A trip to mag­i­cal Malta

YOU MAY HAVE SEEN MALTA IN GAME OF THRONES OR ON THE BIG SCREEN IN GLA­DI­A­TOR, BUT IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT BLOCK­BUSTERS, SAYS AMANDA POW­ELL

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‘LOOK at them, look how happy they are,” ex­claims Joe Spi­teri, owner of the Ta Mena Es­tate on Gozo, one of Malta’s sis­ter is­lands.

He’s look­ing fondly at a duo of ducks splash­ing madly in tor­ren­tial rain.

While it’s ter­ri­ble weather for tourists, Joe apolo­get­i­cally ex­plains how the rain is great news for the crops pro­duced on his 61-acre fam­ily es­tate.

It would be churl­ish of me to com­plain about the weather, when one of the high­lights of my fournight trip to Malta and Gozo has been the qual­ity and va­ri­ety of the home-grown pro­duce served up on this Mediter­ranean ar­chi­pel­ago.

Ryanair has just added new flights from Cardiff and Ex­eter to Malta In­ter­na­tional Air­port to its re­gional of­fer­ing, mak­ing the for­mer Bri­tish colony per­fect for a short break.

Bri­tish­ness is ev­i­dent as soon as you ar­rive. Driv­ing is on the left;

English is an of­fi­cial lan­guage (as well as

Mal­tese of course); red post­boxes and tele­phone kiosks stand out against an­cient honey-coloured lime­stone ar­chi­tec­ture.

If his­tory ex­cites you, then Malta and Gozo can put you slap bang in just about any pe­riod in the past, be it me­dieval battles, the Sec­ond World War, or the chance to find out how The Flint­stones re­ally would have lived by walk­ing into a Stone Age tem­ple.

Whether it’s to view the back­drops to epics like Game of Thrones, Gla­di­a­tor, the Da Vinci Code or hear­ing how the me­dieval Knights of Malta were such an ef­fec­tive fight­ing force, a guide will

help you recre­ate the vi­brant his­tory of th­ese is­lands.

Al­though Malta was heav­ily at­tacked by Italy and Ger­many in the Sec­ond World War, my guide, Vince De­bono, ex­plained that many his­toric build­ings sur­vived be­cause, be­ing made of stone, they were able to with­stand the fires.

The legacy of the 268-year rule of the Knights of St John in Malta is ev­ery­where, and th­ese fight­ing monks spared no ex­pense as they em­ployed the best ar­chi­tects of their

time to cre­ate palaces and churches with the ‘wow’ fa fac­tor.

M Make sure you visit St John’s Co-C Co-Cathe­dral in Malta’s cap­i­tal Val­lett Val­letta, and go early or at luncht lunchtime to avoid other tourists.

A baroque splen­dour, the brief to the artists and ar­chi­tects was def­i­nitely ‘more is more’ with daz­zling gold em­bel­lish­ments at ev­ery turn and Caravaggio’s gory Be­head­ing of St John the Bap­tist in the church’s or­a­tory.

I could have spent all day soak­ing up the over-the-top beauty of this cav­ernous place of wor­ship.

In the open air, Val­letta’s Up­per Bar­rakka Gar­dens give a wide view over Malta’s Grand Har­bour, and a boat trip from the cap­i­tal’s wa­ter­front will take you around The Three Cities, a trio of tiny cities.

If you stop at only one, make it Vit­to­riosa where those canny knights con­structed the Cou­vre Porte area, a sys­tem of gate­ways to slow down and trap in­vaders on horse­back.

The quaint Col­la­chio area, with its colour­ful shut­ters and bal­conies is where the knights in­hab­ited their inns or auberges. Dur­ing my visit in April, it was re­fresh­ing to be able to wan­der around its nar­row me­dieval streets with­out be­ing over­run by other vis­i­tors or hounded to buy tourist tat.

For the princely – or should that be knightly? – sum of €4.65 (£4) re­turn, I caught a ferry to Gozo, Malta’s qui­eter and more ru­ral neigh­bour.

A bus trip from the ferry port trans­ported me back 7,000 years at the Ne­olithic Ggan­tija Tem­ples, a UNESCO World Her­itage site with its Stone Age sites of wor­ship and an in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre which brings to life how th­ese early set­tlers made a peace­ful liv­ing from the land.

To­day’s vis­i­tors are al­lowed to wan­der right into the heart of th­ese an­cient struc­tures, al­though, of course, they are for­bid­den to copy the ex­ploits of 19th cen­tury ex­plor­ers who carved graf­fiti into the rocks.

Else­where in the is­land, Rabat – or Vic­to­ria as it was named in 1887 – boasts a statue of the Bri­tish queen

wear­ing Mal­tese lace, and when you leave her be­hind and climb up the hill, the Citadel and its bat­tle­ments of­fer an out­stand­ing view over the is­land.

If his­tory’s not your thing, then Ramla Bay is one of the most beau­ti­ful in the Mal­tese Is­lands, while Gozo’s clear wa­ters are said to make it the Mediter­ranean’s best div­ing des­ti­na­tions. All are among stops on the hop-on, hop-off Gozo bus, or you can hire a car – or even an elec­tric bike – to ex­plore the is­land your­self.

Joe Spi­teri’s won­der­ful Ta Mena es­tate on Gozo hosts guided tours around the vine­yards and olive groves, fol­lowed by wine and food tast­ing. Tangy sheep’s milk cheese, jump­ingly tasty baby toma­toes, olives, and thick, sweet sun-dried tomato paste with Mal­tese bread brought some sun­shine to my rainy-day stop.

Wit­ness­ing Joe’s pas­sion for tra­di­tional Mal­tese food and wine is rea­son alone to go to Gozo.

I came home sev­eral pounds heav­ier af­ter hearty meals all over th­ese two is­lands, with melt­ingly soft seared tuna at Wigi’s Kitchen in St Ju­lian’s and a stun­ning veg­e­tar­ian plat­ter at Diar Il-Bniet Res­tau­rant near the vil­lage of Dingli the other culi­nary high­lights.

When the sun did come out, views from pic­turesque coastal locations like Dingli or the pretty fishing port of Marsaxlokk ri­valled any­where else in the Med.

As to Malta’s weather, June to Septem­ber are mainly hot and dry, oth­er­wise be sure to pack your um­brella and en­joy the cul­ture and his­tory in the cooler months.

Fields of dreams: The Mal­tese coun­try­side

A plat­ter of pro­duce from the Ta Mena es­tate in Gozo

St John’s Co-Cathe­dral in Val­letta

Scenic: Val­letta Wa­ter­front and be­low is an aerial shot of Blue Grotto, Malta

Val­letta’s Up­per Bar­rakka Gar­dens

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