DISCLAIMER: This article was originally written for a major publication, after a friend recommended me for the prompt. Alas, the publication didn't like it. While the piece is a bit more "sales-y" than I like, it's still a great guide to visiting Malta with an all-ages family. As always, comment with your ideas below!
Few countries boast so delightful a mix of historical fascinations, modern adventures, and nearly-perfect weather as Malta. The cosmopolitan landscape offers delightful activities for every member of the family-- even those discerning young adults! Here’s why families with older children love visiting Malta...
While Malta was voted the second-best place for expats to live, expats and locals alike enjoy spending as much time next to the sea as possible! During summertime establishments like MedAsia and KuYa Asian Pub open beach lounges. For as little as €10 daily families can rent deck chairs, take dips in the pool and/or private beaches, and nibble globally-influenced food concoctions.
All are Welcome
It is common to see gay couples walking hand-in-hand in Malta. Malta is ranked #1 on the Europe Rainbow Index as an LGBT-friendly place. One website, Gay Guide Malta, details LGBTQ-friendly attractions. Certain bars and clubs, like Monaliza Lounge in Valletta and Michelangelo Club in Paceville cater specifically to gay clientele.
Certain classic Maltese food items are ubiquitous: pea Pastizzi; wood-fired pizza with olives, gbenja cheese; crisp Cisk beer. For more flavour, try Malta’s innovative dinning options. There are hip restaurants like PastaHaus, where home-made pasta is derived from unique ingredients. Legliglin offers a multi-course meal of traditional Maltese small plates with impeccable flavour from inside a quaint cellar. Even freaky Maltese foods, like rabbit and horsemeat, are exciting and accessible at fashionable restaurants like United Bar & Restaurant in Mgarr.
Focus on Fitness
Perhaps because people spend so much time in swimsuits, Malta is packed with gyms and fitness groups. Young people frequent trendy gyms like Fort Fitness. Yoga is a big industry; from Bikram-style HotYogaMalta to outdoor sessions with freelance instructors, there’s many classes choose from. Take an outdoor group fitness class to get a new perspective on Malta’s beach scene. Most classes and gyms offer affordable single class and day rates.
There are many creative ways for family to travel in and around the Maltese archipelago. Guided tours by segway, jeeps, boats, and on-foot are easy to find. Self-guided alternative transportation, like moped and mountain bike rentals, are also available. Traditional Maltese ferries run between Valletta and the Three Cities. You adults feeling particularly adventurous might try a StandUp Paddle Board for their island tour!
The European Environment Agency recognises Malta as having some of the best bathing water in Europe. Visitors are encouraged to take a deeper dive into Malta’s fascinating underwater sights: sunken WWII ships and freighters are just meters off-shore. While younger swimmers hone their snorkeling techniques, young adults might consider earning PADI training course with local scuba schools like DiveShack.
Educational OpportunitiesEven teens will appreciate the fascinating lessons in Malta’s recent history. Well-preserved citadels in Mdina and on the Maltese island, Gozo, offer history-rich tours. The architecture alone at the Esplora Science Centre is an intriguing blend of historical Maltese elements and contemporary design. Climbing into the Lascaris War Rooms is like walking back in time, complete with archival footage of Malta under siege.
Just DanceAt the end of the day, Malta is a great place for all-ages to party. In Paceville music-filled bars and eateries open until the wee morning hours. For a relaxed night, seek out reggae-inspired music venues like Funky Monkey in Gzira and Zion in Marsaskala. Or, dress-to-impress at high-rise Suite 22 and high-energy events by The Electronic Factory. But if a casual family night out is on the agenda, enjoy a drink and live music at one of the restaurants on the St. Julian’s/ Sliema promenade.
I run to the grocery store on my way home at 8:30PM. The shop is my “local,” within walking distance of my house. I pop by at least once a day. Alan is the owner. His wife works behind the deli counter. His sulky pre-teen sulks in sometimes. Once, his mom and I conned him into sharing a bite of his figolla during Easter. Much to his chagrin, I have never let the poor kid forget it. “Hey, gimme’ a bite of your figolla!” I chide every time I see him.
Once outside, I hastily park Hamallu, my steadfast scooter. Without bothering to remove my helmet, I brush past three men outside the netting-covered storefront. They are workers, their clothes splattered with white goop and their fingers stained black. They rub their hands in that way old men rub their callouses, petting their own hides. One man sits on a short ledge. Next to him are piled empty cans of Cisk Excel. The other two men stand next to him with Cisks in their hands.
