MALTA: A Diamond in the Rough

Lisa A. Tomaszewski

Physician's Money Digest, September15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 17

Located only 290 kilometers off the coast ofmainland Africa, the islands of Malta are aneclectic fusion of tastes, cultures, and experiences.The Maltese archipelago, which consistsof Malta, Gozo, and Comino, is situated in the middle ofthe Mediterranean Sea, and it is this remoteness thatgives visitors a feeling of escape and adventure. The landis arid and ancient with crumbling limestone structureslining the streets alongside crowded modern homes. Andthere is no need to fret about a language barrier; the official language of Malta is English as well as Maltese.

Nestled in Floriana on the outskirts of Malta's capital,the walled city of Valletta, Le Meridien PhoeniciaHotel (info@phoenicia.com.mt) is the perfect refuge forthe weary. Many of its charming rooms offer a spectacularview of the Grand Harbor. Among its most memorableattractions is the garden walk to the pool and outdoorbar. Bask in the sight of the harbor while waiterscome around with a platter of watermelon to cool youfrom the intense Maltese sun.

When you have recovered from jet lag poolside, ventureinto the mysterious walled city, which is alwaysbustling with energy. Take a leisurely tour of the city ina horse-and-buggy ride, stroll about the quaint shops, orrelax in one of the cozy outdoor cafes. There's plenty oftouristy action to be found, but one sight not to bemissed is the Co-Cathedral of St. John. From the outsidethis structure appears extremely, even painfully, plain (anunguided tourist may miss it entirely). Once you stepinside, however, not 1 inch of the co-cathedral is leftundecorated. Among its treasured possessions is itssmall, but impressive, collection of Caravaggio paintings—the work of a great master.

If your stay in Valletta happens to coincide with aSunday, take some time to visit the flea market, whichtakes place practically across the street from Le MeridienPhoenicia. Traipsing through the tents of the many vendors,you'll get a real taste of Maltese culture. Fromindigenous music to modern styles of fashion to livecanaries to colorful soccer jerseys, the market is a potpourriof Maltese life. And the bargains can't be beat.

Walking the cobbled streets of Valletta or the Sundayflea market may give you a great appetite, and whereveryou choose to eat, be sure to try some seafood—it'samazing. Would you expect any less from an isle strandedin the middle of the Mediterranean? The formal diningroom at Le Meridien Phoenicia prepares a wonderfulsea bass dish. Also, look for one of Malta's customarydishes, rabbit. In a country where there is little roomto raise cattle, the clever Maltese take full advantage ofthis furry creature's culinary qualities.

If you choose to journey beyond Valletta, maketime for a stop in Mosta, which is roughly located inthe geographic center of the island of Malta. The mainattraction is the Church of St. Mary at Mosta, and theonly thing more amazing than its Roman pantheon-likestructure is the story of the miracle that occurred thereduring World War II. In 1942, a 1000-pound bombpenetrated the dome of the church while it was filledwith worshippers. Miraculously, the bomb did not detonate,and no one was hurt. In the back alcove of thechurch, next to the well-stocked gift shop, there is areplica of this bomb on display.

From Mosta it is a short trek to the plateau of Rabat,where you can catch a horse and buggy up to themedieval city of Mdina. Once you walk through thegates, the limestone buildings that form the city are overwhelmingin their lack of color—everything is light gold.Amid this stark surrounding Maltese royalty are still inresidence, which makes real estate in this walled cityquite pricey. For those who fall in love with the charm ofMdina and want to extend their stay, you may want toconsider lodging at the Hotel Xara Palace (356-454002).With only 18 rooms, this hotel offers both privacy andcoziness. And for a bite to eat with spectacular views,make tracks to Ciapetti (ciapetti@kemmunet.mt).

The treasures in Malta are endless, so you maywant to plan ahead before you arrive to have a guideor join a tour group. Tauck World Discovery (800-468-2825; www.tauck.com) offers a fantastic tour ofthe Mediterranean that includes Malta on its itinerary.For more information on Malta either contact itsUS tourism office at 212-430-3799, or contact theMalta Tourism Authority directly at 356-22915000,info@visitmalta.com, or visit www.visitmalta.com.