I wanted to fall in love with Malta. I really did.
Maybe it was the crowds. Or possibly the rain. Or perhaps it was because we didn’t venture beyond the capital city, Valletta. Or maybe it was just me.
Whatever the reason, Malta was one of those places that just didn’t touch my heart.
Sailing Into Valletta
The tiny island republic is an impressive sight when arriving by ship. Lying in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the northern coast of Africa, Malta seems to suddenly rise out of the sea, golden-toned, ancient-looking and imposing. Its history is equally intriguing. Inhabited since 5900 BC, Malta was ruled at various times by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Knights of St. John, French and British. The walled city of Valletta was constructed in the mid-1500s by the Order of St. John, whose origins can be traced to the Knights of the Middle Ages.
The Barrakka Lift
The Regent Voyager arrived at about 8 a.m., docking at a berth beyond the port that required a water taxi ride to reach the terminal. Two ships with a combined passenger capacity of more than 5,500 were already in port – our first clue that we were in for a crowded day. Malta is the world’s tenth smallest and Europe’s fifth smallest country. Valletta is the smallest national capital in the European Union.
My plan for the day was to visit a couple of Valletta’s key attractions and spend the rest of the time exploring the city. Herb and I boarded the Captain Morgan water taxi about 8:30 for the quick ride to the cruise ship terminal. From there, we walked along the waterfront in search of the Barrakka Lift that takes visitors from the harbor to the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the streets of Valletta.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Our early arrival combined with the morning rain led me to assume that our first stop at the city’s main attraction, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, would be a leisurely experience. Instead, we were greeted by an umbrella-decked crowd wrapped around the cathedral’s entrance. It wasn’t an unreasonable wait – maybe fifty or so people ahead of us – but once we reached the doorway, any hope of heart-felt feelings for this city began to evaporate as quickly as the raindrops on Valletta’s limestone streets.
Getting our tickets was a chaotic, fumbling scene, with one cathedral attendant practically tossing audio guides to visitors and another demanding that umbrellas be stuffed in plastic bags before we could get beyond the front desk. I wouldn’t describe the atmosphere as unfriendly. But it wasn’t friendly, either. I think the best way to characterize it is ambivalent. The people we encountered just didn’t seem to care. It was as if they were rolling their eyes, saying, “Here come the tourists again.”
And then there was the matter of the audio guide. Every time we’d finish a number on the guide, it would revert back to the beginning instead of moving on to the next spot. Herb and I tried with no luck to coordinate our guides, finally deciding to turn them off and walk through the cathedral on our own.
The cathedral itself is a gilded wonder of a place. Built between 1572 and 1577 by the Order of St. John, it is known for its opulent Baroque architecture, paintings by Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and ceiling frescoes by Mattia Preti. It’s impressive, to be sure, and easy to see why it’s a top destination. But it didn’t move me. Maybe I had spent too much time a few days earlier in the light-filled, joyous would of Barcelona’s Gaudí to be taken with all the glitzy Baroque-ness and the dark Caravaggio paintings.
Casa Rocca Piccola
Our next stop was Casa Rocca Piccola, a privately owned 16th century palace that is home to a noble Maltese family. The tour’s description sounded interesting, but for me it turned out to be just okay. We were guided through various rooms, looking at the paintings, personal photographs and possessions of a family we knew nothing about. Our guide would point out items in each room – from dishes and furniture to books and collectables – and then allow us more than enough time to take a closer look. Many of the rooms seemed tired and in need of renovation. The tour left me feeling kind of empty, and both Herb and I couldn’t wait until it was over.
I took only one photo at Casa Rocca Piccola. The family parrot Kiku entertained visitors while waiting for the tour, squawking a few words and balancing on one foot.
Malta Postal Museum
We stopped in several cafés to check out menus and encountered the same ambivalent welcome we had found at St. John’s Co-Cathedral. It almost seemed as if the city wanted to close its doors for the day! The one bright spot we found was the Malta Postal Museum. The two young women working at the counter couldn’t have been more welcoming, even though we were only picking up stamps and postcards and not buying tickets to the museum.
As morning turned to afternoon, specks of sun began to peek through the moody sky. I was hoping to photograph Valletta’s famous wooden balconies, and the break in the rain offered a window of opportunity. Painted in bold primary colors, these unusual structures jut out from the city’s residential and commercial buildings like little boxes, enclosed on all three sides with windows running along the upper half.
I couldn’t get over the commercialization as we walked down Valletta’s main thoroughfare. The vendors, street performers, crowds and carnival-like atmosphere made it feel as if we were at a modern-day State Fair instead of a 16th-century historic street. We continued all the way to the end – or actually, the beginning – to the Triton Fountain just outside the Valletta City Gate entrance.
And then we saw it: A visual metaphor for our day in Valletta. We couldn’t help but laugh as Herb captured this video:
It was raining again as we headed to the Barrakka Lift for the ride down to the waterfront. I usually stretch out our travel days as long as I possibly can, but this time I was ready to leave. The Captain Morgan bounding across the harbor was a welcome sight indeed.
Back on the Voyager, we watched the sail-away from our balcony as rows of Valletta’s wooden balconies slowly drifted by.
I’ll never know why things didn’t quite work out with Malta. But for now, we were off into the sunset, ready to make some new memories.