The Malta archipelago, a miniscule spot in the middle of the Mediterranean, still remains unknown to most US travelers. And this is a pity, because if you do visit Malta, you will be forever inspired and spiritually enriched by the magical beauty of this gem that remains still-hidden for many. And don’t be fooled by Malta’s size: this tiny nation packs an extraordinary amount of history, including Jewish history, into its three compact islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. From Israelites sailing there with Phoenicians three thousand years ago, to the first Jewish traveler, a Biblical Paul, arriving in Malta in the 1stcentury CE, thorough the dark times of slavery during the Knights of St. John’s rule in the 16th century, to today’s small but blossoming community – Maltese Jewish history manifests a fascinating trajectory still under- the-radar for most historians.
Like Malta, Corsica, the “Island of beauty,” as the French call it, is not on the vacation map for many American globe-trotters. Yet Corsica’s chic seaside resorts and its untamed natural magnificence are arguably the Mediterranean’s best. The island’s Jewish narrative reveals an irony of Omerta (Mafia’s code of silence) that led many Corsicans to risk their lives in saving thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazi-occupied mainland France to escape deportation and death.
Travel with Irene Shaland through these islands to learn the captivating stories of Malta and Corsica she brings to her audiences.
The Malta archipelago, a tiny spot in the middle of the Mediterranean with 400,000 inhabitants occupying an area of 316 square kilometers, remains unknown to most US travelers. And this is a pity, because if you do visit this island (or rather all three of them: Malta, Gozo, and Comino) you will be forever inspired and spiritually enriched by the magical beauty of these gems that remain still-hidden for many.
Malta’s capital Valletta was planned, designed and built by the Knights of St. John (or Knights of Malta) after their famous victory over the Turks in 1565. Valletta is only one kilometer in length and 600 meters in width, and all its straight streets lead to the sea. But do not be fooled by its tiny size: this World Heritage Site city is, arguably, one of the most history-saturated areas in the world. Valletta, basking in its Baroque splendor, is also one of the most sophisticated micro-cities of Europe, with all its theaters, art galleries, and Renzo Piano’s cutting-edge buildings.
And, as my husband Alex and I found out, the best base for your discovery of that universe of Malta, is Ursulino Valletta – a boutique hotel in the very heart of this country.
This hotel is a hidden gem located on the narrow 16th-century street named Ursulino after the convent. The old townhouse number 82 was converted by its owners, the Sultana family, into a luxury hotel with 11 rooms, some of which are suites. Talking to other people staying in Ursulino at the same time, I found out that none of them were there by pure chance: just like I, they searched the publications and reviews looking for a small luxury place with a character. And what a character it is! Elegant and sophisticated, the hotel focuses first and foremost on its clientele. Even before we arrived in Valletta, the entire staff I corresponded with was extremely helpful in every step of my planning: from the choice of a private tour guide to the late night transportation from the airport. There is normally nobody at the front desk at night (though you can easily reach them by phone), but Ekaterina was waiting for us at 11 PM, even though her work day was over hours ago. She did not leave until she made sure that we settled in our room comfortably. All of the staff members, Ekaterina (Katya), Maya, Jitka, and others, were incredible. They made us feel that we were staying with good and attentive friends. And presiding over her tiny kingdom was Ms. Cecilia Sultana, the owner’s mother. Always kind, smiling, and humorous, she would make our dinner reservations and discuss how our day was.
Our room was spacious and well-designed, adorned with a typical covered Maltese balcony. The balcony doubled as a small patio that had a table with an espresso machine, where I had my expresso every morning. The hotel’s unique feature is its rooftop terrace from which one can enjoy the biggest star of Malta: the Great Harbor itself. There we had our made-to-order wonderful breakfast; and from 5 to 7 PM, the hotel offered its guests “aperitivo”– wine, prosecco, or even gin-and-tonic with freshly-made appetizers prepared by the staff. The appetizers were diffirent every day. In addition, Ursulino Valletta also poses as a contemporary art gallery with a tasteful collection of Maltese artists (“Our tribute to the country we call home,” said Cecilia) and several large paintings by a talented UK artist J. Roldan, a friend of the Sultana family, who created for them a series called “Political Monsters.”
When making Malta your “must go” destination, make sure you book into Ursulino Valletta!
My husband Alex and I have been globe-trotting for over four decades, visiting close to 70 countries, feeling at home in most of them. When in Europe, we very seldom hire private guides, but we did so in Malta. As an art and travel writer, focusing on history and Jewish history, I had an extensive “must see” plan or rather a research “curriculum” I intended to follow in that tiny country, which is arguably one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
But we had only four days. And we had no intention of hiring a car and driving the British style there. Our lovely hotel in Valletta connected us with Clive Cortis, the founder and owner of the Malta Private Guide company.
We corresponded for a few months, and Clive made sure that all my detailed requests were met. Highly professional, sensitive to his client’s needs and wants, and experienced in dealing with and guiding journalists and writers, Clive also, as we discovered, possessed an extensive knowledge of his country’s history. As an insider of the Heritage Malta organization, Clive has unique understanding of where/what/how/who in the Maltese world of museums, collections, and archives. He made sure that in meeting my research objectives, we met with the Chief Curators at the Grandmaster Palace and Archeological Museum. Thanks to Clive, we also visited an ancient Jewish cemetery normally not open to the public and met with the Chief Archivist and his Executive Assistant at the Mdina Cathedral to study several 15thcentury documents related to the Jewish history of the island.
Clive organized a car and a driver for all three days, and connected us with the most wonderful guide Joanne Grech. Both Clive and Joanne have opened the doors to us, which was very important for our deep understanding and life-long appreciation of the magic place called Malta.
For an experience of a life-time, put Malta on the top of your “to see” list and be sure to contact Clive to organize your visit and ask for Joanne Grech to be your guide!