Cast from your mind the image of sun-seeking beach holidays. I’m here to create a different impression of this sun-trap in the Mediterranean.
Historic pride with a mix of cultures and beautiful cities – this is the Malta I found back in January. Despite the puzzled looks on friends’ faces querying why you’d visit Malta at this time of year, I had planned a 3 night break staying in the capital of Valletta which held a certain draw being a World Heritage city.
I found a Maltese city break very much alive in January, so if you’ve never been, here are my impressions of this beautiful island.
I’ll let you in on a secret though – I didn’t always consider it beautiful. For those few minutes before touchdown at Luqa International Airport, grazing over what looked like messy run-down unfinished towns and villages; masses of white grey blocks strewn amongst untidy field lines dotted with dull dead trees, (no leaves of course in January to increase the greenery) I was seriously considering what I was thinking when I booked this trip. It did not look attractive from a bird’s eye view.
However once in a taxi speeding towards Valletta, those white grey blocks were actually more sandy yellow at ground level, and although the areas we passed still largely looked run down and missing lovely slanting roofs in favour of flat tops, it kind of had a charm all of its own.
Roads are busy and taxi drivers are speedsters and a tad crazy, but marvel at the beautiful churches which stand out amongst the mish-mash of blocky buildings en route to the capital (just a few miles away) and before you know it, the seriously impressive bastion walls of Valletta greet you and the narrow back streets at silly angles become the norm. Speeding down Old Mint Street is quite a hair-raising experience.
Let loose on the streets of Valletta and suddenly you find yourself catapulted back in time to the 16th century when the city was built and buildings largely date from this era. As well as impressive baroque facades, a very unusual architecture emerges on the back streets: three storey town houses with windows and balconies adorned with different coloured shutters built out over the street. In various states of disrepair they generally look rustic and what I considered a little weather beaten and in need of a new coat of paint, but this rustic look became very much part of Valletta’s charm.
Although my trip was largely based in Valletta, it became clear when I did venture beyond the city that the architectural style reached the other towns too.
Then ah! I couldn’t believe it? Did I spy a red pillar box?! No way – but we’re so far from the UK – the only place I’ve seen them before! Then, rounding a corner – Really? Another one…and right next to a British red telephone box too. How surreal! There are so many of these red accents in the Maltese landscape that my head felt like it was back in the UK, but in foreign climbs set against old sandy yellow buildings. Before you know it, you’ll be snapping away seeking out those specks of red in unusual settings (but that’s another post entirely!)
Then, as I walked down the main shopping street, I spied Pizza Hut, Costa Coffee, New Look and Marks & Spencer and ‘surreal’ took on a whole new level, my head now completely confused! England…or Mediterranean Island?
It’s then that I thought about the history of Malta – the fact that there have been so many countries that have ruled Malta over the centuries; it’s hardly a surprise that the country is such a mixing pot of cultures. There are large Italian and Arab influences, particularly visible in the architecture and the language, but it made me giggle to myself that the legacy of the British rule was the adoption of the red phone and post boxes, and the ability to get a good cup of tea! Yes, it did not go unnoticed to me that in the various cafes I went into, tea was at the top of the menu, so if like me you miss your finest cup of Tetley’s or Yorkshire when visiting other countries, you won’t have this problem in Malta.
Although Maltese is an official language, everybody seemed to speak English, so it’s an easy country to travel to if you find language barriers a problem. They also drive on the ‘correct’ side of the road too! OK, so maybe there is more to the British legacy than just those specks of red in the landscape!
Many attractions in Valletta grabbed my attention, but none more so than the interior of the co-cathedral of St John. Oh my, what a vision, a golden spectacle! And after being mesmerised by the magnificent interior, the want to visit Mdina, Malta’s ancient capital to see the country’s other co-cathedral of St Paul was immense.
As Malta is such a small island, nowhere is particularly far to get to and being based in Valletta makes getting anywhere easy as all bus routes start/end in the capital. As a result, it’s easy to decide at the last minute to pop off somewhere else.
Mdina was something else! Perched on a hilltop, this ancient walled city looked impressive on approach. The Maltese certainly knew how to build a wall. Full of narrow alleys with 90 degree turns leading you this way, that way, the other way: the city is just marvellous! The old original walls although crumbling are clean and bright, producing a photo opportunity around every corner.
On seeing St Paul’s and various other churches throughout Malta, it became clear just how much all Maltese churches are modelled on the twin towers of Valletta’s St John’s cathedral.
Both co-cathedrals have relatively plain and unassuming exteriors with lavishly decorated interiors. Mdina’s cathedral contains pinky marbles and rich red drapes, in some ways resembling a West End theatre and I much preferred this interior to that of St John’s as in my opinion too much gold can feel oppressive.
Back in Valletta, a walk around the coastline (which extends around 3 sides of the city) reveals a bit of everything inherent to Malta. Extensive bastion walls and fortifications extend right round the city, as well as beyond to the other side of the Grand Harbour (on the eastern side)where the ‘3 cities’ of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua sit, all still fortified cities. Because of its historically and strategically important geographical position in the centre of the Mediterranean leaving the island heavily sought after amongst ruling nations, it’s not surprising there are so many fortifications visible along its coastline.
Walking past St Elmo’s fort on the Northern tip of Valletta, you reach Marxanssett Harbour on the western side of the city; the high rise hotel and apartment blocks lining the shores of Sliema and beyond on the other side. Coastal resorts such as these are where the hoards of summer tourists flock to soak up the famous Mediterranean sun, sea, beach-life and water sports.
A great overview of Malta can be seen at “The Malta Experience”, a 45 minute wide-screen documentary in a theatre, detailing the history of Malta from the Neolithic period right up to the country’s independence in 1954. No wonder much of Malta looks run down and crumbling as World War II saw Malta bombed beyond recognition and areas are still being rebuilt and restored today.
This film only exacerbated my thirst for discovering more of Malta’s historical sites, and ideas for a future trip itinerary were already formulating in my head before even heading back to the airport. This definitely needs to include the Neolithic temples and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as exploring coastal beauty spots such as the Dingli cliffs and Blue Grotto, and Comino’s Blue Lagoon.
Malta’s history under different countries rule may have brought influences from all over the place, but these all combine to create a special Maltese culture and an incredibly friendly bunch of people whose only intent seems to be to make sure you get the best holiday of your life!
Nowhere did I see this more acutely obvious than at the Casa Rocca Piccola where the Marquis de Piro invites you into his home on a Friday evening and shows you round his traditional Maltese mansion, the only one of its kind left in Valletta, whilst plying you with champagne and nibbles ‘a la Malta’, telling stories of old and generally just having a chat as if you were personal family friends. Always guaranteed a tour lead by a family member, I was lucky enough to get the Marquis Nicholas himself and his wife Frances, two incredible personalities and it was the best possible itinerary for a Friday evening in January when it’s dark outside and you’ve just arrived on the island. The spirit of Malta was alive in this tour and these people and I could not have asked for anything more!
3 days was nowhere near long enough to discover all Malta has to offer, but it was certainly a great start and I cannot help believing it will not be long before I return! As Valletta is the European Capital of Culture for 2018, it may just have to be next year.
Have you been to Malta? What did you think to the country?