Friday, March 30, 2012

Cottonera: A Tale of Three Cities (plus Kalkara)

The night we arrived in Malta, after midnight, the taxi driver zoomed us through the streets of Valletta to our hotel. Speeding through a Venetian archway here and clattering across a stone paved street there, we immediately got the sense that Malta wasn't going to be the built-up resort we'd feared. Our hotel was well-worn and we were well-spent. The odd, lively man who showed us our room implored us to go to the roof deck before bed. "You will love it," he said in the strange islander/Italian/British accent that we've now come to recognize as Maltese. It was from the roof deck that we got our first, real sight of Malta - a view of the Three Cities. It was magical.
While our visit to Fort Rinella was a disappointment, the walk there gave us a closer look at Cottonera - comprised of the Three Cities we'd stared at from afar along with the town of Kalkara. With its fortified walls, called the Cottonera Lines, its castle and its historic significance, we thought that the area would feel like a staid tourist attraction. As it turns out, the trio of "cities," Conspicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea, are simple, workaday towns. Add in Kalkara and you have a stretch of neighborhood Malta, a big slice of local color. It was the longest we've walked without seeing a single postcard stand.
Vittoriosa, Senglea and Kalkara stick out into the Grand Harbour like fingers. (Conspicua is inland). The inlets are named "creeks" - a quaint word for the strips of water upon which these towns have been dependent for their livelihood for centuries. Each 'creek,' has a distinctive character which bleeds into the neighborhoods around it. All of the Cottonera area was bombed consistently and heavily during World War II and Senglea was completely obliterated. The inlet here, French Creek, feels very post-war. Its more modern and industrial, lined with wharfs dry docks and factory space with retro branding still painted on its walls.
Some people believe that Kalkara Creek, two inlets over from French Creek, was the very first site of habitation in Malta - a shelter for arriving boats to pull in from nearby Sicily. It's mostly unsubstantiated legend. What's known for sure is that the towns around it have been simple fishing village for centuries. Boats bob in the super clear water and men sit midday at nearby Seaman's Bar. Boats sit parallel-parked under hanging laundry.
The fishermen of Kalkara Creek have one of the most spectacular views in Malta, looking across the Grand Harbour at Valletta. Fort St. Angelo, the iconic fortress at the center of the Three Cities, peers down from Vittoriosa's hill peninsula. At the beginning of this month, it was announced that 13.4 million euros have been allotted for the restoration of the castle. Who knows how long the facelift will take, but there's no doubt that the influx of tourists will alter the little creek at its foot and its townspeople.
Vittoriosa itself already gets the most attention in Cottonera, as it has the 16th century fort, the Maritime Museum, the Inquisitor's Palace and a dock for harbor cruises. The streets are labyrinthine and lined with flower boxes, the churches are plentiful and grand. Still, it feels like a community closely tied to the sea that surrounds it. Above, teenage boys make their way back to the Maritime Institute after lunch.
Its marina is filled with yachts and lined with a handful of generic cafes. The 17th century Captain-General's Palace now houses a casino - part of the Cottonera Waterfront "regeneration project," which also included the construction of a big hotel and the "St. Angelo Mansions," containing over a hundred luxury apartments. The project's website promises that this is "destined to become one of the most prestigious marinas for large yachts."
What that will mean for the Three Cities and Kalkara only time will tell. For now, Cottonera was as magical up close as it looked across the night-black water from our rooftop that first night. If we'd walked through and saw only tourist attractions and glittering luxury boats from foreign countries it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting, it would have been what we were expecting. And how can something feel like 'magic' without the element of surprise?
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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Maltese Horses

Few people know that George Washington was not only the first American president, but also the first American mule breeder - and he can thank Malta for it. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, trying to create a kind of super agricultural animal, he sent out a request to a few European friends for their finest stock. He received a special present from the King of Spain - an Andalusian jack named "Royal Gift," almost the first of its breed to be exported from the Iberian peninsula. The Andalucian jack donkey was famous for its size, strength and hardiness, but Washington credited another animal for the success of his new mule.
