Malta: Room to Roam | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 15, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 15, 2020


Malta: Room to Roam

Different scenario unfolds at every turn of a corner. Grand in a domestic dimension is the historic house museum - the Palazzo Falson - apparently the second oldest building still standing in the walled city of Mdina. Parts of it date back to the thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century, it was donated by Emperor Charles V to the Knights of the Order of St John in Malta. In the 1920s, it was acquired by Captain Olaf F. Gollcher, a collector and conservator. His diverse treasure trove now mirrors an aristocratic domain of priceless paintings, silverware, glassware, carpets, furniture and numerous objects of decorative art. Cabinets of curiosities. A library stocks some 4,5000 historical volumes. And again; spaciousness as we saunter through the Palazzo Falson museum.

In a grand gesture, riding the tide on a boat cruise around the historical Valletta harbour is de rigeur. Sight-seeing at its best is the timeless scenario of centuries old fortified walls, fortresses - some ruins and some intact, church towers and steeples, grottoes and gardens, small fishing skiffs and massive container ships. Side by side sleek yachts moored in plush marinas reflect the lifestyle of high-enders. As I photographed a Titanic dimensioned super-yacht dubbed "Empress of India," a young man asked me if it was mine? Quick in response I replied, "No. Mine is the one next to it." There was moored a much smaller yacht; nevertheless, super sleek; named "Plan B." We both had a good laugh! Also spotted the schooner "Black Pearl" now a restaurant that once belonged to the romantic swashbuckler Hollywood actor Errol Flynn (1909-1959).

Cutting edge modernity is exemplified in the capital's Parliament building designed by the Italian starchitect Renzo Piano. A state of the art stretched horizontal complex; it appears in vivid contrast to his London skyline vertical skyscraper - The Shard. Streets don't have to be a lesson in history; but some happily are so.Walking down Valletta's main street celebrating the city's European City of Culture 2018 UNESCO award, with flags, posters and plaques adding infinite colour to an already colourful city; I glanced down a narrow lane with the Mediterranean waters visible in the horizon. A signboard "His Master's Voice" beckoned. A left lane stroll landed us before 'Anthony D'Amato' Est. 1885. 'H.M.V. & M.G.M Records and H.M.V. Radios' boards stare bold at passer-bys. Drawn in, we found ourselves amongst a vast collection of vintage vinyl 45, 78 and 33 rpm record albums. An Aladdin attic of musical mementoes. The King of Rock n' Roll called out Now or Never. "Yesterday" reminded the Beatles. Bedazzled, we were in a time warp. The d'Amato family had three stores. This is the only surviving outlet and he is counting the days before the shutters come down. His adult son's gaze fixed on his laptop is the image of our time.

Across this store stands an equally fascinating site; The Cinema Bar by Citylights. We met Anton Baldacchino, whose family has occupied the property since 1976. His grandfather owned a number of cinema halls in the 1950s in Malta. With declining cinema attendance, the young man transformed part of the original Capitol cinema hall into Citylights, a little gem of a museum of cinema memorabilia. A cult collection of posters, film reels, projectors of all sorts and sizes and original leather seats shipped over from London in the 1960s. Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and other iconic screen stars gaze at us. The premise also functions as a venue for book launches, cultural events and a bar. A delightful space echoing memories of a bygone era of cinematic ambience. Anton invited us for the following night's book launch event. Sadly, this was our last day in Malta. Continuity sometime works. Sometimes not in this fast forward era of ours. Others survive renewal; but for how long?

What has survived in Valletta is the national initiative evident in the following buildings and many marble plaques that has surely contributed to Valletta's signature "European Capital of Culture 2018." Auberge de Provence was an inn established by French knights from Provence in 1571. During the British period, it was the community's Union Club. Since 1958, the Baroque styled building has served as the National Museum. As we continued our walk, my eye caught sight of a marble plaque that commemorated Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Renowned English Poet and Writer Worked Here 1804-1805." Its earlier antecedent mentioned the grand building's acquisition by The Order of St. John in 1744. This was their Treasury of the Order. All this mental absorption now called for rest and a restorative espresso at the Caffe Cordina Est. 1837. Looking down at us was a commanding seated statue of Queen Victoria. Behind her stands the columned historical Biblioteca. And then a blast of pop culture in juxtaposition; a plaster of paris all white sculpture on the ground; a head with a finger going through one ear and its tip coming out the other. Much interpretation could follow in this ambience of 'cafe candy.'

