Sunday, May 06, 2007

Nights of Malta

Malta seduces the traveler like no other place on earth, a marvel of overwhelming history, a sweet melange of ancient sites and classical masterpieces, heroic architecture, wild coastline, and endlessly charming people. Fifteen thousand years ago the tiny archipelago of only 124 square miles, located 58 miles off the southwestern tip of Sicily, was part of the land bridge between Europe and Africa. Eventually the Mediterranean waters surrounded it, and seven thousand years ago megalithic temples rose above its rocky promontories. The Phoenecians came and left settlements, the Romans occupied and raised aqueducts, the Arabs built cities, the Crusaders settled there, the Knights of Malta repulsed Suleyman in 1646, the Spanish governed for three hundred years, Napoleon conquered, the British ruled from 1814, and during WWII Mussolini unsuccessfully attempted to bomb the island into submission - giving Britain reason to bestow the George Cross for heroism in 1946. Malta became an independent republic in 1964, and in January 2008 joins the Euro zone.

If culture is your interest, look no further for here you will find neolithic fertility goddesses, Baroque palaces, Dürer etchings, the largest Caravaggio known, medieval and Renaissance cities, ghostly ruins, or heroic tapestries based on drawings by Rubens. Massive limestone fortifications overlook La Valletta harbor, and rich collections of artifacts are housed in historic palaces. Malta has other notable associations. St. Paul was shipwrecked here and converted the island before he returned to Rome. Pirates hid their treasures in secluded coves. Shakespeare’s Tempest is set here, as are parts of The Count of Monte Cristo.

But Malta has always been known for its beaches, its baking hot Summers, and a wind that rushes across the island with legendary ferocity. Then there is kitsch and collision with the modern world. For years Malta was a place where British retirees built vacation homes- the island is thick with strange revival-style structures whose ornate balustrades and slightly-off sculptural details look positively weird at close examination. Developers, too, have taken their toll, constructing gaudy tourist mega-hotels, defiling once pristine shores with grotesque resorts, and packing the ports like St. Paul’s Bay, along the northeast coast of the island with vacationers and their cars and time shares and hastily-built apartment blocks which stand in stark contrast to the island’s rich past. But there is still plenty of open space and wild beaches to contrast with the party atmosphere in the civilized zones.

Malta is small, so you never get lost for too long. The truly adventurous tourist will rent a car- with the warning that the British right-hand-drive autos are the rule, and one zooms along the bumpy roads on the left side, the locals playing a game of chicken as they careen towards you in the center of the road, then swish by millimeters from you on your right. Directional signage anywhere is virtually useless, except on the single modern main highway that bisects the island north-south. Be prepared to drive around in circles. You will, by default, visit some of the charming old villages with their narrow, twisting cobbled streets. Somebody will always point you the right way. Malta’s low, rocky topography is bounded with rugged steep coastal cliffs, and the back roads are in terrible condition, so go slowly and enjoy the views. One especially satisfying destination are the megalithic temples at Hagar Qim (pronounced “Hahr-shim”) whose panoramic views to the west are breathtaking.

The capital city of Valletta overlooks an historic fort, a visit which may not be for everyone. A more preferable option is to charter a small boat for an hour cruise around the harbor, where you get excellent angles on the ramparts and fortifications and docks thick with yachts. The old city is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and ornate palaces, worth a few hours of aimless wandering. Many little coffee shops stay open for the espresso buzz which you will inevitably need after your hike up and down the hills.

The finest luxury lodging experience in Malta is to be had at the Relais & Chateaux Xara Palace, in the old hilltop capital city of Mdina. This is an exceptional property of only 17 suites, housed in a 17th century palazzo, an architectural landmark which overlooks the eastern side of the island from within the city walls. The hotel boasts all the great attributes of a world-class lodging, and the staff are endlessly helpful, sincere, professional and warm in their welcome. There’s a wonderful lounge and bar area as you enter, leading into a vaulted, skylit courtyard. A fine dining restaurant occupies the top floor, where breakfast may also be taken facing windows with expansive views. Attached to the hotel is a trattoria-style cafe that makes a variety of delectable pizzas. There’s an airy roof terrace, and some of the upper suites have outdoor spas and areas for private sunbathing. Every suite is different, with elegantly selected period décor. Many rooms have dramatic views. This is a remarkable hotel in a truly mythical location, and it cannot be recommended highly enough- the price point is high (€300/night and up), but justified. This level of location, setting, furnishing, amenities and service is unforgettable, and the luxury traveler will be gratified. The Xara Palace offers the optimum in hospitality and comfort, the stuff of legends and memorable voyages. Step out the front door and you are in historic Mdina: quiet, elevated, isolated, where you can safely wander its sandstone streets at any hour of the day or night.

There is rumor afoot that Malta will soon decommission the green bug-shaped Leyland buses which still barrel along the intercity routes. These charming old conveyances could easily be retrofitted with clean-fuel engines, as they preserve some of the island’s colonial past. But progress may intrude, and EEC development money could mean that gleaming new buses (from Poland?) soon will ply the roads. The bus route from Mdina to Valletta passes along next to Wigancourt’s aqueduct, completed in 1615, which was an engineering marvel in its own time. Today this 2km long monument runs through four villages, the longest stretch being the village of Attard. It is being restored, and will have artistic lighting added next year. The bus costs the equivalent of US$1, round trip.

