Mmm… Malta - magical, marvellous, magnificent!
Take a few dollops of Sicilian passion and Roman Catholic religion, mix with a soupcon of French civil code, add a large dash of Phoenician (now Lebanese) language, a few tablespoons of North African architecture, a smattering of Greek maritime skills and a cup or two of British restraint and order, and you have Malta and the Maltese, a unique melting pot seasoned with an unforgettable charm and a well-deserved reputation for bravery and heroism.
Just four hours flying time from Moscow on Air Malta, lies 7000 years of history with plenty to sample over a week‘s holiday. Poised strategically between Sicily and North Africa at the crossroads of civilisations, it has attracted the attention of adventurers from around the Med, over millennia, and all have left their stamp. The British Empire ruled Malta for 150 years and has left behind a love of all things British, not least the English language, as well as red telephone boxes, post boxes, and a love of tea and bingo. The Maltese language which sounds Arabic, is the national language, while Italian is also widely spoken.
They say good things come in small packages, and Malta, which joined the EU in 2004, has plenty packed into its 300 sq km (one-third the size of Moscow). About 30km long and 15km wide, Malta (population 370,000) has two little sister islands: Gozo (pop 30,000), and tiny Comino (pop 8). In Malta, everything is nearby: the airport is nearby; the sea is nearby; and so are some spectacular architectural sites.
For those who appreciate archaeological history, a trip to Malta can be a rich journey back in time. Here you will find truly ancient architecture, and in several cases, the oldest surviving structures in the world, predating the pyramids and Stonehenge by at least 1000 years (visit www.heritagemalta.org).
In medieval times, Malta was home to the Crusaders, the Knights of St John, who, being at the forefront of the battles between Muslims and Christians, valiantly withstood a siege by the Byzantine forces of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1565, and turned the tide in Christianity’s favour. Even Russia played a small part in Maltese history when Emperor Paul I became the Grand Master of the Knights of St John between 1798 and 1801 when protecting the Knights after they were expelled from Malta after Napoleon’s brief invasion.
By virtue of its strategic position and excellent natural harbour, the island took centre stage again, when, during World War II, it served as an important British naval base and underwent the heaviest bombing of the war by German and Italian forces when some 3,000 bombing excursions attempted to destroy the island-state.
The fortified citadel of Valletta, now also the capital, was built after the Great Siege of Malta in 1566. Described by Disraeli, former British Prime Minister when he visited in 1830 as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen” (referring to the Knights) , he also said that Valetta equals, in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any city in Europe. I think I fell in love with Valletta as our car drove up to its gates on the night of our arrival and I was spellbound by the seductive honeycoloured glow of the illuminated city walls. Once inside the limestone walls, lighting reveals a city of narrow streets with great romantic atmosphere.
Baroque churches and palaces, separated by grand squares, are all neatly enclosed in a massive fortified citadel reinforced by impenetrable bastions. Valetta, which has the distinction of being Europe’s first planned city, is now a World Heritage site and set to be the European city of culture in 2018. To me, it felt like being in an open-air museum or a movie set—I expected to find a knight come clattering round the corner on his white steed, in full armour and on some quest to repel invaders. Occasionally, a cacophony of church bells peals down the quiet streets overlooked by charming Maltese balconies, and lined with timeworn polished steps remind you of those who have trod these same steps over the centuries. Modern day Valetta is home to concerts, art and jazz festivals, parades, and yacht races and while we were there, Brad Pitt was filming “World war Z”, his latest movie and MTV held its annual free concert attended by nearly 50,000 people.
If you are an art lover, do not forget to visit the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John. Its ornate interior houses the huge Caravaggio masterpiece featuring the Beheading of St John, and completed while the artist was in exile on Malta for a few years during his short and eventful life.
Not only is Malta oozing with culture and history, it is also a comfortable blend of antiquity and modernity, which will satisfy a wide spread of tastes. The conurbations of Sliema and St Julian’s offer a buzzing nightlife to those who prefer to eat, drink, soak up the sun and be merry. You can also gamble, play golf or play with dolphins, go sailing or diving and take leisurely harbour cruises. Sadly, Malta only has a few sandy beaches but there are several Lidos where you can buy a day’s membership and take advantage of swimming facilities.
Shoppers familiar with British chains such as Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores, Monsoon, Topshop, Next and Oasis, Dorothy Perkins, Zara can find them in Valetta and Sliema, across the bay. Note that many shops like to take a siesta between 13.00- 16.00 and the banks open mostly in the first half of the day. According to the latest EU statistics, Malta clothing prices are 88% of the EU average and hotels and restaurant prices are 77% of the average, making Malta a good value destination. Budget to spend around Eu70 for a meal and drinks for four.
