This article was originally published in August 2012.
by Mary Beth Ray
As you walk past 4501 29th Street, the scent of rosemary hints at the Mediterranean. The red and white flag with the small cross reveals its resident – the Ambassador of Malta.
My family and I moved across the street from the Maltese residence 10 years ago. We’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Malta’s previous ambassadors and their families: John Lowell and his wife Marie-Therese, their children and grandchildren (2002-2007); and Mark Miceli, his wife Josette, son Christopher and their family (2007-2011). For years, we’ve enjoyed the generous hospitality and warm friendship of the Maltese, and we’ve been fascinated by their history and culture. Our son Alex was good friends with Chris, and of course we miss our former neighbors.
So this summer the four of us, my husband Sheldon, daughter Betsy (19), son Alex (14) and I, traveled to Malta to see our dear friends, who graciously opened their homes and shared with us all the history, beauty and warmth that their country offers. In short, we fell in love with Malta. As Scottish writer Patrick Brydone concluded in 1773, Malta “is the epitome of all Europe.”
Malta has one of the oldest and richest histories in the world, a unique language akin to Arabic, some of the world’s finest examples of Baroque and Renaissance art and architecture, jaw-dropping scenery, delicious food and friendly people. About 60 miles south of Sicily, and 180 miles north of Africa, Malta is easily reached by air from Rome or London.
Maltese History in a Nutshell
Malta’s history spans 7,000 years. Early pottery suggests that Malta was settled about 5200 BC. Prehistoric megalithic temples and burial chambers listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites are unique. These are some of the oldest man-made structures known (more on that below).
The Phoenicians colonized Malta around 1000 BC, followed by conquering Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. It is said that St. Paul the Apostle shipwrecked near Malta about 60 AD and converted the inhabitants to Christianity. In 1520, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, inherited the area, and ten years later he gave Malta to the Knights of the Order of St. John.
During the grisly Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent and his powerful Ottoman army hoped to conquer Europe, but Malta stood in the way. The Knights fought and defeated the Ottomans, and the capital Valletta was named for Jean de la Vallette, the Grand Master who led the Knights to victory. Napoleon seized Malta for the French in 1798, and the British ousted the French in 1800. Malta lived under British colonial rule until its independence in 1964, and played key roles during both World War I and World War II, during which Malta was the most heavily bombed, yet undefeated, ally. Malta joined the European Union in 2004.
Highlights of our Tour
The Micelis reserved for us several months in advance a tour of the Hypogeum, the mysterious and ancient burial grounds dating back some 6,000 years. The lovely architectural features have a haunting and almost modern sensibility, and yet this site, and the famous Tarxien temples, actually pre-date the Egyptian pyramids.
With our knowledgeable guide, Mariella, we toured the spectacular St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The simplicity of the limestone exterior belies the treasures within. In addition to their military prowess, the Knights served the island with hospitals and religious leadership. Perhaps their greatest legacy today is the vast collection of art and architecture they’ve bestowed on the island. The ornate beauty of St. John’s took our breath away. Most of the Cathedral has been restored to its original glory, and every inch is filled with stone carvings, gold leaf, and glorious paintings.
The two works by Caravaggio are not to be missed. During the Lowells’ tenure in Washington, we were fortunate to hear a lecture on Caravaggio in 2004 by noted Maltese lawyer, artist and head of the Order of St. John, Philip Farrugia Randon. His illustrated talk at the Italian Embassy prepared us well for the Beheading of John the Baptist, Caravaggio’s only signed painting. But nothing could prepare us for its stage-like setting, where the artist painted in situ, or the lovely cast of light emanating from the graceful figures.
Moving on to the Grand Palace, originally the home of the Grand Master of the Knights, and today used as the head office of the Prime Minister, the Gobelin tapestries are striking. The brilliant colors portray nuanced scenes of elephants, parrots, and the jungles of Africa, all using 235 stitches per square centimeter, and made in the 1600s.
We traveled by boat across the charming harbor to see the small 13th Century Norman House, which is being carefully restored to reflect life in the Middle Ages. We swam in the crystal clear sea, and we ate gelato at every turn. We dined like royalty in the garden of the Palazzo Parisio, enjoying risotto with grilled prawns in the shadow of the lovely 18th Century palace, surrounded by bougainvillea in shades of pink, purple, white and orange. We enjoyed a dinner in the Micelis’ garden in Ta’Xbiex, where we also had the pleasure of visiting with Mark’s mother, sister and niece.