The Marquis de Lafayette, a close friend of Washington's and a general in the Revolution, supplied a different, even more obscure, kind of donkey. The Maltese jack, known primarily for its vigor and fierceness, became the other ingredient in the American Mammoth Jackstock - a breed so popular that it reshaped the farming landscape of the southern states.
The Malta donkey was a mix of European and North African animals that was, for centuries, the main cart and draft animal of the archipelago. Today, despite its history, there are less than fifty Maltese donkeys in the world. They've been replaced by a new island equine love: the horse. Above, a man in Rabat eyes a friend's trotting pony.
In the heat of a late March afternoon, we stopped at the Marsa racetracks to watch a few trotters and riders work their horses in the sun. A water truck roared around the oval, kicking up dust even as it sprayed the track to keep it from turning to powder. The horses went in easy, looping circuits, the pounding of their hooves growing and ebbing as they passed. Close by, we could hear the slight metal noise of the harness, the whir and creak of the sulky. This is Malta's most popular spectator sport.
Malta is mad about horses, horse racing and horse riding. Before the British colonized the islands, horses were prized possessions, and riding was an important part of the culture. In a continuing tradition that dates back to the 1400's, an annual bareback race is held each June, reportedly a wild event. But the climate is too hot and dry, there's not much grazing land; donkeys were better suited to the temperature and were cheaper, horses remained rare. With the British came formalized racing, finer breeds and, in 1868, the Masa racetrack. What had been a fascination became an obsession.
Saddle racing grew in popularity for nearly a hundred years, mirroring the growth the sport saw back in England. But, in a historic twist, World War II destroyed much of Malta, and most of the race horses were slaughtered for food or killed during the bombing. When the British navy left, following the war, they took along the remaining thoroughbreds (and many of the best jockeys), leaving behind a country starved for races.
To fill the void, Malta embraced trot racing. The ponies were less expensive and easy to keep, jockies weren't required. It's grown into a craze - the official tourism website calls it "Malta's prime spectator sport," and total attendance is supposedly higher than at the national soccer stadium. Real horses have returned in the decades since, but ponies are still much loved. These two old men walked their steeds very slowly, having a jovial conversation.
Even in the middle of Malta's horrible traffic, navigating roundabouts and underpasses, one will find men and horses. Not only close by to the racecourse, which is now ensnared in a twist of motorway, but everywhere. Even parked outside stores. Some people actually seem to use the sulkies as a form of transportation - not much room for groceries.
In Valletta or Mdina, the horses you're likely to see are of the tourist-ride variety, but even these are interesting. The small, covered carriages they pull - called "karozzins" - are unique to the islands, though I have to admit that it's difficult for me to see why. I'm guessing it has something to do with the draping. They are generally tattered and faded, relics kept alive by pushy touts and romanticism.
It's easy to see why the horse's finer lines and more noble gait have enraptured the Maltese. Donkeys just don't fit into modern Malta. The country is ever more urban, with fewer fields to plow and more roads to clomp down. Life here is a little more glamorous, less hardscrabble than it used to be. It's also a small place, and riding from one town to another (or one coast to another) seems perfectly practical.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: A Mediterranean Crustacean Feast

Without our car and our well-stocked travel kitchen, we've had to work with whatever comes with a rental apartment. This can range from a microwave to a full stove and oven set. It almost always includes dull knives, which is why a light weight knife sharpener just may be the best investment for a traveler who plans on self catering. Sometimes, a kitchen's limitations can be frustrating. Other times, it can lead you in a direction you may not have gone. Our apartment in Valletta had a few badly scratched up non-stick pans and a bottle of corn oil. It also had a big ole pot. A pot so large that it could be best described as, you guessed it, a lobster pot. And with a name like that, who are we to use it for anything but?
