Not usually the first destination that springs to mind when one thinks holidays, but maybe it is time to succumb to the lure of Malta.
I’ve recently been making use of my gap year to tick a few places off my long list of “Places I Must Visit While I’m Still Alive”. Malta wasn’t on the list, and to be honest I’d never have gone if it wasn’t for a temptingly cheap package deal. I wouldn’t imagine it’s on many other people’s lists either, so I’ve decided to write an article about its semi-obscure charms.
Malta is made up of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. Comino isn’t exactly a tourist favourite, with a permanent population of just four people. A lot of visitors skip Gozo too, as Malta is much bigger and boasts most of the major cities and attractions. Don’t make this mistake. Gozo is every bit as interesting as Malta, if not more. The best option is to fly to Malta and base yourself there, then take the ferry to Gozo for a day trip or two.
Malta is an ideal destination for people who like the quiet life. The streets are half-empty and the pace of life is slow. In a typical village you’ll barely have to look out for traffic before crossing the road, and if a driver does come by they’ll probably wave you ahead anyway. Street art and live music are virtually non-existent. As you might guess, it’s also not the place to go for shopping or clubbing. The one exception is Paceville, Malta’s party district. It’s filled with venues blasting dance music at ear-splitting volumes, plus a bizarre amount of karaoke bars and a couple of what are quaintly called “gentleman’s clubs”.
Other than that, your best bet is to wander through the towns’ many narrow, winding streets, or have a look inside the churches. Evidently no-one has told the Maltese that churches come in anything less than cathedral size. Even the tiniest of rural villages boasts at least one fabulously ornate Baroque extravaganza. If you’re more of a scenery person, then avoid the incredibly densely populated eastern section of the island. The west is the place to go, with its green, hilly landscape and picturesque coastline.
Gozo is much less built up. Its countryside is the real deal, packed full of scrubby grass, gnarled trees, green valleys and sandy beaches. Gozo’s towns are also grander and more architecturally interesting than Malta’s. Expect to see plenty of classically-influenced houses, wrought iron railings and mini-statues in the gardens. The island is so small you can see most of the main attractions in a day.
Finally, the food. You’re generally offered reasonably priced, tasty fare in large portions. Beer is cheap wherever you go, and the favourite local lager is Cisk (try some, it’s good). If you’re staying anywhere near St. Julian’s, head to Ir-Rokna, the oldest pizzeria on the island and surely one of the best. Pizza and pasta are nearly as popular in Malta as they are in Italy, and as far as I’m concerned the Maltese do them better. The country’s main speciality, though, is rabbit. If you’re in Valletta and you want some great rabbit stew and lasagne, head down Merchant Street to the Anglo Maltese League. This isn’t an international spy organisation, it’s a cosy restaurant with good prices and great service.
Valletta – The capital of Malta. It’s a fortified city ringed by walls that reach well below ground level, meaning you have to cross a bridge over a vast trench to get inside. As if this wasn’t imposing enough, you’re led directly into the heart of the city, the impressive Republic Street. I visited on a Sunday and nothing was open bar a couple of tourist shops and a sex cinema, so I just walked around. It was well worth it. The streets are mostly pedestrianised and the architecture is so good that the entire city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlights include the view of the sea and the interior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, where not one square inch has been left undecorated.
Rabat and Mdina – Both on Malta island. Rabat is a pleasant hilltop town with a Roman villa and a lot of catacombs. If you’re visiting the villa, don’t miss the nearby coffee shop Taste Malta, where you’ll find delicious nougat and the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had. Mdina is a medieval walled city inside Rabat, or to put it another way, a village-sized time travel machine. It’s essentially a maze of incredibly narrow streets; not a car or newsagent in sight. Make your way to the far end for an excellent view of the surrounding countryside.
Dwejra Bay – On the coast of Gozo. If you’re spending the day in Gozo, the tourist bus is the way to go. It brings you to every major point on the island, passing through some incredible scenery on the way. You can get off right at the Bay, giving you the chance to explore a playground of sand, caves, cliffs and pools. Best of all is the Azure Window (pictured above), a limestone arch protruding into the sea. Apparently it’s been featured in Game of Thrones, though I wouldn’t know.
Cittadella – A walled city inside Gozo’s capital, Victoria. This is basically Gozo’s version of Mdina, though I actually prefer it because you can walk along the high walls in every direction, giving you a fantastic 360° view of the surroundings. I recommend going in the late afternoon so you can catch the sunset.
The Ggantija Temples – Gozo again. Forget Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ghar Dalam, this is the prehistoric complex you want to see. It’s older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids, and no-one knows who built it or why. The twin temples are so well-preserved that you can walk around inside them, and at their highest point the walls reach over 7 metres. For your 9 euro you can also visit the site museum, which features an ancient skull and a representation of what its owner would have looked like. Now that’s cool.