Discover the historical significance of Malta

June 25, 2008, 1:39 pm

Mopeds, Horsemeat and Pynchon on Malta

Diving from the pier at Hondoq Bay.Diving from the pier at Hondoq Bay.
Last Friday night, Sunny Bar & Restaurant filled up quickly. Families, couples and friends gathered at the simple wooden tables to share bowls of snails and platters of spaghetti with rabbit sauce, while men of all ages stood at the bar, drinking Cisk lager and watching the tense Croatia-Turkey football match on TV. Occasionally, one would wander outside to greet a friend in front of the huge, moonlit church that dominates the main square of the village of Mgarr, on the west side of the island of Malta.
Sunny Bar & Restaurant
Sunny Bar & Restaurant

Amid this warm, quaint scene, I ordered a dish of braised horsemeat and tried to relax. It was not easy, despite my steady consumption of Blue Label ale. For one thing, I was trapped — my rented moped had run out of fuel, and the two-pump gas station on the village square had closed long ago. Worse, I was stuck on the wrong island. My bed-and-breakfast, Number 43, lay on Gozo, Malta’s sister isle, and to reach it, I’d have to travel 45 minutes north and catch a 25-minute ferry ride (4.65 euros, or $7.25 at $1.59 to the euro, round-trip). How I’d get there, I wasn’t sure.

And then there was the bald man. Staring at me, his face shiny with drink, he gave me a three-fingered salute whose precise meaning I couldn’t fathom. Five minutes later, he punched another customer in the head. As Sunny’s owners threw the bald man and his victim into the street, I took a bite of my horse. It was rich, lean and tender, with a metallic tinge of iron — you might even call it ironic.

I had come to Malta — an island nation of 400,000 about 60 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles east of Tunisia— with the most high-minded of ideals. The 18th-century Grand Tourists were obsessed with Classical culture. But because of the difficulty of travel, they rarely ventured past Sicily. In Malta, I planned to do what they could not and explore a place that was ruled by virtually every culture that ever launched a boat in the Mediterranean, from the Phoenicians and Romans to, more recently, the British, who ran it as a colony from 1814 to 1964. Edward Gibbon, eat your heart out.
It helped that Malta seemed phenomenally affordable. My one-way flight from Rome on Air Malta was 62.42 euros. And for 25 euros a night, I had the biggest room at Number 43 on Gozo (43, Triq it 28 ta April; 356-2156-5435;, a year-old, British-run B&B in an old stone house in the picturesque village of Qala.
Even better, I had free Wi-Fi, a washing machine, a swimming pool — and the chance to experience one of the oddest melting-pot cultures of the Mediterranean. The Maltese language is Arabic in origin, but written in the Roman alphabet, with significant loanwords from Italian. Also, most people speak English well, a legacy of colonialism. The state religion is a version of Roman Catholicism so orthodox that abortion and even divorce are illegal.
Meanwhile, MTV had chosen Malta as the annual site of its weeklong “Isle of MTV” bacchanal, taking place this week. The antiquated, smoke-belching buses date from the colonial era; there are also reputedly more Ferraris here per capita than anywhere else in the world. The Maltese lira, now being phased out in favor of the euro, was stronger than the British pound. No wonder three different people I met in Rome described this tiny country, whose three main islands cover just 122 square miles (about the size of the borough of Queens), as “weird.” (They meant it in a good way, I think.)
Malta’s historical significance, however, outweighs its tiny weirdness. For 2,000 years, it was one of the most important strategic locations in the Mediterranean, a key to controlling naval traffic between the sea’s east and west. More recently, Malta has occupied a strategic spot in the American imagination, from “The Maltese Falcon” to Thomas Pynchon’s “V” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” both of which had significant scenes set here. And Hollywood has gotten into Malta, too: “Troy,” “Gladiator” and even “Popeye” were shot here.
But experiencing this history via museums and archaeological sites proved a challenge, and not merely because I was staying on a secondary island. Malta in summer is so hot — easily 90 degrees — that the only thing to do after lunch is to find a place in the shade and nap till the heat subsides, around 4 p.m. Unfortunately for ambitious Grand Tourists, virtually all museums close at 5 p.m. How’s that for a catch-22?

The restaurant Ta’ Vestru
The restaurant Ta’ Vestru.