Shellfish is just about the easiest thing you can cook, especially if you haven't yet invested in butter, olive oil, salt or pepper and have a broken plastic spatula to work with. Sure, cracking lobster open might pose its own challenges, but that's one of life's more pleasurable battles. Ever heard of the old lady who lifts a car to save a baby? Where there's a will. Curiosity and indecisiveness are traits that we, as a couple, carry with us on any market visit. So, our supper became a study in Mediterranean crustaceans. Our dinner was upgraded to a feast.
Also to blame (or credit) is the Marsaxlokk fish market's abundance and variety. Here is the man we purchased our crustaceans from. The shallow pan in front of his gutting slab is where the lobsters sat. You can see the big pile of langoustines and few scattered red prawns. With everything local and freshly caught, the sizes were far from uniform and the numbers varied. Our order went something like this: one ugly lobster, one pretty one, two shrimps with those long arms, yeah, those and ummm four of these red ones. He handed them off to his wife who weighed them and people crowded around to get their turn. He was the most popular monger of the bunch.
We have eaten a lot of shellfish in our day and, still, the field of crustacean identification remains a mystery. We just go with what looks interesting. What we thought were crimson shrimp are actually red prawns, and there is a difference. The paler "shrimp" with the long arms are actually lobsters, called "langoustines," "Dublin prawns" or "Norway lobsters." They are considered by some to be the single most important commercial crustacean in Europe. They would be the only true lobsters put in our pot.
The, left, spiny lobster and, right, slipper lobster are not true lobsters since they do not have claws. In the crustacean world, these two are each others closest relative - which would be why they were snatched from the same bay. From the top, side, underside, they couldn't have looked or acted more dissimilar. The pretty spiny tried to crawl away from us at every chance and the big, oafish slipper only really acted out when we went to uncurl its tail. THWACK! It curled back violently and forcefully - it is what the slippers use to move across the ocean floor and all. Still, it was incredible to feel its tail strength.
The beautiful spiny is considered a delicacy, able to appear on a plate in all its attractive. Its torso is spiky and furry, but the rest of it is a smooth, vibrant purple and orange pattern. The tail was as gorgeous as tortoise shell. The slipper is furry all over and brown. A combination which winds up resembling a kiwi. As you can see, it is almost all tail. So, its meat is what you are usually getting when eating lobster bisque or buying frozen lobster tail chunks from Trader Joe's. In the "lobster" world, the slipper is kind of the fat opera singer who is used to dub over the tone deaf starlet. Those plates on its head are actually its antennae.
After a day of exploring, we came home to free our lobsters from their refrigerator prison. A bittersweet freedom. They had been lulled to sleep by the cold and we worried about their livelihood. The more lively lobsters are, the healthier. The healthier, the meatier. Have you ever opened a lobster and found that there was less meat inside than you were expecting? It was probably kept in a tank too long. When a lobster is kept out of its natural environment its flesh begins to shrink. Anyway, it was sorta sad but also encouraging that the spiny began to climb on slipper's back to escape. We had to thwart their mission, but it was good to see they still had some healthy fire in them.
We were curious to see how all our little guys would look after their steam bath. The slipper needed a little makeover and we were delighted to see that it turned that wonderful lobster red that makes you want to dig in. The spiny lobster lost its beautiful purple color, but kept some of its orange flecks. The prawns' hue became a little subdued, less blood red, more brick red and the almost translucent orange-y langoustines' bodies turned pastel pink and its claws, red and white. With all the red lobsters before us, we got to missing our homeland variety. Call us Yankees, but there's just nothing like an Atlantic lobster. We're Team Claw in the great Claw vs Tail debate, after all.
However, you can't really argue with this plate of food. Indulgent but healthy. Decadent but simple. Having them side by side really brought out the subtle differences in each meat. The langoustine had the delicate almost watery taste and consistency of crab legs. The prawns were dense, snappy and sweet. The slipper lobster's tail was so chewy, meaty and substantial that we actually wound up pulling it apart and laying it on a piece of buttered toast to savor it longer and do better justice to its thick, tasty one note. The spiny lobster's tail was stringier and sweeter. The skirt steak to the slipper's flank. They may not be "true" lobsters, but they sure tasted like lobster. Our meal was beyond delicious and actually educational. What more can you ask for?

