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
‘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