SMALL WON­DER

It might be a dot in the Mediter­ranean sea, but Mark Setch­field dis­cov­ers that Malta is per­fect for some fun in the sun, re­tail ther­apy and a les­son in his­tory

Friday - - Travel -

I’d heard Malta was a lovely hol­i­day spot. Grow­ing up in the UK, I re­mem­ber as a child my friends would boast about their trips to the is­land, while I was camp­ing on the east coast of Eng­land. have to ad­mit, I’ve never been very good at geog­ra­phy. So when

found out I’d fi­nally be vis­it­ing the is­land, de­cided to look it up on the in­ter­net. It took me a while, but there it was – a small Euro­pean is­land in the Mediter­ranean sea, south of the is­land of Si­cily.

An ar­chi­pel­ago of seven is­lands, Malta is the largest of the three in­hab­ited ones. The other two are Gozo, which is ru­ral com­pared to Malta, and Comino, which was un­in­hab­ited for a long time and used by pi­rates as a rest­ing place un­til the 17th cen­tury.

Fly­ing into the is­land you get a real sense of how small it is. Malta joined the Euro­pean Union in May 2004 and its econ­omy is largely de­pen­dent on tourism; I was shocked to find ev­ery­thing is im­ported – from wa­ter to elec­tric­ity.

As the is­land has so much cul­tural di­ver­sity, with strong Euro­pean and Ara­bic in­flu­ences, it’s hard to fig­ure out its iden­tity. The cap­i­tal city, Val­letta, one of the small­est cap­i­tals in Europe, is dot­ted with red tele­phone boxes and post boxes that re­mind me of Lon­don, but it has street names that are a mix of Ital­ian, English and Ara­bic.

But what is clearly ev­i­dent is the last­ing im­pact Bri­tish rule has had on the coun­try. Even af­ter gain­ing

in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1964, Malta adopted not only the Bri­tish sys­tem of ad­min­is­tra­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and leg­is­la­tion but driv­ing rules as well; yes, on the left-hand side.

But driv­ing is not how you should ex­plore the Val­letta; walk­ing is. Armed with my cam­era, I headed out from the Grand Ho­tel Ex­cel­sior, which is one of Malta’s big­gest and most cen­tral ho­tels with more than 300 rooms. Its lo­ca­tion is pop­u­lar with tourists and celebri­ties alike; and the man­ager Nor­bert Grixti said Lady Gaga and Rita Ora have vis­ited.

The city rises up from the sea, and is en­closed by huge de­fence walls. As I sweated my way up­hill, I was over­taken by one of the many horsedrawn car­riages you can ride in, that trun­dle up to the city’s edge.

As I looked around, I re­alised the spot gave me a spec­tac­u­lar 360-de­gree view of the city’s sky­line. With his­tor­i­cal build­ings on one side that seemed as if they were stacked one on top of the other, and the very mod­ern port on the other, I felt as if I had a panoramic view of time travel.

All that climb­ing up made me hun­gry and I de­cided to have lunch at a small open-air café. Sat­is­fied af­ter my huge fresh seafood salad, I walked back into the cen­tre of Val­letta. Its nar­row steep streets can be chal­leng­ing but I was on a shop­ping mis­sion as I wanted to get my hands on some sou­venirs.

There are daily craft mar­kets and art fairs around the city but they are open only from 8am to lunchtime. Since they had al­ready closed, I de­cided to re­turn the fol­low­ing day. And I was not dis­ap­pointed. From ex­am­ple of where you can watch the pro­pri­etor at work.

But it wasn’t jew­ellery I was af­ter, it was shoes. I was com­pletely taken by the leather goods, par­tic­u­larly the Ital­ian-styled shoes that were not only great value for money but well made too. Then I thought of the huge num­ber of pairs that al­ready oc­cupy my shoe rack and de­cided not to give in to my im­pulse.

On the water­front, there are sev­eral craft shops that are fa­mous for their pot­tery and glass works. The Forni Shop­ping Com­plex is home to a host of de­signer shops such as Sin­gu­lar, Bi­joux Terner and Ster­ling.

It’s not just shops the city has to of­fer. It has a lot of open space and small squares, where you can re­lax with a cof­fee. They’re ideal if you want to watch the city pass you by. With av­er­age temperatures in the late 20s, it’s great to sit out­side and ab­sorb the busy vibe of the city.

Af­ter having ab­sorbed the beauty of Malta from in­land, I de­cided I

It’s not just shops the city has to of­fer. It has a lot of small squares where you can re­lax with a cof­fee

ex­quis­ite hand­made lace to beau­ti­ful hand­crafted gold and sil­ver fil­i­gree jew­ellery, the place was re­tail haven.

What made it all the more fas­ci­nat­ing, apart from the hag­gling, was watch­ing the gold and sil­ver­smiths cre­ate their masterpieces. The sil­ver­smith’s shop on Repub­lic Street is a good

same peo­ple who made the one in Down­town, as well as the foun­tains of Bel­la­gio in Las Ve­gas, this one is small, but charm­ing nev­er­the­less.

Five min­utes from Smart City is Rinella Movie Park, where you can still see some of the orig­i­nal film sets. Malta is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for movies. Film pro­duc­ers from across the world have used it as a lo­ca­tion for the past four decades. From the 1970s’ Alan Parker’s epic Mid­night Ex­press to re­cent block­busters such as

Gla­di­a­tor and Troy, they were all filmed in Malta. You can still see the replica of the Colos­seum that was built for

Gla­di­a­tor in 1999 at Fort Ricasoli on the east­ern arm of Grand Har­bour.

The Nor­we­gian film Kon-Tiki, which was based on the life of Thor Hey­er­dahl, an ad­ven­turer who crossed the Pacific Ocean on a raft in 1947, was also shot mainly in Malta. It was nom­i­nated in the Best For­eign Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory at last year’s Academy Awards.

To re­ally un­der­stand the his­tory of the is­land and ex­pe­ri­ence a 5D movie, (yes there is such a thing) visit Malta 5D. It is ini­tially nerve-rack­ing, con­sid­er­ing I am not used to be­ing tossed around by my movie seat and having wa­ter sprayed on me and blasts of air catch­ing me un­aware, but once I got into my ad­ven­ture mode, I en­joyed it im­mensely.

A 15-minute movie takes you through the his­tory of this re­mark­able place. It is then that you re­alise how much it has suf­fered at the hands of in­vaders. I felt sorry for the is­land and its peo­ple for the way it has re­peat­edly been bat­tered, bombed and in­vaded. But the is­land has

To re­ally un­der­stand the his­tory of this re­mark­able is­land, go to see the nerve-rack­ing 5D movie

always bounced back, risen from the ashes in true Hol­ly­wood style.

As my visit to the tiny yet beau­ti­ful coun­try drew to a close, I re­alised my ex­pe­ri­ence of Malta might be short but I was tak­ing mem­o­ries that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Whether it was its rich his­tory, de­li­cious food or nat­u­ral won­ders, it has a lot to of­fer. The Mal­tese peo­ple are rightly very proud of their is­land.

Fly­ing back to Dubai, as I looked down from the aero­plane’s win­dow, I promised my­self, “Now that I know where you are Malta, I’ll see you soon.” And a man can never have enough pairs of shoes, right? So un­til next time...

Brit Mark felt right at home with the red tele­phone boxes

The is­land is full of his­tory and in­ter­est­ing ar­chi­tec­ture

A trip to Gozo is a great rea­son to take to the wa­ter

Val­letta’s steep streets can be a chal­lenge for even the fittest tourist

Malta’s cui­sine has in­flu­ences from around the world

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