April 27, 2017. One last post about Malta. I can’t leave the islands without talking about their unique cuisine and incredible art. Plus I thought I’d address some practicalities, too: how to get around the islands and where to stay. Just a little bit left to cover, but I’m gonna let the photos do most of the talking, so get ready to feast your eyes.
Where to Stay
Let’s start with the hotel. Our trip to Malta was hastily conceived only a week beforehand, when we got the last-minute news that we’d be able to take Easter off. (Typical for us. Seems we rarely get to plan anything in advance due to our project schedule.) In full-panic mode, we rapidly searched affordable hotels in desirable sections of Malta.
Defining that word, “desirable” proved problematic. Did we want the beach-resort scene promised by hotels clustered around Malta’s northern bays? Nope, insular and all-inclusive isn’t really our thing. Or how ’bout the trendy nightlife scene of St. Julien’s? No thanks, not into the girls-gone-wild, spring-break vibe. Maybe the ultra-mod exclusivity promised by Sliema? Nah, a little too sterile and snooty. We finally settled on the heart of Valetta — when in doubt, we always pick the Old Town in any city for it authenticity and walkability.
Once we’d chosen our district, finding a hotel became a bit trickier, considering our somewhat limited budget and late notice. Valetta abounds in luxury hotels and boutique establishments, many of which were already booked or far out of our price range. But luckily, through Norwegian Air, we stumbled upon a great deal (around $180/night including breakfast) at a new hotel, La Falconeria. The place combines an ideal location with a historic setting, an elegant interior, terrific food, and some of the most accommodating staff we’ve yet to meet.
I don’t get paid to say nice stuff about any of the spots we stay — I’m not that kind of blogger — but when I find a gem, I like to let folks know about it. This place is lux without being uncomfortably fussy or pretentious, and the folks who run it are adroitly helpful without being intrusive. Take a look at the hotel’s details below, and if you’re planning a trip to Malta, book here soon. I’m sure that by 2018, when the country claims its official EU title as European Capital of Culture, La Falconeria will have been discovered by the “in crowd” and will have adjusted its prices accordingly (as it should considering all it has to offer).
We spent many a late night having after-dinner drinks at La Falconeria’s bar, chatting with the bartender for tips on what to see and which local dishes to try. Notice the floor — it’s a replica of the M.C. Escher-esque tiles from the ancient Roman townhouse “Domvs Romana” in Rabat, Malta. It’s little touches like this, the blend of old with modern, that make La Falconeria so lovely.
The back half of the townhouse that became La Falconeria was destroyed by bombing during WWII and has been rebuilt to include a tranquil courtyard, where you can have your breakfast, if you’re in the mood for an al fresco meal.
Speaking of breakfast, La Falconeria’s were awesome. Each began with a tray of assorted Maltese breads and a trio of spreads that included homemade tomato marmalade, a kind of ricotta cheese, and delicately spiced, whipped butter. Here, Matthew’s chugging his morning cuppa joe and about to dive into a delicious omelette, while I’ve opted for yogurt, fruit, and musli.
Our room — spacious, with a chic modern vibe and access to its own traditional Maltese balcony.
The view from our balcony just can’t be beat!
La Falconeria’s basement houses its fitness room and plunge pool, made from the old townhouse cistern.
Always the architect, Matthew peers into the pool, admiring the adaptive reuse of the cistern. The building codes during the Knights Hospitallers’ times required developers to dig a cistern within the solid rock foundation of their building site, then use the quarried stone to construct the building. Rainwater had to be channeled from the rooftop into the cistern, since Malta’s freshwater has always been in short supply. Seems like many modern cities could learn a lesson from Malta’s past.
Getting Around on the Islands
Getting to the hotel on the night of our arrival was another matter. Matthew and I had been told that car rental in Malta was easy and cheap, but we decided to opt for a taxi, due to our state of workweek exhaustion. The brief ride into Valletta from the airport made us rethink our mode of transport. Our driver maniacally raced through (and sometimes over top of) roundabouts at speeds that seemed appropriate for the Autobahn but suicidal for Malta’s narrow streets.
The idea of sharing the road with other such risk takers drove the possibility of car rental right out of our heads. Especially considering that, as an old British colony, Malta’s cars and roads are oriented opposite of our American standards. While we’ve driven British-style in rural England, Ireland, and Scotland, the pace of traffic in these locales is much slower. We didn’t relish the thought of spending our short week both managing our dyslexic driving and pretending we’re competitors in the equivalent of Malta’s Grand Prix.
