I am not a beach person. I have very low tolerance for heat, sand makes me dirty, marine algae creeps me out and I do not even want to start on what sea air does to my hair. This is the reason that as a family we are mostly ending up in cool climes during our getaways. This however, does not imply that the rest of my family has an aversion to sand, sun or the sea. Although, what this does mean is that they have not realized that the reason we rarely end up on a beach is because I am not a fan of it, which works well for me because this way, no one accuses me of being a vacation bully.
When the husband and our kids were discussing a vacation in Malta, I decided to overlook my feelings about my idea of an ideal vacation for once, because you see, even bullies have their weaker moments when they succumb to introspection and the subsequent guilt. Besides, our friends from Bombay were to meet us at Malta airport to spend the next few days exploring the island with us and that was reason enough to look forward to this trip.
And so it is that I found myself tightening up my seatbelt on a Malta bound flight from London, which cruelly enough, was enjoying a cold wave the morning of our departure. It took a lot for me to give up that nip for an African summer. (Malta is just across the ocean from Africa).
When we drove out of the airport in Malta, the car felt like a furnace and I could actually feel my scalp crusting up like a wood fired pizza surface.
At first glance, Malta, an archipelago on the edge of Europe and staring directly at Africa, seemed like a quaint island stuck in a bit of a time warp. Our car drove through narrow meandering lanes flanked by derelict houses in honey coloured limestone from a bygone era. This landscape was unlike the rest of the continent for it wasn’t the Europe of imposing medieval and gothic architecture; instead it looked like a deserted albeit beautiful country, one which had quietly withstood the ravages of time and made its peace with it.
We checked into the Corinthia Hotel, St George’s Bay and were escorted to our rooms so many pieces of luggage that one would have thought we were doing a transfer of residence to Malta permanently along with all our lives’ belongings.
It did not take us long to realize that people in Malta did not believe in dressing up, which was a relief really.
Our rooms overlooked the entrance to a wide, sweeping bay where the turquoise Mediterranean Sea glistened under the unrestrained Maltese sun.
Before you knew it, the Madre, the friends and your truly were dangling over the balcony with our cameras in an effort to capture the view. I have never understood this kind of urgency in camera enthusiasts such as myself. One knows that one is to spend the next five days looking at the same view and yet one has to trip over themselves to take pictures at the first opportunity, as though the next morning the sea will pack up and shift venue.
The arrival of smart phones in our lives has compounded the task because one has to, now, juggle between the phone and the Nikon DSLR because every moment must be captured several times over and if possible immediately uploaded on social media so everybody can see just how much fun one is having.
When it comes to food, Malta is almost at par with Italy because of its physical proximity from Sicily. By the time we decided to head out for an early bite, the heat of the day was giving way to a gentle evening breeze and even though my hair was frizzing up like I had Lenny Kravitz’s genes in me, I began to feel more optimistic about this holiday.
The next morning we headed out towards Valetta, the capital of Malta, which is not only achingly beautiful but also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It reminded me of Rome in some ways because wandering the streets of Valetta one could easily be lead to believe that one was inside a gigantic museum. One came across baroque churches, street markets, old-fashioned shops, narrow winding alleys and piazzas with live music and fluttering pigeons, and cafes with temperamental waiters (the Italian effect).
Our avuncular waiter was serving us with the attitude that he was doing us a favour and only turned up his efficiency when he noticed that we were winding up our meal and the time to tip was at hand.
Just as we were done with our meal of beer and pizzas, my eyes fell on a charming Maltese townhouse with the words ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived here’ hung outside it. This is what I love about Europe. One can stumble upon literary shrines and other historical gems quite unexpectedly in almost every part of Europe. Hemingway dined here. Picasso painted here. Dali sat here. Oscar Wilde resided here. Somerset Maugham lived here. Jack the ripper got arrested here. KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY (in other words Jim Morrison rests in peace here). Where else in the world does one get to see this?
I sprung up from my chair, pupils dilated , mouth gaping and dashed towards ST’s house while the philistine in our group rolled their eyes at me for making such a song and dance about a dead poet’s residence.
On our drive back to the hotel the older one, our eleven-year-old had her moment of pupil dilation when we drove past a sign that read Pembroke Grove. “Oh my god, this is Pembroke grove!!!” she squealed. “What’s so special about Pembroke Grove?” I asked. “Oh Cheryl Blossom lives there,” she replied. “Who is Cheryl Blossom?” “Mom, d-uh, she is that girl from Archie comics.”
What could I even say to that?
If I could be happy about a dead, although distinguished poet’s house, I suppose my child had the right to be happy about an undistinguished Archie Comic character’s house.
The next day we headed towards Mdina, which was unlike anything, I had seen before. Driving through the tumbling terrain of Malta, the city of Mdina appeared in a distance and rose atop a hill like a castle in a fairytale illustration. Founded by the Phoenicians nearly 4000 years ago, this was the oldest spot that I had ever been to in all of Europe. What was remarkable was that it has been continuously been inhabited ever since.
A calming silence hung over Mdina and at first glance it seemed unlikely that the houses in the walled city, also knows as the ‘Silent City’, were inhabited at all. And yet, nestled between the stoned terraces of the buildings were some lively restaurants. There is nothing like a good chilled rose’ and rich chocolate cake to take the edge off a hot day and we indulged in both while the teenager among us, the madre’, made use of the wi-fi and got busy with her i-pad.
As the sun began to set, our entourage perambulated the precincts in the quest of a perfect shot and got several delightful ones. With wine running through my blood stream, it was easy to stalk a bride and groom who were posing for professional pictures in the courtyard with great concentration. I was keen to get some good shots of my own. Of course, I had to ask them for their permission, which was easy after I paid the bride a compliment by telling her that she looked stunning, even though it was only partly true. She looked like she could do with a lip plumper and some Moroccan oil to ease the frizz in her hair. The groom looked like he could have done with a lifetime membership to a gym. But it was not my place to bring these facts to their notice. Besides, the bougainvillea spread across the limestone facade made the couple easy on the eye and I managed to get my perfect shot.
Malta was turning out to be better than I had expected. Tomorrow we were going to spend a day at the sea.
It was going to be a day that would reveal the story of a knight in shining armour, a damsel in distress and a boy who looked like Enrique Iglesias. More in the next post.