The tiny port city called Marsaxlokk (say “Mar-shock-shlock”) has a sweet little restaurant called Harbor Lights. Proprietor Sunny Schiavone will serve you the freshest catch of the day on a splendid platter, perfectly prepared, accompanied by a bottle of crisp local white wine. Finish your al fresco meal with a strong espresso and a helping of sorbet home-made from garden strawberries. The entire meal for two costs around US$35, and Sunny’s sincere welcome adds to the experience.

By all means take the time to discover Gozo. Northernmost of the three islands (Comino, in the northern channel is so small that daytrippers only go there to sunbathe and ogle), Gozo has not yet been overbuilt. It’s reachable by sea or air, and the 20-minute ferry ride from Cirkewwa creates a psychic division from Malta’s commercialized side. As soon as you set foot in Mgarr harbor you feel different, isolated, decelerated. Head immediately for Ggantija, the oldest known human structure in the world. It’s a massive heap of monumental stones excavated 100 years ago, on a high point overlooking fields and ocean. The little gift shop at the entrance sells knits and handmade lace at surprisingly low prices, an opportunity to support vanishing craft from local cottage industry. You may also want to look at the fragment of a Roman aqueduct whose silhouette sits alongside a road on a high hill nearby. The capital city of Victoria can be navigated in a quarter hour. It’s highly advisable to stop into a vegetable stand to try the famous tomatoes of Gozo, which the shopkeeper will happily slice for you. Marsalforn, a cozy harbor on the north shore is the perfect spot for a seafood lunch at an outdoor table. Gozo is slow, small and cheap- though this could easily change next year when the widespread EEC road improvement program is completed and new waves of tourists with handfuls of Euros descend. The time to go is now.

Getting to Malta from London is easy and inexpensive. Flights cost as little as £30 (US$60) each way, and take about three and a half hours. Many small airlines fly into Valletta now, and with the switchover to the Euro scheduled flights can only increase.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Further Adventures in Belgium

Took the Eurostar to Belgium a couple weeks ago, for four days of exploration.

There are two train stations in Antwerp: Berchem (5 minutes outside town center- don’t get off there!) and Antwerpen Centrale (This is the one you want.) But my French-speaking friend got off at Berchem at the appointed hour and waited. And waited. At the same time I searched vainly in the central station, attempting to get help from the railway counter people- my French mobile wasn’t functioning in Belgium. Nobody would assist- finally a surly man grudgingly paged the missing individual in the cavernous place, but no luck, of course. Would anyone at the counter make a mobile call for me, even for money? No. Was the tourist office open? No. Last resort: the railroad police. Officer R. Renders and his colleague Officer Adriaensen worked with me to find out what had happened. They assisted us in reuniting – it took almost 2 hours and a ride in a paddy wagon to Berchem- and got us to our hotel, an incredible help to travelers at the mercy of the cold, hard world. They treated us with great sympathy and politeness, and really showed us the best of Flemish hospitality and compassion. They are to be commended- a great credit to the city and the railroad police force. Hats off to them.

Checked in again at Gin-Fish, my favorite restaurant in Antwerp- perhaps the world- for a taste of what Didier was cooking- asparagus had just come into season and he served a glorious presentation of morels, asperges and petit poids in a delicate sauté. Beautiful as always. Tried a chocolate mousse flavored with olive oil and sel de mer, marvelous! There’s a delicious and reasonable Rully on the wine list which paired especially well with the 4-course meal. Also spent two nights at Matelote Hotel, and loved every minute. The hotel continues to be fully booked, so reserve early, and the same holds true with the restaurant. Peter, the always-helpful maitre d’hotel can assist.

Spent the day in Bruges, chocolate shopping and checking out the Hieronymus Bosch at the Groenighe Museum. The Breugels are away on loan to some foreign exhibition, so it may be worthwhile to put off a visit to this great art collection until the Fall. Also got some white chocolate asperges in the spirit of the season.

In Brussels I attended the artBrussels vernissage of photographer Marguerite deCoster, (above, center). She has extremely interesting work which meditates on natural process. A large-format print of the surf is an especially powerful image.

At the same time I stumbled across works by Markus Hansen, surprised to find his dealer showing his video work entitled 'Other people's feelings are also my own', in which my own portrait appears. That was a shock, as the expression shows. Later I sent the photo to Markus, who's in Paris editing his new movie on Vietnam, up to his ears in film stock.

Return toVilla Kerasy

Dropped into Vannes in January to check out the latest at Villa Kerasy, a great little hotel on the Gulf of Morbihan where I stayed in 2005. Mr. and Mrs. Carp in the koi pond have delivered a litter of new babies, adding a fresh burst of color to the Zen garden, where it will be a pleasure to sip Muscadet and devour some oysters in the coming months. M. Violo also plans to break ground on a new wing, adding a half dozen rooms to this fine small property.