It’s difficult to reconcile the diminutive size of Malta with its significant place in history.
The seven-island archipelago — a member of the European Union since 2004 — lies east of Tunisia, north of Libya and about 60 miles south of Sicily, in the middle of the Mediterranean. A fusion of these nations’ cultures and customs, as well as those of various conquerors, directed the evolution of Malta, molding it into a place composed of ancient temples, Catholic churches and vineyards juxtaposed with upscale hotels and a healthy selection of discos and bars.
The Maltese are descendents of ancient Carthaginians, Phoenicians and Byzantines, but most notable — and starkly so — are the cultural imprints left by the Italians and Arabs. Roman influence is still very palpable, such as the architecture — many buildings in the capital city of Valletta and the churches throughout the country are baroque style. There is a particularly strong Roman Catholic presence, testifying even today to a close link between Italy and Malta. The Arabs introduced irrigation systems, citrus fruits, cotton, closed balconies and, most markedly, the guttural inflection of the local language. The combination of the Italian cadence and throaty Arabic is lovely, and although there are clear Arabic echoes, the language is written using the Latin alphabet. Malta’s second official language is English.
Three of Malta’s seven islands are inhabited with a total population of about 365,000. Malta is a place where everyone knows everyone. Opt to see things on your own, and perhaps you will miss out on this characteristic of Maltese life. Spend a day with a tour guide, and you will most certainly end up in his home meeting his wife and children and sipping on a glass of wine or a cup of tea, admiring the treasures in his glass display case.
Guiding is very serious business in Malta, requiring impressive knowledge of the many sites. In the face of such a dense history, it is worth spending time with a person who deeply understands the country, layer by layer.
The first stratum in Malta’s history is littered with prehistoric animal remains from the Ice Age when the islands formed a land bridge connecting Europe and Africa. Megalithic temples — such as Ggantija in Gozo and Hagar Qim on Malta — and tools found in caves, in spots that include Ghar Dalam on the big island, point to the first traces of humans in Malta about 7,000 years ago. These temples predate the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge by a millennium.
For more recent history, Valletta is a great place to begin a tour. St. John’s Co-Cathedral, attesting to the vanity of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, is a baroque structure displaying works of art by Mattia Preti and Caravaggio. (The Knights are another in a long line of Malta’s conquerors.) There is also Casa Roca Piccola, a palazzo built in 1850, owned and inhabited by the same family since its construction. The palazzo provides a glimpse into late 19th-and early 20th-century Maltese domestic life. The owner himself greets visitors, showing off his prized collections, some of which include lace, sewing thimbles, table settings and paintings. Eclectic and lovely, but housing the memory of a dark past, the structure includes two underground World War II bomb shelters.
Perhaps what best characterizes Malta are the honey-colored stone buildings spread out like undulating desert dunes across the largest island. Walk through the streets of Mdina, the quiet city to the west, past the subtly tolling bells of the abbey, home to cloistered nuns. Outside Mdina, in Rabat, you will find St. Paul’s Catacombs, representing the earliest indication of Christianity on the islands. Marsaxlokk is a fishing village on the southeastern side of the big island where you will see the traditional fishing boats called luzzu, painted bright red, yellow and blue with the protective eye of Osiris at the prow.
Roam the Three Cities — Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa — northwest of Marsaxlokk and witness sites that evoke a sudden tenderness, leaving you silent and appreciative. The bastions built by the Knights are formidable, a protective blanket of stone hugging the three cities. The old Collachio quarter is full of inns and auberges where the Knights spent much of their time. The smells wafting from small bakeries still using large chimney ovens is intense; the fresh bread and pastries will undoubtedly draw you inside to taste and inevitably purchase a variety of treats, such as breads coated in a sugary paste topped with shredded almonds. The shrapnel scars from World War II on the sides of buildings bring to mind Malta’s brave efforts as a critical point along Axis shipping lanes, while an elderly man leaning against the open window of his balcony taps his fingers on the sill in sync with old jazz records playing on a gramophone at a volume that sends Etta James’ silky voice gliding through narrow corridors.
