Miniature perfection

By Kim O’Hare

Malta is a classic example of the adage that size doesn’t matter. It’s rich in culture, history and the arts. There’s a pleasant Mediterranean climate and the Maltese people extend a warm welcome. It’s also easily accessible from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and yet it’s moderately priced compared to other European seaside destinations. 

Central Valetta
Charming central Valetta
Malta is at the geographical crossroads of the region, and it has often been at the crossroads of history.  It’s history has not escaped the attention if feature film makers. Dozens of films have been shot here including parts of the Da Vinci Code, Gladiator, Helen of Troy, and Munich. Along with heaps of other useful information provides a map indicating where various movies were shot.

The language, food, architecture and culture of Malta reflect European, Arabian and British influences. English is universally spoken, because of the country’s close ties with Britain for most of the past two centuries. The Italian influence is evident in restaurants and the arts. The architecture and language reflect a strong Arabic influence.

Two of the five islands that comprise the country are inhabited. Malta, the largest, is about 320 sq km, with Gozo about one fifth that size. Despite the fact that Malta is the third most densely populated county in the world, there are still hundreds of nooks and crannies that offer peace and serenity.

Getting around Malta is hassle free The bus system is an interesting, if sometimes a bone jarring way to travel. The bus fleet, which includes a few vehicles dating back to the post war era, is being phased out in favour of sleek, modern, albeit less interesting vehicles. The adult fare of less than a dollar will take you almost anywhere on the main island. Taxis are too few and too expensive.

Valetta harbour
The harbour at Valetta
With a bit of planning and a bus pass you can see many of the country’s highlights in a week. Car hire is always an option, and a self-guided holiday is easy and trouble free, especially if you use the resources of . Below are some of the highlights of Malta you should consider visiting.

A day in the capital, Valetta, provides context for the rest of your visit. Valetta is best seen on foot. The walled city, built in the 1500s, is a neat compact symmetrical grid of tiny streets. There are numerous squares, street side cafes and pubs where you can sip cappuccino or local wine. Just inside the city gate, there’s a tourist information office with all the free information you’ll need.

A short stroll to the end of Republic Street brings you to Fort St. Elmo, the home of the Knights of the Order of Saint John. The fort is open to visitors on weekends and you can witness the changing of the guard during summer months. Nearby is the Malta Experience, a large-screen a/v presentation about the country’s history, from prehistoric times to the German siege of WWII. The National War Museum provides a glimpse of the critical role Malta played during WWII during constant Nazi bombardment. The subterranean headquarters of Allied Mediterranean intelligence during the war is open to the public.

Valetta harbour cruises feature a commentary on the history of the area while you enjoy a luncheon buffet. You can also arrange a smaller boat suitable for a family cruise of the harbour. Alternatively, you can see Valetta from a carrozin, or horse-drawn taxi.

A windmill at Ggantiya
A windmill at Ggantiya
The inland cities of Mdina and Rabat are fascinating and easily accessible by bus. Mdina, was first settled during the Bronze age, but in 870 AD the Arabs took the area, built walls 190 metres high around the tiny city and named it Mdina. The area outside the walls became known as Rabat. Mdina is a pedestrian city and is so peaceful it’s known as the Silent City. Many of those who live within Mdina’s walls today can trace their ancestry to the original Maltese nobility. One of the world’s most interesting boutique hotels, The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux was built during the late 17th Century, and served as a residence for a noble family. It’s a favourite hideaway of the rich and famous.

Bus to Buskett Gardens, the only forested area on the Island. Stroll the forest path to Clapham Junction about two miles away. Clapham Junction is a rock outcrop where dozens of parallel cart tracks have been worn right into the rock about 2,000BC, although no one is sure of their origin. The spectacular Dingli Cliffs facing south over the blue Mediterranean are about 1km farther on.

In the same area along the south coast is one of Malta’s best known natural landmarks, the Blue Grotto. Hire a small boat to tour limestone caves carved by centuries of pounding by ocean waves. 

Gozo's Azure Window
Gozo’s Azure Window
Marsaxlokk is a traditional fishing village on the east coast. Sit in a café overlooking the colourful fishing boats and enjoy great seafood. On weekdays there is also a small market at the waterfront.

A visit to the country’s other inhabited Island, Gozo is mandatory. A day tour that includes most of the major sites usually includes lunch. In recent years several hotels have sprung up on Gozo, so staying there a few days is now an option. Gozo features the oldest freestanding stone structure in the world - Ggantija Temple, which predates Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids. 

The Azure Window a hundred metre, natural limestone bridge hangs over the Mediterranean on Gozo’s west coast. Not far away is Il Cawra, the inland sea, a landlocked seawater pool connected to the Mediterranean by a natural cave. Weather permitting, hire a boat to traverse the inland sea, through the cave, emerging on the Mediterranean. 

The tiny fishing village of Xlendi, wedged into a steep narrow fjord on the coast of Gozo is a great place to relax for a few hours. It’s a charming village with a great view and a few shops, although it does get very busy during peak season.

While sandy beaches are few in Malta, there are ample opportunities for water sports including sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing and paragliding. There’s also golfing and horse racing (trotters).  As the country is on the Euro-African migratory path, bird watching is excellent, particularly on the rocky outcrops of Gozo and the Marfa peninsula.

For nightlife, forget Valetta and head to St Julian’s, specifically the area known as Paceville (pronounced Patchville). It probably has the highest density of pubs, bars and discos in Europe. Malta also has several casinos.

Summer is the time for festas – the religious celebrations in honour of the patron saint of each parish that draw whole communities together for festivals of lively fun.

Malta is not a shopping destination. There are a few shops in Valetta including the outdoor market on Merchants’ street open daily until noon. The country’s main shopping area is Silema a few miles down the road from Valetta. Locally made items to look for include handmade lace knitwear and glass.

Maltese cuisine reflects the country’s multicultural past. Italian food is abundant, but to get a taste of truly local fare try a pastizi, a rich flakey pastry filled with ricotta cheese or dried peas. Locally made bread is a treat, good seafood is abundant and many restaurants feature rabbit in a variety of forms. Local wines and beer are more than acceptable, especially if consumed with fresh Gozo cheese.

Accommodation varies from five star luxury to family run B & B operations. The locally operated Corinthia group has several excellent properties to suit a range of tastes and budgets. There’s also a range of spa hotels (see links below) for those of you looking for that extra bit of indulgence. Food, beverage and accommodation prices are generally much more reasonable that those in the rest of Europe. The Maltese are a warm, friendly people proud of their country and its wonderful sights. No wonder people return every year.

Emirates fly from Dubai to Malta (via Larnaca) four days a week – on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Tickets are from Dhs 2,520 incl taxes.

Spa hotels

Corinthia Palace Hotel (inland, but highly recommended)

Martitim Antonin and Spa (about 1K away from Mellieha Bay - in the centre of the village, but tastefully furnished and good facilities)

Barcelo Riviera Hotel and Spa in Marfa (on the sea facing Comino island - again a good range of facilities)

Fortina Spa Resort (great view and loads of spa facilities, including the world’s first spa bedrooms, but rooms and service generally both disappointing and there’s noise from the local construction project scheduled for completion in 2008)

  • Special thanks to Gilbert Vassallo for his help in preparing this article. Visit Gilbert’s website for details of holiday accommodation in Malta and Gozo.
Dream Days advert