It’s worth planning day trips to Gozo and Mdina. Easy-toget- to Gozo distinguishes itself from Malta by its more rural and quieter charm. A ferry leaves the north of Malta every 25 minutes during high season. Once there, take a hop-on/hop off open top bus tour of the island and stop off at Victoria, the quaint capital that seems to be in a bit of a time warp, visit the megalithic Ggantija ruins and take a dip or a dive at Dwerja Bay.
Mdina is a stunning mediaeval walled city of chapels, convents, cathedrals and palazzos. There are no cars in its quiet, narrow and curved streets, so designed to impede the flight of arrows. Visit the Mdina (audio-visual) Experience to understand its history, stay at the 5-star Xara Palace boutique hotel, or take in the panoramic views from the Fontanella Tea Garden while you enjoy lunch.
In case you are planning to brush up on your English skills as a business professional, or perhaps send your child, you could consider one of Malta‘s 50 language schools which welcome twenty to thirty thousand English-language students each year.
If you are feeling homesick, pay a visit to the Russian Centre for Science and Culture, in Valletta www.rcscmalta.org.mt which holds weekly cultural events such as concerts and exhibitions, films, piano recitals. From them, I learnt that some 5000 Russians live on the island
If you still need to fill your time, you could take advantage of Malta’s proximity to Italy, by visiting Sicily, only 90 minutes away by fast catamaran together with one-day guided excursions to Pozzallo, Taormina and Mt Etna www.virtueferries.co
The Maltese, who have been called the friendliest people in the EU, seem to be a happy race and this is evident in their enthusiastic and frequent celebration of religious feast days for the patron saints of each parish. These take place on weekends throughout the year, but mostly in summer, and involves prayer, processions, revelry, band playing, elaborate fireworks displays and late night partying and feasting. The streets of the village are richly decorated with flags and bunting, suggesting a medieval atmosphere. Each village usually has a band club or two which comprises local men from the village who practise their instruments all year especially for the Festa, while the women help with decoration and food and drink.
It’s possible to swim from mid-May to mid-November, making it ideal for that pre-winter getaway from Moscow in October and November when you will experience mild daytime temperatures in the 20s. Although Malta appears arid, like all other Mediterranean destinations, during the months from May to October, the rain starts falling in November (mostly at night), and it becomes attractively green within a matter of days. January, February and March are the coldest months but temperatures rarely drop below 10C. In April, May and June the rain stops and the temperature cranks up reaching the 30s by the end of June. Expect the highest temperatures in the 30s in July and August.
In summer, you will see blossoming oleanders, oranges, and lemons wantonly hanging from trees, while palms and rubber trees, prickly pears and grapevines help to remind you that you have truly entered another climatic zone.
Malta has been rated joint second best place in the world to live with New Zealand by International Living magazine, and as having the best climate in the world along with Zimbabwe. Sunshine averages about 300 days a year
The island is crowded and the drivers have a bad reputation, but in my experience, are no worse than in Moscow. Driving is on the left side of the road. The bus transport system is reasonably priced and makes it easy to get to all parts of the island, so much so, that you can get by without hiring a car.
Cross the harbour from Valletta to the Three Cities by contacting: www.maltawatertaxis.mt.com from March to December. There is a regular ferry service from Valletta across the bay to Sliema.
One way of finding out more about the layout of Valletta vis a vis the surrounding harbours is to take a the 90-minute, Two Harbours cruise tour (Latini Cruises). The hop-on/hop-off open-top buses take in either or both the north and south of the island each lasting three hours if you do not get off (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are restaurants aplenty, pizza and pasta abound, as well as good Italian-style gelato. Prices are very reasonable, try the favourite national dish of rabbit (fenek) served in a sauce with garlic, onions, wine and herbs. Many different types of seafood including octopus, dorado, swordfish, sea bass, bream, grouper and rockfish are available. We very much enjoyed the local La Vallette wine.
Try the pastry snacks (pastizzi) which are ricotta cheese and pea-filled-pastries, best before 11.00 from small local bakeries. Valletta, in particular, is very atmospheric and romantic venue for dining at night.
Visitors who would like to hone their gambling skills can take advantage of one of four different casino sites: Oracle Casino and Portomaso, Dragonara in St Julian’s and Casino di Venezia in Three Cities.
If the children get bored, visit the dolphins at the Mediterraneo Biopark or the village filmset for the movie Popeye www.popeyemalta.com. Teenagers and twenty-somethings will enjoy Paceville an area to the north of St Julian’s which has become a fashionable mecca for nightlife, with many bars, clubs and restaurants. This is the place to see and be seen.
The Maltese tourism association: www.visitmalta.com at 229, Auberge d’Italie, Merchants Street Valletta (email@example.com).