With direct flights from Cork to Malta launching next month, Suzanne Harrington visits the breathtaking island.
Brainstorm Malta and what comes up – falcons, crosses, knights, chocolates at the cinema? Me too – until I went there.
Let me just start by saying that anyone who visits Malta and remains entirely on a sunlounger should have their passport revoked. Or if, like me, you think it’s a bit of an old folks home, a Mediterranean Madeira, then think again. If you want just sun, go to the Canary Islands, or if you want to party, go to Ibiza; but if you want to explore living history within a UNESCO World Heritage site, then go to Malta.
Not the touristy bit around St Paul’s Bay, but Valletta, the Three Cities, Mdina and Rabat.
And not on those gargantuan cruise ships that spit out 5,000 people for a few hours – spend some time properly exploring. You’ll need comfy shoes and coffee stops, but it will blow your mind.
Malta is a crossroads in the sea, south of Sicily, north of Libya. Its climate is Mediterranean sub tropical, with perfect winter temperatures, the island covered in orange, lemon, fig, pineapple and olive trees, prickly pear cactus (from which local liqueur is made) and fabulous flowers.
Also, it’s teeny tiny – the main island is 27km long, 14km wide – so everything is accessible. The Corinthia Palace & Spa Hotel, opposite the Presidential Palace in San Anton and surrounded by lush garden, is central to everything – nothing is too far away, yet the hotel is gloriously comfortable and peaceful. (www.corinthia.com) Watch out for traffic in busier areas – Malta has the fourth highest car usage in the EU. And they drive like Italians.
Maltese is the only Semetic language in the EU. It’s made up of 60% Arabic, 20% Sicilian Italian, and a 20% mixture of French, Spanish and English. Yet it sounds like Portuguese being spoken by a Russian.
‘Please wait’ on the ATM machine screen translates as ‘Jekk joghbok stenna ftit’. Everyone speaks English, luckily.
In Malta, the town directly outside the walls of the capital Valletta is 400 years old, but still known as the New Town. Valletta itself, the “city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”, was founded by the Knights in 1565, replacing Mdina as the island’s capital. Which is still quite modern in Maltese terms – the Phoenicians colonised Mdina in the 8th century BC, followed by the Romans in 218BC.
Or if the Romans and Phoenicians seem a bit recent, get the ferry to Gozo, where ancient temples of a peaceful civilisation discovered there predate the Pyramids and Stonehenge.
The Parliament House by the City Gate in Valletta, which opened in 2015, was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of the Shard in London and the Whitney Museum in New York.
Unlike its baroque neighbours, it’s unashamedly modern, but built from the same honey coloured limestone, Malta’s only natural resource. The design reflects the modernisation of Maltese society in the past six years – under the current socialist government, divorce, gay marriage and adoption, IVF, and free childcare are all now on the statute books.
The oldest café in Valletta, established in 1837, is where the capital’s finest congregate.
With chandeliers, gilt ceilings, and Maltese patisserie too beautiful to eat – the café has cooked for the Queen – it’s a great place to start your day. (www.caffecordina.com) Walter Scott, who lived in Valletta in the 1830s, called it “The splendid town quite like a dream”; and it really is a dream to walk through. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought so too.
Today, modern and old are quite literally on top of each other – the former Treasury of the Knights is now a Marks & Spencers.
Game of Thrones fans will recognise the waterfront of the Three Cities, even if the names Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa don’t resonate. Also filmed locally were the Count of Monte Cristo, Assassin’s Creed, Munich, and dozens more.
One local guide, Clive Cortis, took a young American woman on a three day tour of the island as she had Maltese heritage; he later realised she was Meghan Markle.
Mdina, the former capital, is a city with its council, but just 230 inhabitants – mostly barons, dukes, judges.
Brad Pitt has taken both Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston for dinner there at the 17th century Xara Palace, now a boutique hotel also favoured by Charles and Camilla.
Before you eat, you could always check out St Paul’s Catacombs five minutes away in Rabat. Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on Malta in 60AD, and took shelter in a nearby cave, before converting the local Roman boss, Publius, to Christianity. Publius became the first bishop of Malta.
The windows – ornate wooden boxes overhanging the limestone buildings – were a display of wealth, because wood had to be imported. In the churches, the inlaid carvings are made from citrus, carob and olive wood. Or as you walk through Valletta, you might pass the 16th century executioner’s house, marked with a small stone carving of a man and two axes.
St Lorenzo del Mar was a martyr grilled alive on August 10, still commemorated on the hottest day of the year by a festa (festival).
Every village has its own saint, and its own festa. A taxi driver told me that there is fierce competition.
In the countryside, spot the dry stone walling that looks Irish but is actually Arabic.
There is literally no stone in Malta that does not have a story.
Get a guide to make it all come to life even more - www.maltaprivateguide.com on 00 356 79 204815.
Fly direct to Malta from Cork on a new Ryanair route that will commence on the April 4.
For more spring features, pick up your free 64-page glossy magazine, IE Style, in Saturday's Irish Examiner.