LinkNote: As you can see from the first photo, those branded wet naps accumulated throughout our time in Turkey really came in handy.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cannon, You're Fired

All countries, especially very small ones, like to proclaim that something of theirs is the world's First or Biggest or Oldest whatever. These superlatives almost always lead you down a disappointing road. Chances are the site in question is both a) in contention for but not unequivocally the winner of its title and b) never as impressive as the hype surrounding it. I hate to be so negative, but Merlin and I left Fort Rinella saying, "that was the biggest rip-off, ever." So, I guess it wins that? In the four days we've spent in Malta, we've found it surprisingly jam-packed with beautiful and interesting things. That's why Fort Rinella and its famous gun offended us so much. Really? We spent two hours (walking - our choice) and 20 euros (10 each, their choice) for this?
I'd like to clarify that I was not so much disappointed with the pink cannon itself, as I was Fort Rinella - called "Malta's only live museum" in its brochure. It couldn't have been any deader when we arrived. Above, we have the soldier's quarters where empty cans of soda and beer sat on the desk and a pile of random artifacts were piled in the corner. When the man inside saw us looking in, he came and closed the door. On our way out, their was a Staff Only sign posted and it was locked shut. The signposted "Ash Pit" had a cat bed inside and two plastic feeding bowls. It was pretty clear that the museum isn't fully up and running at the moment. There's some interesting history here - the cannon was very possibly the biggest in the world when made by the British in the 1880s. The fort was built to house the behemoth gun and hydraulics were constructed to operate it, a rare feat for the day. The cannon never actually wound up being used except for test runs a few times a year (it cost the same amount to shoot it once as to pay 2600 soldiers for a day, so practice shots were kept to a minimum). But it was still an important piece of Britain's defense against Italian attack. On the line was their lucrative route to India.
The steam powered hydraulic system was removed at some point after the 20 year era of the gun's "activity" ended. So, aside from the 100 ton muzzle-loading cannon itself, there's really nothing to see at Fort Rinella. That's why, usually, there are so many displays and reenactments for visitors. People rave about the exhibitions, the horses and weapons and men in uniform. We saw none of that. Instead, one man painted a wall in white overalls and this woman cut away at satin, presumably making banners and flags for the joisting competition next week.
One young man walked around in uniform. He urged us to stay for the dvd showing and busied himself with polishing these daggers. I'm really not sure why the museum was open at all. The worst part, not their fault, was that the Viewing Deck looked down on a strip of shore that resembled a junkyard. Two older British couples walked around the site similarly bewildered. We didn't stay for the dvd, wanting nothing more than to get the heck out of this "living museum" and back into living Malta. You can't win 'em all.

We should have gone to Popeye Village instead.
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Monday, March 26, 2012

Malta's Old Necropolis, St. Paul's Catacombs

Shipwrecked and sodden, the apostle St. Paul arrived on Malta under less than ideal circumstances. The people he met there were apparently gracious and friendly - Roman citizens, technically, but far removed from Rome and with their own customs and habits. During his three month stay on Malta in AD 60, Paul converted Publius, the island's de facto leader, cured an old man of dysentery, wowed the population and established a strange relationship between Christianity and Empire in Malta.
Some two hundred years later, as they were digging graves in the Maltese limestone, the residents of Melite (now Mdina) mixed these two influences in a strange and fascinating way. Above, a marker for the subterranean grave of a doctor.
On a recent sunny morning we descended into the cool, dark world of St. Paul's catacombs, where about 1,000 people were buried during the third and fourth centuries. We were in the relative center of Malta, just on the edge of Mdina and Rabat, the twin "cities" (villages is a more appropriate word) that constitute the old capital of the country. The towns occupy a pretty little bulge in the land, where yellow limestone rises above the green fields below.
Underground, a maze of interconnected caverns and passageways spreads out into the rock, the walls pockmarked with hollows and archways - the biggest necropolis found on the island.
