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Malta, 24-30 March 2017

Updated: May 10, 2021

I am slightly unused to the joys of extravagant hotels – of the type that investment bankers stay in and permit their lawyers to do too. But here I am in the Grand Excelsior Hotel in Malta, which certainly lives up to its name. I look out from my eighth floor room on to a magnificent view of the sea and some kind of marina. Serenity itself.

In some mild contrast to the arrival at Malta airport and the subsequent transportation. The flight was an hour delayed, which probably threw out the taxi firm that had been told to meet me. I could find no man bearing the card with my name. After much telephoning, a slightly diminutive figure with a crumpled card and an anxious expression emerged from the human undergrowth. I suspect he’d only just turned up.

He reintroduced me to Malta traffic. He told me there are 400,000 people in Malta and, only half jokingly, probably more cars.. Most of them this afternoon were on the road between the airport and Valletta.

He told me that, in his opinion, Malta has two problems: buses and roundabouts. His view on buses – possibly influenced by his trade as a taxi driver – is that they are too big. Ah, I said, when I was last here, you were in the process of getting new buses – were the old buses better? No, he wouldn’t buy that one: all buses are bad.

His view on roundabouts possibly coincides more with mine – mine being greatly influenced by the French experience. When I first went to France many decades ago, there were no roundabouts – unless you count the Etoile, I suppose. Now they spring up everywhere. Beaumes de Venise has three new ones, all unnecessary, costing 41,000 euros, as the local mayor proudly reported in the local official rag.

But back to Malta. When you get away from the traffic, or at least manage to ignore it, Valletta and the surrounds are lovely The buildings, some old some modern, some decrepit but many beautifully restored and maintained, tend to be in a glorious golden limestone – the rock that Malta is built on, I assume. All much assisted by the sunshine, cloudless sky and 19 degrees Celsius.

Valletta is unique, quite unlike any other city I know, built as it is on an undulating rock, with the streets going straight up and down on a grid that completely fails to follow the contours. I was told that this layout has the great advantage, in the heat of the summer, of allowing the sea breeze to cool things down. Perhaps the Knights of St John thought of this when they laid it all out, if that’s what they did.

Valletta is just the old city on its own promontory and doesn’t include the extensive urban surrounds. My hotel is very central but just outside Valletta proper. I took a short walk from the hotel into the city, crossing what is now a massive building site. Valletta will next year be the cultural capital of Europe or some such. This has prompted them to refurbish the grand statues and monuments just outside the city entrance – at the same time as constructing a new bus shelter to house the new ones that the taxi driver so disapproves of.

I have dinner at a wonderful fish restaurant called Fumia, located on one of the many waterfronts in what was some form of custom house. My hosts are the partner of Ganado who is responsible for training, Conrad Potanier, and an associate of the firm, Marina Grech. We were recommended to go for a fish with the curious Maltese/Italian/Sicilian name of “cippolata”, translated for my benefit as a type of grouper. Another speciality of the house seemed to be another species of fish, coated and cooked in salt, which coating was burning brightly as it was brought in to the admiring customers, who then of course took photos of the spectacle on their mobile phones.

I am here in Malta to give some lectures and seminars to lawyers in the leading Malta firm of Ganado Advocates. The next day, the day after I get there, is my working day – from 9.00 am when I’m picked up from the hotel till 6.30 pm when I’m released. First, I give two lectures, attended by 35 and 50 lawyers respectively; then five seminars, each for up to eight participants. Quite exhausting, but fun, actually.

I get taken to lunch at an old-established Italian restaurant called Rubino, just near the Ganado office. The boss welcomes me cordially and says he remembers me from my last visit (six or seven years ago). Liar!

I have explained to my hosts that I want to cram in a visit to Caravaggio. So, after lunch and before the afternoon’s labours, I go to the cathedral, or Co-Cathedral as it’s called for reasons I forget. It contains two of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings, done by him when he was spending time in Malta to escape the consequences of a murder he’d committed. One of them is of John the Baptist having his head cut off – the largest he ever painted and the only one signed. His signature appears in the blood coming from the Baptist’s neck. One has the feeling that Caravaggio was not a very nice man. The other painting (smaller, but still large) is of St Jerome in the process of translating the Bible – onto a wholly inadequate notebook. The cathedral itself is worth visiting. Outside it is simple, but inside every wall and vault is covered with the most extravagantly amazing baroque decoration.

One change I notice from last time is that there seem to be more Maltese language signs. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, the word for airport is the same – although spelt oddly. The fact is that almost everyone speaks English. I tried to find out which language is the mother tongue of most people. Difficult to say, but probably in most cases Maltese. I suspect that class comes into it. Children either go to Maltese language schools, where English is taught as a separate subject or, as I think is more normal for the likes of Ganado lawyers, to an English language school, where Maltese is also taught.

Maltese is a fascinating language. Basically semitic (the only one written in Roman script), it derives originally from Arab invaders, but is much influenced by English and particularly Italian. Most Maltese speak Italian as a third language, mainly because until some 15 years ago the only available television was Italian.

I have dinner with Max Ganado, the senior partner of the firm – at another wonderful Italian restaurant, Superba, which lives up to its name. I assume him to be the leading lawyer in the country; his firm is certainly the largest. He seems to take an active part in advising the government on new legislation. He spent a bit of time during dinner talking about one of his new interests, namely a new technology called Blockchain. It was behind the recent development of the digital currency, Bitcoin, and Max thinks it may change the face of the world and, in particular, the legal profession. Max, to my great surprise, is wholly supportive of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, even though Malta will loose a like-minded partner.

On the subject of the EU, Valletta is hosting some form of EU gathering and the hotel is full of euro-people of all nationalities, probably except the Brits. As I leave for the airport, I find myself competing for the attention of taxi drivers with none other than Jean-Claude Juncker and his troop of some couple of dozen functionaries. Off to a meeting, no doubt, to devise ways of punishing us.

31 March 2017

Tony Herbert

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