Have you ever heard of the “Malta Convention”? It’s a European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage. Also dubbed the “Valletta Convention” or the “Valletta Treaty”, since it was adopted in Valletta, the capital of Malta. Due to her job, Mei – who is an archaeologist, as you might know – told me a lot about this convention for the last several years. Mainly, because Luxembourg recently ratified this treaty.
Now, you might ask what this treaty, which aims to protect the European archaeological heritage, has to do with our voyage in Malta? Let me spare you the details: it actually isn’t very relevant. Except for the fact that had Mei not mentioned this treaty every single day for the past few years, I probably wouldn’t have suggested to visit Malta.
Our trip only lasted for four days. But when it comes to travel: quality matters, not quantity. Quality and memories. Because we travel to make unforgettable memories…
MARVEL AT VALLETTA’S COLORFUL WOODEN BALCONIES
It was midnight when we landed in Malta. Not a soul lingered in the city. But as we were driving through the city center of Valletta, our jaws dropped at the sight of the countless historical facades ornated with entrancing details. These buildings were gracefully lit with warm yellow lights.
Only the next morning did the Mediterranean sun finally lift the curtain on Valletta’s exuberant architecture. What the previous night had merely augured, was suddenly unveiled. So, we spent the whole day strolling through the narrow alleys of one of the smallest capital-cities in the world: climbing down dozens of limestone staircases, gazing up at the colorful wooden balconies, unmasking features at every corner. Apparently, the trend to build these enclosed balconies started in Valletta around the end of the 17th century. They revealed the owners’ social status.
However, it’s not sure whether these enclosed balconies have an Aragonese, Spanish, Arabic, or Turkish origin. But one thing is sure: the protruding wooden balconies, the heraldic stone-carved emblems, as well as the solitary church chimes render Malta an interactive storybook. We were eager to turn all the pages…
SIT DOWN AND RELAX IN THE LOWER BARRAKKA GARDENS
After a long day wandering around the streets of Valletta, we ended up in front of a small public park. When we set eyes on a miniature Greek-styled temple, Mei immediately wanted to visit the inside. It turns out that this neoclassical monument was built in 1810 as a memorial to Sir Alexander Ball. He was a British admiral, very much loved by the Maltese population, when the archipelago was under British rule.
The monument was encircled by palm trees, rearing their feathery crowns proudly. The stone pillars presented here and there colorful dots. At times, we could see the golden gleam of a lizard before it vanished in a crevice. A lazy cat was sunbathing. It squinted at us before turning its attention to the waving neck of an orange tree.
We settled on a bench, letting the light sea breeze play with our hair. As far as the eye could reach, the Grand Harbour stretched out its giant legs. The Lower Barakka Gardens soon became our favorite spot in the city. Each night, its magnetic vibe drew us in.
LISTEN TO THE WAVES AT WUESTENWINDS BEACH
Malta is recognized for its clean beaches, reputed to be the cleanest in Europe. But most of them are located in the northern part of the archipelago. In the city of Valletta, there is no beach… or is there?
We chose to stay in Valletta, because we intended to explore its cultural and historical sites. We’re not beach persons. The April zephyr is not warm enough for us to take a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. But on the second day of our trip, we stumbled upon a narrow staircase just a few steps south of Fort St Elmo. A little kitten licked its paw, then advanced to greet us with a meow. It didn’t let us touch its sandy fur, but looked at us with intent, before walking down two steps. Then it stopped again, turned around slowly and gave us another meow. So, we decided to follow the kitten down the stairs…
A few meters further, we found several boats turned upside down. Scattered all around, tiny colorful cabins had been built on top of the steep cliffs. We assumed they were abandoned fishermen cottages. Little kitty didn’t seem to want us to stop there. It led us further down, until we reached the sea. And there it was: a hidden stone beach, called Wuestenwinds Beach.
GET LOST IN MDINA
A bus ride between Valletta and the city of Mdina lasts about twenty-five minutes. But it took our bus driver only ten minutes, and a few close-call accidents…
Perched atop a hillside and surrounded by lime-green fields and canary flowers, the fortified city of Mdina looks like a fairytale town from afar. But once inside the Silent City, we felt like history truly came alive! Mdina used to be Malta’a capital from its foundation in the 8th century BC until the arrival of the Order of St. John in 1530.
