The restaurant owner strongly warned us about how to endure the wine.  “It smells like a barn,” he told us, removing the cork and setting the bottle on our table.  He was quite accurate.  We passed the bottle back and forth, marveling at the musty, almost revolting aroma.  “Wait twenty minutes,” the owner counseled, decanting the bottle into a carafe and bringing us something else to drink while we waited.  After the prescribed time, the wine slipped down like velvet, still one of the most remarkable bottles I’ve ever had.  Visiting Malta is like ordering an unknown small appetizer and lucking out with an amazing dish.

That wine was simply named Bel, a 2006 vintage of 100% Syrah grapes made by Meridiana wine estate, there in Malta.  The phrase “Maltese wines” used to be an empty reference.  Grapes were grown on the island, but then shipped north to Italy to be used in their wines.  Nowadays, the local wine industry is growing and many wineries there can be visited, though the industry is still in its infancy.  Like the wine, the island will surprise you.

 

Wine is one reason to visit Malta.  Food is another.  Being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean can be good for your food, ultimately, but much violent history must be endured beforehand.  Like nearby Sicily, Malta’s been invaded by everyone.  Those waves of history leave marks, but now is the time to enjoy them.

Wine and food are always good reasons, but Malta isn’t known for much besides that falcon movie.  Malta doesn’t get a lot of love from the tourist industry, except from the cruise ships and people who just want a beach.  It’s a convenient stop, there in the middle of the sea.  The ships disgorge thousands of passengers into the capital, Valletta, and then sail off with them again before nightfall.  Yet Malta is the type of place where one exclaims, “I never knew this place was so cool.”

 

 

visit mala wine

 

Malta sits at a lower latitude than Tunis or Algiers or Tangiers.  It’s much closer to Tripoli than to Naples.  Its landscape, climate, and buildings feel North African.  The land and air are dry and the buildings are light-colored.  The language is a branch of Arabic, the only Semitic language in the European Union.  It’s old, so old that some structures there are among the oldest human-made in the world.

Imagine Italy, then North Africa, and then combine the two to get Malta.  It has the colors (or lack of) of North Africa, along with the climate and language.  It has the cathedrals and ornate streets of Europe.  It has the flatbreads and dips of North Africa and the pizza and pasta of Italy.

Lots of Europe feels old; that’s one of the attractions.  Sometimes it’s antiquity such as Greece, but much of the time it’s renaissance or baroque type of old, such as what you get in Vienna.  Malta has that, but its general feel seems older and starker, more Middle Ages, perhaps even Dark Ages.  There’s grandeur mixed in, but not too much.  It feels fought-over and austere, as if life was hard here and a foreign army could sail in at any time.

 

Malta’s central position in the Mediterranean, and obvious lack of a strong native nation, make it good for other cultures to experiment there, and the best creation was the Knights of Malta, a confusing organization to outsides such as myself.  There’s the Order of Malta, the Knights Hospitalier, The Knights of St. John, and others, whose origins go back 1,000 years but came into their own in Malta about 500 years ago and still exist today.  The general feeling in Malta, from the architecture, the layout, the design, is that you’re in a 500-year time warp.

Five hundred years ago in Malta they didn’t use swirling colors and fancy design, but they weren’t utterly stark either.  They built castles and fortresses and cities designed for war, to withstand sieges, not to inspire fairy tales.  Still, they were rich and progressive enough to give them a nice design as well.  Malta is largely post-medieval, but pre-modern.  It feels like it’s come through the fire, but the people who built it came from all over, and they brought their culture with them.

Many Europeans vacation in Malta simply to get to the Mediterranean, perhaps just for a beachfront or perhaps something more specific like the excellent diving conditions there.  The areas just north of the tiny capital Valletta, such as St. Julian and Paceville, are known for having hotels, resorts, and nightspots.  Valletta itself is not known for those things, especially the nightlife.

Travel blogs are lousy with “Top 10 things to do in [place-name]” types of articles.  I’m not interested in creating more of those.  Valletta especially has some tourist sights, the two big churches to visit, several museums, and the Grandmaster’s Palace.  I did several of these, including the palace (eh).  Valletta is great because people just don’t build cities like this anymore.  You don’t need sights there; just hang out.