This site, blue-collar men drinking at grocers after a long day, is common in Malta. It reminds me of my BASEDtraveler Plymouth days, when I watched British men stand outside bars, drinks in-hand. Maybe the Maltese penchant has something to do with British influence on the island. It’s true that there are not many bars in the area (unless you count the black-market brothel that fronts as a bar). However, I do not think the men would go to a bar even if it were there. They enjoy being curbside, paying quickly and sitting as long as they like. Perched, hands unwashed, watching the world pass by. Their colleagues ask nothing more than to banter and pass enough time for their muscles to cool. This scene repeats itself in every country: working men drinks in hand, sitting outside some no-frills establishment. Cooling down with the setting sun.
Under green netting outside the front entry, I grab a bag of crispy apples smaller than the size of my fist. According to 2010 census data, 66% of Maltese agricultural landholdings earned less than 2,000 Euros annually. Therefore, Malta ships in almost all of its fruit and veg. Sometimes the produce bears signs of defrosting. As I check the bag thoroughly for the telltale mooshy apple, the men peer at me. From inside the shop I hear raucous yelling.
That man is accosting poor Alan again, I think. Walking inside, I see the loudmouth I expected: an older Maltese fellow with a paunchy belly, salt-n-pepper hair, a sweatshirt bearing a few random words, holding a Styrofoam cup full of red wine. The nearly empty bottle next to the pastizzi hot tray. He was here sometimes late at night. Like usual, Alan tries to ignore him. Although I consider him a friend, Alan is typically Maltese in that he is not exactly the warmest character. With clean-cut hair, a hulking body, and curt words, Alan seems Mafioso. He is the one that told me about an underground gym in a garage behind the shop. He and I go to train on some Tuesday evenings after he closes. On those nights, Alan and I barely speak to each other, but we train hard for 40 minutes. The first night, courteous Alan paid for my class and tipped the instructor.
This evening the man is particularly raucous. He is loudly shouting says the same words repeatedly: “I run!”
I set my apples on the counter, glancing around. The shop packed to its miniscule hilt. It is so small that two people cannot comfortably move down one of the two aisles. The meticulously cleaned and organized space is evident despite its darkness. Buried under granola bars, the shop even has a machine for mobile top-ups, like an ATM for cell phone data. It is tempting to buy something worthless, like 30-cent yogurt or pack of roasted broad beans, but am overwhelmed by the detritus in the shop.
“That’s all, I guess,” I say to Alan, who barely nods in acknowledgement of my presence. While he sits unmoving behind the counter, his red-haired evening assistant patters nearby, organizing and cleaning. Alan weighs three times my size; she weighs 1/3 less and is much taller. We are an odd bunch at the counter: the loud drinking man; the red-haired assistant; Alan; and myself, wearing a scooter helmet and yoga clothes.
“I run!” the man repeats.
When no one replies, the man looks at me. He moves his hand lightly back and forth in front of his chest, palm up, and turns down his lips at the side. It is a gesture that Maltese people use to signify something like a sigh. The person thinks, “Oh, you know, what can we do?”
“Thirty years ago, I run!” as he says so, he starts laughing madly.
“You know how you have a ‘Hamallu’ scooter?” says Alan. “Well, I have a hamallu Uncle!”
Hamallu is a Maltese term for a person of lesser class. While it originally referenced people from “the wrong side of the tracks”—in this case, the wrong side of the island (the South), today the term references most any trashy Maltese people. Hamallu wear name brand outfits that match from head-to-toe; gold bling; have wide bellies and skinny legs; don cigarettes, sunglasses, high heels, and stiff collars. I named my scooter Hamallu because he is ghetto. He shakes a lot; has a few loose screws. He is also covered in bright stickers. One is a skeleton hand showing a downward-facing middle finger sign. This sign does not mean the same thing in Malta as it does in the States. I presume this is the reason why my sticker faces the wrong way.
Alan is totally fed up with his uncle. “I run, I run!” Uncle shouts. Over him, “2.80,” says Alan. I pour my change onto the counter, taking the opportunity to rid my bag of ubiquitous Maltese small change. With one cent, two cent, five cent, ten cent, 50 cent, 1 Euro, 2 Euro coins, my change purse is always heavy.
“I run!” states Uncle, with a red smile.
“You run, you run, we know you run!” Alan shouts back, throwing his arms up in disgust. I have to laugh: here are two generations of overweight Maltese men in the middle of a grocery store arguing about running at 8:30PM. If this guy were not Alan’s Uncle, he would be out on the corner with the workers.
As I count my change, Uncle refreshes his Styrofoam glass. When is see that the bottle is a higher-quality red, I say to Alan, “I like your Uncle! He drinks good wine!” Uncle turns to me.
“Do you know why I drink red wine?” he asks.
