Modern Malta: Old and New Collide on This Island Nation

Angling for its turn on the world stage, this tiny island nation is embracing a reboot while holding fast to a formidable heritage.

We’re in Malta’s ancient fortified town of Mdina, on Pjazza Mesquita, 30 or so English-speaking tourists wearing an inordinate number of Game of Thrones T-shirts for our show-themed tour. Before us hang the balconies where scheming Lord Baelish displayed his prostitutes and Ned Stark, Lord Paramount of the North, is horrified to find his wife. Everything around us—walls, paving stones—is golden-hued limestone, interrupted only by green shutters and black iron curving over windows.

Malcolm Ellul, a 41-year-old Maltese businessman and actor, points to a very un-Westeros mailbox.

“That’s practically the only thing they had to change,” he says, “they” referring to the film crew for the hit TV series. “Otherwise, you see? Malta doesn’t need anything done to it.”

This isn’t the sentiment I had hoped to hear. On my first trip to Malta, several years ago, I’d been struck by how out-of-date the place seemed, not just old but old-fashioned. Its history as home to the Order of the Knights of Malta and subsequent British protectorate, so well-preserved, is fascinating. But there was something about this Mediterranean island nation perched between Sicily and North Africa that seemed stuck, its food and arts scenes undeveloped, its fashions several years behind, its tourism aimed largely at northern Europeans hell-bent on sunburns and hangovers. Even Malta’s politics seemed retrograde: Divorce was illegal until 2011.

But in the intervening years I had heard rumors of change. The European Commission chose Malta’s capital, Valletta, as one of two Capitals of Culture for 2018. Malta’s government finally legalized divorce. New boutique hotels were opening, major cultural initiatives were being launched, and yes, Game of Thrones began filming here. Together, these changes had me wondering: After all this time being known primarily for sunshine and the Knights of Malta, was this island nation finally entering the modern world?

I arrive in Valletta as the sun is setting and head straight out to retrace a walk I made on my last visit inside the city’s fortified walls. Narrow streets are lined with baroque buildings, all ornate porticoes and wrought-iron balconies. Various doorways bear a plaque commemorating some long-ago event or person. Vintage hand-painted signs mark shops—Paul’s Store, Smiling Prince Bar—long departed. When I reach the Grand Harbour, the cobalt expanse of the Mediterranean Sea gives way to an astonishing panorama of tightly packed houses, church domes, and fortresses. It looks either medieval or Meereen (a Game of Thrones city)—I’m not sure which.

Even for the Old Continent, Malta is unusually dense with history. A republic centered on three inhabited islands at a key crossroads location in the Mediterranean, it has been a strategic prize about as long as there has been strategy. Archaeological remains place its original inhabitants in the Neolithic era; a progression of Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs subsequently populated it. The island really came into its own in the 16th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted it to the Order of the Knights of Saint John with the hope that the knights would help protect Rome. Several sieges and 150 years of British colonialism later you have a place that bears hallmarks—an Arabic-inflected language, a fondness for fish-and-chips—of the many cultures that have passed through it.

I learn this at the Malta Experience, an “audiovisual spectacular” that recounts the invasions (Roman, Arab, Napoleonic) and repulsions (Ottoman, Fascist, Nazi) that make up the better part of the country’s history; and at Malta 5D, a shorter film that compensates what it lacks in historical detail with lurching seats and wafts of Maltese bread scents piped into the auditorium as a bakery appears onscreen (motion and smell being, apparently, the fourth and fifth dimensions).

“There is a claustrophobia that is born of being so small, so packed in, and so old,” says Kenneth Scicluna, a veteran Maltese filmmaker whose work is deeply informed by his homeland. A sign outside the cafe where we meet up advertises craft beers, but instead of bearded bartenders pouring hoppy brews at a dark-wood bar to an adult clientele, all I see are rambunctious children and chintz pillows.

“I always have this sense of being watched,” Scicluna adds. “And not only by other people, but by the place itself. It’s so old. It knows things.”

I love the image of a place that watches over its inhabitants, but for Scicluna, so much history can impede cultural progress.

“We’re a country that wants so desperately to be modern but doesn’t always know how. There’s always the weight of the past getting in the way.”

<p>Locals wait for the band to march past the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the town of Zurrieq in Malta.</p>

Locals wait for the band to march past the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the town of Zurrieq in Malta.

