EuroPride in Malta: Day One
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 6 MIN.
The moment we land at the Malta International Airport it is clear how warm and welcoming the country is to LGBTQ+ people. The plane is full of gay revelers headed to Valletta for EuroPride; even before we land on the island, we can sense that we are among members of our own community. That sense of inclusion and belonging is reinforced right away: Heading to the exit after collecting our luggage, my husband and I are greeted by the sight of a full-wall mural, selfie-ready, which proclaims, "We are here for EuroPride 2023."
No sooner have we made our way to the arrivals area when a driver from Zarb Coaches meets us with a friendly smile. As the driver navigates the van to Mulberries Wellbeing Chateau through narrow and twisting streets, my husband and I look with interest at the buildings, bright in the late afternoon sunlight, that have been constructed from yellow limestone hewn from a local quarry. The stone is everywhere: A low wall along the road (the local equivalent of a guard rail) is made from it, as are shoulder-high walls built around plots of land. We learn later that the town's residents are quite proud of their limestone, and like to show off buildings – some of them centuries old – constructed from substantial blocks of it. More modern brick buildings are stuccoed and painted, but the old-school limestone structures are left bare, their walls golden in the Maltese sun.
Mulberries – located off "a small alleyway off Villabate Road, between the quaint village of Żabbar and the picturesque Marsascala Bay" – is, as advertised, restful. Its spacious courtyard is flanked by high walls. Stairways lead to rooms on the upper levels, some of which feature private terraces; straight ahead of the main entrance, across the courtyard, and though a common area with a small bar is the garden, with the mulberry trees that lend the place its name. Fig, lemon, and olive trees round out the serene setting.
Our room, as advertised, is "tastefully finished with simple luxuries," including a king-sized bed and a private bathroom stocked with elegant aromatic amenities from Evergreen Soap company: Namely, hand soap and shower gel, the latter luxuriantly foamy and fragrant with Bach flowers.
After an hour of rest and exploration of the accommodations, we met with our guide, Emily, and Maresh, our evening's driver from Zarb. As Maresh takes us into Valletta, Emily explains that this year's EuroPride has meant the annual Pride celebration in Malta is bigger than ever: Ten days of events and celebrations. We have arrived in the middle of the celebrations, but the best is yet to come.
The country is predominantly Catholic, but same-sex marriage is legal, as is adoption and IVF by same-sex parents. Both major political parties support LGBTQ+ equality; the hateful and polarizing anti-gay rhetoric that has infected so many nations – Hungary, Poland, the United States – hasn't taken hold in Malta, where the Prime Minister and lawmakers from across the political spectrum participate in each year's Pride celebrations.
A brief walk through Valletta's busy center further proves the island's welcoming atmosphere, as rainbow-colored lights splash across the stone façade of the elegant Teatru Manoel, where a concert program of work by LGBTQ+ composers is set to begin. Just down the street, perhaps a hundred yards away, is the massive Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, originally constructed in the late 16th century and rebuilt following the original structure's destruction during World War II.
Malta is one of tiniest countries in the world, comprising only 122 square miles. The three inhabited islands of the seven-island archipelago are home to more than half a million residents representing 45 nationalities. After Malta became independent of the British – who used the island as a military base – the Mediterranean archipelago turned to tourism, enabled by the construction of desalination plants int he 1980s. In the four decades since, Malta has attracted workers and residents from around the globe, thanks in large part to its glorious climate and natural beauty.
Malta's towns tend to blend into one another, thanks to the resulting population density. A short drive brings us from the capitol city of Valletta to Rabbat, a harborside town where cruise ships dock and a fine supper awaits at Root 81.
One of several restaurants located along a broad stairway that leads to an overlook of the harbor, Root 81 features tables scattered across a spacious landing, as well as small balconies in the elegant interior overlooking the patio. Root 81's breezily elegant atmosphere accompanies the culinary creations of chef and owner Robert Cassar, who stops by our table for a chat in person.
Chef Cassar is met with raves from our party, especially the lone vegetarian who expresses his delight at the full flavor of the cauliflower steaks he enjoys for dinner. The others among us sample appetizers that include lobster risotto; beef carpaccio with truffle panna cotta and a luscious cherry tomato confit (all of it served on a bed of red pepper corns); and a crispy, deep-fried burattina served with agrumi pesto, balsamic pearls, and olive oil snow, and hiding a silky cheese interior beneath its golden-brown surface. Entrees include luscious fish of the day (fresh-caught grouper, in our case); a glazed duck breast with root vegetables and a delectable confit duck leg tartlet, all drizzled with a walnut sauce that bursts across the palate; and a mammoth Argentinian ribeye steak. The table shares sides of buttery, smooth mashed potatoes, root vegetables, and truffled mashed potatoes. A round of carob liqueur digestifs – robust with notes of chocolate set against a citrusy backdrop – completes the gourmet meal. Clearly, Root 81 had earned all four years of its Michelin Guide listings.
Dinner is a relaxed experience, and it's late once we finished. Our next stop is Coco's Klabb Cabaret a star-studded drag extravaganza taking place in an outdoor club that's well-guarded by friendly, but no-nonsense, security guys. We arrive just in time to catch "RuPaul's Drag Race UK" Season 3 winner Krystal Versace's act, a rousing set of songs and sassy dance. The crowd are dancing, too, and our group are treated to a private floor show in the midst of the throng in which a tall, muscular, blond fellow dances with, first, a tiny older gent (classy ballroom moves), then an energetic young woman who is clearly thrilled to have him grinding on her and sweeping her up in his brawny arms. (A dark-haired fellow waits to the side, grinning, and the two of them reunite once the little dance party is done.)
Only one last act remains after Krystal Versace's set: The evening's grand finale, which finds Coco joined on the stage for a medley of what we can only assume was the evening's greatest hits.
It's after midnight when we get back to Mulberry's. We're tired, happy, and still so stuffed from dinner that we can't imagine being able to have breakfast in the morning. But, as we are to find out, the adventures that await us the following day mean we're going to need the nourishment we've enjoyed.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.