“Why?” I reply, genuinely curious.
“Because I try to be like Jesus!”
The workers move to the side as I exit the grocery store, helmet still on, my American-accented laughter pinging off the green netting. I am still chuckling as I strap my bag-o-apples onto Hamallu’s backseat. From inside the shop, I hear Alan yelling, “You run! You run! I know you run!”
Overview: Recognized by Maltese people as one of the most legitimately Italian places on the island, Scoglitti is one of the rare restaurants as packed in winter months as summer. That’s because Maltese people visit here to celebrate in a place where they will receive the type of fine dining experience normally reserved for tourists. Scoglitti was full of Maltese people when my friend and I blundered in late one weeknight, two lost, starved, and buzzed foreigners.
Atmosphere: Tables sit under a wide roof lined with glass frosted by light blue inscriptions. Bright lights shine under heaters and then bounce off metal and glass chairs, tables, and ice buckets. Even in the middle of Maltese “winter” (if it can be called “winter”) the restaurant feels sunny. The Maltese emit a special series of noises when they’re together, consonants intermingled with rolling chuckles. I felt like a happy seal laying on a beach, being fed fish.
Service: I’m not sure what was more delightful: the suave service I received from maybe five different people throughout my evening or the stellar food. Socglitti’s service matches the food perfectly. Smart, efficient, and demurely superb. NOTE: Much of the staff only speaks Italian, so you may need to request an English speaking staff or use charades (which is perfectly acceptable).
Prices: Despite the story below, Scoglitti’s prices are shockingly affordable! Like all Maltese establishments the food comes in huge portions. A couple can easily split a starter, a main, and a bottle of wine and walk out only €20 shorter. Considering how much fun eating at Scoglitti is, it’s great value for money.
Location and Contact: Access Scoglitti by walking down the long ramp toward Sliema/ Valletta ferry port and the Sliema. It’s located directly on the Sliema port’s Valletta entrance. Use the online reservation system to find details and book.
The Story: One blustery weeknight, my friend and I decided to meet in Valletta for drinks at Café Society. A very fast two hours later, we giggled gingerly back into the uneven streets of Valletta in search of sustenance. We were carrying backpacks, wearing jeans, and smiling in the foolish way slightly buzzed people do. What was supposed to be a quick jaunt to a mid-range restaurant for which I had a coupon turned into a 30-minute dilly-dally to an empty, checker-tabled dive that told us, “the kitchen closed at 7PM.” Which is ridiculous considering most kitchens OPEN at 7PM in Malta.
Wondering which one of us might cannibalize the other first, the blue Scoglitti sign beckoned us like the North Star calls a shepherd. “It’s probably too expensive,” I muttered. “Let’s treat ourselves!” she said. “Good idea!” the beer taking over my nervous system replied.
I wonder about the scene my friend and I must have made throughout the course of our dinner. Windswept, we started by “ooing” and “aaaing” over the fish lining the front entry. Then we stared at the other customers with our mouths open, realizing how terribly underdressed we were. The compassionate hostess approached us, smiling, as if we were wearing the same glitter and heels of other guests. If there’s one thing I appreciate about Scoglitti, it’s the fact that every one of our servers treated us like a deserved guest, ignoring completely the fact that we ordered the cheapest wine, devoured the free bread, split two appetizers (also the cheapest) and an entrée, and then struggled to pay the check with a denied credit card. As the meal progressed my friend and I grew more animated. We drove through our appetizers like a bulldozer, savouring every bite the way a lion savors a gazelle (not slowly, but with appreciation). I was completely awed by the flavors, the efficiency, the service, thanking the waitstaff as only an American will—repetitively. My brilliant friend spoke fluent Italian, so the staff had every right to ignore my incomprehensible purring. But the staff started giggling right along with us, seeming to enjoy my amazed satisfaction as much as I did. As the wine disappeared I started asking staff to pull up a seat and have a drink with me. I don’t know why Italian made me act like a drunk British bloke. Apparently, swordfish and white wine make me ballsy.
Walking out of Scoglitti around 10:30PM in our interpretation of a straight line, my friend and I marvelled about our luck. I promised to pay her the €15 I owed her (plus tip), since my credit card had been denied at the table. Embarrassing, yes. And still, as I ignored nausea and men on my bus ride home, I couldn’t help but chuckling about how very “Pretty Woman” the whole evening was…
I am hungry. I’d come to Valletta for the umpteenth unpaid appointment with the EU Council’s event planning committee. First, I’d spent 20 minutes lost in the multi-part office building’s internal courtyards that resembled the board game, Chutes & Ladders. Then, I’d then spent an hour politely listening to the same thing I’d read in multiple emails. Finally, I leave the meeting cursing bureaucracy, tummy grumbling. I’ll feel better if I grab a snack on my way to the Sliema ferry.
