The Primer

A new em­pha­sis on cul­ture and the arts is lead­ing trav­el­ers to this is­land idyll. Once there, they will get a taste of its cen­turies-old his­tory, rich cui­sine and glo­ri­ous beaches.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - BY MARIA SHOLLENBARGER. PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY AN­DREA WYNER

A new em­pha­sis on cul­ture and the arts is lead­ing trav­el­ers to the is­land idyll known as Malta.

WITHIN MIN­UTES OF LAND­ING ON MALTA, I was try­ing to de­cide what the place re­minded me of. Now, I love Morocco, par­tic­u­larly the At­lantic coast, with its em­i­nently pho­to­genic blue fish­er­men’s boats. And I re­ally love Si­cily, for its wheat-col­ored land­scapes, the cul­tural palimpsest of its cui­sine and pretty much ev­ery­thing else. This tiny ar­chi­pel­ago na­tion—which lies some 95 kilo­me­ters south of Si­cily and roughly on a lat­i­tude with Tang­ier—feels like a glo­ri­ous mash-up of those two places. The swaths of prickly pears run­ning riot across the in­te­rior put me in mind of the coast near Agadir, and the or­nate el­e­gance of the grand palazzo façades had me re­call­ing Cata­nia. But Malta is also en­tirely, in­eluctably its own cul­ture, am­bi­ence and peo­ple.

The pre­pon­der­ance of pack­age tourists not­with­stand­ing, it’s sur­pris­ing that Malta has stayed un­der the radar for so long. There are white-sand beaches in abun­dance, par­tic­u­larly along the north­ern coast of Malta, the name­sake main is­land, and on the smaller is­land of Gozo. There is an al­lur­ing his­tory, a long

nar­ra­tive of col­o­niza­tion and at­tempted in­va­sion go­ing back to the Phoeni­cians (around 750 B.C.) and last­ing un­til its for­mal in­de­pen­dence from the Bri­tish Em­pire in 1974—with Carthagini­ans, Byzan­tium Ro­mans, Arabs, Nor­mans, the Knights of the Or­der of St. John, Ot­toman Turks and Napoleon in be­tween. And there is the or­derly beauty of Val­letta, Malta’s for­ti­fied cap­i­tal, de­signed on a grid sys­tem by those same Knights of the Or­der of St. John in the 16th cen­tury.

When I ar­rived in early spring, the fields at the is­land’s cen­ter were thick with yel­low wild­flow­ers bow­ing in the stiff breeze. The sun, when it cut through fat white clouds, was in­stantly warm­ing. (The tem­per­a­ture climbs into the high-30s in late July and Au­gust; May through mid-June and mid-Septem­ber through the end of Oc­to­ber are the best times to visit.) The peo­ple are in­or­di­nately friendly; three out of the four times I asked for direc­tions, I was of­fered a per­sonal es­cort to my in­tended des­ti­na­tion. And the coun­try’s size—just 28 kilo­me­ters long and 15 kilo­me­ters wide—means it’s a cinch to ex­plore.

Malta con­tin­ues to rise in pop­u­lar­ity thanks to a wave of new de­vel­op­ment in Val­letta, des­ig­nated one of two Euro­pean Cap­i­tals of Cul­ture for 2018 (val­letta2018. org) and host to a ro­bust cal­en­dar of ex­hi­bi­tions, per­for­mances and events through the end of the year. So, here are four rea­sons why you should visit as soon as you can.

21ST-CEN­TURY CUL­TURE IS ON THE RISE...

Malta wears its multi-mil­len­nial his­tory with pride, and its pat­ri­mony, from the pre­his­toric dol­mens to the Baroque palaces, is ev­ery­where. But the Mal­tese are now em­pha­siz­ing con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign, too—start­ing with Val­letta’s City Gate, dy­nam­i­cally reimagined by Renzo Pi­ano. Five gates have ex­isted on this site, go­ing all the way back to 1569; Pi­ano’s, which was fin­ished in 2014, is a glass, steel and lime­stone mas­ter­piece that in­cludes the par­lia­ment build­ing and an open-air theater. (It’s also one of

Malta’s most In­sta­grammable con­flu­ences of beau­ti­ful struc­tures, both old and new, and cobalt-blue sky; I must have taken three dozen shots of it from var­i­ous an­gles, al­ways com­ing up with some­thing dif­fer­ent.) This lat­est gate is ad­ja­cent to the 16th-cen­tury Au­berge d’Italie, cur­rently be­ing ren­o­vated to house MUZA (muza.her­itage­malta.org), Malta’s new Na­tional Mu­seum of Art, slated to open next sum­mer. Also un­der way: Malta In­ter­na­tional Con­tem­po­rary Art Space, or MICAS (micas.art), which will put the spot­light on art and per­for­mance from abroad. Hav­ing bro­ken ground in late 2017, it is sched­uled to be com­plete by 2021, but in the mean­time, ex­hi­bi­tions and per­for­mances are be­ing planned on the grounds of micas start­ing this au­tumn, in­clud­ing a show of mixed-me­dia works by the Swiss-born artist Ugo Rondi­none.

…BUT THE VERY OLD STILL DAZ­ZLES.

