Malta: Edibles, Art, and Getting Around Town

April 27, 2017.  One last post about Malta.  I can’t leave the islands without talking about their unique cuisine and incredible art scene.  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.

Looking across from Valetta’s ancient Fort St. Elmo, you can see the modern resort town of Sliema. The 18th-century Fort Tigné crowns the promontory, but most everything else is new, uber-posh, and hip, including a shoreline promenade strewn with restaurants and a towering shopping mall.

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.

Situated on the street where the Knights Hospitallers trained their falcons, La Falconeria offers an ancient but beautifully preserved façade and rooms with traditional Maltese balconies. (Click for a bigger view.)

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.

Matthew rejoices at the tasteful renovations in the lobby of La Falconeria, an ancient townhouse turned boutique hotel.

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).

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.

If you decide to rent a car in Malta, remember that as the driver, you’ll be sitting on the opposite side of the car, which is likely a stick shift that you’ll be shifting with your left hand. Not to mention that you’ll be driving and parallel parking on the opposite side of narrow, hilly streets. It can be a real brain teaser.

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.

Look closely and you’ll see that many street signs use Maltese place names that aren’t always translated into our English equivalents, making navigation tricky.

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.

One day on a whim, we took a bus to the Tarxien Temples and the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. We waited an hour for the bus to show up, then once we got off at the proper stop, it took us an hour to locate the incredibly obscure entrance to the temples. In retrospect, a car and driver that day would’ve been well worth the money spent for the time and frustration saved.

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.

Coach travel isn’t my favorite thing, but I will say we got a nice overview of Gozo’s gorgeous landscape from the bus window.

Coach Excursions
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.

For the Easter holiday, bakeries featured Figolla (iced biscuits stuffed with a mixture of sweet ground almonds.)

Dining Options
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.

Matthew’s quite excited about Jennifer Mallia’s woodblock prints in the hallway. The one on the right is a reference to the falcons raised by the Knights Hospitallers in the street where our hotel is located.

Art Galleries
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.

Two more of Mallia’s works for La Falconeria feature Valletta’s horse-drawn carriages and the city’s annual Regatta rowing competitions between traditional Maltese vessels called kajjiks.

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.

Malta’s ground-firework displays are intense and absolutely mesmerizing.  It’s like watching a giant kaleidoscope made of sparklers.

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 longer Festa San Pietru video.  And yes, we hope to squeeze in one these events at some point during our next trip to Malta.

One of Jesmond Vassallo’s pieces depicts St. Barbara’s Bastion in Valletta and was commissioned by the owners of the hotel. (Click for a bigger view.)

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.

Renzo Piano designed Malta’s new parliament building and an open-air theater within the ruins of the former Royal Opera House, destroyed during WWII.

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….


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