Despite the fact that small-scale grocers squat in every Maltese neighborhood, I search fruit-lessly for a fruit-seller along the antiquated limestone streets of Valletta. Peering around corners like an actor to be caned offstage, I finally notice green plastic vegetable containers in front of a small store. Ducking below the low-hanging sign, my eyes slowly register the staff inside the dusty space. It doesn’t help that two of three staff are kneeling down, searching for something below the cash counter. I assume they are a grandmother and her grandchildren. I assume by their volume and pitch that they are yelling at each other. I assume, by their completed disregard for me, that they don’t much care about serving customers.
As I watch, the grandmother yells something like, “Well, kid, have you found it?” The little boy looks guilty. The little girl slaps the back of his head, saying something like, “There you go again, losing Grandma’s stuff!” He snaps something back, they crawl around a moment longer, and then with a loud huff give up on finding what had been lost. At which point they turn to look at me, standing nervously, subconsciously pushing my ankles together.
“Um, do you have almonds?” I ask meekly.
“U ejja*,” she replies, which in Maltese means something like, “Yah, whatever.” Her bent finger points to a pack of Rokky Nuts, the same brand I buy elsewhere for something like €1.80. Placing them on the counter, I ask, “How much?”
Grandma looks at me. She looks at the almonds. She croaks, “€2.20.” The youngster’s dark eyes pierce mine. They dare me to disagree. Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
Rounding the next corner, I notice a new uber-hip vegan café. The kind of place that charges €3.20 for a cappuccino made out of milk derived from something without udders. Since I’ve already broken the bank on foreigner-priced almonds, I might as well buy a luxury beverage.
“Can I please get a cappuccino?” I ask the barista over a tray of dark-chocolate gluten-free truffles that cost more than my overpriced almonds. “Is almond milk okay?” she asks. Proudly displaying my Rokky treat, I inquire as to alternative. “That’s all we have here,” she replies. U ejja¸I think. A few moments later she hands me a cappuccino the size of a glass of port. “€3,” she smiles. Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
Jauntily, I guzzle my first swig of the cappuccino. Promptly, I begin to choke. It tastes like someone stuck a burnt twig down my throat. My tongue shrivels. It is the worst cappuccino I’ve ever drank. I am sure that the milk was burned, or something. Despite myself, I howl with laughter, the shrill sound of surprise bouncing off the porticos above. I slam the cappuccino like a shot of tequila.
Taking my last turn toward the ferry port, I notice a pile of wooden detritus outside a small doorway. I remembered someone telling me that a man baked delectable Maltese bread in a wood-fired oven in Valletta. Because firewood is hard to find on this desert island, hungry locals kept him stocked by dropping their useful rubbish outside the door. Although there is no demarcation on the open doorway, I surmise with delight that this must be the infamous baker. Alas, I had found it—the perfect snack in Valletta!
As soon as I place my big toe on the first step into the basement bakery, a man charges back up the stairs toward me. Moving aside for him to pass, I question, “Do they sell bread here?”
“Obviously,” is his cross reply, brushing past me like a football player in the end zone.
Despite it’s underground space, the entire store is tinged white. I realize it’s because it’s covered in a thin powder, like a bag of flour had burst in front of a fan. There is an internal window facing a backroom, where I see an industrial-size drying rack stacked with Maltese bread. While I am surrounded by packaged grocery items on shelves, there’s no bread. I move toward another doorway to my right, toward excited Maltese voices. Entering the next room, I come upon a Maltese family yelling at each other (as interpreted by my fragile American ears).
I stand in shock at the center of a domestic scene: children and an older lady sit on the ground; other ladies sit on a couch behind them. They seem to be talking—loudly—about something mundane, like the weather or the electric bill. My stepping into the scene immediately silences them, their heads snapping in my direction.
A little girl in a pink tracksuit was the first to break the silence. She is as tall as my belly button. “There!” she barks, prodding me backwards into the room full of groceries.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” I exclaim. “I thought you sold bread here!”
“Bread?” she asks.
“Yes?” I reply.
“What you want?”
The look on her face explains that I am very stupid. I understand this is true, but haven’t the faintest idea how to be smarter. Sighing, the girl humours me. Walking back into the family room, she shouts something in Maltese to the family. A young boy jumps up. The little girls’ curly brown hair disappears and re-appears behind the window to the bread room. The little boy flips the switch of a huge stainless steel machine on a wall inside the family’s room. It grinds loudly to life (the women’s clucking raises in reply). The little girl returns to the family room with a large loaf of white bread in her hand. She stands on tiptoe, lifting the bread high over the machine in one hand, in a graceful arabesque she’d evidently rehearsed before.
