenly evaporated.
Not far away, a mammoth mound of prepped salt was cloaked with a black tarp. With the family’s salt shop just across the road, housed in a wind-swept cave, we were guessing they’d soon be carrying it away to be bagged and sold.
As the sailing yacht, the Moon Song, gracefully cut through the glittering water of the Mediterranean, I tried to recall some of the peoples who had made the islands of Malta their stopping point the last few thousand years. Whether aspiring conquerers, merchants, or explorers, they had all traveled on this maritime superhighway on which Malta is strategically located. Some, like the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs had successfully established themselves here for a time, while others, like the Ottomans, had famously failed.
Having lived in Malta’s diminutive capital, Valletta, for seven months by this time, I thought I had already uncovered most of the city’s varied vistas. However, from the waters below this UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shawn and I were now seeing the city with new eyes. From our starting point in the Grand Harbour, Valletta landmarks like the Victoria Gate and Siege Bell Memorial looked dollhouse-sized, while the city’s fortifications, which we regularly stroll through at sunset, appeared formidable and unbreachable.
Our first encounter with Malta’s revered honey was destined to offer a bittersweet lesson.
At a Christmas market in the Mediterranean country’s capital city, Valletta, we first met third-generation beekeeper and retired science teacher, Michael Muscat. On that chilly evening, girls dressed in holiday hues sang familiar Christmas tunes, peppered with Maltese lyrics. Politicians delivered their Christmas speeches in the open air, and I shook the country’s president’s hand three times. (She was making the rounds throughout the crowd, Shawn and I were moving about as well, thus the comical trio of salutations.) Inside an adjacent tent, vendors sold everything from handmade jewelry, to carob-infused wine, to candles. And as we edged towards the booth operated by Michael and his wife Mary, they literally had their last jar of honey in hand.
From the outside, Malta’s Manoel Theatre is handsome, but unassuming. Step through its main entrance and into the theater though, and the 285-year-old Valletta structure is dazzling – bringing to mind a gilded jewelry box or a terraced wedding cake.
Stopping by this Maltese landmark on an overcast morning uncharacteristic for sunny Malta, Shawn and I were greeted by Josette Portelli, a veteran employee who has been with the Manoel Theatre for more than 40 years.
Upon entering, Josette’s colleagues fumbled with the complicated switchboard at the back of the seating area, trying to illuminate the theater. Soon, the space went from pitch black and mysterious, to opulent and inviting. A delicate chandelier high overhead was the stunning focal point among a sea of smaller crystal sconces, bathing the 65 or so theater boxes with mood lighting.
Close to where Malta’s Victoria Lines fortifications taper off, there’s a little piece of Mediterranean paradise — a plot of land where olive and pomegranate trees, along with chickens, goldfish, frogs, and bees mingle. The spot, called the Tan-Nixxiegħa Olive Grove, began its transformation from overgrown and forgotten, to tended and tranquil, just over a decade ago, thanks to two farmers named Charley and Raymond.
The duo, who are part of the Merill Rural Tours network, converted the green-space, allowing the parcel’s flora and fauna to thrive. Today, thanks to Charley and Raymond’s hard work, you can hear the clucking of chickens, the whisper of the trees’ branches as they dance in the air, and the babbling of a tiny fishpond.