A visit to Malta is not complete without seeing Mdina, the original capital dating back to medieval times. The walled city with its ancient, narrow, winding streets feels magical. Closed to traffic, and protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, there is a quiet purity about this place – the light reflects off the narrow limestone passageways, creating a warm glow. The charming alleyways are clean, and there are few gift shops and other touristy distractions. Thanks to arrangements by the Lowells’ son Michael, we were invited to tour the Palazzo Falson, a restored 13th Century palace that houses a fascinating collection of paintings, armor, antiques and books.
On our last day with the Micelis, Mark gave us a tour of Meridiana, their beautiful vineyard. A wine tasting on the terrace overlooking the vineyards with medieval Mdina in the background was unforgettable. Delicious chardonnay, cabernet, and merlot, served with a local cheese and surrounded by the grapes themselves were enough of a reason to return to Malta!
Gozo, Malta’s Enchanted Sister Island
After several full days of sightseeing and the bustle of the main island of Malta, the Lowells treated us to three days of glorious sun and sea in Gozo, just a 20-minute ferry ride, yet a world apart.
Sheer rocky cliffs covered in purple and yellow heather meet the azure sea. Medieval villages are connected by green, rolling farmland. Lovely Baroque churches dot the skyline. The brightly painted fishing boats, or luzzos, bob in crystal waters, and shearwaters fly in and out of the crannies and caves. How special it felt to see our dear friends after five years, and to visit their spectacular homeland.
My husband Sheldon showed nerves of steel as he braved not only a manual shift car, but also driving on the left side of the road, a legacy of Malta’s colonial past. Gozo provides the perfect antithesis to Malta, offering sandy beaches, world-famous diving, boating and delicious fresh seafood. Of course, being part of the Malta archipelago means that history and art are never far away, and we loved hiking the beautiful Citadel, and seeing more lovely churches and typical Maltese architecture. We stopped for delicious pastizzis, the ricotta-filled pastry typical of the island. Delicious dark coffee and the warm Maltese welcome seem to be around every corner.
At a neighborhood rooftop bistro, John arranged a typical Gozo meal—antipasta of bruschetta, locally-made cheeses, locally-grown olives, and of course the ubiquitous fresh fish with capers. That meal itself merited a return visit! A hair-raising boat ride along the coast at Xlendi showed off the impossibly blue water and delightful coves, reminiscent of Capri’s Blue Grotto. Also in Gozo, we were happy to see noted chef Pippa Mattei and her husband. During the Lowell’s time in Washington, Pippa filmed a documentary on Maltese cooking at the embassy residence, and several Forest Hills neighbors will remember enjoying one of her specialties, a delicious Maltese meal of gnocchi and tomato-basil sauce.
Bring the kids? Yes!
So, if you’re ready to go to Malta, and you’re wondering whether to take the kids, go for it! Our two teenagers are terrific travelers, but even for balky teens, there are endless activities in Malta. Betsy and Alex adored the Maltese food, from the expected to the exotic. Favorites included gourmet pizza and pasta, “thick” hot chocolate (almost pudding-like), calamari, octopus salad, and fresh pastries. They loved the boat trips and the swimming and the blend of east meeting west. Everyone speaks English, and crime is almost non-existent, so we were comfortable with the kids walking out to the beach to swim, or to find yet another gelato. While you could spend all day inside looking at art, much of Malta’s history is fun to explore, with outside forts, gardens and ancient temples that lend themselves to an active vacation. On our next trip, we hope to take advantage of the legendary snorkeling, scuba, sailing, windsurfing and hiking.
Thousands of years of history, world-class art and architecture, fresh, local Mediterranean food and culture with a unique twist, azure water with picturesque beaches, warm and generous people: these are reasons in and of themselves to plan a visit, but with Malta you will experience them all!
We were sad to come home after such a great trip, but now we can welcome the new Maltese Ambassador, Joseph Cole, and his wife Bernadina, who goes by Ben. Ambassador Cole presented his credentials at the White House in August. They are just settling in and are eager to get to know the neighborhood. We welcome them to Washington and hope they will come to love our city, as we have come to love Malta.
Our visit in early June meant postcard perfect weather – highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid 60s, with not a cloud in sight. Malta uses the euro, and changing money was easy.
Our tour guide, arranged by the Micelis, was outstanding. You can reach our guide, Mariella Bose, at email@example.com.
For more about Maltese cooking, go to pippamattei.com. Her latest cookbook, Pippa’s Festa, recently won an award for best entertaining book in the world.
To read about Malta’s delicious and memorable wines, check out Meridiana.com.mt.
To learn more about a painstakingly restored medieval palace and see a beautiful collection of European art and antiques, visit PalazzoFalson.com.
For a good overview of what to see and do in Malta, see VisitMalta.com.