More than just an extensive history, Malta has an array of activities for more adventurous travelers, such as horseback riding, jet skiing, windsurfing, biking and diving (try the labyrinth of underwater caves at Anchor Bay or the tunnels at the inland sea). Climb the cliffs at Dingli on the main island or take a helicopter ride over Gozo. The possibilities here are tremendous.
WESTIN DRAGONARA RESORT
Nestled on a private peninsula in St. Julian’s, the 341-room (including 29 suites) Westin Dragonara is just steps away from the shops and restaurants of downtown Malta. The resort features three outdoor swimming pools and private gardens. There is a fitness center, a spa, and a state-of-the-art conference facility that can accommodate up to 550. An on-site business center offers high-speed Internet access. WiFi is available in the lobby lounge, main pool deck, conference center and Espresso Cafe. Guests staying in Executive Club rooms have access to the executive lounge serving breakfast and afternoon cocktails. $$$$
WESTIN DRAGONARA RESORT
St. Julians STJ 02
tel 356 21 381000, fax 356 21 381347
Located in St George’s Bay, St Julian’s, the InterContinental Malta is just 7-1/2 miles from Malta International Airport (MLA) and 4-1/2 miles from Malta’s historic capital,Valletta.The 451-room hotel is within walking distance of some of Malta’s finest shopping, entertainment, dining and nightlife venues. The resort property features landscaped gardens, extensive meeting and conference facilities, eight restaurants, swimming pool and private beach. Guests staying in Club InterContinental Malta executive rooms enjoy a private lounge serving champagne breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening cocktails. $$$$
St. George’s Bay
St. Julian’s STJ 02
tel 356 21 377600, fax 356 21 372222
CORINTHIA JERMA PALACE HOTEL
The Corinthina Jerma Palace, just outside the fishing village of Marsaskala, is one of four Corinthia properties in Malta. Just a short cab ride from fresh-fish markets and vendors selling Maltese goods, the hotels sits on a small peninsula surrounded by the blue Mediterranean, and most of its 325 rooms — all with balconies — offer views of the sea. All rooms also have satellite television, and some have suite lounges. The hotel’s location makes it ideal for water sports — windsurfing, canoeing, waterskiing and scuba diving. Dine at Panorama Restaurant, Sea Waves Lobby Bar & Terrace, Nautico Bar or Oasis Cocktail Bar. Jerma Palace has a fitness room, a sauna, a fresh-water indoor pool, a salt-water outdoor pool and tennis courts. There is also a business center with high-speed Internet access as well as conference facilities. $$$
CORINTHIA JERMA PALACE HOTEL
Dawret it -Torri
tel 356 2163 3222, fax 356 2163 9485
Luciano is a charming family-run restaurant in Valetta. The fare doesn’t fail to deliver that exotic mixture of European and Arabic flavors. For starters, try a plate of sausages, salami and olives with tomatoes and onions, but not before pouring on a bit of oil and vinegar. Or taste Maltese sheep’s cheese on crackers dribbled with a touch of honey. The rabbit, a very popular Maltese dish, at Luciano is cooked in white wine and garlic and comes with fries and a salad. Finish off the meal with a plate of fresh fruit and a shot of limoncello. $$
21, 22 Merchants St.
Valletta VLT 10
tel 356 236 212
You will find Ta’Rikardu within the parapet walls of the great Citadel in the center of Gozo. It is to the left of a massive cathedral, just off a flight of stone steps that lead to bastions commanding a magnificent view of the surrounding villages, vineyards and farmland. There is no menu. Take a seat and a server will place the usual on the table — Gozitan bread and cheese, a glass of homemade wine, a plate of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, capers and sheep’s cheese with pepper, followed by ravioli with marinara sauce. $$
4, Fosos St.
