Malta is a heady cocktail of editerranean sun, luminous blue sea, warm people and vibrant history, and even though the island has developed dramatically since it joined the EU, visiting Malta is still like entering a time warp. Ancient Leyland buses weave their way through the numerous small villages en-route to the chaotic Valletta bus terminal, and many of the limestone houses may have crumbly facades, but with a Porsche or BMW parked outside.
Less developed and more leisurely than its neighbours, its people enjoy a more laid-back, gracious way of life. Outside of the main city areas there is hardly a supermarket in sight and people still trudge through the narrow, winding cobbled streets, popping into the baker’s and the fishmonger’s for fresh bread and fish daily, just like their ancestors did a hundred years ago, giving the island a piquantly charming, old-world flavour.
The European gateway to Africa, it is strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, which has always given it great political importance, allowing naval fleets to shelter in its excellent harbour. Malta consists of three islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – and it is only 93 kms from Sicily, so Italy has always had a great influence. With all major airlines now flying to Malta, it’s more accessible than ever.
History stares you in the face from every corner of this tiny island. Its location made it a great prize for a long list of colonisers over the ages, who all left their footprints behind. From prehistoric settlers and Stone Age civilisations, the sea-faring Phoenicians, the Carthagians, the Romans, the Byzantine Greeks, to Arab, Norman, Angevin, (French), Aragon (Spanish), and Turkish and British rule, it certainly is an impressive list.
You can explore Malta in a traditional horse carriage, karozzi, or use the excellent public bus service. Extended walking can be a bit tiring because of the winding, uphill roads though Valletta, the capital city, is only one kilometre long and 600 metres wide. Houses of the city are of similar design with no gaps between them and with statues at each corner. In order to preserve its history and what is left of its beautiful architecture partly destroyed by heavy bombing during World War II, the municipal authorities prevented the citizens from changing the facades of the buildings or even painting them.
Valletta was built in the 16th Century by Jean Parisot de la Valletta and designed by Francesco Laparelli. It houses some fabulous structures which still defy the passage of time, such as the Palace of the Grand Masters, with its grand staterooms, from where the knights of Malta ruled from 1575. It is now the seat of the Maltese President and contains the Tapestry Chamber which displays the priceless Gobelin Tapestries.
Other significant monuments to be visited in Valletta include the St John’s Co-Cathedral, adorned with riches of the Knights of Malta. Other must-sees are the Knights’ auberges, the National Museum of Archaeology, and Fine Arts, and the Maritime Museum, and do try to cram in the Folk Museum as well as the Armory, the Manoel Theatre and the Magnificent Mediterranean Congress Centre. The Casa Rocca Piccola provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Maltese aristocracy of the 16th century — it is a lived-in palazzo inhabited by the family of Marquis de Piro, who arrived here in 1530.
If the sightseeing tires you out, you can take a break at one of the hundreds of tables in Republic Square and enjoy some local wine and bruschetta with traditional local toppings that include tomatoes and capers.
Being very interested in the life of St Paul, I was overwhelmed and felt I was breathing living history when I visited St Paul’s grotto, where the apostle took shelter after he was shipwrecked nearby (the hospitality shown to him by the locals is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles). Other quick stops included the Verdela castle, the Mosta dome, Europe’s largest unsupported dome, the San Anton Gardens in Attrad, and the yacht marina in St Julian’s.
One of the most stunning views that visitors should not miss is that of the Grand Harbour and the Cottonera or Three Cities, which can be viewed from the Upper Barraca and Lower Barraca Gardens in Valletta, (once the private gardens of the Italian knights).
In the evening, we went shopping to Sliema, a posh Valletta suburb. Malta is a heaven for seafood and potato lovers like me. Its cuisine is a blend of Mediterranean and Italian influences. Locals complain that Malta has become more expensive after it adopted the Euro but it’s still good value-for-money compared with other Eurozone countries, and you can expect to pay around EUR 30 for two in a nice restaurant with starters, main courses, wine and coffee.
The next day, our first stop was the Roman-built Mdina, Malta’s ancient capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a key tourist attraction. This surreally silent city, where no cars, shops or open air markets are allowed for preservation’s sake, is of Phoenician origin and was the fortified capital of the island before the knights arrived. It is here that St. Paul the apostle resided in 60 A.D. converting the residents of the town. Mdina’s original name was Melita (meaning honey). Malta is famed for its fine honey, some of which we sampled.
Nearby is the famed Howard Gardens, Malta’s biggest, which form a fringe between Mdina and the nearby Rabat. Besides strolling through the wonderful streets and gardens of Rabat, do visit St. Paul’s catacombs and the Roman Domus.
One way to enjoy the capital is to take a boat tour of the Grand Harbour, which offers fantastic views of Valletta, and Sliema Ferries also offers the popular boat tour to the Blue Grotto, on Malta’s rugged southern coast, conducted by local fishermen. It is an eye-popping site with a big natural arch that opens up among the sea cliffs and is great for diving, though entry is barred to visitors during stormy weather.
Malta offers numerous activity holidays and is a haven for scuba divers exploring underwater caves and grottoes, besides offering snorkelling, jet-skiing and water-skiing.
We rose early next morning to take the 20-minute ferry ride to go to Malta’s sister island Gozo, (mythically, the island inhabited by the nymph Calypso). The second largest island of the Maltese Archipelago, with its green hills and rustic look, it has a character quite different from Malta, more old-world and picturesque, with its windmills and scattered stone cottages.
Dwejra Bay is one of the most spectacular sites on Gozo, as well as a magnificent dive site, with deep water (60 meters) and many caves and natural arches. It includes the Inland Sea framed by the Azure Window — a secluded pebbly bathing pool with clear water and sheer cliff faces hanging over it. A giant doorway in the cliff formed by erosion, the Azure Window is probably one of the most photographed vistas on the island. Nearby is Fungus Rock, which medieval knights believed had mystical restorative properties.
The highpoint of Gozo though, are the temples of Ggantija in Xaghra, the oldest monumental, free-standing sacral buildings on earth. It is one of the most important megalithic sites in the world, dating from 3600 to 3200 BC or even earlier. The megalith of Mnajdra, the Temples at Hagar Qim, and the Hypogeum at Hal Sifeni, also bear testimony to an ancient culture. Gozo also has one of the best beaches in Malta, Ramla Bay, with its unusual red sands.
Malta’s smallest and cutest island, Comino, with its many bays and rocks, and crystal-clear waters, is also ideal for water-sports. Only a handful of farmers live here and there are no cars or other noisy distractions, just one cosy beach hotel which pulls all the romantic strings as the perfect hideaway. But you are not completely cut off as there are regular ferry trips to the mainland. It may only have 4 permanent residents, but Comino has its very own, world famous Blue Lagoon. This stunningly beautiful lagoon has crystal clear azure-blue water and as the island is only accessible by boat, the Blue Lagoon may well be a contender for the most romantic bay in the world. If the pure white sands and deep blue waters don’t tempt you, consider this – Comino is a popular location for Hollywood filmmakers and has appeared in movies like Troy, The Count of Monte Cristo and Swept Away.
Besides all the open-jawed admiration for its rich history, my enduring memory of Malta is of lime-stone dwellings scattered over the green hills like dollops of butter, the golden rays of the setting sun turning them the colour of the warm honey that I carried back as a fragrant souvenir of Malta, (most buildings are built with limestone, as it is the only natural resource found on the island), and I still dream of its air awash with springtime fruits and colourful flowers, set against the intense blue Mediterranean.