St. Paul's catacombs actually have nothing to do with Paul, other than that they are nearby to the cathedral built in his honor. They were dug to house the remains of Melitta's dead, which - under Roman law - were required to be interred outside the city walls. Compared with similar catacombs in Italy and elsewhere, the complex is only of middling size. But, at 24,000 square feet, the place feels huge. Graves were dug into walls, next to one another and, eventually, into the floor as space grew scarce. There are markers adorned with carvings that gave some information about the person's livelihood and guild. Most of this is normal.
But because Malta was isolated to an extent from the rest of the Empire, the architectural style of the tombs is unusual and distinctly local, particularly because of how varied the different graves are. A few badly damaged remains of murals also survive, which are almost unique to the site. But the main point of interest is that the catacombs seem to have been (at least in part) a Christian necropolis dug in the time before Rome converted.
St. Paul's cathedral stands on the spot where Paul and Publius, according to legend, were said to have met. It's a large, rebuilt structure - an older church was destroyed by an earthquake, the current iteration was constructed around 1700. It soars suddenly out of an open square, a surprise in the tangled, cramped lanes of Mdina. When the Normans conquered Malta from the Arabs, during the 12th century, they cleared a large part of the city to build the church on ground they considered especially holy. Today, Malta is the most religious European country, and one of the most homogenously Roman Catholic in the world - the tradition of Paul and his miracles still runs very strong here. But, surprisingly, there is no proof of Christianity in the years directly after the apostle's visit.
It's been suggested that early Maltese Christians were too afraid of Roman reprisals to express their religion outwardly. After all, Publius himself was killed by emperor Hadrian for his beliefs. One of the most important parts of the catacombs is that they represent the earliest concrete evidence of Christianity on the island, apparently while the Empire still condemned it. Tomb inscriptions and figures of the cross show up in both wall carvings and in the mural fragments, and some of the stranger features in the underground architecture have been attributed to a non-Roman religion.
Probably the most curious and illustrative Christian features of St. Paul's catacombs, though, are the "agape" tables. Circular, low and carved directly out of the rock, the tables were probably used for feasts during the burial, as well as on the day of the dead, on which it's believed that Roman Christians held a festive dinner near the graves of their relatives. Agape tables are common only in Christian necropolises, and are almost always surrounded by a kind of "banquette" made of stone, where the family members could lie down to drink and eat. There are several at this site, all with a strange notch in one side that's hard to explain.
Unfortunately, the human traffic and the humidity we bring in has all but destroyed the paintings and the more important inscriptions. Wandering around the catacombs is a tight and confusing experience. At times, there's quite a bit of space, but often the going is narrow and low. There's interesting variation in the size of the graves - some are tightly packed in small alcoves, other feature large, carved stone drapings and deep troughs. Quite a few feature small headrests, like pillows. Only a small part of the entire complex is open to the public, but it still takes more than an hour to explore.
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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Morning in Marsaxlokk

The Sunday morning fish market in Marsaxlokk is a national treasure. As Merlin so rightly put it, "People travel halfway across the country to buy their groceries!" Granted, it's not a large country, but it was still impressive to see - for example - the man boarding the bus back to Valletta with his bag of white beans and half a dozen hot peppers. Another man boarded with shoe inserts. Of course, fish is the main event, but why buy anything anywhere else when you can use it as an excuse to spend Sunday morning in Marsaxlokk?
The town is as picturesque as can be with its harbor full of traditional luzzus (heavy, wooden fishing boats painted bright blue, yellow and red and decorated with a set of eyes - a style said to date back to the Phoenicians) and old limestone buildings. Here you have the second largest harbor in a country literally surrounded by them - and it's filled with fishing boats. It's such an idyllic setting for a fish market that it could feel like a movie set if not for the familiar European market schlock bookending the fishmongers. Knock-off Cars toys and cheap shoes anchor dreamy atmosphere right back down to earth.
