John Carter, Now & Then: Maltese delights and banking deliberations

Travel Talk

In my last essay, I wrote of my encounter with a horde of lads and lassies in Bow Lane, in the heart of the City of London. I wondered why they were out celebrating on a Thursday evening, only to discover that Thursday is the new Friday as far as they are concerned, and they were at the end of their working week.

I mentioned that they would return to their desks on the following Monday morning, only to be told, after my article appeared, that they would, in fact, not be going back until Tuesday.  This is because, like many in the City, they are “T.W.A.T.S.” , working on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

As commerce in general contemplates a four-day working week, the gilded youth of the Square Mile are already down to three. Nice work if you can get it, as the old song used to say.

Anyway, all of that isn’t relevant to my April subject, as I am just back from a short break to the island of Malta – a destination I have known for more than 60 years, and which has transformed immensely over those decades.

I first went in 1963, to attend the AGM of the Guild of Travel Writers, of which I was a fledgling member. Well, to be honest, we all were, as it had been formed only in 1960, and this was our first foray abroad as a group.

We stayed at the venerable Phoenicia Hotel – to be honest, there weren’t any alternatives – and, as our numbers were around four dozen, the island’s Tourist Board extended hospitality to our spouses. The only cost was a daily supplement at the Phoenicia of 10/6d (less than 53p) to cover accommodation and breakfast for husbands and wives.

When I mentioned this, to my companions a few days ago (believe it or not, it was the AGM of the same group, now known as the British Guild of Travel Writers), they were not only astonished about spouse involvement, and the cost of same, but at the fact that I had attended that meeting 60 years ago, and was still standing!!

Back then, Malta was considered the sort of destination for people who wanted a holiday abroad, but didn’t like the idea of going abroad. It had a “chips with everything” cuisine, with familiar British grub. You drove on the left, the money was more or less the same as at home, and everybody spoke English.  Perfect for the trepid traveller.

Indeed, one UK tour company specialised in package holidays to Malta, Gibraltar and Cyprus, aimed at ex-servicemen who had been stationed there during and after the war, and wanted to return to old haunts, with their families in tow. The firm, “Exchange Travel”, did a roaring trade.

My subsequent visits to the George Cross island revealed how the old Malta was giving way to the new. Massive efforts were made to attract a more discerning visitor, new hotels built of a quality that could stand comparison with those in any resort around the Mediterranean. The Maltese made much of their history, as they should, for it is varied and unique.

So this latest visit reinforced my opinion that the island has much more to offer than a “familiar” destination. Certainly, its cuisine has moved a million miles away from the chip-based “NAAFI” meals of old.

The best evidence of this was the meal I enjoyed at Cent’Anni – originally a 19th century wine cellar and bodega, now transformed into a top quality restaurant.

Located in the village of Gharghur, it is very popular among the Maltese themselves, though a few foreign visitors have discovered it. I unhesitatingly recommend that you do the same when you next visit Malta. The meal we had was excellent – in particular the rabbit belly with stifado sauce – as were the wines.

Actually, I hadn’t anticipated local wine of any great merit, but this is because I have no experience of it. The Maltese do not export their wine, so its quality remains unappreciated by those who do not visit the island.

Our base for this trip was the Radisson Blu resort in St. Julian’s. It has all the amenities you’d expect in a high rated establishment, superb sea views (especially at sunset), and a staff who knew their trade and were happy to provide a first-class service.

That having been said, I got the impression that the hotel is in need of some refurbishment, though there is nothing that a general “sprucing up” wouldn’t fix. But I’d go there again at the drop of a hat, as it provides the ingredient without which no hotel can succeed – a friendly and welcoming staff for whom nothing was too much trouble.

I have other thoughts about my short break in Malta, but will share them with you next time.

Meanwhile, a return to the subject of bankers and banking.  I have friends in the USA who were amazed that the London-based European arm of the failed Silicon Valley Bank had been sold to HSBC for a token £1, thus saving its customers, overwhelmingly “technical start-ups”, from financial ruin.  

One of them sent me an e-mail which (I paraphrase) read: “Those firms are vital to the West. Your HSBC has very strong ties with China. What could possibly go wrong?”


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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

2 Responses

  1. It was so lovely to spend time with John in Malta last week. As far as I know there was only one other Guild member with us who had been on that first BGTW AGM in 1963 and it wasn’t me! But I was on the Guild’s second Malta event in 2008 and could see that the island had definitely upped its game, so the changes for John must have been enormous. We enjoyed a drink on the terrace at the sumptuous Phoenicia, just outside the city gate of Valletta overlooking the Tritons’ fountain. In the 60s, there would have been traffic whizzing round the roundabout – albeit driving on the left – but today it is a pleasant pedestrian zone fringed by bus stops serving all corners of the island. Valletta is a gem, still with a British feel through its red phone boxes and dual-language signs, but oozing history from every stone commissioned by the Knights of St John who founded the city in the 16th century. Can’t wait to read John’s other observations on the changing face of Malta.

  2. I too am a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and was in Malta recently with Gillian and John. Sadly, I wasn’t born for the guild’s first agm visit to the island ! However, this was my 3rd visit to Malta but my first in Spring time and it was particularly special to see the island and especially Gozo (normally parched in the summer months) so vibrantly green a lovely contrast against the vivid yellow wild flowers growing abundantly in the fields and along the roadside. My best experience and something I won’t forget as it was so much fun ! (and environmentally responsible) was the Rolling Geeks tour. Rolling Geeks are self-drive electric cars, complete with pre-programmed GPS which not only take you on the perfect tour of the three cities but explain what you’re looking at. Read more about this tour and other alternative ways of exploring Malta and Gozo in Silver Travel Advisor soon.

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