In the end, we opted to hire a car and driver from the hotel. Never in our life have we ever done such a thing. I’ve always scoffed at folks who regularly travel this way. But now I have to eat my scorn. Our fabulous driver, Alex, met us every day out front of the hotel and drove us all over Malta — from beach, to prehistoric site, to distant cites, and more — for the measly cost of about $25 – $50 per day. And all without the stress of adapting to driving on the opposite side of the road, getting lost, or having to search for parking.
If you’re short on time and looking for a relaxing way to cover longer distances, I’d highly recommend this cushy yet cheap means of transport. Malta does have a great and inexpensive public bus system, although you’ll have to tack on at least an extra half hour or more for multiple stops along the way to your destination. Same thing if you take one of the day trips aboard a tour bus — count on devoting about three hours of the excursion to picking up and dropping off fellow tour mates at their hotels.
But if you’re truly staying local and sightseeing only within Valletta itself, you can walk to most destinations, or take some of the more creative modes of transportation around town — explore the options below.
If you’ve got a death wish, you can also rent a motorcycle in Malta. But beware of the potential for head-on collisions — even the locals note that they prefer to drive in the shade on hot days, which may or may not be on the correct side of the road.
If you’re feeling your inner diva, you can always get chauffeured around Valletta in one of these cutesy mini-cabs.
You can also catch a ride in a rickshaw or even a horse-drawn carriage. Although they’re not super cheap, they’re probably the most picturesque way to take in the town.
I have no idea whether this Halloween-themed van can be rented. I just threw it in because it comes with its own color-coordinated cat (on the roof.)
Ferries are a common way to make a shortcut across Malta’s harbors to its other cities, and are also the only way to reach islands like Gozo and Comino. You can travel as a pedestrian or cyclist, or you can drive your rental car on board.
About those bus tours. As you know by now, we’re not big fans. But on Malta, it can really pay to take one that packs several sites into a single ticket. We tried the full-day excursion to Gozo, which gave us a whirlwind flyby of the Ġgantija Temples, Mdina and the Citadel, a lace-making workshop, and Dwera Bay and the Azure Window (or what was left of it), all for about $65/per person, including lunch. Our guide, Mirabelle, was knowledgeable and incredibly patient, particularly as we had one girl in the group who repeatedly got lost or distracted and held up the entire bus for a half-hour or more at each location. (Annoying fellow tourists are one of the biggest drawbacks of these kinds of trips.) If we’d had oodles of hours available, I’d have preferred to go it alone, but in truth, without the bus tour, I think we would never have been able to see so much in so little time.
Moving onto Malta’s cuisine. It’s an enticing mélange of Mediterranean, Near-Eastern, and French food, with a bit of British pub fare thrown in to keep things humble. We tried several recommended eateries, and even went back to a few spots more than once. Our goal was to sample as many Maltese delicacies as possible, including rabbit stew, marinated octopus, and lamb shank (a small island means small mammals and seafood are the stars of many meals). But along the way, we also helped ourselves to our fair share of street food and sweets, as you’ll see below.
Our first dinner foray took us to Guzé Bistro (see http://www.guzevalletta.com/), tucked into the basement level of this building. The place gets an A+ for its wine-cellar ambience and marvelous food (photos coming up next.)
Our appetizer consisted of pear soup and a tomato chutney with Maltese bread. Light and delicately flavorful.
For dinner, we went traditional, with haruf brazato (slow-cooked lamb shank) and fenek moquli (pan-fried rabbit) — to die for!
Another of our favorite discoveries was Rubino’s, a confectioner turned full-menu restaurant. (See http://rubinomalta.com/.) We loved it so much that we came here twice. It’s small, so reservations are recommended. One night, we observed the long face of a Swedish guy who got turned away at the door because the place was fully booked. We took pity on him, and invited him to join our table. He accepted, and we spent a fun night sharing food and swapping stories of our travels. That’s my favorite part about vacations; meeting new people and making friends of them.
We couldn’t get enough of Rubino’s fish cakes — had them two nights in a row! Also intensely savory was the ox tongue with aubergines and capers, the sea bass involtini stuffed with pine nuts and mint, the pork fillets marinated in honey and thyme, and the spaghetti rizzi made with sea urchins. Beyond words terrific!
One night, we went for spicy Indian food at La Mere and sampled some local brews. Both were perfect revitalizers after a long day of sightseeing.
Another great seaside place is Cockneys Bar and Restaurant, where we indulged in mouth-watering octopus stew and fresh snapper, followed by some terrific crème brûlée with fig and pistachio cake compote with strawberry mousse. Yum!
