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MALTA
  Pictures of Malta At the Bottom of the Page

My juices first started flowing about a trip to Malta back in the 80s.  I was News Director at WJR radio in Detroit and inside the Fisher Building we had a very exclusive dining spot called "The Recess Club." Unfortunately the Recess Club is now gone but back then the host was a gent named Oscar Rosso.  He was from Malta and every time I dined there he would rave about his homeland.

Later in the 90s, we had an intern at WYCD radio in Detroit who had roots dating back to Malta.  His name is Freddy Pace.  Freddy is a very bright young man and he, too, raved about the island nation and I started making initial plans to visit.  In fact, Freddy was very helpful in planning this trip to his homeland.

While in Malta I asked some locals if the name Pace was very common and they said it was.  When I asked if Fred was popular they looked a little puzzled.  Then one guy fired back: "Oh you mean Freddy!  Yes, yes, Freddy is a very popular first name!"  So our old buddy Freddy is well represented in Malta.

Amazingly at my radio station yet another person with Maltese roots turned up.  Another intern!  This lad's name is Zach DuFresne and he is dying to see his native homeland.

Now let's cut to the chase! We flew into Rome, visited Sorrento in Italy, then headed back to Rome for the flight to Malta.

Malta consists of three primary islands. Malta, itself, is the biggest at 17 by 17 miles long.  Gozo is 7 miles by 9 miles long.  Comino is tiny with only a few farmers and only one hotel.  The main island of Malta has a population of about 381,000.  Gozo has another 23,000 or so and Comino has just a handful of folks.

As we approached Malta from the air, the landscape appeared to be very dry and covered with dwellings that reminded me of a place like Cairo or Casablanca.  It had "that" kind of feel and it still did after landing and taking a taxi to our hotel.

Malta is very, very dry in the summertime and it's very, very old.  Some temples on the island outdate the great Egyptian pyramids by up to a thousand years!  Everywhere you look there are ancient structures and thousands of rock fences built hundreds of years ago.

Our hotel was the Westin Dragonara Resort located in St. Julian's.  This is deluxe five star resort located right on the Mediterranean Sea.  A very impressive resort.  Click here for their web site.

While the resort was absolutely beautiful and not very old, it did have some pretty maddening maintenance problems.  When we checked into our room the air conditioner wasn't putting out nearly enough cold air.  We also were plagued by a "tapping" or banging noise during the wee hours of the morning.  It was so loud it was hard to sleep.  The next morning I called the front desk and asked them to send somebody up to check on the air conditioning and banging noise.  The tech who showed up said he would adjust the zone of the hotel to make things cooler.  He said the banging noise sounded like some trapped air in pipes and said he would look into it.  That night the banging noise was back.  At 1:50 in the morning and unable to sleep, I called the front desk.  They sent a staffer up to the room and he clearly heard the noise. He said he would make out a report and have it fixed the next day.  We went on a tour of the island the next day and when we got back we called down to see if their maintenance department had worked on the problem.  There was no record of any such work.  This was about 1:30pm.  They promised to have a tech up to the room by 3pm.  Three came and went--no tech.  At four my wife called and asked when somebody would be by to look at the system and they said "sometime" that afternoon.  Here we were stuck in the room for several hours waiting for somebody to fix the friggin' noise and this after not sleeping well the previous two nights.  I finally stormed down to the front desk and urgently demanded that we be given a new room, which we were.  This one was finally nice and cool and without noise all night long.  The only problem on the new floor was that the ice machine didn't work, nor did the ice machines on the two floors below.  We also had problems with t.v. clickers not working. One electrical outlet was caput and in the bathroom of our second room, I noticed a small but definite electrical current running in the metal fixtures on the right side of the bath tub.  Strange when you're showering and touch the metal and feel a low level buzz.  I'm sure it wasn't dangerous just odd.

One fabulous thing about this resort is Westin's new "heavenly bed."  Talk about luxurious comfort!  It was fantastic!  Later we would enjoy the same bed at the Westin Madrid Palace Hotel in Spain.

