FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Unearth the Enduring Heritage and History of the Island Nation

by Richard Newton

Feb 26, 2024

PHOTO:
© ZOLTAN GABOR | DREAMSTIME.COM

February 2024

Valletta, capital of Malta, was built to keep us out. The old city is protected by formidable limestone walls and crammed onto a peninsula flanked by two natural harbors.

As we approach by water taxi from the district of Sliema, we can see no easy way in.

The Maltese islands — Malta and neighboring Gozo (and several smaller, uninhabited islands) — have been fought over for centuries. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean, this little island nation presides over sea routes between the Middle East and Western Europe and between Southern Europe and North Africa. In numerous wars Malta has been a strategic prize, hence the defenses. Few places evoke the history of Europe as vividly.

From our landing place we switchback up a road and through a stone arch. We’re immediately plunged into a maze of narrow streets. Where to start? As good a place as any is the Malta Experience, a 45-minute family-friendly “audiovisual spectacular” in an auditorium at St. Elmo’s Fort. Here we gain an overview of 7,000 years of Maltese history, providing context for our explorations of the city.

Medieval knights built much of Valletta in the 16th century. You can see their banners, weapons and suits of armor on display at the Armoury in the Grand Master’s Palace. Currently undergoing a $32 million restoration, the palace will reopen in phases from 2024, though the Armoury remains open to visitors throughout the renovations.

Kids might find the displays in the Armoury a bit, well, boring. Not so The Knights of Malta Experience in the inland city of Mdina. Located within the city’s walls and billed as an adventure museum, it brings medieval history to life with waxworks, sound and light displays, and 3-D presentations.

Malta experienced many sieges and battles in medieval times. It also famously held out against Italy and Germany during World War II, an act of heroism that earned the entire country Britain’s highest medal of civilian gallantry, the George Cross, proudly displayed on the national flag.

During the war the British military coordinated the defense of the island from a complex of tunnels and chambers under the city walls. Now collectively known as the Lascaris War Rooms, they provide an immersive experience of that era. Here countless air battles were monitored, with the movements of aircraft plotted on maps. Waves of bombers attacked Malta, but it held firm, and subsequently, from this underground headquarters, the Allies planned the successful invasion of Sicily.

PHOTO: © ZEYTUN IMAGES | DREAMSTIME.COM

A whole other world exists underneath Malta. Beneath Valletta itself you can explore an extensive warren of tunnels, grain stores and cisterns on guided tours. There are also many remnants of much older cultures. One of the most remarkable sits beneath an unassuming building in the town of Paola, close to Valletta. Here, in 1902, workers accidentally broke through into what appeared to be a cave. Closer investigation revealed it was manmade, with remarkable carved pillars and doorways. Now known as Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, this neolithic underground temple and cemetery dates back to 3300–3000 B.C. Many priceless artifacts were unearthed here, including The Sleeping Lady, a masterpiece of prehistoric art. To protect this remarkable site, visitor numbers are strictly limited, and it is essential to book in advance.

Easier to visit — and cheaper — are St. Paul’s Catacombs beneath the inland city of Rabat (adjoining the walled city of Mdina). Although this large underground cemetery, initially excavated by the Phoenicians more than 2,000 years ago, has not been used for centuries, it is a spooky place. “I wonder if there are any ghosts here,” said my wife, and for the remainder of our visit we jumped at the slightest noise or shadowy flicker. Kids will love it.

PHOTO: © LENISE CALLEJA | DREAMSTIME

Consider visiting a much more recent cultural site at a little cove on the northwest coast. Malta has long been a popular movie location, and here in 1979 director Robert Altman built a rickety wooden village for his movie Popeye, starring Robin Williams. The movie is largely forgotten, but the set has been preserved as a quirky theme park, with interactive shows, a mini assault course, and water activities in the bay and swimming pool complex.

From the Cirkewwa ferry terminal, close to Popeye Village, you can catch a ferry across to the island of Gozo. After the fortifications and bustling streets of Valletta, Gozo feels open and welcoming, with a rustic landscape of goat and sheep farms scattered with idyllic little villages. At the center of the island lies the capital, Victoria, a town of just 7,000 people. The walls of the city’s dominating medieval citadel afford panoramic views of the entire island.

PHOTO: © MIKHAIL STARODUBOV | DREAMSTIME

On Gozo you’re never far from a secluded beach. One of the most interesting places to swim is Dwejra Inland Sea, a crystal-clear lagoon connected to the ocean by a natural tunnel. The nearby Blue Hole offers a sheltered swimming area at the foot of dramatic cliffs. Sadly, an adjacent natural arch known as the Azure Window, which featured in an episode of Game of Thrones, collapsed during a storm in 2017.

Back in Valletta we are drawn back to the city walls. Atop these fortifications, high above Grand Harbour, a row of cannons, the Saluting Battery, faces out. Here soldiers ceremoniously fire the cannons at 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. every day. After the noise and smoke clear and the crowds filter away, we watch the comings and goings of water taxis and cruise ships from our imposing vantage safe within the city’s defenses.

LODGING
db Seabank Resort + Spa
This large, all-inclusive hotel facing a popular sandy beach includes a kids’ club, a fitness center, several restaurants and nightly entertainment in the hotel’s theater.
Marfa Road, Mellieha, Malta
$$$

Hotel Calypso
The modern, family-friendly hotel overlooks an idyllic little port on Gozo’s north coast. Scuba diving courses are available; minimum age is 8.
Marsalforn Bay, Gozo
$$$

The Phoenica Malta
This famous hotel reflects every era, from ancient to modern: stylish rooms, a 1930s palm court lounge and an infinity pool right beside Valletta’s medieval walls.
The Mall, Floriana, Malta $$$$

DINING
The Black Pearl
The pirate’s choice: a fun restaurant in a converted 100-year-old schooner on the quayside at Ta’Xbiex Marina. International menu features seafood and burgers.
Ta’Xbiex, Malta
$$

Gozo Picnic
Ana Kisling, a Ukrainian resident on Gozo, offers luxury picnics at some of Gozo’s most scenic locations. Contact her to make the arrangements. She’ll do the rest.
instagram.com/gozopicnic
$$

Ranieri Restaurant & Café
The inexpensive and unpretentious café offers pavement or indoor seating. There’s pizza or pasta for the unadventurous, or try Maltese favorites such as grilled squid or rabbit stew.
39 Republic St., Valletta, Malta
$$

INFO TO GO
International flights arrive at Malta International Airport, 6 miles south of Valletta. Buses serve major towns and resorts. Car rental is available, but be aware parking can prove a challenge in Valletta. Transfer to the island of Gozo by ferry from Cirkewwa, on Malta’s northernmost tip; the crossing takes 20 minutes, with departures every half hour.

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