Cities of sand

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A nine-hour flight east, a four-hour layover in Rome, and a one-hour flight due south brought us early yesterday afternoon to the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The weather here is a vast improvement over Chicago's. It's sunny, with a bit of haze in the evenings, and just the cool side of warm. North across the water lies Sicily. To the south is Libya. To the west is Tunisia. This island, in fact, lies farther south than Tunis.

Malta belongs to the EU, so passport control was ridiculously easy. In fact, since our visas were stamped in Rome, we didn't have to fuss with customs at all. A harrowing ten-minute cab ride, wilder than any Manhattan trip, brought us to our hotel, but we were distracted from imminent death by the gorgeous vistas of sand-colored buildings crowding every hillside in sight, occasionally topped by spectacular towers and domes. It's probably fortunate that we didn't learn until we reached our hotel room that Malta's rate of traffic accidents is the highest in the EU.

Our hotel is in St. Julian's, a metropolitan resort sort of city on the north shore. We're next door to a multiplex movie theater and across from a bowling alley. Our hotel has a private beach. But slumming on the sand was not our goal yesterday. Once we were settled and changed, we hopped a bus back east a few miles to Malta's capital, the medieval city of Valletta.

Valletta was built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John, the Catholic military order that ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, and was named for Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. It was, I have read, one of the first European cities built from scratch on a grid plan. It occupies a long narrow promontory pointing northeast between Marsamxett Harbour on the northwest and Grand Harbour on the southeast, with a street plan very reminiscent of Manhattan's (on a rather smaller scale).

The streets are narrow and straight, with only residents permitted to drive them, and lined mostly with uniformly erected buildings three or so stories high, in varying shades of sand-colored stone. Some of the streets are quite steep, with steps built in. Many corners have a large statue of a saint, a knight, or the Virgin set into an alcove a story above street level. The views from either side of the island are spectacular, especially across Grand Harbour to the Three Cities, built on three promontories jutting northwest into the harbor. Fort St. Angelo, pivotal for the Knights during the brutal siege by the Ottomans in 1565 and then by the British Navy during World War II, makes for a particularly impressive sight on the middle promontory.

Most places in Valletta were closed, it being Sunday, but we did peek into St. John's Co-Cathedral, which is as ornate on the inside as it is plain on the outside. The floor is paved with the intricate marble tombstones of over 400 knights. We also peered into the lush central courtyards of the Palace of the Grand Masters. I'm going to try to get back there today, though since Laura is here for a conference yesterday was really her only day for sightseeing.

We drank cappuccinos at an outdoor cafe across from the cathedral, then set off to locate a couple of restaurants where, though closed Sundays, we may have dinner this week. Resigned to having our Sunday dinner in St. Julian's, we tried to find our way back to the bus stop, but were stymied by the fact that we had ended up on a higher level street and couldn't find our way down to the passage across the deep dry southern moat that is the main entrance to the city. This was fortunate, because in our wanderings we ran across the Hotel Castille, with a rooftop restaurant serving traditional Maltese fare that would be open at seven. With half an hour to kill, we did more wandering, ending up at the Anglo-Maltese League Bar & Restaurant for a drink with the locals.

For dinner we sat at a corner of the Castille Hotel roof terrace overlooking Grand Harbour. For an appetizer we had baked gbejniet, which are cheeselets made either from sheep or goat milk. Laura ate spaghetti frutti di mare topped with a giant prawn, while I had lapin à la maltaise—rabbit stewed with tomatoes, capers, and other little yummy stuff.

It's fascinating to look at signs in Malta. The two official languages are Maltese and English, and Maltese is the only Semitic language written with the Latin alphabet. This makes for very exotic-looking words, all cluttered with x's and q's, and h's with extra bars, and dotted c's and g's and z's, and initial m's followed by other consonants. You get placenames like Zurrieq and Xlendi and Mqabba and Ġgantija and Dwejra and Tarxien and Siġġiewi and Għar Lapsi and Ta' Ċenċ and Żebbuġ and Naxxar and Marsaxlokk and Xagħra and Mdina. We went hunting for one Valletta restaurant in a street called Triq Nofs In-Nħar! I don't know about you, but I get excited about exotic words like this, and learning the phonetic rules for pronouncing them. (The q's, for instance, are silent!)

I have a nifty international current adapter for my laptop, but it's useless to me right now because I forgot to pack a grounding adapter for my three-pronged power supply. D'oh! I'll have to set off in search of one after I get my ass out of this hotel room. It's already nearly one in the afternoon, and there's exploring to do! Not to mention I must conserve batteries!

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William Shunn

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 19, 2008 11:24 AM.

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