Street vendors offer a variety of traditional Maltese sweets that can also make great gifts for friends and family.
Check out these cute bunny cupcakes at The French Affaire in Sliema. I’m a sucker for cute food.
More fabulous Easter cakes. Have I mentioned that I’m a little obsessed with fancy cakes?
Our new friend Jesmond introduced us to Kinnie, Malta’s national soft drink. It’s carbonated and made from bitter oranges and extracts of wormwood. Nope, it’s not a form of absinthe, but it is addictively delicious.
Before I sign off for the day, I’ve got one final piece of advice for you: take time to check out Malta’s art scene. The night Matthew and I arrived at La Falconeria, we were struck by the paintings and woodblock prints in the hotel’s lobby, restaurant, hallways, and our room. We were so impressed that we asked Patricia, our concierge, about the artists and whether we could visit their studios. The next morning she’d gotten names and addresses for us, and we contacted each to set up a time for viewing their works.
Our first stop was at Colour Studio, the workshop of Jennifer Mallia. Her compelling etchings and woodblock prints reflect her Catholic faith, as well as her pride in her Maltese heritage, and also give a nod to the island’s Islamic roots and the role religion plays in defining culture and politics. We particularly loved the series commissioned by La Falconeria, as it captured so many classic scenes of Valletta in such a vibrant, graphic way.
When we asked what had initially inspired Jennifer to become an artist, she cited her father, who in his spare time creates firework displays — but not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, sky-high kind. These things are ground-based pyrotechnic sculptures and mobiles, feats of engineering that flame out in minutes as part of competitions that celebrate saints’ feast days. For a taste, check out Malta’s Ground Fireworks Festival video or this longerFesta San Pietru video. And yes, we hope to squeeze in one these events at some point during our next trip to Malta.
Our second art excursion took us to the studio of Jesmond Vassallo, a sculptor, painter, and print maker, whose abstracted landscapes of Malta had completely captivated us. Walking around Jes’s space, we were blown away by the depth and breadth of his work. Whether he’s painting street scenes, nature, nudes, or portraits, he somehow pares away excess and captures just the vital essence of his subject, pure and spiritual (click through some of his paintings here.) I think I could’ve parked my butt on the floor of his studio and lost myself in his pieces for hours. As it was, Jes generously invited us back on Friday night for a dinner with some of his friends, where he cooked us a veritable feast of Maltese specialities. Honestly, the experience was the highpoint of our entire trip, and I feel honored to have had such an opportunity and made such an inspiring and talented new friend.
Jes gave us a tour of his home and studio, where we got a chance to see his process and how he creates his etchings.
Me, Matthew, and Jes the night of our amazing dinner — check out more of Jes’s paintings on the walls behind us.
For his birthday gift, Matthew selected one of Jes’s almost cubist depictions of St. Barbara’s bastions.
We also purchased this dream-like, slightly surrealist painting called “Gnejna-riviera.” When life gets to be overwhelming, I stand in front of it and absorb its tranquility.
Jes created this print as part of a project designed as art for the blind. The image is embossed, so that it can be touched, not just seen. I’m imagining the joy of tracing those swooping lines with my fingertips and reconstructing the image in my mind’s eye.
One of Jes’s earliest sculptures, this old soul is destined to have a new home in our place someday.
Recently, we received an email from Jes, who will be creating an intaglio map of Valletta as part of the 2018 European Capital of Culture celebration. The work will be done in partnership with Architecture Project Valletta, the firm that worked with Renzo Piano to build the city’s new Parliament House — can’t wait to go back and see the final installation! And on that note, I’ll close with a few more shots of the parliament building….
Part of Renzo Piano’s parliament project included a new main entrance into the city of Valletta. The tall steel blades on the left highlight where the new gate joins the old 16th-century city walls. The gate replaces a brooding 1960s Italian “fascist-style” entrance and is the fourth gate to occupy this spot. I love the strong and stark austerity of it, and how it frames the dramatic sky.
The new Parliament House has been quite controversial due to its cost, its modern design, and the fact that the construction of a new building was put as a priority above preserving some of Valletta more historic structures. Still, I think its a striking and tasteful addition to the entry experience into Valletta.
The Parliament House has been compared to a dovecote, a cheese grater, and Legos on stilts. Personally, I think that the structure is elegant and timeless; its strong lines dramatically complement, not detract from, the nearby ancient bastions of St James’s Cavalier and St John’s Cavalier.
One of my favorite things about the new Parliament House is the play of light across the building throughout the day; it’s sculptural on a monumental scale.