It's too bad this resort had so many technical problems because it is absolutely beautiful and couldn't be situated closer to much of the action on the island including the wild Paceville area.

Paceville (pronounced "pawtch-ville") is an area of night clubs and restaurants that gets extremely jam packed at night.  The following morning there is evidence of the celebration the night before in the form of numerous spent whiskey, wine and beer bottles discarded on the widow sills and at street corners.  The action begins to heat up around 11pm and doesn't wind down until hours later.

If you stay at the Westin, try and hook up with a staff driver and guide named Francis Portelli. (Click on his name to meet him.)  He's a wonderful gentleman who knows and loves Malta and he can give you great guided tours in a beautiful air conditioned, comfortable Mercedes.  Same rate as taxis but much, much more civil.  Francis can be reached at the hotel or through Meli Chauffer & Drive at these phone numbers:  21 375 953 or 381 000 ext. 5033. Their fax number is (356) 21 499 221.  Francis will be happy to stop anywhere you like including grocery stores, restaurants, places of interest, etc.  His goin' rate while we were there was roughly $18 an hour, U.S.  I can't speak highly enough of Francis.  He's just a great guy with a great sense of humor and he seems to know every nook and cranny of the Maltese islands.
 

Francis took us on a tour of the island of Malta and we visited numerous spots including the Blue Grotto, the ancient, walled capital of Mdina, the villages of Marsascala, Zejtun, Marsaxlokk, Birzebbugia, Zurrieq, Tarxien and the current capitol city of Valletta.

Mdina is perched on top of a big hill and is pleasant to stroll around and have a soda.

Valletta is a very hilly city and one street reminded us very much of some of the steep streets found in San Francisco.

Nearly all modern buildings in Malta are constructed of limestone blocks, which are taken from the ground on the island.  So the island has kind of a bleached look. Again, while I've only seen pictures of Casablanca, Cairo and Israel, Malta reminded me of those places.

On another day, Francis took us on the car ferry to Gozo.  It's about a 20 minute crossing from the main island of Malta but is much more quaint and less frenzied than Malta.

The highlight of our trip to Gozo was visiting the oldest building on earth!  Actually there are a few temples on Gozo and Malta that share that honor dating back to between 3,000 and 3,600 B.C.!  The temple we toured on Gozo was called Ggantija.  For a small admission price you can actually walk into some of the rooms used by the ancients.  The name Ggantija means "giantess" as this is the largest of the megalithic temples found in Malta. The temple faces the south-east and has five semi-circular niches within. We had to wonder what it must have been like back then. And to think that the temples on Malta pre-date the great Egyptian pyramids by up to 1,000 years! 

We also visited the lovely current capital of Gozo which is Victoria.  Very quaint, very nice.  And a lot less hustle and bustle of it's bigger brother Valletta on the main island of Malta.

We paused for lunch at a little restaurant called the Village Inn in the seacoast village of Xlendi Bay.  I had a rice dish with garlic and curried seafood and my wife had the rabbit stew in a wine sauce.  Both were tasty although the wine kind of overpowered the bugs bunny meat.  Rabbit is extremely popular in Malta.  Most of the wild rabbits are long gone so the meat you get will come from farms that raise domestic critters.

Ironically and sadly one passion of the Maltese is to shoot birds as they migrate across from Africa (Malta is quite close to Tunisia and Libya in northern Africa).  They will shoot just about anything that flies including little finches.  Another tact used by the Maltese is to take some birds that were captured alive and place them in cages outside on the ground.  Above the cages they set up nets.  As birds migrate across the land they hear their little buddies chattering in the cages down below and figure it might be a good place to land in rest.  As they descend they are caught in the nets and then sold as pets.  Wildlife people are very irritated at the Maltese for doing this but it's been going on for so long it will probably never stop.

Our driver, Francis, was absolutely full of interesting and funny stories. One time a few years ago the Irish football (soccer) team was playing in a game in Malta and naturally a large delegation of Irish fans came to support the boys.  Francis says after the game they descended on bars and pubs and drank the island completely out of beer!