Photograph by Alex Webb

What would it take to lessen that weight in this island nation? I think back to my first visit to Bilbao, Spain, in the 1990s, when the Guggenheim Museum was just going up. Few could imagine that architect Frank Gehry’s undulating titanium walls and Richard Serra’s curving sculptures would transform a city that had been defined by its industrial history. Yet many now consider the Basque metropolis a cultural hub, with exciting restaurants, a lively market, and a number of new construction projects, all jump-started by a museum that draws more than a million arts-minded visitors a year. So significant has the impact been that the city inspired a phenomenon: the Bilbao Effect, when a place remakes itself by attracting a world-class cultural institution, preferably designed by a high-powered architect.

Valletta recently got its own piece of starchitecture when powerhouse architect Renzo Piano reimagined the 16th-century city gate as a dramatic, clean-lined breach in the old walls. He flanked it with twin staircases that rise like austere wings, and designed a new Parliament building just inside, fronted with a perforated facade that some critics have compared to a cheese grater but that strikes me as both monumental and elegant.

I’m marveling at the coherence of Piano’s complex when I spy a young man eating a sandwich nearby. Ramon Vella is no fan of the new construction.

“I know the experts say it’s art,” he says, “but it doesn’t fit the culture of the city.”

He’s not alone in feeling that way; the Maltese president who initiated the project lost an election in part because of it.

Piano anticipated some resistance. In an interview with the local Times of Malta newspaper he noted, “I like the idea of joining past and future, history and modernity. We don’t want a monumental Parliament; that’s not the spirit. It’s more about welcoming people, about having spaces that are accessible.”

“I wouldn’t call it conservatism per se,” says Toni Attard, director of strategy for Arts Council Malta. “But there is a strong bias in favor of heritage and tradition here. People will get more outraged over a bastion that comes crumbling down than over an artist packing his bags and leaving.”

So what would change that mindset? Injecting more diverse ideas and voices into the country’s insular culture would help. The Arts Council, says Attard, is trying both, increasing public funding for the arts from 100,000 euros to 1.6 million and training artists internationally so they return home to invigorate the local cultural scene.

“This may not be the most artistically refined cultural scene yet,” says Attard. “But it’s changing. There’s been quite a buzz building in the past few years.”

Contributing to that buzz is Valletta’s selection as a 2018 European Capital of Culture. For a tiny country like Malta, this designation represents a chance to show the world what it’s up to now.

“I think the selection panel was struck by the novelty we represent,” says Karsten Xuereb, executive director for the Valletta 2018 Foundation. “Malta is known for its heritage and history, but they were curious to see how we would spin it in a contemporary sense. Because you know what? The past is past. This gives us a chance to articulate what it means to us today to be Maltese.”

Among other things, Xuereb told me, it will bring fresh cultural programming, a new contemporary-art museum in what centuries ago was lodging for Italian knights, and a design center fashioned from an old slaughterhouse. Valletta 2018 also has inspired a reworking of the old covered market into a modern food hall that will combine produce stalls and trendy places to eat. I can hear hammers and drills busy at work as I walk past it on Merchant Street.

All this change prompts me to look for more in Gozo. Malta’s second largest island is not as densely populated as Malta proper and has a higher percentage of land devoted to agriculture, conferring a notably rural feel. Not surprisingly, the past remains decidedly present. In fact, my first stop takes me as far in the past as I can go.

The Neolithic temples at Ggantija date back more than 5,500 years, making them older than Egypt’s pyramids. Many temple altars still stand, perhaps once decorated with the rotund figurines I’d seen at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. Pausing before one temple altar under the baking sun, I feel a chill run through me—all the millennia, all the ancient people who once stood, awed, in this very same spot.

<p>Tourists take short trips through the Blue Lagoon and famous Azure Window, a massive arch carved from limestone by centuries of wind and water.</p>

Tourists take short trips through the Blue Lagoon and famous Azure Window, a massive arch carved from limestone by centuries of wind and water.

Photograph by Alex Webb

In its own way Gozo is looking to the future. Instead of the nightclubs and bustling beaches that draw so many vacationers to resort areas on the larger island, Gozo is developing ecotourism and other forms of experiential travel. Chief among these is diving; the British magazine Diver recently named Gozo the world’s second best diving destination (after the Red Sea), thanks to crystalline waters and many underwater caves and tunnels.

