Malta is the kind of place where bus schedules seem to offer less a guarantee that a bus will arrive at the appointed time than a hope, but it’s also the kind of place where your Airbnb host will, when you ask if you might do some laundry, insist that she’ll do it–and the next morning you’ll find your clothes hanging from the clothesline.
Malta is the kind of place where I would never have the courage to drive a car and sometimes wondered about my safety walking on them, but also the kind of place where your taxi driver will return, from an hour’s drive away, a camera you might have left in the backseat before having to be forced to take a small reward for his efforts.
It’s the kind of place where the streets are narrow, but smiles are broad and genuine, the kind of place where you believe the tiny old man who served you an ice cold Cisk beer in his even tinier shop, complete with a shrine to his wife, when he calls you “my friend” on your way out.
When I came to Malta, I had no idea what to expect. Having been here four days, I’m not sure I know what to expect tomorrow, other than a generous, warm people living in a country that is very densely populated in many spots and wide open in others. When I tried to describe my first impressions of Malta to a friend, the best I could come up with was that Malta seems like the child of four grandparents: one Maltese, one Italian, one English, and one North African. The language is Arabic, the breakfasts English, the roads Roman, and the people some strange, working combination of all of those elements.
Given its place at the crossroads of the Mediterranean also means that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more distinctive, vibrant cuisine than what you’ll find in Malta. In just a few days here, I’ve had some incredible meals including fresh swordfish from Marsaxlokk Bay, a ftira (think soft pizza bread) loaded with potatoes, pork belly, ricotta, beans, rosemary and eggs, and one of the best desserts I’ve had in my travels, a traditional almond cake. I might have snacked on one or three pastizzi, a puff pastry filled with anything from traditional peas to anchovies, as well.
During Holy Week, it’s hard to overlook the other, very distinctive Maltese characteristic: the people are among the most devout Catholics in the world, with over 400 churches serving a population of about 400,000 people. The bells may not stop ringing today as those churches begin the observance of the last events of Easter week.
Layered beneath this present mixture of cultures and people is a history that’s always present, whether it’s the fortifications built by the Order of St. John who ruled the islands between 1530-1798 or the evidence of shrapnel from the second siege of Malta during World War 2 apparent on some city streets.
It’s possible that I chose to visit Malta for less than thoughtful reasons: I had never been here, the ticket from Munich was reasonable, and I thought a little sun might do me some good after a long winter in Montana.
However awful my reasons, I couldn’t be happier that I chose to visit Malta, especially at the time of year when the islands are green, the weather is mild, and the people perhaps especially generous of spirit.
In the end, Malta is the kind of place you might just fall in love with.