Malta, a jewel in the heart of the Mediterranean, proves the best things come in small packages. Karen Murray visited the island which is the smallest country in EU.
I always had a vague yearning to visit Malta but knew very little about it, with an embarrassing lack of knowledge on even the basics like currency (euro), time difference (one hour ahead) and the need to pack an adapter plug (not required).
Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, there are three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, of which Malta is the largest. And that’s large in the loosest sense of the word because at 27km long and 14.5km wide it’s pretty compact. You are never much further than a half hour’s drive from anywhere and it’s very easy to navigate (although I did get lost between the hotel and shopping area — a mere five minutes’ walk away — which was a source of great amusement among my touring peers).
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I arrived in Malta at the end of February with an open mind and a suitcase for all seasons (having been told the weather could be a little fresh this time of year).
Layers are best for spring travel as in spite of pleasant sunshine, there was a definite chill in the air. In summer months, temperatures can rise to the late 40s, which even the Maltese tour guide described as challenging. Brisk sunshine worked fine, especially with a full-on touring schedule.
Our base was the Corinthia Hotel St George’s Bay, in St Julian’s, about half an hour’s drive from the airport. Situated at the water’s edge with views of the Mediterranean, the Corinthia is luxurious, with eight on-site restaurants, six pools, a diving school, water sports centre and spa —as well as plenty of knowledgeable staff. And in spite of its grandeur, a large glass of Sauvignon in the bar only cost €4. All about priorities.
Our first trip was a tour of the capital, Valletta, which was voted European Capital of Culture last year. The walled city was established in the 1500s on a peninsula by the Knights of St John, a Roman Catholic order, and is renowned for its museums, palaces and grand churches as well as cobbled streets, stores and eateries. The city is Baroque in character but the Second World War left its scars (Malta was under British rule at this time) and one of the casualties was the Royal Opera House which was destroyed. However, much of the city has been rebuilt with modern architecture being sensitively incorporated in golden sandstone. No eyesores here.
Churches are abundant in Malta, there are 365 of them — one for every day of the year. But although it is 95% Catholic, times are changing. Our tour guide quipped that aside from tourist attractions, churches nowadays are largely used for hatching (births), matching (weddings) and dispatching (funerals). Divorce was introduced in 2011 and Malta has allowed civil unions for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples since 2014.
St John’s Cathedral, nestling in the heart of Valletta, was our first port of call. A stunning example of Baroque art and architecture, it was built between 1573 and 1577 as the conventual church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value and the church remains an important shrine as well as a venue for cultural events.
The cathedral is home to many famous works, including those of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio went on the run after killing a man in Rome during a duel in 1606 and was encouraged to travel to Malta where, in spite of his crimes, he was accepted into the Order as a Knight of Obedience. While there, he painted the renowned ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ and ‘St Jerome Writing’, both of which are preserved in the cathedral.
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The next stop in Valletta was Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th century palace of the de Piro family. As well as being a unique attraction for tourists, Casa Rocca Piccola is still a privately owned, lived-in home. Its history goes back over 400 years to an era in which the Knights of St John, having fought off the invading Turks, decided to build a prestigious city to rival European capitals. As well as spectacular artwork and furniture, the home has the quirky attraction of three three bomb shelters, the largest of which could accommodate 100 people.
Getting around Malta is pretty easy, but if you get tired walking, you can take a reasonably priced ‘Dghajsa’ — a Maltese gondola shaped boat — trip around the Valletta Harbour. The views are stunning and it would be a lovely way to cool down in the hotter months.
Another innovative way to see the island is the Rolling Geeks tour of the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. A two and a half hour trip costs about €80 per car (you can do shorter and cheaper excursions) which includes a pre-programmed GPS guide, multilingual electronic guide and live tracking. You’ll need your driving licence to take the tour - and while the electric-powered vehicle (which resembles a golf buggy) doesn’t travel faster than 20kmph, you still need your wits about you (Maltese drivers are not unlike the Italians when it comes to speed and tolerance on the road).
Mdina, a fortified city in the northern region of Malta, is a must-see attraction. According to tradition it was here that in 60AD that St Paul is said to have lived after being shipwrecked on the Islands. Known as ‘The Silent City’, Mdina is one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city and is truly enchanting, with narrow, cobbled streets and stunning examples of medieval and baroque architecture.
A trip to Malta wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Gozo, the second largest island in the archipelago. The regular ferry between the two islands is reasonably priced and takes just 20 minutes. With a population of just 37,000 or so, covering an area of 26 square miles, it’s quieter, less developed and greener than its bigger sister. The name means ‘joy’ and it’s an apt description.
Gozo is the home of the Ggantija Temples, the oldest free-standing structures in the world, and the Citadel in Victoria (a small bastion city built atop one of the hills in Gozo with a rich historical background). In fact, in the first series of Game of Thrones, the Azure Window (natural rock formation which sadly collapsed recently) featured in the backdrop of some of the more memorable scenes.
The view from the bastions is breathtaking and inside its walls, the Citadel attractions include a graffiti-laden prison. There are also museums and old medieval houses open to the public, and a couple of restaurants specialising in traditional Gozitan cuisine.
A less well known place that sums up Gozo’s history and culture is the Ta Mena Estate, a family affair integrating agriculture and tourism. Guests learn about crops and food processing and get to sample the produce including the finest bread I have ever tasted, olives, cheese, sausage and a sumptuous wine called Juel - which, we were told, due to its lack of sulphates does not result in a hangover.
Malta excels in fresh, high-quality, and delicious food. Visitors are encouraged to try a traditional savoury pastry called pastizzi which is typically filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. There are still remnants from Britain - red phone boxes and letter boxes and of course the language - but thankfully cuisine is largely (and fabulously) Mediterranean. No egg and chips brigade here.
Worth a mention is the Rubino Restaurant in the heart of Valletta. Originally a confectionery, Rubino is one of the city’s oldest establishments and full of quaint, olde worlde charm, it certainly didn’t disappoint. With a delicious arrangement of antipasto main dishes included red snapper and pan fried rabbit (fenek moqli).
Another fine eaterie is Wigi’s Restaurant. The name is derived from the restaurant’s owner Louis, whose family has been involved in culinary establishments for generations. Located in the heart of Balluta Bay in St Julian’s it’s cozy, friendly and extremely busy — book in advance to avoid being disappointed. The food served is based on the traditional Mediterranean kitchen with a seasonal menu that changes daily.
Malta has something for everyone of all ages. It packs a lot into its small archipelago, is steeped in culture and history, and has magnificent sites and breathtaking views. The food, sunshine and friendly natives all add to the pluses.
Flights Ryanair flies five times per week direct from Dublin to Malta International Airport in the summer and three times per week in the winter.
A Cork-Malta route commences on April 4. The Cork service will operate as part of the airline’s summer and winter 2019 schedule. ryanair.com Accommodation The Corinthia Hotel St George’s Bay, St Julian’s www.corinthiahotels.com
Tour operators from Ireland to Malta:
Concorde Travel: www.concordetravel.ie
Mercury Holidays: www.mercuryholidays.ie
Budget Travel: www.budgettravel.ie
For more information, see www.maltaireland.com