Friday, February 19, 2010

Malta's Magic


There is nothing quite as inspiring to the imagination as a great marina; boats lined along arcing shores, filled with the promise of exploration and intrigue. Nantucket’s marinas embody its shores like a skyline defines a great city. The marina of Naples is immortalized in countless heart-wrenching songs. Coastlines on the Mediterranean are dotted with rustic medieval villages and busy thoroughfares sprouted from great marinas. Trade, prosperity, cultural exchange, and indeed, progress itself are the natural fulfillment of thriving marinas. But nowhere in the world is the marina raised to the level of art form as in Malta. Set on gracious walkways with room to sit and linger over sweeping views to the sea beyond, Malta’s marinas grace every town and are the center of cultural activity, with bustling marketplaces, hot restaurant scenes, and almost daily local festivals.

The characteristic boats of Malta decorate its shores with astonishing colors, like gemstones gleaming on a brilliant crown. Said to date back to the time of the Phoenicians, these simple fishing boats are as beautiful as they are functional, with elegantly curved bodies ending in the accentuated points of bows that cut through the sea with the utmost grace and efficiency. These boats do not bore the seascape with the washed-out, unimaginative colors of simple whites or battered grays; but rather challenge the very blue of the Mediterranean with an array of hues from turquoise to cobalt, and highlights in sunny yellows, cheerful oranges, or taunting reds. Unchanged for centuries, possibly even millennia, each fishing boat still marks its bow with a small but noticeable pair of stylized eyes, wide and colorful, and offset by harshly dark outlines, they stare out from the front of the boat, lifelike, guiding the way on its passage. Legend holds that these are representations of the mythical eyes of Isis, believed to protect the boats from harm; a testament to Malta’s ever-enduring connection to the Sea.

My husband and I went to Malta, for the same reason that Everest was climbed, because it was there; and so we took a side trip from our visit to Sicily to spend some time exploring this new place. Although many Europeans, especially the British, have flocked to Malta for its island appeal of fine beaches, resorts and nightlife; my husband and I actually delved into its unique and fascinating history. Known for its association with the Templar knights, I half expected to find myself in a Dan Brown novel searching for the one true grail; so I was a bit surprised to find that the Templars didn’t arrive in Malta until the 16th century. Instead of the medieval hamlets with heavily carved stonework and looming gothic figures that I had envisioned, I was met with charming baroque cities, all uniform in a delicate sand color, with intricate decorations around balconied windows and ornate doorways.

In a culture dominated by the historic protectors of the church, of course there are churches -- many churches -- dripping with evidence of legendary riches. Dramatic in their abundance and overwhelming in their opulence, each church is crammed full with towering altar pieces in sterling silver and heavy drapery in red and gold silks and velvets. Most striking of all, surrounding each imposing structure are myriad statues of church figures, depicted in colorful robes and adorned with crowns and staffs of gold, with unexpected and slightly disturbing painted faces gazing out in stern judgment or divine ecstasy. Most churches are situated right along the shore, blessing Malta’s union with the sea, but even those churches that are further away, soar to heights that allow all to view them from any vantage point, basking in their protection and in the confidence that God is never far from the seafaring.

And with a culture so driven by its ties to the church, there are festivals -- one for practically every day of the week, -- when these already ornate churches are hyper-decorated with finery and silver; the streets overflowing and the marinas alive with vivid decorations, sweet local delicacies, and merry traditional music. Locals fill the streets, and the celebrations last well into the night, long after the church procession has ended and the last of the fireworks has reflected in the sea.

We also found a culture that stretched way back to pre-history, not surprising for a land forever at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with sites so old, they make Stonehenge look like a newcomer to the ancient scene. These sites are better preserved than any other sites of their age, with ancient carvings and statuettes that look surprisingly post-modern in their stylized simplicity. The most dramatic of these stand against the sea, another reminder of Malta’s close and never-ending relationship with the Mediterranean.

Wherever we went, whatever town we visited or site we toured, we came back each time to the marina. Each town has one, and each one is absolutely breathtaking in its delicate embrace with the sea. There are upscale marinas that cater to wealthy yachters looking for a playground; there are rustic marinas overflowing with those distinct fishing boats and markets showcasing the day’s freshest catch; there are trendy marinas with fashionable caf├ęs or restaurants taking advantage of the dazzling sunsets; and there are quiet, more remote marinas with enchanting views and a few benches to sit and linger.

Even our hotel offered views of either the sea or the marina. The sea view was unavailable to us our first night, so we were actually considering changing rooms the second night; until we sat on our balcony over the marina with a bottle of wine and watched the lights change on the water as the boats gently lapped against their restraints, aching to venture out again into that welcoming and mysterious sea. We decided that nothing could compare to that view, and so we kept that room for the rest of our stay.

In Malta, there are marinas everywhere -- because the country is made up of islands; because every small town there has faced the sea throughout history; because the culture and survival of the Maltese has always depended on it; and because it is the only way to truly honor their long and enduring bond with the sea. To understand this, is to understand Malta.

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Malta is not an easy destination to get to, as there are no direct flights from the U.S. It is sometimes included on cruise itineraries; but the best way to get there is to add it to another destination in Europe. There are direct flights from Milan, Sicily, France, London and other points in Europe. If you’d like more information on Malta, just post a question or comment.

For more quick info on Malta and its sites, stay tuned for more blogs in the next few weeks…

Have you been inspired by a marina? Where is your favorite and how did it affect you?

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