On the waterfront. Take 2.

I’ve been coming to Malta on and off since 2011 – maybe three or four times a year. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, I get to have another think. Granted, when I’m here, I’m not on holiday so my viewing time is limited. That said, the Maltese are very hospitable and more than happy to show you around. And, of course, if someone comes with me who hasn’t visited before, that opens up a whole new realm of things to do.

I’d never thought of taking the ferry from Sliema to Valletta and only did so this weekend because I’d asked a couple of lads if they knew what bus we’d get to get to the Valletta Waterfront. A young Serbian friend had taken me there for a drink years ago and I wanted to share it with the lovely IM. They told us that it would be quicker to get there by ferry, something I’d never thought to do before. On checking the map, I saw that Valletta was surrounded by water on three sides (new one on me) and I was sure ours was the side the ferry docked. When it comes to directions and knowing where I am, the more certain I am that I’m right, the more likely I am to be wrong.

We stopped to eat in a restaurant in one of the old watch towers in Sliema and asked our very helpful waiter if he could verify my assumption. In pitch-perfect Maltese English, he said he’d never heard of the waterfront. But he turned out to be Hungarian, so I proceeded undaunted. We hopped off the ferry and turned right – towards some likely looking umbrellas. We wandered up the coast road, past the five-star compound that is the Excelsior Hotel (home of said umbrellas and man-made postage-stamp-sized beach) and ended up in Floriana. Not where we wanted to be.

Not in the least bit proud, I stopped at a group of three and asked them how we’d get down to the waterfront. Oh, said one of the girls, you mean the Grand Harbour… (duh). Well of course now that she said it, that’s exactly what I meant and of course I knew where it was but I didn’t fancy snaking my way through the streets of Vallette for the next hour or so. But then she told me to the glass lift from the Upper Barrakka gardens. Lift? I’d been in the gardens last month and hadn’t seen any sign of a glass lift but at this stage I was like a chicken worrying a speck of blood. Relentless.

P1170861P1170848And there it was. All 58 metres of. And there it’s been since December 2012 carrying as many as 21 people at time taking 25 seconds to descend. We took it down to the Grand Harbour and seeing nothing but a massive gunship, asked directions yet again. Five minutes later, we were on the waterfront.  And it was just as I remembered.

Nearly 20 or so warehouses, dating back 250 years, line up alongside the quay. Back in the day it was here that the Knights of St John would come to unload their ships. Today, these warehouses are restaurants, shops, bars, and clubs. It reminded me a little of Im Viadukt in Zürich. A lovely use of old space, and quite tastefully done.

P1170857P1170847Spoiled for choice, we settled for cocktails and a platter of cold meats and grilled vegetables at a restaurant called Crave (which boasts a 1.2 kg burger…for sharing, course).  Sitting by the edge of the water, we looked out on to small sailing boats and massive navy vessels. Around us, the crowd was slowly swelling  as more and more people came to enjoy a Saturday night on the town. A grazer’s delight, every sort of food imaginable was on offer. Reading the menus might take time, but everywhere appeared to be doing some sort of business. Not bad for what is still officially winter and off-season for Malta.

P1170858On the way back to the lift (last climb is at 9pm and I didn’t fancy the hike if we missed it), we had a glorious view across the water towards the Three Cities. Malta lights up beautifully. Gobsmackingly gorgeous as some of the buildings are by day, by night, lit up, reflecting in the water, they’re really quite spectacular.

For me though, the best evening view in town is that of the arches in the Upper Barrakka  gardens which dates back  to 1775,  a gift from some Italian knight or other. The usually packed seats are empty and the place is quite still.  Add a balmy breeze and some stray thoughts, and you have an atmosphere conducive to solving most of life’s problems. The novelty never wears off.

(C) Miklos I

(C) Miklos I



Notte Bianca – Lejl Imdawwal

This year, 2010, saw the fifth annual Notte Bianca in the Maltese city of Valletta. The inspiration behind this night of cultural events lies in the concept of openness, opening the city for all to see. Tourists and locals alike have their well-trodden routes through the city and many side streets and off-beat venues tend to be overlooked. Valletta is a world heritage site, one that is being restored to shades of former glory. Churches, auberges, palaces and historical buildings are being restored; streets are being repaved. On this night, every year, the streets are turned into stages. Lights installed for 24 hours cast new shadows. Traders and crafters show their wares. Talent abounds. Whether you’re after some classical music, a bit of vaudeville, or some modern heart-pounding sounds, this extravaganza of visual and performing arts is something to behold.

The city is mobbed. Thousands upon thousands cram the main streets, pouring in from the bus terminus through the city gates. If you stop and concentrate you can hear all sorts of music, in stereo. GP and I had come prepared. We’d poured over the map of the city and the events listing and had our route marked out. We figured if we started by 7pm, we could be done with all we had to see and do by 2 the following morning. It seemed so well organised. A map of the city with numbered venues. A colour-coded programme with details of events. But what was missing was the key link between the two.

Okay, so if you’ve know your Malta, you might immeditely recognise venue No. 57 but for us foreigners, without the decoding number, we couldn’t tell if we’d just missed the performance or we were simply in the wrong place. We walked for miles to hear the Johnny Cash Tribute Band (my call) and when we got there, Johnny had long since left. But ne’er a mention of the time in the programme. Still, wending our way through the back streets, we came accross some fantastic dance recitals and I discoverd urban dance for the first time.

It seemed as if every street we turned into had something new to see. What fascinated me most, though, was that although I’d wandered the streets of Valletta before, I’d never really appreciated how hilly the city is. An older sister of San Francisco. And, as GP so rightly pointed out, so much travelling downhill only meant that at some stage, we’d have to climb back up again. And she was right. I counted 217 steps… every one of them.

Notte Bianca or Nuits Blanches or White Nights or whatever you’d like to call it, can apparently be traced back to St Petersburg in Russia where during the long summer days and seemingly endless twilight (sounds so much like Alaska and have I ever been missing that place lately…) the city would celebrate these ‘white nights’. Other cities – Brussels, Madrid, Paris, Riga, and Amsterdam – have followed suit. It gets people off their couches, away from their TVs and out into the night. Churches host gospel rock concerts; museums give guided tours free of charge; even the ghosts cooperate with hourly walks through haunted streets and alleyways.

Just as golden hour is nature’s way of using light to its best advantage, the lighting technicians in Valletta did well. Very well. And for me, apart from the dancing, this was probably the most fascinating part of the night. We didn’t get to half of what we’d planned. We didn’t pace ourselves, as the organisers had suggested. We didn’t even wear the customary white. But Valletta isn’t going anywhere – and there’ s always next year.