Monday, April 21, 2014

An Afternoon in Valletta, Malta

We woke up early in Gharb for our final Maltese adventure in Valletta. We left at 9:30, reversing our original journey. We took a bus from Gharb to Victoria, then from Victoria to Mgarr, then a ferry from Mgarr to Cirkewwa. For some reason I thought Valletta was just another short bus or taxi ride from from Cirkewwa but I was wrong. We were on the bus for almost an hour after our already hours-long trek from Gharb. It wasn't too bad though. The streets were a little less bumpy and we were able to see a lot of nice scenery as we drove through the island on the way to Valletta.

Grand Harbor from
Hotel Phoenicia's Gardens
At almost 2pm we finally reached our destination, the Hotel Phoenicia. It's conveniently located right next to the bus station so at least we didn't have a difficult time finding it once we were there. Hotel Phoenicia was built in 1939, the first luxury hotel in Malta. It's situated just outside the city's walls and sprawled over 7.5 acres of beautiful, fragrant gardens. The hotel hearkens back to the days of old-world charm. It really feels like you're stepping back in time when you enter the grand foyer and pass through to the opulent, chandeliered lounge area. The hotel is currently undergoing renovations to add some 21st-century amenities but you can still have a good look at its original grandeur. Thick-carpeted banquet rooms with heavy, luxurious drapes over the windows still sit untouched, waiting to be introduced to the future.

The pool is the best part about Hotel Phoenicia. After a leisurely walk through the gardens, pausing to look at breathtaking views of Valletta's harbor, you find yourself at the base of the city walls, a large and welcoming pool beckoning you to jump in for a dip. The water is kept at the perfect temperature-- slightly heated for the cool April breezes wafting through the gardens at sunset. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We definitely did some sightseeing in Valletta before lounging poolside at the end of the day.

We had lunch at the Pegasus restaurant in the hotel since we were tired and starved after our unexpectedly long journey to Valletta. This lunch was one of my husband's favorite meals so far this year. Both of us enjoyed sumptuous soups as starters and fresh, grilled sea bass for the main course. Our waiter was extremely friendly and eager to inquire about our thoughts on Malta so far. He was clearly very proud and passionate about his country and had lots of suggestions (if only we had more time!) for us. We told him we had enjoyed our time in Gharb very much and everyone we met was so kind.
"Ahh, that is characteristic of the Maltese!" he said with unabashed pride. "We are a very friendly people. The only time you can say something bad about us is when we are driving. Then, we get very hotheaded!"

It was late afternoon by the time we finished lunch so we rushed out of the hotel to see what we could of the city before the sun set. Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortified city is well-preserved, its hilly, cobbled streets ending at the glistening blue waters of the Grand Harbor.

St. John's Co-Cathedral is a must-see. It was commissioned in 1572 as the conventual church for the Knights of St. John and it's dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The Knights' mission was to protect the Catholic faith from attacks from the Ottoman Turks. The cathedral's stunning interior features over 400 colorful inlaid marble tombs commemorating some of the most illustrious Knights of the Order of St. John. They date from the early 17th century to the 19th century.

The walls and ceilings glitter with gold and Caravaggio's largest canvas, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the alter piece of the Oratory. Not only is it his largest painting, it's also the only one he's known to have signed (completed in 1608).

From the cathedral, we wandered the streets of Valletta, taking in the views of the sea. We lined up with a large crowd to indulge in scoops of ice cream from Caffe Cordina, "Malta's Finest Coffee Shop." We were a little disappointed that we arrived in Valletta too late to visit all of its important sites, but just walking around the city was a pleasure. The sun was shining and the sea was sparkling so we really enjoyed our time, even though it was short.

We made our way back to the hotel for a refreshing swim at the pool and watched the sun set over the harbor as the walls of the city rose behind us. What more could you ask for?

Since we had to wake up at four the next morning for our insanely early flight, we decided to have dinner at the hotel's Phoenix Restaurant. We actually preferred the lunch at Pegasus over dinner at Phoenix, but the food was still good. We were serenaded by an old-school piano player who regaled us with Elton John classics. We were the youngest diners in the restaurant by about 30 years so it was certainly an appropriate soundtrack for the crowd. But I suppose you're never too young or old for B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets.

Malta is a wonderful place to visit. It's a slice of heaven in the Mediterranean. The water is breathtakingly beautiful and the people are extremely friendly. Everything seems to be suspended in time, especially the village of Gharb. It's a good place to go if you want to feel like you're at the ends of the earth... until you hear those rickety buses crashing down the dusty streets. But riding the buses has its own charms. The drivers are nice (and brave) and being on the bus makes you realize just how small the island is because everyone knows each other and offers a "Good Morning" or "Good Day" whether you're a tourist or their neighbor.

I'll miss you, Malta.

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