Malta Shows Off its Cultural Side
With a new flagship gallery and music galore, the 2018 joint European Capital of Culture is putting on more than enough exciting events to shake off its pretty-but-sleepy tag.
Old Valletta has seen some intense years: 1565, for example, when it was besieged by Ottoman forces; and 1941, the height of the Axis powers’ attempts to bomb or starve Malta into submission. But it looks set to be an equally memorable, and much less harrowing, time, as more than 400 projects mark its year as European Capital of Culture.
Malta has managed to shed its pensioners’ package holiday image, reinventing itself with boutique hotels and festivals. And Valletta itself, a city barely touched for centuries – except by Luftwaffe bombers – has changed, too. A decade ago, its 40,000 office workers would depart the city every evening, leaving its ancients streets with barely a bar or restaurant to lighten the gloom.
Today, visitors stay here, in old townhouses repurposed as boutique hotels such as Palazzo Consiglia, rather than heading to touristy Sliema or St Julian’s. And while teens still party in Paceville, on the coast further north, Valletta’s Strait Street has evolved into a more sophisticated nightlife hub.
Over the coming months Strait Street will see bars, restaurants and music venues collaborating on live shows, street theatre, performance poetry and jamming sessions – part of an ambitious vision for Valletta, that by the end of the year it should garner a reputation as one of the Mediterranean’s most exciting and innovative arts cities. Here are some of the year’s standouts.
Parliament and City Gate: If anything symbolizes new-look Valletta, it’s the remodeled City Gate, which is the focus of much of the celebrations, particularly the opening ceremony. Malta’s biggest architectural undertaking for centuries, it has been masterminded by Italy’s Renzo Piano. His elegant Parliament building, just inside the gate, has been acclaimed for its innovative use of Malta’s traditional building material, globigerina limestone from the island of Gozo. Now, shallow flights of steps lead up either side of new “gate” – actually just a gap in the 16th-century walls, through which Valletta welcomes the world – to garden areas with great views of the fortifications and a newly landscaped moat with outdoor performance space. Also, Valletta’s 1860 covered market, a few minutes’ walk into the city, was brought back to its former wrought iron glory, and now has stalls, bars, restaurants, and cultural spaces.
Muża and visual arts: The flagship opening of 2018 was the new art gallery: Muża stands for Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti but muza is also Maltese for muse or inspiration. Scheduled to open in May in the 15th-century Auberge d’Italie, once home to the Italian Knights of St John, it will house the art collection of the former national gallery (closed in 2016) plus new acquisitions and commissions. There are rumors of world-class pieces being loaned temporarily from Florence or Rome. Before then, the Spazju Kreattiv cultural centre in a former fort built into the city walls, has European Eyes on Japan by Maltese photographer Alexandra Pace and a photographer from Leeuwarden, this year’s co-capital of culture, both of whom were invited to live and work in Japan. Works by 20th-century giants Picasso and Mirò are on show at the Grand Master’s Palace.
Altofest: To international artists looking in, Altofest is an intriguing experiment in contemporary live art. Twenty Maltese citizens will host international artists in their homes as they develop works on the theme of “Legendary People”. The homes will then become venues for the performances. Theatre lovers will also enjoy a trip to the open-air theatre in Ta’ Qali, Malta’s only national park, for Cantina, which uses Bertolt Brecht’s play Saint Joan of the Stockyards, set in a 1930s meatpacking plant, to take a fresh look at the theme of food and how it is valued.
Music festivals: The music season warms up in May, along with the weather. Also, in the national park, the eco-conscious Earth Garden Festival promises to be a feast of color and sound with more than 35 acts. The lineup includes Lakuta, the Turbans and Gentlemen’s DUB Club. Malta Calls is an outdoor dance event led by Swedish DJ Per QX, in Pembroke, north of Valletta. Those visiting later in the year should look out for Kentaro!!, in which the Japanese DJ and choreographer will combine dance group Tokyo Electrock Stairs with local Maltese hip-hop artists.