No! I think. This is my last chance to have a decent snack in Valletta! The only thing I want is a wholesome loaf of nutty brown bread, the kind that’s difficult to find unless you go straight to the source.
“Wait!” I shout in the split second it takes the girl to alight. The little boy switches off the machine, confused.
“What?!” The girl seems appalled.
“Um, well, it’s just, do you have brown bread?”
Silence. Then, the grandmother shouts a question in Maltese. Without looking away from me, the girl replies over her shoulder to the grandmother. Upon hearing her reply, the family room erupts in laughter. They goad the little girl on. She acquiesces, rolling her eyes. Again her curly ponytail bounces away, reappears in the bread room, disappears again, and then returns to the family room. She marches swiftly toward me, extending her hand.
Inside her petite palm is a micro-portioned single roll of bread the color of honey.
Now it was my turn to cackle. Involuntarily I throw my head backward as chuckles erupt from my throat. A grandmother pokes her head around the corner from to get the full image of this ridiculous situation, a huge smile painted across her face. The other women howl with laughter inside the family room.
“Okay, okay, okay!” I croak. “How much?”
“Twenty cents,” she replies.
“Here’s a euro,” I offer, pushing the metal coin into her palm.
Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
*U ejja is translated to something like, “Come on!” or, “Whatever!” or, “Yeah, right!”
Rejoice: If you follow this post exactly, you’ll have made one of the most burdensome aspects of moving to abroad more delightful. Here I recommend a route to purchasing a mobile phone and plan in Malta. And since it just so happens that my recommended purchase location is right next to a well-priced, popular beauty salon, you’ll have ample opportunity to treat yourself to a pampering celebration.
Beware: There’s a few pre-requisites to this post.
1) I do not herein explain how to get a new mobile phone. I explain how to purchase a used mobile phone. Why? Personally, I’m not interested enough in mobile technology, nor am I dexterous enough to brave the purchase of a fancy new gadget. Furthermore, modern techies drop their “outdated,” barely-used gadgets to used shops, allowing the rest of us to purchase their excellent gear at half the price while they chase the next iPhone. I haven’t bought a brand-new mobile phone in a decade, and I won’t start simply because I moved to Malta.
2) I recommend getting a pay-as-you-go plan with Melita. Why? I really loathe contracts, especially when I move home so frequently. And I really loathe trying to sift through all those GREAT PLANS and SIGNING DEALS and BUY NOW, PAY LATER in small print. I like Melita because it’s Maltese, it has free WiFi across the island, and it’s most helpful customer service employee works right next to the used mobile phone shop which is right next to the pedicure salon. Done.
3) In case you didn’t notice, I’m all about local and budget. Want to buy a shiny new phone and a loaded contract and wear plush white flip flops while sipping cucumber water and having your toes poked? Then you might be reading the wrong beauty blog. I recommend you get in touch with this sophisticated and sweet blogger, Elaine at Some of my Favorite Things instead.
Step 1: Get your Gadget
Mobile-Malta is a used mobile repair and sales shop in Park Tower Supermarket. It’s the newest offshoot of my favorite used laptop repair and sales shop, Laptop-Malta in Balluta Bay. Mobile-Malta is located at the top left of the northern escalators of Park Tower Supermarket. It’s the shopping mall between the St. Julian’s LOVE sign and Ballutta Bay. When you arrive, ask the nice Hungarian fellow for a mobile phone in your price range that meets your requirements. Be sure to explain that you want Melita as your provider—you’ll need to purchase an unlocked phone or a phone locked to Melita. Even if Mobile-Malta hasn’t got what you need then, they’ll likely be able to source it for you. Don’t worry about a warranty: these guys will continue to assist you with your phone or laptop long after the purchase was made. I frequently visit them for things like getting my SIM card stuck in my phone; dropping my laptop after falling asleep with it on my lap in bed; and other dumb accidents. If you need a small fix (like the SIM card), Mobile- and Laptop-Malta won’t ask for a cent.
Step 2: Get your Plan
I highly recommend purchasing Melita’s Pay-As-You Go plan, then getting an optional add-on for 600MB of data for 30 days. It works like this: Every month (or so) I purchase a €10 top-up card. After topping up, I text Melita at a certain number to request a data add-on (your Melita representative can provide you a paper with the add-on phone numbers). The add-on is €4.50 and lasts 30 days. Then, all Melita customers are able to register one of their gadgets for Melita’s free WiFi anywhere on the islands. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the WiFi’s reach, but you’ll have to be still in order to connect (no walking and Instagramming). With my combined data allowance and use of Melita’s WiFi, I use alternative programs like WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook to get in-touch via voice calls. Normal telephone calls come in for free. There’s a small fee to receive/ send text messages. My total monthly cost is around €10. I rarely use more than my 600MB, even when stream music for my fitness classes. It’s the best plan I’ve ever used, and it’s not even a plan.
