If it is 4:30 in the morning, it must be time for another of those convenient inter-country hops. With leaden limbs and sleep-fogged eyes, we pull our suitcases down to the lobby of our Athens Hotel and board a taxi for the airport. The streets are virtually empty of cars, and the airport is rather somnolent as well.
We lift off into the dawn on an Air Malta flight. Ninety minutes later we are dropping onto an island so small that it barely registers on the inflight map display. The main island of Malta measures 17 by 9 miles. It is escorted by the much smaller Gozo (9 by 5 miles) and Comino, 1 by 1. This three island group lies 58 miles south of Sicily and 220 north of Libya.
We have decided to break with our normal practice and rent a car on Malta. The island is not very large and Miss Mary thinks we will be able to see more if we can drive ourselves. I suspect that Malta's public transport is probably well developed, but I lose the debate. The blue anvil, my massive suitcase, is so large that it won't fit in the trunk; it claims a place of magisterial importance, riding in the back seat between our daughters.
It is only 7:30 AM, and we still have several hours before we can check into our flat in Valletta. We decide to drive south from the airport to a fishing village named Marsaxlokk. It is a beautiful spot, a lovely harbor filled with traditional Maltese fishing boats in their red, yellow, and blue livery. Most of the boats have eyes painted near their bows, presumably to allow them to see through fog and steer clear of unmarked reefs. I don't know if it is accidental or by design, but several of the boats have covers placed over the eyes, as if the boat was wearing sleep blinders.
The town's yellow limestone houses create a pleasing curve around the harbor. I'm not the only one who appreciates the view. As we stroll along the water's rim, we see the tour buses disgorging the first tours of the day. A pretty, unspoiled town like Marsaxlokk is going to draw attention, but it still feels authentic: a working fishing village that caters to the tourist trade as an afterthought.
Marsaxlokk also has the dubious distinction of being the spot where Napoleon landed with his fleet in 1798. The Knights of St John (around 700 knights plus some local Maltese) had successfully repelled the Islamic forces of Suleiman the Magnificent (40,000 men) in 1565. Following this stunning triumph, they had strengthened their position by building the great fortress city of Valletta. In its time, Valletta was regarded as one of the most impregnable bases in all of Europe. Yet, when Napoleon arrived with the French army and demanded that the Knights surrender, Grand Master De Hompesch meekly handed over his magnificent stronghold without a fight.
Napoleon allowed the knights to leave, steeped in ignominy. His troops then ransacked the churches and homes of Valletta, before sailing on to Egypt where he ran into Admiral Nelson. Back in Malta, the Maltese did what the gutless Grand Master dared not, and challenged the occupying French troops. Assisted by the British navy, the Maltese succeeded in expelling Napoleon's forces, and Malta became a British colony in 1814.
We are staying in Valletta. My first impression of the city is disbelief. It is an amazing fortress; why would the Knights have surrendered such a defensible position? Built on a great stone hill, Valletta is a city of high, thick walls. While modern military technology might be able to overcome it, I can't see how Napoleon would have succeeded.
Valletta is a beautiful city, laid out in yellow Maltese limestone on a grid pattern. It is approximately one kilometer in length and half a kilometer in width. Since it is built on top of Sceberras hill, there is very little flat ground. The visitor is usually either climbing or descending through the narrow, building-shaded streets.
The city overlooks two natural harbors: the Grand Harbor to the south, and Marsamxett Harbor to the north. The Knights of Saint John chose this spot for its strategic advantage. From this overlook they could control the harbors and hold off all invaders.
Valletta is also a staunchly Catholic city. It has thirty-eight churches, and only one — St Paul's Anglican Cathedral — is not Catholic. Statues of saints, icons of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, and gorgeously opulent churches are found at nearly every corner.
We have lunch in a small cafe, and I opt to try the local specialty: the Maltese Platter. The Air Malta inflight magazine had strongly recommended this dish, and I knew that I needed to try it when I saw it listed on the menu. It comes on a plate that is divided into several sections, sort of a ceramic TV dinner. In the center section is bean dip. A selection of round crackers accompanies the dip. The other compartments contain, in order, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, large green olives, two links of cooked sausage, pickled onions, a white cheese, and a sun-dried goat cheese with pepper pressed into its surface. Absolutely marvelous.
Our flat is near the Victoria Gate, placed on a small knoll overlooking the Grand Harbor. Tugboats shepherd larger ships through the channels, and in the first couple of hours of residence, we have already seen several large white cruise ships departing ― undoubtedly on their way to Rhodes.
The day unwinds in a haze of fatigue and we end up doing nothing more ambitious than sitting on our balcony and watching the ships moving across the harbor. As twilight strengthens its grip, the clouds, which have hung about all day, offer a benediction. The blessing of a light rainfall begins, cooling the air.
I think I am going to love Malta.