 

 

visit mala wine

The view across the water to Valletta

 

To get a sense of Valletta, walk around it.  The city is on the end of a peninsula and is only one kilometer long.  Start at the inland city gate and walk around on the old city walls, or as near as you can come to that, swinging by the old fort St. Elmo at the tip, then up the other side.  The views are marvelous—the water, the walls, the grand buildings and domes making the low skyline.  The small Valletta peninsula is smack next to other peninsulas and outcrops.  The city is built on a ridge, so there are plenty of stairs involved.  Pace yourself.

From there, choose some areas to wander.  The various levels of the Barrakka Gardens give you grand views over the Grand Harbor and to the Valletta peninsula.  St. Barbara Bastion is a quiet street shaded with olive trees with knockout views.  Valletta’s main street, Triq ir-Republika (Republic Street) might be lousy with tourists if this is a cruise ship day, but it worth it for the shops.  Valletta is one city where the side streets can be more interesting, full of small shops such as bakeries (Malta does those very well).  Valletta has a habit of putting statues on many of the street corners, for no reason, and another habit of colorful balconies or protruding windows on the second floor of buildings, lending atmosphere and distinctiveness.

 

visit mala wine

Triq ir-Republika (Republic Street), the main drag in Valletta

The areas just north and south of Valletta (thus, across the narrow waterways) provide great views of the city, though it’s a bit of a walk to get there.  Rumors of a water taxi were unconfirmed by me.  Sliema to the north has oodles of shops and restaurants, and Vittoriosa (also called Birgu), one of the peninsulas just to the south, is the oldest Knights of Malta settlement, with a medieval feel.   Several good wine bars are in this area.  Just saying.

If you want older places, catch a bus to the walled town of Mdina (30 minutes away), near the center of the island.  Originally a Phoenician settlement, then Roman, the Arabs are the ones to give it its current feel.  The walled city’s tiny streets feel like a labyrinth and you will simply love your stroll there.  This city was originally used to shoot the King’s Landing scenes (among others) in Game of Thrones season 1, before the show moved their shooting to Dubrovnik.  I spent an afternoon there with a friend.  It’s another place where you don’t need sights or even a plan; just walk around.

Lunch in Mdina showed their culinary influences.  Twenty euro bought us a plate of some very simple local food: three dips (bean, garlic, and something red we couldn’t identify) for our bread.  Dips are big here.  Also some salted fish, cut tomatoes, beans, eggplant pieces, green beans, some peppery cheese, and a liter of red wine.  Everything was simple but fresh and flavorful.

 

visit mala wine

Our lunch in Mdina, food that probably makes you live to 100.

 

Another destination is the town of Marsaxlokk, on the south coast, a fishing village that exists mainly just to do that.  Visitors come for the fish market, the striking harbor full of bright-colored boats, and the long line of fish restaurants on the waterfront.

Much of what you’ll eat in Malta is essentially Italian food, pizzas and the “pasta with {something}” formula.  I had pasta with octopus or pasta with salmon probably a dozen times.  Sadly, the pasta is rarely fresh here, but Malta does share Italy’s reliance on fresh vegetables and composed salads.  You will not have trouble getting your vitamins there.

Pizzas are everywhere.  The quality varies tremendously, but I had the second-best pizza in my life in Malta (the best was in Sienna).  La Cave Pizza, downstairs in the Castille Hotel, served me a thick-crust beauty topped with green peas, mushrooms, salmon, tuna, artichokes, and hard-boiled eggs.  It was a monster and I ate it all because it was amazing.

 

visit mala wine

This pizza seriously enhanced the quality of my life

 

Malta not being covered by herds of grazing animals, the traditional meat here is rabbit, sometimes fried but usually in some type of stew.  I don’t go for rabbit, but another popular protein is snails, which I do love.  Fish of course is common, often incorporated into a savory pie.  Beans are popular as well, especially a thick paste, a pâté really, called Bigilla.

Bigilla shows off the North Africa influence, because small dishes, somewhat like mezze, are popular.  Dips as well.  Also from North Africa are ftira, flatbread sandwiches, although they can resemble a pizza.  Malta has a wonderful assortment of breads and pasties, the latter possibly a British influence.  British rule (1813-1964) fortunately didn’t leave a strong culinary mark on the island.