Step 3: Celebrate with a Pedicure (even if you’re a boy, because Italian men do it all the time here)
Well, that was easy! If all goes well, you’ll have a functioning new phone within an hour. If you’re someone who moves regularly, you’ve probably allocated way more time for this normally painful process. Great! Take the opportunity to walk directly across the hallway from Mobile-Malta to Skye Chinese Massage & Beauty Salon. This salon was recommended to me by a Maltese lady because it’s one of the few massage parlors that doesn’t offer a “happy ending.” Lo and behold, a large sign on the door says “DO NOT ASK FOR A HAPPY ENDING, WE NEVER DO A HAPPY ENDING.” Maybe that’s why this salon is always busy. With at least three staff members working, these ladies know how to get people trimmed and toned. Their deluxe pedicure costs €23, which involves soaks and scrubs and polish. They’ll even take that cheese-shaver thing to remove callouses until your feet look like a newborn’s. The best part of the salon is its seaside view. Ask for a seat by the window to watch yachts, sailboats, and scantily-clad tourists meander by. The ladies are happy for you to sit awhile until your nails dry. Do so while marvelling at how lucky you are to have a new mobile phone, a new mobile phone plan, a new set of shiny toenails, and to call this turquoise vacationland “home.”
Like most neighborhoods in Europe’s Catholic countries, San Gwann is arranged with its church at the center. On Sundays the mostly Maltese population of San Gwann flocks to the Church and then dissipates to various family-centered activities. A most popular pre-and post-Church stop-off is Café Pinto, located just to the left of San Gwann Parish Church. It’s crowned by a red awning. Here’s your guide to a very Maltese Sunday in San Gwann.
Part 1: Churching
Mass is held at San Gwann Parish, locally named Madonna ta’ Lourdes, multiple times on Sunday morning, beginning at 7AM and ending in the early afternoon (or, if you’re super hungover, there’s a 6PM service, too). Attend an earlier service and you’ll see mostly older generations and singles; as the morning progresses you’ll witness more families. Get there at least 15 minutes early to secure a spot near the action up at front. The church’s thick white columns are pretty, but unless you speak Maltese you’ll become fairly bored by looking at those columns and listening to the gobbly-gook that is Maltese to the undiscerning ear. If you forgot your nun’s habit, don’t fret: most people are dressed “conservative casual.”
If you’ve never been to Mass before, simple follow along with the standing/ kneeling/ bowing/ praying procedures. It’s kind of like an aerobics class! Mass is 100% Maltese. I know my way around a Mass and could have recited the prayers out loud in English. But I didn’t feel comfortable enunciating a foreign language within the sea of mumbled Maltese, so I kept my head bowed and fingers clasped. Unlike the very organized Catholic masses I’ve attended in the States, whereby you are cordially asked to leave your pew by an usher in a quiet, humble procession at the appropriate time, the Maltese jumped from their seats in a free-for-all communion bid. If you’ve completed Catholic Confirmation, then you’re free to enjoy a piece of the Body of Christ at the front with the rest of the congregation. If you’re not Catholic but curious, respectful, and in need of a blessing, walk to the front with your arms crossed over your chest. Bow your head in front of the priest and he will thumb a small cross onto your forehead. While whine flows freely in the Bible, in Malta t seems that the only person who gets a sip of Jesus wine at church is the priest. The rest of us can only imagine…
Been bad? Confession is open between the 7AM and 8:30AM services. I suggest going to confession early. The confessional sits at the very front of the church pews, near the altar. I wonder if maybe this is another way to discourage one from leading a shameful life?
Part 2: Café Pinto
After you’ve worked up an appetite with all the kneeling and standing and bowing and walking to communion, move your way to Café Pinto next door. With tables outside and inside, you’ll likely find a place to sit, although I recommend not lolly-gagging after mass just in case. At Café Pinto you’ll most likely find the following patrons: men sitting in one’s and two’s, smoking cigarettes on the spindly tables outside; an elderly couple reading the Sunday [Malta] Times; someone British, looking at the ground; and a family of five or more, crammed onto tables hastily aligned. Servers will likely be a young girl, slightly flustered; a dark-haired woman who coos and caws like a loving crow; and the chef, watching TV when not taking orders from behind the counter. He’s cooked most of the hot and cold savoury items you see lining the display, like traditional pastizzi and croissants. By far the most popular items are on the menu are thin grilled sandwiches served with a single leaf of lettuce and one-half a cherry tomato. If you’re okay with waiting, order the vegan “mixed veggie” baguette. In about 10-15 minutes you’ll receive a fresh, slightly herbed, just-grilled vegetable delight. Drizzled with a little balsamic dressing and washed down with a cappuccino, it’s practically perfect.