Pageant of the Seas: More mainstream, but certain to be spectacular, is this free event in the Grand Harbor in June, with boat races and water-borne carnival floats. Hundreds of swimmers compete in a race across the water from Fort St Angelo, and in another event, teams construct boats from recycled materials and use them to cross the harbor without motor or traditional oars.
Bodies in Urban Spaces: In November, Austrian artist Willi Dorner is bringing his Bodies in Urban Spaces project to Valletta. He calls it “a temporary intervention in diversified architectonical environments” but in normal language this means squeezing human bodies into the nooks and crannies of public spaces and seeing how people react. In the past the police have been called by people thinking they were witnessing vandalism or burglary. It will be interesting to see how Malta’s quite traditional police force – founded in 1814 under a British governor – will react.
Malta – Go Mediterranean with a Faith Trip
Near the center of the Mediterranean Sea lies an archipelago that has been frequented by sailors for over 4,000 years. Known to the Romans as Melite, the island nation of Malta is the site where the apostle Paul was shipwrecked after being extradited to Rome from Jerusalem. He spent three months living in Mdina, teaching and healing before continuing his journey. Christianity has been practiced in Malta since that time.
Today the country is a popular tourist destination for Europeans, bringing in 1.6 million tourists, three times more visitors than residents, to the 122-square-mile nation each year. Malta is especially popular with British travelers because English is one of the national languages, which also makes it appealing to American travelers who want a taste of the exotic without the challenges of a language barrier.
Rabat is popular with faith travelers and history lovers alike for its many historic sites. Rabat’s Catacombs of St. Paul and St. Agatha date to the Roman era and are elaborately decorated with frescoes and murals showing the earliest evidence of Christianity on Malta. The Domus Romana is an excavated villa in Rabat that once belonged to a Roman aristocrat living in the colony of Melite during the first century A.D. Mdina, an ancient walled community nearby, is another great stop for history lovers, with many palaces dating from the medieval and baroque periods. Mdina is unique in that, with few exceptions, cars are not allowed within the city, earning it the nickname “the Silent City.”
Where in the bible? Acts 27:39-28:10: The apostle Paul was shipwrecked off the island of Malta about A.D. 60 while on his way to his trial in Rome and remained there for three months.
Top Attractions for Church Groups
- St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina — The cathedral was founded in the 12th century on the site where the apostle Paul met with the Roman governor Publius.
- Grandmaster’s Palace, Valletta— Built between the 16th and 18th centuries, the palace is the historic home of the ruler of Malta and is now the home of the president. It is open as a public museum; visitors will enjoy touring the state rooms, the armory, and the courtyards.
- Fort St. Angelo, Birgu — Originally built as a medieval castle, the site was used by the Order of St. John as the original headquarters during the Great Siege of Malta. Later during the British Colonial period, the site was used as a Royal Navy Mediterranean base.
- Rotunda of Mosta, Mosta — The people of Malta came together to build this church, which includes one of the largest unsupported domes in the world. During World War II, three German bombs hit the church without detonating while the parish was gathered for evening Mass.
- Megalithic Temples of Malta — The nation of Malta has seven different megalithic temples that are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are among the oldest freestanding structures in the world. The Tarxien Temple Complex is the largest and most elaborate of the seven.
Must Have Experiences Around Malta
Must-Do: Groups will enjoy a tour of the Malta Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa. The collection includes over 20,000 artifacts covering the area’s maritime history from prehistory to the present.
Must-Taste: Travelers will enjoy Malta’s Mediterranean fare. Try a taste of lampuki pie, a Maltese seafood specialty, or aljotta, a fish soup, on a trip to the ancient seaside town of Marsaxlokk. The Visit Malta website also has an easy-to-use search feature to help find that certain type of restaurant you’re looking for.
Bring it Home: Malta has been known for its textiles since ancient times. Today, weaving, and embroidered handcrafts are popular souvenirs.
Photo Op: Travelers will want to capture the iconic shot of the Valletta cityscape from the water, with or without the fleets of dghajsa — small colorful boats — in the foreground. The best way to get this snapshot is from a harbor cruise or a water taxi ride.
TravelKatz would love to help your group plan a trip to Malta – and we might even stow-away in your luggage! Call us at 352-277-7300 anytime to get this trip on your calendar.