In the midst of the city's central plaza surrounded by bastions of officialdom; two marble wall plaques stand out, both commemorating Malta's considerable contribution to the Allies alliance in World War Two.One is a lengthy declaration by Franklin D. Roosevelt dated December 7th, 1945 recognizing the island's "valorous service far above and beyond the call of duty." The commemoration begins "IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA I SALUTE THE ISLAND OF MALTA ....." The other plaque of honour was given by King George R.I. on April 15th, 1942. Buckingham Palace. Addressed to: The Governor Malta; it reads: To honour her Brave People I Award The George Cross To The Island Fortress of Malta To Bear Witness to a Heroism and Devotion That Will Long Be Famous In History." Each item remains suspended in Time.

Saint Paul, who was shipwrecked in Malta around 60 AD en route to Rome, is historically the patron saint of writers - a vital nugget of information for any bibliophile. Entering the first shop displaying some books amongst touristy paraphernalia in Valletta's main boulevard, I asked for 'Maltese Falcon' by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). A best-seller of detective fictionin its time, it was adapted to the screen (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart and went on to become a noir classic. Never having seen the film nor read the cult book; but being in Malta, I wanted to acquire it. Thebook was out of stock. Well, I was told by the sales girl that I am only one of many that come searching for the book in which the entire setting takes place in California. Notwithstanding my literary ignorance, I later learnt that the celebrated auction house Christie's New York in late 2019 is putting on sale a fine first edition (1930) of the book. Estimated selling price between US$1000 to 2000. Appropriate to quote here John Ruskin in 'Sesame and Lilies' (1865). He declared: "All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time."

Intrigued, I google researched and came up with the following back-story. "And again, it's all due to Hammett's genius for merging fact with fiction. According to the film, the eponymous falcon was a present from the Order Of The Hospitallers of St. John Of Jerusalem to King Charles V of Spain. In 1530, Charles had bequeathed the island of Malta to the order and had asked in return for the annual payment of a bird of prey. The crusaders were so grateful that instead they sent a, 'Glorious golden falcon, encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers.' But the galleon carrying the prize was plundered and the falcon disappeared. Resurfacing at various intervals thereafter, the bird finally ends up in San Francisco where Gutman, Cairo and O'Shaugnessy are desperate to get their hands on it. There actually was an arrangement made in 1530 whereby a Maltese bird of prey was presented to Charles V as rent on the island of Malta, but the payments were always living birds. Hammett though, invests his McGuffin with not only a whiff of history but also of romance, danger and mystery. The falcon fuels his characters' obsession in a way that mere money never could and the spell the falcon casts over everyone involved is what makes the whole movie tick."

Malta hit headlines in late 2019 with the sale of a historical building with a contemporary context. The government of Malta bought a grandiose though dilapidated villa overlooking the harbour where a newlywed couple made their home. Between the years of 1948 and 1951, the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip lived at Villa Guardamangia outside Valletta. Prince Philip was assigned to HMS Chequers while serving with the Royal Navy Mediterranean fleet. In a visit to Malta in 2015, Queen Elizabeth II remarked that her home in Malta has been her only place of residence outside the United Kingdom and that she retains deep affection of her stay there. She ascended the throne in 1952. The government plans to restore the property with the potential to become another island attraction. Fostering creativity, heritage remains high priority in Malta. The past continues to evolve.

Malta still a secret spot; offers pastas, pizzas, piazzas, plazas, palazzos without a posse of people!Tread lightly on this isle. "Use your past experience of places that you have particularly enjoyed to create the most restful and pleasant place you can imagine. Once you have created your landscape, you are ready to move through it, imagining not just its appearance, but also its sounds and fragrances." (De-stressing Meditation) in Zen and the Art of Travel, Eric Chaline (2000).

Slow down. Ultimately, travel should be an experience. Not simply a destination.


Raana Haider is a travel writer.

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