Malta through the eyes of a tourist

When tourists come to look at Malta’s spectacular landscape in areas such as Għar Lapsi, with its aquamarine seas and craggy, unforgiving rocks, I really doubt they want to see a modern, soulless building which looks like it would fit into a downtown city centre

Għar Lapsi is likewise (relatively) unspoilt
Għar Lapsi is likewise (relatively) unspoilt

Nothing opens your eyes more to how Malta looks to the eyes of a tourist than taking visitors around the island.

With family visiting, this last week has given me a different perspective, mostly because we went to places I haven’t been to in many years and in some cases, even decades. It has reminded me that yes, this little island of ours can be, and still is, very beautiful. But it is also obvious that the most amazing locations we have are still breathtakingly beautiful because man has not managed to ruin what nature has created. Take Wied iz-Zurrieq and the Blue Grotto: it has remained unspoilt because it is inaccessible, and only the little boats which take you on the trips around the caves can bring you close to the majestic cliffs. But can you imagine if some rich tycoon figured out a way to hack through the rocks, lay down asphalt and build some “luxury development” there?  

Għar Lapsi is likewise (relatively) unspoilt. Since I was there last, which is about 20 years ago, iron railings and ladders have been installed near the moss-covered slipway which was needed to avoid people from slipping, while the cemented-over areas for sunbathing have had their old, rusted railings replaced by white ones. It is a tiny bay and has just about escaped too much gentrification, although a ministerial photo opportunity at the beginning of summer informed us that there would also be new wooden decking and free Wi-Fi. Not sure why it needs wooden decking, which only needs constant maintenance, and isn’t the point of going to the beach, a chance to simply unplug? Why do we have such an aversion to keeping things as close as possible to their natural state?

But then I saw something which made us smile. A group of elderly local women gathered in a shaded area near a boathouse chatting away while intently playing their game of tombola. It was both an unexpected and touching sight. Unexpected, because the simplicity of this scene was such a contrast to the modern Malta we see elsewhere. And touching, because it filled me with a wave of longing for days gone by and an inexplicable nostalgia. It would have made an incredible photo, but for the fact that I felt reluctant to disturb them and intrude on their enjoyment by even asking their permission, thus tainting the whole thing by whipping out my iPhone. I will simply have to rely on memory to recall the poignancy of that image and the swirl of feelings it evoked.

There is currently one snazzy eating establishment in a prime location overlooking the deep blue sea at Għar Lapsi, and meanwhile, we recently learned that there are plans for the renowned Rita’s Lapis View restaurant to be developed into something bigger. So far, these plans have been stalled by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage. According to The Times, the applicant wants to construct “a complex including an underground parking, a restaurant, a guesthouse complete with outdoor pool, a scuba diving shop, a multipurpose hall, a play area and photovoltaic panels on the building’s roof”.  

As I gazed at the iconic weatherbeaten pale blue restaurant, known to many as “Ta’ Rita”, it occurred to me that we have a slim grasp of what is of value. The building has been there since the 1930s and was extended to its present state in 1966. It may not be a fantastic example of architecture, but the very fact that it has been there so long gives it a certain charm and quaintness. As decades roll by, what was considered old-fashioned and dated often makes a comeback, in the same way, that 1970s Art Deco interior design has. With the right eye for detail, this restaurant could be restored and its character retained, rather than simply razed to the ground and re-built from scratch and expanded into something anonymous and sleek, with absolutely no personality to speak of.

When tourists come to look at Malta’s spectacular landscape in areas such as Għar Lapsi, with its aquamarine seas and craggy, unforgiving rocks, I really doubt they want to see a modern, soulless building which looks like it would fit into a downtown city centre. What is “old” has an intrinsic value in of itself which, once demolished, cannot be replicated. Every old building and house being torn down is chipping away at our history. You cannot fabricate oldness in the same way that Hollywood fabricates film sets to make them look like the real thing. 

Well, technically you can, but it will still be a fake.  

The reason the old towns and villages throughout Europe almost speak to you as you meander through them is because they ooze character, and that aura simply does not exist in towns and cities which have no history to speak of. When you are lucky, like we are, to live in a country which is replete with its own rich heritage, it is easy to fall into the trap of taking it so much for granted that you stop “seeing” it. But when you take visitors around who have nothing like this back home, their appreciation forces you see it all again with fresh eyes.

Walking through the length and breadth of Valletta from St Elmo all the way to the new Triton fountain, as we explored the nooks and crannies of side streets, we re-discovered tiny little shops, some of which have remained untouched, while others have been lovingly and tastefully restored. The streets were decorated with ‘bandalori’ and statues for St Dominic’s feast and I was just going to walk right past them without thinking, but my visiting family instead stopped for photos. They were less impressed with Is-Suq Tal-Belt, which looks good from the outside but is simply an American-style food court inside.  

We need to realise that tourists don’t come to Malta to see American fast-food chains and franchises - especially if they are visiting from the States themselves. I know my family wanted to see things which were still part of “authentic Malta” and wanted to eat the Maltese cuisine which they miss. “Why would you want Starbucks here when you make the best cappuccinos ever?”

On a positive note, they also noted an improvement in customer care and service as well as the incredible array of choice in just about everything. The increase in cars, traffic, population and construction were inevitably a topic of conversation, as was the steep rise in the cost of living. From a country which they remembered as a place where there was “not much to do” they were blown away by just how much there is to do now, with constant events happening all over the place. But ultimately, as any visitor will tell you, progress has to be tempered with a respect for the intrinsic beauty, old buildings and history which we have all around us. Otherwise, we are at risk of simply becoming just another bland, anonymous, city with no distinct qualities of its own.

And what attraction is there in that?

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