Every country seemingly must have its own national beer, one that the locals inexplicably love and visitors wonder what the fuss is about.  It’s always a pale lager, drinkable enough yet unremarkable, and for Malta, that’s Cisk.  Its taste is a bit, shall we say, unrefined.  But let’s get back to the wine.

 

We, yes all of us, will forever love French and Italian wines, but there’s so much more in Europe, and much of my travel these days is geared towards that.  I just toured the wine region of Georgia (the country) a few months ago, and was in a wine region in Croatia last year (read about it here, right here).  Just about every place around the Mediterranean has been making wine for eons, but few have the “wine trail” type of tourism that one finds in say North America.  You can’t always just drop by the winery and find a tasting room set up for you.

Most grapes grown on Malta are the popular European varietals, mostly French, the ones you’ve heard of, the cabs and the blancs.  They don’t seem to go for the Italian grapes such as Sangiovese or Nebbiolo as much.  Two native grapes to search out are Gellewza (red, properly written Ġellewża) and Ghirghentina (white).  Grapes here ripen much quicker than in mainland Europe, and the demand for local production means the grape flow has shifted in recent years—Malta now imports grapes from Italy to meet its production demand.

The two largest, or most well-known, producers are Marisovin and Meridiana, but there are many more.  Some can be visited, though check info carefully and perhaps contact them for a reservation before blindly showing up.  You’ll likely encounter those big two winemakers on restaurant menus whether you seek them out or not.  Marisovin makes a truly astonishing number of wines, including Gellewza and Ghirghentina.

 

 

visit mala wine

The wine, the Bel wine that smelled like a barn, but became our new love  (grainy, bad photo, sorry)

 

But it’s Meridiana that makes the Bel wine that I described in the opening paragraph, the one that smells like a barn, and for that, they have my heart.  We drank it in a popular place called Legligin, which sits in the cramped cellar of a historic (probably no other kind) house in Valletta.  The owner is also both the chef and the sommelier, and his favorite thing to push is the small plates tasting menu he calls Maltese Mezze, about €20 a person, a deal.

For that meal, the owner will just bring out small plates of random dishes he made that day.  We started with four dips: artichoke, tuna, hummus with lots of garlic, and a very dark aioli.  The owner was back.  “Do you like snails?” he carefully inquired, and we put his troubled mind at ease.  Oh yes, please.  Snails came out, then a meatloaf, then pork cooked in honey.  A salad of melon, rocket, and fruits.  Then an octopus salade, and finally smoked swordfish that was amazing.

And the wine.  After the barn smell dissipated, we savored that carafe, almost letting the wine drip from our glasses to our tongues, bacchanalian-inspired impulses.  The man at the table next to us was not impressed.  “Wine is wine,” he muttered, right before he broke his glass, surely a divine punishment from Bacchus himself.  He kept his head bowed for some time after that, until they brought him a check.

Afterward the meal, us now inspired, we stopped at another nearby wine bar for another bottle, but lightening didn’t strike twice.  Still, they impressed us.  We asked for just a cheese plate, and the photo below is what they brought us.

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Malta thus gave us one last surprise, and delight.  You order something simple, and you get a bounty.

 

 

Some Pragmatics

Malta has one airport.  Unlike most places, you’re not flying into a city; you’re flying into an island.  Valletta, the capital, is the natural first base, but many hotels in Malta are located in the more resort areas north of Valletta, such as Paceville.  There are other small towns you’ll want to explore, and here’s where the first frustration comes in: transportation in Malta is not all that easy.

You need transportation because you’ll be getting out of wherever you’re staying.  Wherever that is, it’s not big enough to hold your attention, and there’s more to see.  Consider renting a car for your expeditions beyond Valletta, even if it’s just for a day.  Intercity (inter-town really) buses go everywhere, but they’re crowded and not as frequent as is perfect.  Every time I took an intercity bus, the bus stop was awfully crowded.

Taxis are awfully expensive; avoid as much as possible.  If you need one, best to let your hotel or restaurant call one, as the ones hailed on the street don’t always want to turn their meter on, and it’s hard to hail one on the street anyway.

All public transportation in Malta can be planned through a website here.

 

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1 Comment
  1. Lily

    It sounds like an interesting place to visit. I didn’t know much about Malta but it reminds me of Tarifa from the book Alchemist, just the Italian version.

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