Be­yond the beauty of Val­letta’s early Baroque façades, from its tall, el­e­gant town houses to St. John’s CoCathe­dral, are far more an­cient at­trac­tions. A hand­ful of me­galithic tem­ples, roughly 5,000 to 6,000 years old, pep­per the land­scape—some of the old­est man-made build­ings on earth, ex­hibit­ing early bas-re­lief tech­niques and other crafts­man­ship. The tem­ples at Tarx­ien, lo­cated in the sub­urb of the same name, and those at Ggan­tija, on Gozo, are es­pe­cially com­pelling.

In the Three Cities—Birgu, Sen­glea and Cospicua, an­cient mar­itime re­doubts crowded to­gether on two fin­gers of land ex­tend­ing into the blue wa­ter—you can see foun­da­tions at least 500 years old. To the west, near Malta’s cen­ter, lies Md­ina, a tiny for­ti­fied town cling­ing to a low bluff. Known as the Silent City, it was long the seat of Malta’s no­blest fam­i­lies, but is to­day home to only about 300 peo­ple. Be­fit­ting the town’s name, its cen­ter is a hushed maze of im­prob­a­bly nar­row lanes. The scent of or­ange flower drifts from hid­den court­yards; hot-pink bougainvil­lea spills over lime­stone walls. At sun­set, the town all but emp­ties. I walked from one end to the other in near soli­tude, kept com­pany only by the calls of mourn­ing doves and star­lings, be­fore in­dulging in an ar­ti­sanal pis­ta­chio ice cream from Fior di Latte (gelatofiordi­latte.com) on leafy Bas­tion Square.

MAL­TESE CUI­SINE IS RE­ALLY TASTY.

Var­i­ous Mediter­ranean culi­nary tra­di­tions found their way here, but the pre­vail­ing fla­vors are those of Italy, Greece and the Maghreb. Be­yond Val­letta’s newly re­stored Is-Suq tal-Belt food mar­ket (is­suq­tal­belt.com), where I was able to en­joy both lo­cal sausages and a hard-core green juice, a hand­ful of restau­rants are re­quired eat­ing. At Ru­bino (ru­bi­no­ma­lta.com; mains €14–€24), an old Val­letta in­sti­tu­tion, I sam­pled pan­fried in­vol­tini of del­i­cate lo­cal sea bass, stuffed with pine nuts and mint, and rounds of tangy sheep-milk cheese called gjebna, which were pure Greece on a plate (you’ll find the cheese in ev­ery­thing from sal­ads to ravi­oli). When my table wasn’t quite ready, I was of­fered a glass of crisp, Mal­tese white wine by a dap­per waiter with a gen­tle smile.

The Me­d­ina Restau­rant (med­inarestau­rant­malta.com; mains €20–€30), a beau­ti­ful court­yard es­tab­lish­ment in Md­ina, el­e­vates tra­di­tional dishes such as stuffat tal-fenek (rab­bit stew). Also worth try­ing in Val­letta: Rampila (rampila.com; mains €15–€28), where I liked the food but ab­so­lutely loved the hushed, shaded ter­race, es­pe­cially with its views of Pi­ano’s City Gates, and Guzé Bistro (guzevil­letta.com; mains €15–€28),a con­vivial, sub­ter­ranean space em­pha­siz­ing fa­mil­iar lo­cal fa­vorites like fat red prawns and ravi­oli filled with gjebna.

THERE IS A BONA FIDE HO­TEL SCENE.

Five years ago you’d have been hard-pressed to find a stylish place to stay. How things change. At the top of my list was Casa El­lul (casael­lul.com; dou­bles from €290), a nine-suite lux­ury guest­house that opened in 2014, across from Val­letta’s or­nate Basil­ica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Broth­ers An­drew and Matthew El­lul con­verted their 19th-cen­tury fam­ily palazzo with the help of lo­cal in­te­ri­ors ar­chi­tect Chris Briffa. The re­sult is a dy­namic, orig­i­nal mix of an­tiques, iconic 20th­cen­tury de­signs, and pieces cus­tom-de­signed by Briffa.

Just out­side the city gates is the Phoeni­cia (camp­bellgray­ho­tels.com; dou­bles from €430), built in the 1930s by Baron Strick­land, then Malta’s prime min­is­ter. Fresh off a two-year ren­o­va­tion, its 136 rooms and suites sing with color, and its pri­vate gar­den has a killer in­fin­ity pool. Across the har­bor in Sen­glea is the brand­new Cugó Gran Macina Grand Har­bour (cu­gogran­malta. com; dou­bles from €280), set in a build­ing dat­ing back to 1554. The 21 suites, how­ever, are all res­o­lutely con­tem­po­rary, the di­men­sions vast. But it’s Iniala Har­bour House (iniala.com), open­ing early next year, that seems to be the most talked about. A sis­ter prop­erty to the ul­tra-luxe Iniala Beach House in Thai­land, the Har­bour House will stretch across sev­eral joined prop­er­ties along St. Bar­bara Bas­tion, and each of the 23 suites—some with rooftop ter­races, oth­ers with fres­coed cupo­las—will be en­tirely unique.

The city gate of Val­letta, the cap­i­tal of Malta, was re­designed by Renzo Pi­ano.

Ru­bino, a 112-year-old restau­rant in Val­letta, serves clas­sic dishes such as Mal­tese rab­bit and oc­to­pus salad with car­rot purée.

The in­fin­ity pool at the Phoeni­cia ho­tel, just out­side the Mal­tese cap­i­tal of Val­letta.

One of the Phoeni­cia's 136 guest rooms.

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