I don’t often include guest posts on the blog, but I couldn’t resist this one. Like me, Jennifer Wolfe has fallen for Malta and its islands, and she knows you can see even more of them from the water. If you’ve never been, prepare to be tempted now…
Although it’s becoming more popular with UK travellers, Malta still isn’t as widely known as it should be. The islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino retain the feel of an out-of-the-way place, dense with history and echoes of the various cultures from conquerors over the years, and they deserve to be discovered.
Unmissable Sights in Valletta
Start in the capital city of Valletta, which has welcomed sailors, pilgrims and explorers for centuries, and is a firm favourite with tourists. Get fantastic views of the Grand Harbour from Upper and Lower Barakka Gardens, visit the impressive Grand Master’s Palace, and enjoy coffee in the iconic Caffe Cordina, founded in 1837.
The National Museum of Archaeology, on Republic Street, shows off the country’s artifacts and is a good primer for visiting the ruins that dot the islands. It’s also very good value. After your visit, walk a short distance and jump forward a few thousand years to St. John’s Co-Cathedral, with its elaborate marble inlays and links to the Knights Templar. The cathedral also holds a small but important collection of Caravaggio works, including The Beheading of John the Baptist.
Grab dinner at Rubino, a tiny delight of a restaurant dating back to 1906, serving dishes that uniquely interpret flavours from all around the Mediterranean. The rave reviews you’ll read online are true: a meal here is memorable.
Further Afield in Malta
The Three Cities – Senglea (or Il-Islu), Vittoriosa (or Il-Birgu) and Cospicua (or Bormla) – are another part of Malta’s history, dating back further than Valletta, with each very photogenic harbour city built by the Knights of St. John. Try to tick at least one of these off your to-do list.
Step further back in time at one of the country’s many prehistoric sites, such as the temple complex at Tarxien; large and well preserved, this series of four structures, in use between 3600 and 2500 BC, has reliefs and sculptural objects that other sites lack. The most popular site, the Hypogeum, will be closed from April 2016 for an extended restoration, but if you can go before it closes, you’ll be rewarded with an almost mystical experience. Heritage Malta has tickets for the Hypogeum; buy them ahead of time, as there are tight controls on the number of people allowed in each day and tours are often fully booked.
Now it’s time to leave dry land behind. Malta has a packed events calendar for water sports enthusiasts, including several world-famous sailing races (for full sailing event listings, see the Royal Malta Yacht Club 2016 calendar). If you have sailing experience and you can’t wait to get out on the water, a bareboat charter lets you see even more of the Maltese islands at your own pace. With whales and dolphins regularly spotted off the coast, you’ll also see plenty of wildlife enthusiasts donning their life jackets for boat trips. As you explore the coastline, look out for the eye of Osiris markings on the bow of traditional fishing boats (luzzu) – these are said to bring good luck and ward off the evil eye (L-Ghajn).
Gozo might be smaller, but it’s just as big on sights and its waters beg to be explored. Good snorkelling and swimming spots include Marsalforn on the north and the beautiful bay at Xlendi on the south. Also look out for the Azure Window, near Dwerja Bay, which featured on Season One of Game of Thrones. While the sea surrounding Gozo is inviting, there are just a few sandy beaches, and those with sand tend to get very crowded, so travelling by boat does put you at an advantage. A few words of advice: depending on the time of year, be prepared for jellyfish, and bring swim shoes to protect against rocks along the shore and reefs.
For something totally unique, head back inland to visit the magnificent Ta’Pinu Shrine, within Ta’Pinu Basilica on the northwest side of Gozo. The church itself is elegant, but inside is a room with testimonials and mementos, or Ex Voto, from thousands of people who believe they were healed by the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Even non-believers are moved by the haunting display of letters, baby gowns and other offerings.
To really get away from it all, head to Comino, which is the quietest island – it only has one hotel and is car-free. As Comino sits directly between Gozo and Malta, it’s a good place to stop off before you return to civilisation. Don’t miss its biggest attraction, the calming Blue Lagoon.
Did You Know?
English is fluently spoken all over the country, and many locals also speak Italian but, in a world of dying languages, the native Maltese stands out for its survival alone. Strangely it’s not confined to Malta, as the BBC claims 100,000 Maltese speakers live in other countries around the world, such as Australia and the UK.
Malta beckons water babies and sightseers in all seasons. Why not dive in and see for yourself?
Author Bio: When she isn’t travelling, Jennifer Wolfe works as a full-time writer. She’s served as a communications director and in editorial production management for San Francisco magazine, Computer Gaming World, and other publications.