Note: This travelogue is based on a trip I took to Sicily in 1995, so the pictures and information are rather dated and may not accurately reflect the modern appearance. I welcome updates and corrections.
The Maltese bring new meaning to the word 'multiculturalism'. Spurred by their heavy reliance on tourism, street signs are displayed in (not one, not two, but) six languages (Maltese, English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German are the ones I remember anyway). In a conversation with a hotel worker, I learned that to work at a reception desk, one had to be fluent in three languages. As a person whose rendition of French sounds like the schoolteacher in the Peanuts cartoons, I have a great appreciation for such individuals, for they make tourists like me feel quite welcome and comfortable.
The main Island of Malta is loaded with different styles of architectures, reflective of its many former conquerors. Before Islam spread across North Africa in the 8th century, Malta was a Byzantine territory, falling under the Eastern half of the Roman Empire after Constantine. The Muslims ruled for nearly three-and-a-half centuries before being pushed out by the Europeans -- the French, Germans, and Sicilians each had their turn before the British took over in the Victorian era. Each Maltese city seems to have its particular flavor: Mdina is largely Sicilian, Valletta mostly Turkish. The port city of Sliema, which faces Valletta from across the bay, is largely British.
Sliema has a huge boardwalk, and is a loaded with portside cafés, such as the one seem in the top photo. Because Malta's coastline is very fractal, there are a number of narrow bays and canals cutting inland, so there's a ton of shoreline to enjoy. The bays are often deceivingly narrow.
Sliema's downtown is ultra-modern (or at least was in 1995), with great shopping catering to European tastes. It has a pedestrian zone similar to those one might find in contintental cities, and it is assured to be crowded during many a hot Maltese afternoon. The downtown faces along one of Malta's larger bays towards the capital city of Valletta.
Valletta is shown in this photo. It has a very distinctly Turkish appearance, and is dominated by the world's largest free-standing (that is, unsupported) dome. This is the rounded structure on the left side of the photo. Although the bay is very narrow between the two cities, there is no easy or direct route between them because of the shape of the coastline. But, Valletta is a must-do as it has many of Malta's greater historical monuments.
Certainly by contrast, Sliema shows its British touch quite shamelessly. The food stores and sidewalk restaurants were definitely British -- all the classic name brands (like "HP Sauce") were sold, and the pasties were quite authentic.Much of modern-day Sliema is overrun by small British cars and large, very old busses (shown in this photo). Sliema's streets are very narrow, and traffic was hellacious everywhere, so I don't recommend renting a car... I found it much quicker taking the bus or walking.
Besides, there are many advantages to walking. Sliema is a grand mix of old and new -- Turkish style stone apartments with classy English doorways and floral displays, like you see in this photo.
The port of Sliema is on the opposite side from Valletta, and has one of Malta's largest marinas. It was from there that I took a tour boat to the Blue Lagoon. The far end of the Boardwalk has Malta's largest casino and resort... at the time it was isolated from the rest of the city and very exclusive, whether that's still the case is not known to me. The port also hosted fireworks on a regular basis, perhaps inspired by similar traditions found among the Sicilians (see Catania). Of course, the port was loaded with great seafood restaurants -- and as Malta has so many strong ties with their European neighbors, just about any cuisine is available.
Trip taken 1-3 September 1995 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin