Malta’s history is ancient. On this tiny archipelago of three islands in the Mediterranean are some of the oldest temples and burial sites on the planet. But it has had a significant impact on recorded history too – much greater than its small size would suggest.
Effectively a gateway to Asia, the Middle East and Europe,one Maltese acquaintance cheerfully told me, “We have been invaded by everyone – Arabs, Turks, Normans, French, Greeks, Romans – even the British!”
The result is a language that is a hodgepodge of Arabic, Italian, French and even a little English, which is cheerfully inserted when no word exists in Maltese. It’s impossible to learn but everyone speaks English so communication isn’t a problem. Maltese culture today is the same hodgepodge which makes this a really good reason to visit. It’s fascinating.
Here are a few more good reasons to visit this unique little country:
1. Come for the Prehistory:
Much of Malta’s history is not recorded. Two of the three islands have temples which date back about 5-6,000 years and are awesome – in the true sense of the word. These early peoples were the’ Temple Builders’.
They moved and raised enormous blocks of limestone at a time when the wheel had not yet been invented. The most impressive for me were the Ggantija Temples on the tiny island of Gozo. Many of these ruins were razed in the early 20th century in a misguided attempt to modernize, but, with the help of eminent archaeologists, the government is now protecting and restoring these as much as possible.
They have an interesting source. In the 19th Century, the European aristocracy usually made a ‘Grand Tour’ around Europe, and Malta’s remarkable ruins were part of the tour. Much of what is known of the razed sites comes through their drawings.
Most remarkable is the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (literally Underground). This is a necropolis (burial site) which contained thousands of bodies in the deep caves excavated by hand into the soft limestone. It was only found about 100 years ago, and it’s been preserved by limiting access to just 10 people per hour. The math will tell you that 80 people a day would not accommodate the thousands of people who visit the island, so getting tickets was a wonderful piece of luck. Bookings generally run at least three months in advance. The photo above of the interior is from a postcard; no cameras are allowed.
2. Come for the History:
So many invaders has meant that one can find fascinating traces of their culture in the art and architecture. It’s fun tracing these roots.
Although it has existed for about 4,000 years, the fortified city of Mdina, was the made the capital under Arab rule (870-1091 AD). It sits on a high hill which offers panoramic views around the entire island. It remained the capital city of Malta until 1571, when the ruling Knights of St. John moved the capital to Valletta.
For a long time, Mdina became virtually a ghost town and became known as The Silent City. Cars are still limited and the city has strict noise by-laws, which we watched a group of local teenage visitors take great delight in challenging.
It offers an interesting opportunity to see Arab, Norman and Roman architecture. Strolling its narrow, quiet streets and alleys at night is a somewhat eerie experience.
The Roman Domus in Rabat, just outside the walls of Mdina, dates to the 1st century BC. Discovered in 1881, archaeological excavations revealed Roman mosaics, statues and other artifacts, now carefully preserved and displayed. Not far away is St. Paul’s Grotto where the Christian saint took refuge when he was shipwrecked on the island.
The Normans contributed walls and fortifications though most of these have been lost.. The Knights of St. John took fortifications to new heights. In the city of Birgu, a short ferry ride from Valletta, you’ll find this distinctive watchtower with a giant eye carved on one side and a giant ear on the other – a clear message to those guarding the city to remain vigilant. Or perhaps it was a warning to those might be tempted to attack?
The Knights of St. John designed Valletta as the capital city in the mid-15th century and one of the early by-laws was that street corners had to be made attractive. As a result, many intersections have beautiful sculpture set in niches.
Most streets are narrow, but the main streets are broad and spacious with lots of open squares or plazas. We happily spent several days wandering the streets, discovering little shops and restaurants.
The Aragonese (Spanish) period introduced the guitar to the music of Malta, as well as the distinctive enclosed balconies or gallerija one sees everywhere. These are often colourfully painted. The government now protects this heritage architectural feature.
Of course the British brought little red postal boxes and telephone booths, though it should be mentioned that Malta’s government uses a Westminster style of Parliament.
3. Come for the Food:
Malta’s culinary scene is probably one of the least appreciated in Europe. Like the language, the food incorporates many different cultural influences. They wisely eschewed British food for the most part, though the British breakfast is ubiquitous!
The appetizer is typically Arabic mezes. We occasionally shared a Maltese platter as a simple meal at Il Malti in Sliema. A Maltese platter usually includes pita, beans, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, some form of pâté or spread (this could be meat or beans), large beans (the Arab ful), Kapunata (Sicilian caponata – a thickened version of ratatouille) and wedges of Gbjeniet, a deliciously earthy goat’s milk cheese coated with crushed black peppers. I would have liked to bring a pound of this last back with me!
Main courses tend to draw on Italian and French influences. I’ve always eschewed rabbit, but I tried it – twice! My favourite presentation was served stewed in a delicate blend of white wine and herbs at Café Cordina in Valletta – a restaurant better known for pastries and sweets.
The snack/dinner/breakfast food here is pastizzi which is a flaky pastry filled with either savoury cooked split peas or ricotta cheese. The government is trying to discourage too much pastizzi because it is usually made with lard or margarine –- lots and lots of it – and is consequently not particularly healthy if consumed daily. It may sound a bit unappetizing but pastizzi is delicious! I’m glad I don’t live here. I would eat it far too often for good health.
Sadly it wasn’t until our last day that we discovered one of the best little sandwich spots around. It’s easy to miss Gusto Giusto as it’s a few steps up from The Strand, the main street in Sliema, but this little sandwich shop offers superb panini and the best cappuccino in Malta.
4. Come for the Churches:
Modern Malta has a different religion – Catholicism – and its population of just over half a million has more than 375 places in which to worship. The guides keep telling me that I could visit a different one every day of the year and still have some left over. Nearly all are Catholic and most are quite magnificent. The most impressive is undoubtedly St. John Co-Cathedral in Valletta, the capital city.
Built in 1577, the interior is ridiculously opulent. Baroque artist Mattia Preti designed the intricate carved stone walls and painted the vaulted ceiling with scenes from the life of John the Baptist.
The figures painted into the ceiling next to each column seem to be three-dimensional, but the eye is fooled by painted shadows. There are nine chapels along the sides, each vying, it would seem, to be more magnificent than the last.
The outside looks fairly ordinary but inside the many Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta have been buried with appropriate marble to commemorate them so that the whole floor is a series of 400 tombs.
I feel sorry for future Grand Masters, they might have to content themselves with a grand grave outside – there’s no room left inside as near as I can tell!
Not to be missed is the Oratory where two paintings by Caravaggio are hung. I particularly wanted to see the first of these: The Beheading of John the Baptist. This is the only work which the artist signed. Significantly, his signature is in the blood flowing from the neck of the Baptist. This and his red robe are the only real spots of colour in the paintings. The second painting is of St. Jerome Writing, but to me it looks as if the weary old saint is contemplating mortality. A skull and some bones sit on the table beside his manuscript. In both paintings, Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro (creating spots of light in an otherwise gloomy setting) brings the scene into sharp focus.
One other church is particularly noteworthy. The third largest dome in the world is in the Basicilica of the Assumption of Our Lady in Mosta. It is indeed pretty massive but what makes this church dedicated to Mary really unusual is the fact that during the war, a bomb came through the dome (I haven’t been able to determine if it was actually during a mass). The miracle is that it was a dud and didn’t explode. You can still see it (I’m assuming it has been eviscerated of any dangerous bits!) and there are hundreds of testimonials to healings – the result of prayers to Mary here. Many include tiny pieces of clothing from the babies involved.
5. Come for the Vistas
Malta’s islands are limestone so everywhere there are beautiful grottoes, cliffs and blue lagoons where the Mediterranean meets the coast.
While we could see the Blue Grotto from above, we couldn’t resist getting up close by boat. The photo above was taken from inside part of the Blue Grotto, but sadly, my camera doesn’t do justice to the colours. You will just have to see it yourself!
Another decision you will have to make for yourself is choice of bathing spots. All three islands of Malta have beautiful beaches as well as superb snorkeling and scuba diving. Indeed, Lonely Planet describes Malta as a snorkeler’s paradise and they recommend the narrow, cliff-bound inlet of Wied il-Għasri on Gozo. Just along the road from there is the charming seaside town, Marsalforn, with a very pretty stretch of beach.
The prize for best beach apparently goes to the Blue Lagoon on Comino, the smallest of the three islands. Note, however, that its fame is widespread, so it’s also the busiest of the beaches.
Want to know more about Malta’s many cultural roots? Look here.
- Getting around Malta: It’s so small that you can take buses everywhere in less than an hour. The price is €1.50 for unlimited travel for up to two hours, so hold onto your ticket and show it each time you board. Ferries cross between Malta and Gozo, and shorten the trip between points on small bays between Sliema and Valletta, or between Valletta and Birgu (€1.50 one way). You could rent a car, but frankly, the driving here scares me – the roads are very narrow in places, with lots of British-style roundabouts. And they drive very fast. The Maltese will tell you they drive like Italians! Take what you will from that comment!
- The Rolling Geeks Tour provides you with a glorified golf cart complete with GPS engaged commentary as you travel (€80 for 2 adults and 2 children for 3.5 hours)..You can also get a driver if you’d rather have the freedom to move around. It’s a unique way to see the Three Cities – Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, the first fortified cities built by the Knights of St John who arrived in Malta in 1530. They initially made Birgu, with its ancient fortress (Fort St. Angelo), their capital. The three are filled with fortifications, historic buildings and churches, and delightful narrow, stepped streets, perfect for wandering.
- Where should you stay in Malta? Either Valletta or Sliema are the most convenient. Nearly all the buses go through Valletta so it’s a convenient location to access the whole country. We stayed in Sliema (just across the water from Valletta), which has a lively night scene. And we found some of the buses originating in Valletta went along the Strand in Sliema, enabling us to access some spots without backtracking.
- Shopping: Sliema has all the usual major stores as well as plenty of little boutiques. Visit the Sunday market in Marsaxlokk (it’s a mouthful – it’s pronounced Mar-sa- schlock) is well worth a visit for everything from tourist kitsch to cheap shoes. You must enjoy a lunch of fresh, seasonal fish here, but give Ir-Rizzu a miss. It was apparently wonderful at one time, but we found the food overcooked, tasteless and expensive.