Yet even here, says David Hayler-Montague, a Brit who moved to Gozo six years ago and opened Bubbles Dive Centre, the appeal is the past. “What I love about this place is how it seems like it could be 30 years ago. Things aren’t built up as they are on the other island, and people here are so laid back, decent, and honest. The days just happen.”

Though I’m not a diver, Hayler-Montague invites me to accompany a group he is escorting to the Blue Hole, Gozo’s top dive site. We drive to a large parking lot bordered on one side by the sea and on the other by a sere, barren landscape. Scrambling down rocks to water’s edge, we find a pool that marks the entrance to the Blue Hole. We also find the “Azure Window,” a massive arch carved from the variegated limestone by centuries of wind and water.

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The divers sink slowly beneath the surface (later one will tell me it’s the best dive he’s ever done, all grottoes and translucent water), but I’m transfixed by views of waves and sky framed by that rock formation. Around me, kids jump into the turquoise sea. It is the most beautiful swimming hole I’ve ever seen.

And also, it turns out, the most famous. Two days later I’m back on the main island, Malta, in its ancient capital, Mdina, listening to Malcolm Ellul point out sites where Game of Thrones had filmed during its first season. When a girl in a polka dot dress asks why the show hadn’t returned to film in Malta after its first season, Ellul looks momentarily pained. Apparently, he explains, the scene in which Princess Daenerys marries the warlord Khal Drogo was shot in front of the Azure Window. To make it look like a Dothraki desert, the producers laid down tons of sand, which damaged an environmentally sensitive area and provoked fines against the local production company. Yet Ellul thinks there will be other opportunities. After all, Assassin’s Creed, the movie based on the insanely popular video game and opening December 2016, was filmed partly in Valletta.

On my final night I return to Valletta. Renzo Piano, in addition to rebuilding the city gate and the Parliament building, recast the once ornate Royal Opera House, which was largely destroyed in World War II by German bombs. Piano’s design kept the structure roofless, a choice that, dismayingly to some Maltese, makes it appear unfinished—but leaves it open to the oranges of a dawn sky and the pinks and purples of dusk. (Piano said he wanted to create “a place of virtual sound and virtual setting, including all the possible techniques that are absolutely new … a way to push Malta into the future.”)

I stand outside this reinvention as strains from Tchaikovsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairy” fill the night. And I think, I haven’t found the degree of innovation I came looking for. There are no daring art galleries or hip neighborhoods, at least not equivalent to those in Brooklyn, Berlin, or London. No café spends 15 minutes on a proper pour of coffee, or does truly new things with food (though I have had one very good meal at Capistrano, a restaurant in Valletta). My most memorable moments connected with Malta’s past, not its future—especially a nighttime walk in Victoria, the largest city on Gozo, where, from the medieval citadel I took in a 360-degree view of the entire island. In the near distance, every few miles, I could make out the glowing dome of a church; beyond, I spied the sea’s edge. It was a sublime moment that came, I thought, from an unmediated communion with history. Later I learned the citadel had undergone extensive renovation and reopened to the public only two days before my visit. What had so moved me was not the unadulterated past, but the past lightly reimagined for the present.

Then I remembered something Toni Attard had told me: that, in addition to trying to build new cultural institutions from the ground up, the Arts Council was investing in a reinvigoration of the old.

“The last purpose-built theater in Malta was built under British rule,” he’d said. “We could spend the next ten years waiting to build a new one or we could do what we did—maximize what is available.”

So Malta may not experience the Bilbao Effect. But perhaps I’d been wrong to think the creation of some brand new, clearly contemporary work as the only possible sign of modernization. The past and the future are not opposites, after all, but points along a continuum. Change doesn’t have to come only in the form of rupture. It can come gently, in small and slow reinventions of what has been.

Leaving the Azure Window in Gozo, I’d taken a taxi to my hotel. When the driver, Florian, asked what I thought of the formation, I’d exclaimed about its beauty. He said geologists had just tested it and found that the top of the arch was so worn, it could collapse in upcoming years. I’d expressed my dismay, and Florian had agreed it would be a shame.

“But you know what we Maltese are like,” he’d added. “We are used to making things from the past. So it’s not the Azure Window anymore? We’ll call it the Azure Door.”

Copenhagen-based journalist Lisa Abend writes often about Europe for such publications as Bon Appetit, the Atlantic, and the New York Times. Alex Webb’s photography has appeared in National Geographic and Geo magazines.

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