The local beer on the islands is Cisk and it's not bad brew.  Check it out here but turn your speakers down!!!!!!

One interesting attraction are the public busses of Malta.  Some date back to the 50s and a handful date back to the 40s!  They're small, yellow busses with real character.  Why haven't they been replaced?  Well as Francis explained, there have been arguments pro and con for years and so far no agreement on new busses has been reached so the delightful old ones remain.

RESTAURANT REVIEWS IN MALTA FROM OUR OWN
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

The Barracuda is probably "the" restaurant to sample while in Malta.  It sits on a cliff overlooking Balluta Bay on the western fringes of Sliema.  The emphasis here is on fresh seafood.  I started out my meal with a seafood cocktail consisting of octopus (they eat a ton of octopus in Malta), squid, mussels and a king prawn.  My wife had a pasta dish for a starter.  For our main meals we both had fresh fish.  I had something called "double bream" and my wife had sea bass.  Both were good but in this part of the world fish is always cooked the same way.  It is gutted and scaled, oiled and then grilled whole.  At this elegant restaurant, your waiter removes the flesh from the bones at tableside.  It's good fish but I'd prefer it with a little sauce to liven it up.  We finished with a sweet dessert.  This was the most expensive place we ate on the island and our tab with wine came to about 90 bucks, U.S.  But this truly is an elegant restaurant.  The Barracuda is located  at 196 Trig il Kbira.

Il Re Del Pesce (The King of Fish in English) was our favorite place in Malta.  It's located in the fishing village of Marsascala about 20 minutes away by taxi from St. Julian's.  It's an open air restaurant (with a small indoor section and bar) that specializes in fresh seafood.  The catch of the day is displayed on ice as you enter this neat little eatery.  For starters, I had fish soup and it was a rich broth with a couple of tiny pieces of fish in it.  Excellent flavor.  My wife started with prosciutto and fruit.  After ordering the starters a couple of little tid bits arrived "on the house."  First came toasted bread rounds with a spread of smoked egg plant and garlic spread on them.  Then came a tuna carpaccio---raw, marinated yellow fin tuna with large capers.  The fish was a little strong but good.  For our main course we let our server help us decide.  My wife wanted amberjack and I preferred the scorpion fish.  So the waiter gave us the best of both worlds.  On each plate we found some steamed scorpion fish (a large, red bottom feeder) and a slice of grilled amberjack (a fast moving tuna like fish).  Both were outstanding.  We got the roasted Maltese potatoes on the side along with some fresh broccoli. We each had a nice dessert and with wine the whole tab came to about 50 U.S. dollars.  The chef and owner, Michael Cauchi, personally made the rounds stopping by each table to ask how the meal had been.  This was a great dining experience. And one more thing.  Although we didn't see this guy in action, I'm told they have a grouper in a tank there that loves to be fed strawberries!  This great restaurant is located at Trig id-Dahla ta' San Tumas, Marsacala.  And for non seafood lovers, they have meat and vegetarian dishes as well.

Out West Argentinean Steak House offers up some pretty fair cuts of beef brought in from Alberta, Canada.  Why Argentina appears in the restaurant's name, I'm not sure.  There were two located near our hotel and there are other branches scattered throughout the islands.  You come here for the beef.  Once you place your order you are invited to the salad bar.  But this is not a typical American or Canadian salad bar.  It has many specialty items from Malta.  Most look "different" so just give them a try and you'll like 'em.  I had a tee-bone steak and it was pretty good.  My wife had a strip and it was even better.  Neither of us liked the seasoning they put on the steaks.  You can watch the cook over an open flame through a big glass window and he sprinkled something on the steaks as they cooked. It tasted kind of like a rose water paprika, if you will.  Not our favorite.  You might want to order your steaks without the seasoning or have them plaster your hunk of meat with plain old garlic salt or powder.  We ordered Maltese baked potato slices with our steak and they were great along with broccoli (they eat a lot of broccoli on Malta).  With wine and dessert, the tab came to about 55 to 60 bucks, U.S.  Check with your hotel concierge for the location nearest you. The one we sampled was in the Bay Street Shopping Arcade in St. Julian's.