tel 356 2155 5953, fax 356 2156 5204
This seafood venue serves very fresh catch. Start with a prawn cocktail with a side of lemon and topped with a creamy mayonnaise sauce. There is a selection of pasta dishes, like farfarelle with prawns, spaghetti ai ricci and risotto marinara. The menu also lists a choice of meat dishes, such as rabbit, pork fillet in marsala sauce and peppered steak fillet with either prawns or salmon. Try the steak fillet topped with a creamy mushroom sauce and a side of fries. Ta’Peppi is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday $$$
78 Xatt is-Sajjieda
tel 356 2165 0664
Malta is a quiet island, not much defined by its nocturnal activities, though there is a small section of the island where a lively night scene has blossomed. The discos and nightclubs of Paceville and St. Jullien’s Bay have become familiar territory for internationally renowned DJs, and not just at summer peak. Axis (St. George’s Road, St. Julian’s STJ 02, tel 356 318 078, http://www.axis.com.mt) is two clubs in one. The first floor called The Matrix plays R&B and soul music. Q/Dos on the upper level has a soundproofed glass floor looking down on patrons of The Matrix and caters to those who like hard techno and trance music. DJs also make their way to Havana (St. George’s Road, Paceville, tel 356 2137 4500) for more soul and R&B on the turntables. For some Latin flavor try Fuega Salsa Bar (St. George’s Bay, tel 356 2138 6746, http://www.fuego.com) for salsa dancing. Surprisingly the low-key city of Rabat (bordering Mdina) has a superclub of its own. Tattingers (Saqqaja Road, Rabat, tel 356 2145 1104) plays a variety of music to suit all its patrons, including commercial dance, house and trance. Some clubs even host foam parties. Guests wade into neck-high white foam for a night of dancing amid strangely “floating” heads. The strictly enforced all-white dress code certainly adds to the effect. This isn’t the venue for fashionable shoe wear, either. The floors can get a bit sticky.
Casinos are also hot spots on the island. Two of the most popular are Casino’ di Venezia (The Captain’s Palace Waterfront, Vittorioso, tel 356 2180 5580) and Dragonara (Dragonara Place, St. Jullien’s, tel 356 2138 2362-4).
For a quieter night out, there are cinemas in Valletta and Paceville featuring the latest Hollywood flicks. Concerts are also an alternative to clubs. Try to catch a ghana (pronounced aana) show.Two or three people take turns playing the guitar, each making a melodic argument to which the others must respond. Lyrics are improvised and each challenge is friendly. Mdina is ideal for a nighttime romantic stroll. It is a city composed of narrow corridors, in the evenings lit softly by old-fashioned street lamps.
Though the island of Gozo is only a half-hour ferry ride from the main island, it is certainly worth spending a full day, perhaps even two. The passenger/vehicle ferryboat departs Malta from both Cirkewwa to the northwest and Sa Maison to the southeast. Visit the Ggantija Temples. They are considered to be the oldest freestanding structures in the world, dating to 3,500 BC. Calypso’s Cave is a set high atop a hill overlooking the golden Ramla Beach. According to Greek mythology, Calypso, with her consummate beauty, charmed Homer into staying on the island of Gozo for seven years. The Basilica of St. George is one of the many exquisitely designed churches in Malta, an excellent example of Roman baroque architecture. The Inland Sea may possibly be the most picturesque site on the island, perhaps in the whole country. It is a secluded bathing pool surrounded by high, sheer cliffs and connected to the open sea by a small tunnel. Motorboat tours take visitors through the tunnel for a view of the Azure Window, a 65-foot-high natural rock arch. Diving is also a possibility here. At the very center of Gozo, climb the battlements of the Gran Castello, a citadel providing a 360-degree view of the island. Also worth seeing are the beautiful salt pans in Qbajjar. The high tide creates pools of water on the rocks, which then evaporate, leaving behind a thick blanket of salt that looks like fresh snow patches. Sicily is also only a 90-minute ferry ride to the north of Malta. This ferry also transports cars, but it is worth noting that in Malta driving is on the left, and in Sicily driving is on the right.
INFO TO GO
Malta International Airport (MLA) is three miles southeast of Valletta. Taxis are available at the airport for a fixed price. Go to the taxi booth inside the welcome lounge for tickets. The bus, just outside the check-in hall also has regular service to and from Valletta. If renting a car, remember, driving is on the left. There are convenient money exchange windows by the baggage claim.
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