Dear fellow travellers
The English poet Coleridge was not at all keen on Malta. "The dreariest of all dreary islands," he wrote in a letter back to his Lakeland home. And Byron is alleged to have described the Maltese capital, Valletta, as memorable mainly for its "yells, bells and smells". Yet in our book the Maltese islands have more going for them than the Romantic poets ever recognised. Forget the concrete jungle of the modern tourist resorts. There is more to Malta than Sliema - a sprawl that grows ever more assertive, its high rise hotels and apartment blocks creeping out towards Dragut Point and mocking ancient Valletta across the water.
The fortress city of Valletta is a fabulous place - a curious mixture of elegance and unkempt charm. Diminutive, but instantly appealing. The walled township sits atop a high promontory between two great harbours, and visitors can walk from one end of Valletta to the other in just twenty minutes. Better, though, to linger for a while and take the pulse of the capital. Walk along the principal promenade, called Triq Ir-Repubblika (Republic Street), for one perspective on Malta. Red pillar boxes and old-style English telephone kiosks recall Britain's colonial imprint. And the parliament building and national library are just two reminders that Malta is now a sovereign nation.
Dive off into the side streets for another Valletta - a place where fading signs announce onetime offices and workshops of shipping agencies, jewellers and lacemakers. Tucked away on Triq Il-Merkanti (Merchants Street) is the building that was once the Office of the Government Valuer for Locally Manufactured Jewellery. Next door housed the Consul for Goldsmiths and Silversmiths. Both sound like super vocations.
Merchants Street has perfect undulations: little dips and rises that enhance perspective and invite exploration. Here flutters a Russian flag above a cultural centre that cherishes Malta's historic links with Russia. And within a block or two there is a Greek Orthodox church, the site of a former synagogue and a dozen little bars and cafés that cater to local residents. Valletta has happily not been given over entirely to tourists, and although English brand-name stores are making their mark on Republic Street, most of the Maltese capital still oozes local character.
Mr Camillieri still runs the ironmonger on St Paul's Street, just as his forefathers did a hundred years ago. Sciberras and Sons look after the electrical and plumbing business along the way. High above their shopfront flies the Libyan flag. Although the Sciberras family may be Maltese through and through, the upper levels of the same building house the Libyan cultural centre - it is a reminder that Africa is never far away in Valletta.
Africa is in the faces of the destitute Eritreans who wander the back streets of Valletta on a sunny winter Saturday. Many arrived in Malta more by accident than design. Setting out from Libya on simple boats, they expected to make landfall in Italy. Malta intervened. And Africa is on the minds of many Maltese citizens who are none too happy at this influx of migrants who have landed on their shores over the last few years.
The queue that snaked around the edge of one government building on Saturday had a more pressing concern - getting a subsidised broadband connection. Saturday was the moment to register an interest in the scheme (nicely dubbed Blueskies by the government). Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi took the opportunity to turn up and press a little flesh. With an election likely in March, cheap broadband could well be a vote puller. Talk of integrating migrants from Africa into the Maltese mainstream is decidedly not a vote winner.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)