My first day, for example, I walked out of Number 43 and into the heart of Qala (pronounced A-la), which like all Maltese villages centers on a magnificent Catholic church. Across from the church was Ta’ Vestru (5, St. Joseph’s Square, 356-2156-4589), where I ate rabbit stew, a Gozo specialty made from the meatiest bunny I’ve ever encountered, larded with carrots and peas, braised in red wine and served with a whole roast head of cauliflower and sweet peppers sautéed with fennel seeds. I washed it down with a half-liter of the house white and paid the ridiculously modest bill: 12.75 euros. I didn’t need to eat again all day.

Stuffed, I barely made it past Qala’s beige stone houses and endless stands of yellow-flowering wild fennel, to Hondoq Bay, the closest beach, where I roasted my distended belly amid vacationing Brits and local kids who dove effortlessly into the warm, blue water from a high pier. Sailboats and a Jet Ski sent ripples across the calm waters.
To see Malta and Gozo, I needed to be mobile, so I rented a 50cc Piaggio from On Two Wheels (36, Rabat Road, Marsalforn, 356-2156-1503, at 19 euros a day. I first visited the Ggantija Temples (; admission 3.49 euros), erected between 3600 and 3000 B.C. and believed to be the oldest free-standing buildings in the world. The back story was more impressive than its appearance — crumbling walls of beige brick supported by scaffolding. Angkor Wat this was not.

The luncheonette Gesther’s.
The luncheonette Gesther’s.

With the heat getting to me, I skipped nearby Calypso’s Cave — where legend has it Ulysses was detained for seven years as a love slave — in favor of a long, slow, well-shaded lunch at Gesther’s (8th September Avenue, Xaghra, 356-2155-6621), a charming luncheonette recommended by Time Out Malta & Gozo. My fish soup, spaghetti with rabbit sauce and red wine cost 10.10 euros, and brought that day’s Grand Tourism to an end.

I was starting to understand why the 18th-century Grand Tourists took months or even years to complete their adventures.
On Friday I hopped the ferry and rode the moped into Valletta, Malta’s enchanting capital. Constructed in 1566 by the Knights of St. John — the mysterious, multinational order of warrior monks who made Malta their base — Valletta is a fortified peninsula jutting a mile and a quarter into Grand Harbour, its high bastions (now crowned with gardens) the ultimate line of defense against Ottoman forces. The streets follow a grid pattern, an odd choice considering the peninsula is as hilly as San Francisco.
To explore Valletta, I needed energy. Joined by Martin Galea de Giovanni, a soft-spoken, ponytailed friend of a friend, I lunched at Rubino (53, Old Bakery Street, 356-2122-4656), a century-old restaurant where we ate antipasti, risotto and rabbit meatloaf (46.30 euros with wine) alongside a member of the European Parliament and a former Maltese government minister.

The hilly streets of Valletta.
The hilly streets of Valletta.

Then we combed Valletta, marching up and down the hills looking for evidence of the now-sleepy city’s illustrious past and marveling at the cute Victorian-style balconies. On Strait Street in the heart of the Gut, the entertainment district once frequented by visiting sailors, I was hoping to find the Metro Bar, where a key scene of Pynchon’s unsummarizable “V” takes place. We asked old-timers and were directed to a doorway filled with cinderblocks. The Metro Bar was no more.

Like the New Life Music Hall, the Smiling Prince and the Blue Peter — whose faded signs hung over locked and cobwebbed doors — the Metro had shut down sometime after 1979, when the British naval base closed, and I was left to wonder what lay within. Did it still look, as Pynchon wrote, “like a nobleman’s pied-a-terre applied to mean purposes”? Did “statues of Knights, ladies and Turks” still line the “wide curving flight of marble steps” that led to the second-story dance floor? Or had the Metro’s owners carted off the decorations that had lodged within the imagination of young Pynchon (who presumably visited Valletta during his 1955-57 stint in the Navy)?

Today, all that remains of the Gut’s glory days is a 90-year-old tattoo parlor and a few graybeards who remember the noise and chaos and fun. “But now it’s too quiet here, too quiet,” one of them told us. “If you come at Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, you can bring shotgun and you can shoot and nobody, nobody take notice.”

His nostalgia was palpable, and another Pynchon line seemed apt: “Monuments, buildings, plaques were remembrances only; but in Valletta remembrances seemed almost to live.”

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