Sit and be Maltese. Read the Times, stare out of the window, contemplate picking up a smoking habit, listen to the rising-and-falling, l-m-n-o packed Maltese chatter. Mella! Mella! [flip of the hand, chuckle, cluck]. Watch fruit sellers man trucks lined with green plastic bins; see a small sandy-haired woman carrying a bouquet larger than her head. In case you didn’t get enough God earlier, live Mass plays on the local TVM channel from a silent TV in the corner. Order a dessert of one of the home-made cookie or bread things (kwarezimal is my favorite) and sink into the scene like a clam in the sand.
Part 3: Lackadaisical Shopping
Café Pinto is not expensive, so burn that hole in your pocket by enjoying some lazy shopping on your way back toward St. Julian’s. Since most of the shops are actually closed Sunday, you won’t have that much opportunity to over-spend. What will be open is the hodge-podge thrift shop just a few doors down from the Church. In need of a bright pink nutcracker? What about vintage comic books? A mug? A picture of Elvis Presley? Then this is the store for you! If you’ve still got money after purchasing those treasures, explore the little grocery stores along Birkirara road. While they look nearly identical on the outside, each one of these grocery shops opens into its own unique world. Some double as bakeries; some specialize in cheeses; some sell organic products. Most are tied to the fruit sellers in stalls and trucks outside, gayly free of competition from San Gwann’s Lidl (closed on Sunday). Paws for a Cause charity shop is also open later in the morning, located down the street to your left just after the Bank of Valletta. As you walk back toward St. Julian’s, take a moment to pause outside Titu’s Place on the right. I’m not exactly sure what this shop is—a café? betting shop? “timeout” for naughty husbands? It’s always packed with men and never seems to be closed. The men are either speaking loudly at one another or sipping coffee and mumbling like they’re planning a dangerous heist. If you can figure out what Titu’s Place is, do comment below!
In a country where buses are notorious for arriving either ten minutes early or ten minutes late, there is one thing you can count on: Maltese bread, “ħobż malti” (“ħobż” for short). Do not take this resource for granted! The simple white rolls may dot every window and comprise every sandwich, but its history, edibility, and cautionary notes render ħobż unique amongst breads of the world.
Bake your Hobz…
According to Doris Frenech, author of “Maltese Bread” via Maltese Traditions, wheat was historically taken by farmer’s wives to a local windmill. After grinding the wheat, housewives spent hours kneading dough into a standard roll or a flattened donut-like circle. Adding flour, yeast, sea-salt, and water, women spent at least a day preparing the family’s weekly ration of ħobż. Since many families preferred not to build ovens in their sun-soaked homes, wives took their unbaked bread to communal ovens once weekly. The crunchy sourdough crust kept the inside of the ħobż super soft for one week.
…And Eat it, Too
Visit any Maltese café and you’ll find some version of ħobż, whether it skirts a bowl of rabbit stew or is sliced with butter and washed down by a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice. The best way is to order ħobż is in “ftira tal-ħemi,” referred to just as “ftira.” Classic ftira is made with a slightly sweeter bread called “hobz biz-zejt.” Today, nearly all ftira sandwiches are made with cheaper, crunchier ħobż. A standard ftira contains “kunserva” (an herbed tomato spread), local tuna, olives, capers, and oil in an open ħobż roll. As the island opens to foreign influences, many restaurants serve modern versions with gluten-free ħobż and vegetarian substitutions. Standard ftira sandwiches are sold in nearly every street vendor, café, and high-end lunch place in the city. They cost around €1.10. Add a Cisk lager for €1, sit in the sun, and enjoy one of the best low-budget dining experiences in Europe.
There are a few things to beware of when seeking ħobż malti. Do not be tempted to swipe the seemingly untouched rolls set outside house fronts during morning trash collection days. While the bagged ħobż perched on top of other black trash bags seems to be fresh, no upstanding Maltese citizen wastes good bread. After one week, ħobż goes bad. Then it smells like putrid eggs and is stiffer than a block of Maltese limestone. Less scary but equally upsetting, beware the proportion of ħobż-to-filler in ftira. An ftira with too much bread will result in a tired jaw and dry mouth. Moreover, one should never choose ftira while dining for business. The bread is dusted with flour that inevitably lands on the tip of your nose and top of your suit collar.
