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Malta - The author’s take
A traditional Maltese boat © Juliet Rix
Malta offers a wonderful combination of sunshine holiday and fascinating sightseeing. In fact, this island nation has the greatest density of historic sites of any country in the world
and its gorgeous little capital, Valletta, is a UNESCO World Heritage city and a European Capital of Culture for 2018. There is always something happening in Malta and in 2018 it will be non-stop events from single performances to street parties and the opening of a new art gallery (MUZA).
Into an area smaller than the Isle of Wight it packs 7,000 years of history – and prehistory. The earliest of its Neolithic temples – little known beyond its shores – are 2,000 years older than Mycenae, 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramids and 500 years older than the famous standing stones at Stonehenge. They all have UNESCO World Heritage status, as does the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, an extraordinary underground tomb complex, cut from solid rock, that echoes the architecture of the above-ground temples. And this is just the beginning of the story.
This island nation has the greatest density of historic sites of any country in the world. Into an area smaller than the Isle of Wight it packs 7,000 years of history – and prehistory.
Malta’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean and its perfect natural harbours have meant that anyone wishing to control or trade in the Mediterranean has needed access to this country. Almost every major European power in history (and some minor ones) has occupied these islands or tried very hard to do so. Each has left its mark on Malta’s landscape and culture. So as well as megalithic temples, carved altars and dramatic underground rooms, Malta has colourful boats adorned with the ‘Phoenician’ eye of Osiris, Roman mosaics and catacombs, and a still-inhabited medieval walled town of narrow lanes and heavy fortifications.
In the midst of the faded elegance of today’s diminutive capital, Valletta, is hidden the opulent St John’s Co-Cathedral and many more examples of the Baroque art and architecture of the Knights of St John – the ‘Knights of Malta’ – who ruled these islands from 1530 to 1798. They were followed (after a brief French occupation) by the British. There are still red letter boxes and phone booths all over Malta, and, in Valletta at noon each day, music of the Band of the Royal Marines is played and a cannon fired beneath a public garden overlooking the vast expanse of the Grand Harbour.
This impressive harbour was the centre of Malta’s two famous sieges, both of them critical to the future of Europe: the Great Siege of 1565 when the Ottoman Turks very nearly took the island, and that of 1940–43 when Hitler and Mussolini tried to bomb and starve Malta into submission. The fortitude of the Maltese in holding out against the Axis powers was rewarded by King George VI with Britain’s highest award for civilian bravery, the George Cross – the only one ever to be awarded to an entire nation.
Enjoy a crossing from Valletta to the Three Cities in a traditional Maltese dgħajsa. © www.viewingmalta.com
This tiny country has absorbed so many influences, and yet Malta is very much Maltese. Ninety-seven per cent of the population was born here and although English is widely spoken, Maltese (or Malti) remains the mother tongue of most of the population. The country has its own cuisine and its own culture. The people of Gozo, Malta’s smaller island, pride themselves on being different from the inhabitants of the main island – and Gozo does indeed have its own character.
Taking the 25-minute ferry from Malta to Gozo is like leaving the city for the countryside. Much less built up than its larger neighbour, Gozo has – besides a couple of lovely sandy beaches – a rugged coastal landscape described by a visiting Edward Lear as ‘pomskizillious and gromphiberous’. It is thought by some to be the real Calypso’s isle, where Homer’s Odysseus (Ulysses) remains spellbound by the loving sea nymph for seven years. Gozo is the place to relax.
Malta is welcoming to visitors and some 1.2 million come here each year (over a third of them from the UK). Yet the package-holiday image Malta has lived with – and indeed promoted – for the last three decades undersells this remarkable little country. Malta has great weather (with some 300 days of sunshine a year) and plenty of holiday facilities. There are excellent restaurants, and lots of outdoor activities to enjoy – swimming, snorkelling, diving, boating (of various kinds), walking, sports and spas. But there is also so much that is unique to Malta that has often been overlooked.
This is beginning to change. The government and Malta Tourism Authority seem to have decided to stop hiding their light under a bushel and have begun to promote cultural tourism. UNESCO is helping to preserve the temples and the government is beginning to make them more accessible and to provide (previously sorely lacking) visitor information. A few, mostly British, cognoscenti have long known the hidden gem that is the real Malta, but the time is long overdue for the rest of us to get a look-in.
When I mentioned to people that I was writing a book on Malta, most looked a bit blank: they associated Malta with package holidays and not much else. Some would come up with ‘The Knights of Malta’ or the ‘Grand Harbour and World War II’. Only very few knew more. This is not to be critical of my friends and colleagues – a few years ago I was in exactly the same position. It was almost by chance that I discovered just how much this tiny nation really has to offer, and became a bit evangelical about it. So, when I was asked if I would write the Bradt guides, I had to say yes.
It seems to me that Malta has been hiding its light under the bushel of mass tourism for too long. Malta certainly has sunshine and beautiful clear blue waters in which I love to swim; and Gozo is a great place for a relaxing holiday. But for the main island at least, its USP is surely its history – and prehistory – and the remarkable sites this has left behind.
It seems to me that Malta has been hiding its light under the bushel of mass tourism for too long.
My first trip to Malta was actually to write about Gozo. My family and I walked the high Ta’ Ċenċ cliffs, soaked up the autumn sun and swam at an almost deserted, red sandy Ramla Beach. And we visited Ġgantija Temple – my introduction to one of the least-known and most intriguing aspects of Malta’s past: the ‘Temple Culture’ that thrived here 5,500 years ago and left us the earliest sophisticated stone buildings in the world, all now with UNESCO World Heritage status.
Gozo Citadel © Clive Vella, www.viewingmalta.com
I did not get a chance to see any of the other temples on that trip. We had a mere half-day on the main island – a whirlwind press tour that did not include temples. In fact, our first impressions were not great as we drove past serried ranks of modern apartment blocks and hotels. But then we reached Valletta, Malta’s tiny, fortified capital city surrounded on three sides by azure sea – a place of real historic charm. Across the Grand Harbour we saw Birgu, the Knights’ first capital in Malta, and, in the centre of the island, the walled medieval citadel of Mdina. Historically, I realised, this tiny country punches well above its weight. I knew I would have to return.
And of course I have – criss-crossing the country exploring everything from underground tombs to towering cliffs, welcoming bays to forbidding fortifications, prehistoric temples to high-rise hotels, roadside kiosks to gourmet restaurants. This has only confirmed my view that Malta is seriously undersold by its image as a package-holiday island. I hope that travellers will enjoy the sun and the sea (as I do) but will also have the pleasure of discovering something of this country’s fascinating 7,000-year history.