In Antiquity, the town was called Maleth. Then Melite by the Romans, before becoming Mdina, which derives from the Arabic word medina, meaning “a walled city with narrow and maze-like streets”. This description of Mdina is still accurate today. But unlike in the medinas of Tunisia or Morocco, the narrow alleys of this Maltese walled city are absolutely quiet.
Most tourists stay at the entrance gates of the town or visit the famous St Paul’s Cathedral or the French baroque Magisterial Palace. Some of them stroll on the city wall to catch sensational panoramic views of the surrounding areas. But once we walked into the hushed heart of the city, we were all by ourselves. Perfect to take in the timeless quietude. To feel the heat emerging from the sun-kissed walls. And to get lost in the maze of narrow alleyways…
SLOW DOWN IN MARSAXLOKK
Compared to the chaotic bus ride we took to Mdina, the one to southeastern Malta turned out to be less hectic. We drove sluggishly along the shoreline, past grazing sheep and cattle… soon, we closed our eyes…
But the unexpected beauty of Marsaxlokk woke us up. We had not seen such a picturesque fishing village for a very long time! We felt like stepping on a Greek island. Not crowded, nor touristy. It was almost noon, but we didn’t want to rush to the first restaurant for lunch. We wandered gently through the little fishing village, marveling at the boats’ coloring and names. Finally, we sat down by the water, enjoying the quiet. A few local fishermen were mending their fishing nets. While others were repainting their luzzu boats… probably getting ready for the high season in Malta.
A group of Buddhist monks dressed in bright orange came out of nowhere. Seeing their genuine smile, we imagined they lived in a jungle-temple in Angkor, or perhaps in one of the many wats in Luang Prabang. Even they found Marsaxlokk scenic enough to take a selfie…
By the way, did you know that it was in the bay of Marsaxlokk where the Phoenicians first settled down when they landed in Malta in the 9th century BC? I like it when Mei reveals bits of history. It soothes me. I put my head on her shoulder, and asked her to tell me more… The name of this village sounds complicated. But its meaning is actually quite simple. “Marsa” is the Arabic word for “port”. And “xlokk” is Maltese (pronounced “shlock”) and means “south east”. I thought that this fishing village was called so, because it was located in the southeast of the island. But in fact, “xlokk” is related to the dry southeastern wind dubbed “sirocco”, which blows from the Sahara.
WATCH THE SUNSET AT THE UPPER BARRAKKA GARDEN
Some say that sunsets are always the same, wherever you go. We don’t agree. They’re never the same. Not even when watched from the same spot. Let alone, from different places. I love the ones we witnessed in Santorini. Mei loves the ones we experienced in San Francisco Bay. Perhaps, sunsets are not linked to places. But to memories. And to feelings of specific moments, as the ones you remember because you held hands, or kissed.
When the last violet sunrays slid across the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a pristine colonnaded garden with fountains and archways, we felt at peace and in love. It was magnificent…
LEARN ABOUT MALTA’S HISTORY IN THE NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM
On the last day of our trip in Malta, we had a few hours to spare. Mei wanted to make one last use of her ICOM membership card, which provides her with free access to national museums and historical sites around the world. So, we walked to Fort St Elmo and the National War Museum. While I sat down under a lemon tree to muse and to write, Mei explored the museum. She sent me pictures of the Knights’ final resting place inside a small chapel. As well as of artefacts from the Normans who conquered Malta in the 11th century. And of several wreckages from WWII’s crashed aircrafts. By the way, did you know that Malta gained independence only in 1964?
Restored only recently, the whole complex of Fort St. Elmo is gigantic. The panoramic views of both the Grand Harbour and the Marsamxett Harbour, which the Fort guarded proudly in the 16th century and again during WWII, were well worth the visit, according to Mei. From the top of the fortification, she waved at me as I finished the last verse of my poem. When she joined me under the lemon tree, I thought that this was life as it should be. For once, without a care in the world. Free to stroll around. We took silly selfies. Kissed. Loved. Looked out into the teal Mediterranean Sea and dreamed away our time…
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