It took us a while to reach the fish, passing through the inedibles and then the green grocers and bakery stands. And the flowers - wow, Spring is in full bloom. People packed into the market avenue, making their way down the aisle between the two rows of shaded stands. Even when a few raindrops began to fall, the mood remained energetic and jovial. People caught up, children helped push strawberries and pastries, couples strolled in their Sunday best. It was a town a-bustle packed with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
The produce is in that great transitional period right now. Cabbages sit in boxes, their big unfolding leaves asking for a little more attention before the fluffy, leafy greens take over. Tight little artichokes look downright seductive next to dimming brussel sprouts. Carrots are no longer the brightest kid on the block. This is the market in Malta - even people in Valletta, which has its own Sunday market - drive over to Marsaxlokk to pick up what they need. As the man in charge of our rental apartment put it, "anything here (Valletta) will be there (Marsaxlokk) - and then they have more." Of course, by "more" he meant fish, fish, fish!
Even in the outlying fishless sections you feel the true bait and tackle nature of the place. Notice the gas pumps for boats. When we ducked around them to get past a particularly dense crowd, we got our first real look out into the water. There was just as much activity out there as onshore. People came to and fro unloading, loading, taking a small boat out to their bigger boat with the ease of someone riding an escalator. Sunday is clearly not a day of rest for the residents of Marsaxlokk. For butchers, definitely. Not a single meat vendor present - a European market first.
Husband and wife teams worked in tandem at every aspect of their family business. On the boats, they untangled lines and nets, on the dock, they gutted and cleaned fish side by side. Malta just legalized divorce last year. Until then, it was one of three countries in the world in which it was outlawed (along with Vatican City - where I'm pretty sure most of the citizens aren't allowed to marry either - and the Philippines). Well, looking at the teamwork on display, I'd guess that the residents of Marsaxlokk weren't part of the majority who voted for legalization of de-coupling. Who'd hold the other end of the line? It was really sweet to see the way the town's fishing industry ran - the casual conversations and jokes shared between a man and woman in gut-specked aprons.
Once you hit the fish section of the market, you hit it hard. All of a sudden there's a veritable aquarium (albeit full of still lifes) around you. Since the fish are all caught locally, a lot of the stalls had these sort of potpourri bins filled with downright tropical looking catches that didn't fit into one of the conventional groups. Sometimes, you'd bend in to look a little closer and a fish would start flopping around at your approach. It was just playing dead! Crafty as a shark. Moray eels and slipper lobsters, gnarly fish that looked like coral. The cluster of tabletops was a stunning visual, so clean and vibrant that you barely noticed the characteristic grit of most fish or meat markets - the blood and guts, sharp knives and bandaged hands.
In the in-flight magazine on Air Malta, we read an article about the fishermen of Marsaxlokk. It mostly focused on the beauty of the antique boats and the current struggle of lifelong anglers due to increased EU regulations on overfishing. But it also read: "[Marsaxlokk] stages the life and drama surrounding the central occupation of fishing, which has remained largely unchanged." With everything going on Sunday morning, this still rang out as undeniably true. I'd go to Marsaxlokk on Sunday morning to buy shoe inserts, too. Just to be part of it.
And, yes, I did steal the inflight magazine. It's called Skytime.
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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kinnie, The Maltese Soda

On a flight from Athens to Malta, the Air Malta stewardess gave us a choice - "Coke, juice, water or Kinnie." Kinnie?
In 1952, to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of soda pop, the Maltese brewing "giant" (it's not a big country) Simonds Farsons Cisk invented a new drink. Unlike hundreds of other soft drink outfits from the time, this little country's product stuck. Today there are three varieties: the original, Diet Kinnie (interestingly not called Kinnie "Light," like other European sodas) and Kinnie Zest. We felt we had to try all three, to get a first taste of this little island country.
Kinnie is ostensibly an orange soda, but the taste is more centered on bitterness and aromatics. Based in theory on the Chinotto citrus fruit, which is common in Malta, and containing anise, ginseng and rhubarb, the drink is curiously woody and spicy. When Rebecca first tried it she said she tasted cinnamon. Later, she said it was a lot like Campari or Aperol.