Palio's is one of the restaurants within the Westin Dragonara Resort and it's a really great place.  We usually don't eat too many meals at hotel restaurants but this one was so good that we had to hit it twice during our brief stay.  Palio's is in a separate building right across a small walkway from the hotel.  You enter and immediately walk down stairs passing through the bar.  Then you continue on back to the restaurant which is open air and right on the Mediterranean Sea.  Most tables are "inside" with open air views and some are down below right on a little inlet.  Either way you can hear and smell the sea as you select your options off the menu.  The emphasis was on fresh fish here and it was very, very good.  Starter pastas were outstanding, too, including one I sampled with sea urchin.  Very sweet and good.  Soups were very good and my wife really enjoyed the desserts.  Palio's is quite a casual place and children are welcome although as you initially approach, it looks pretty fancy until you descend down the stairs and see the casual diners.  Even if you're not staying at the Westin during your visit to Malta, I highly recommend that you give this place a shot.  Reservations are helpful, especially for fashionably late diners but there were always empty tables when we passed by the place.  Then again we eat around 7:30.

Hard Rock Cafe is located in the Bay Street Shopping Arcade in the St. Julian's/Paceville area.  Curiously one store in this shopping and restaurant complex might list the address as St. Julian's and one right next door might list the address as Paceville.  This particular Hard Rock is a bit smaller than many and a lot less lively.  At lunch there were very few patrons.  We had the usual burger and bought some shot glasses to bring home.  I'd say the food at this particular Hard Rock lagged behind in quality most others around the world that we have sampled.  Still, it wasn't bad.  For the record book, this Hard Rock is located at Level 2, Bay Street Hotel Complex, St. George's Bay, St. Julian's.

The Avenue is a popular restaurant and pizzeria located in Paceville.  We dined there for lunch one day and it was a bit on the disappointing side.  First of all we went with the intention of enjoying a fresh pizza from the wood burning oven.  Turns out, however, that they don't serve pizza until dinner.  I started my meal off with spaghetti with clams and it was good.  My main course was fried plaice, a fish served in Britain at fish 'n chips establishments.  My wife selected a pasta dish for her main course with a vegetable sauce.  Her pasta was great. My fish was a disaster.  I wouldn't have fed that fish to my dog.  Heck, I wouldn't even serve it to my mother-in-law, for Pete's sake (and actually she's a very nice woman!).  It was awful.  The flesh was dark and it had probably been in the freezer for several months too long.  Ick!  Don't order the plaice!  The fresh fish, on the other hand, looked good at other tables.  I should have gone with that.  There were a lot of Maltese people dining there so it had to be good.  I just chose the wrong dish.  The Avenue is located in the heart of Paceville.  Head toward Paceville and when you start to see discarded booze bottles and beer cans, you're close.  Just ask somebody for final directions.

DRIVING IN MALTA IS ON THE LEFT.  LOCALS WILL TELL YOU THAT MOTORISTS ACT LIKE ZOMBIES.  HOWEVER HAVING LIVED IN BOSTON AND EXPERIENCED THE GUERILLA WARFARE DRIVERS THERE, MALTESE DRIVERS ARE RELATIVE ANGELS.  YOU'LL NEED A PASSPORT FOR YOUR TRIP TO MALTA BUT NOT A VISA UNLESS YOU PLAN AN EXTENDED STAY.  THE LOCAL CURRENCY IS THE MALTA LIRA.

  Photos:
Malta - The Main Island
Malta Restaurants - Pictures of Some Very Nice Eateries
Blue Grotto - Pretty Section of Water in Malta
Ggantija - The World's Oldest Buildings
Gozo - Malta's Smaller Sister Island
Mdina - The Ancient Capital of Malta
St. Julians - Resort Area of Malta
Valletta - Current Capital of Malta

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