Like chips in England or tacos in Mexico, ħobż is that one Maltese food that you can depend on no matter your budget or the situation. Passed through centuries of rickety windmills and communal ovens, edited to fit more creative modern palates, anyone who takes care with their ħobż malti order will be a happy diner indeed.
In the two months since I’ve moved to Malta, I have conducted a great deal of my private and public business on the black market. “The black market” being a blanket statement for any alternative, untaxed economy, or discussions about doing alternative, untaxed things. Like payments between “friends,” in cash, with no signature required. I am not a pirate. I, like the majority of Maltese citizens, have simply found this to be the most accessible and efficient way to get things done. Contracts, receipts, validation, certification…I’d say that around 60% of daily Maltese transactions actually use a paper trail (that’s transactions of any size). I’m not sure who really gets taxed and how, but the considering that this minute country has the 15th highest GDP in Europe and only a 3.9% unemployment rate, I am also unsure of who’s concerned about it.
Not following rules in Malta is fun! It means you can drink a bottle of wine next to sea while sitting in your car, drive on the sidewalk when the bus is in your way, and get inordinate discounts on purchased items simply for making the cashier laugh. It means you can find a rental flat without proof of income. If your friend is a nurse, it means your mom gets to move to the front of the line at the hospital. In Malta, following the rules is like being the nerdy kid at the front of class. Sure, you might get to Harvard. But you won’t get an invite to a party Saturday night. And Maltese parties are not something to miss…
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I met my first rule-following Maltese person. He is the owner of one of the largest shipping/ marketing/ construction/ importing/ exporting companies in Malta, the type of company that has made-and-broken entire markets on this little island. We’ll call him Henry of Family Co. It’s thanks to Henry that Maltese people eat cheap bananas. Family Co. also owns big names in Maltese architecture, transport, real estate, and advertising. When I arrived to be interviewed for a content marketing position with his company, I was curious as to how Henry had grasped hold of so many influential markets. After sitting in front of him for five minutes, I knew. And it was not the way I expected.
Rule Breaking Based on Cultural Urgency
There’s a certain cultural sense of urgency in Malta: When a business person wants something, whether it’s a new car or a new contract, they want it NOW. People in Malta are constantly starting companies and groups only to give up once they face too much red tape or a lack of immediate interest. Walk through any neighborhood to witness the gorgeous half-empty, under-construction houses for an example of what I mean. Sometimes these empty houses are a result of urgency: The builders wanted something done, so they didn’t follow the rules. And when it got too hard, or too expensive, or their rule-breaking was discovered, the project was dropped. It’s part of the system here to pick up and leave things. I think that’s why so many foreigners come here to fund or propel their career, staying only a few years.
Introducing the SMRF
So what about companies like Family Co.? How have they sustained success? From what I can tell, they rebel against the system by following its rules. Ironic, no? To do so takes great courage; imagine competitors make millions in quick company boom-and-busts while you slog along, doing things the right way. These people are scary and powerful. I call them Scary Maltese Rule Followers (SMRFS).
In fact, I have now met two other Maltese people who lead local organizations with scope, clarity, goals, and success. They act like Henry (differently than many of their Maltese counterparts): they’re transparent, boasting, short of smiles, disinclined to take a day off, and Type-A goal makers. I feel like a puppy dog caught drinking from the toilet bowl when I’m around these people. From what I can tell, Henry and the other two Scary Maltese Rule Followers have found success because they ignore cultural urgency, taking instead the straight-and-narrow path of highest resistance. Their actions mean they cannot be denied, faulted, or undercut. By living resiliently toward their goals, these people demand respect. They’re brilliant and forceful, side-stepping the Maltese penchant for charisma to create infallible structures.
The Power of SMRFS
Like a good King, most people dually love and hate SMRFS. SMRFS provide jobs. They engineer “share-bait.” They and their friends have the ability to create long-term change in a country relatively young on the “modernization” front. SMRFS are focused enough to be patient. Companies run by SMRFS spawn direct and indirect followers that elevate Malta much further than its miniscule geography. It’s not easy to get on the good side of a SMRF; you’ll need fortitude, to say the least.
What’s the point? In Malta, there is a black market economy. You can live on this economy, work with its freeholders, in a largely uninhibited way. But if you want to get anything done, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with SMRFs. I’ve developed a short guide for harnessing the power of a SMRF. And I’d love for you to comment here: What’s your experience with the Maltese black-market economy? What about SMRFS? And words of advice?
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.