The company is adamant that their formula for the drinks uses all natural ingredients, but they keep the recipe secret and it's hard to imagine that a sweet-tasting "diet" soda could exist without chemicals.
Malta - the name sounds like a soda, doesn't it?
European countries - for all their rich history in brewing, distilling and fermenting - generally possess very limited variety in their soft-drink coolers, at least in comparison with America. That's why it's so interesting when we come across a local product - they're rare specimens. What secrets can they tell about a country? What do they say about the national sense of taste? In Switzerland, we became obsessed with the milk-based Rivella (we actually did two posts), and had a few Cockta sodas in Slovenia.
Shouldn't every little country have a soft drink? Like a national song or a homegrown breed of dog, it's not a big part of the culture. But these little window-dressing aspects are what's endearing about a place, like old Citroens in France or apple strudel in Austria.
Of the three Kinnies, I probably like the Zest version the best, though the original would work well mixed with something a bit stronger. The company's website has a list of cocktails, though most sound a little sweet. Also, you should watch the television ads, because they're great. (The ads are in English because it's one of Malta's two official languages)
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The Interior World of Greek Tavernas

As soon as it gets warm enough, it is almost impossible to resist dining alfresco. Surprisingly, in Greece, where it was almost always warm enough, we found ourselves choosing a seat inside more often than not. Greek tavernas all feel like they're cut from the same cloth, a comfy cloth that you just wanna wrap yourself right up in. If you were to stumble upon any one of them in another place, they would strike you as either quirkily cozy or contrived kitsch. In Greece, they are simply restaurants - their atmosphere is a part of modern tradition.
Like walking into a British pub or a French brasserie or a New Jersey diner (another type of Greek tavern?), there are certain key elements that are almost always present. The pub has its thick, polished dark wood, dim lighting, bartenders in ties. The brasserie has its zinc bar, art deco advertisements and chalkboard menus. The diner decor isn't complete without tabletop flip jukeboxes, paper placemats with cocktail recipes and a spinning pastry display stand. The Greek taverna has plaid tablecloths, covered in paper, wooden chairs, unset tables (utensils come tucked into your bread basket), white walls covered in anything and everything, globe lamps hanging from high ceilings, at least one painting of a boat.
Don't let this picture fool you - at 6 of the 10 dinners we ate out in Greece, we dined alone. We'd wait as long as we could and would still only see locals just arriving for their meal as we left, around nine or nine thirty. In fact, the diners pictured above aren't locals either. They were a group of American tourists in from the idling cruise ship in Nafplio's harbor. The man standing in the corner fits an integral part of the tavern recipe: the proprietor.
They welcome you, set your table, sit with you to explain the 'menu,' serve you food, clean your place and - often - serve you a little something else. Clementines at one place, rings of apple dusted with cinnamon at another, warm halva, which, nothing like the sesame treat of the same name, is a sweet polenta cake. If the proprietor isn't preparing your meal, their mother or wife is. Greek tavernas are family affairs and the concept of hired help never really enters the equation.
In Fourni, Niko's father cleared our plates when we finished eating. His father and father's father hung around in black and white photos. Mostly, he sat and watched the television strung up high in the corner - another tavern staple. At dinnertime, most places shut theirs off completely. Here, the tv was tuned into a channel with a split screen - Forrest Gump on one side and lotto results on the other. A vase of fresh flowers sat on each table, a detail that we would come to see time and again.While eating alone, we never felt the chill or echo of an empty dining room. With walls full of family portraits or Broadway playbills hanging around, it's a little easier. There's a certain embrace that clutter can give you. If nothing else, the model boats and horse saddles offer conversation fodder.
And this is how they would all inevitably look at the end. The paper cover spotted with water and wine, the emptied bowls of greek salad and horta with their puddles of olive oil and huge lemon halves, a tip, unfinished bread and not much else. There's probably a forgotten pen hidden under their somewhere.
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