Malta - Surprise of the Mediterranean

May Swan-Easton on 20 October 2016
I travelled to Malta with 9 other TC colleagues after being invited to visit Malta & Gozo courtesy of Malta Tourism UK. We flew from Gatwick directly to Malta with Easyjet with a flying time of 3hrs 15mins. There are also regional departures of other UK airports such as Luton, Heathrow, Manchester, Bristol & Birmingham.

Malta's climate is typical of the Mediterranean and is strongly influenced by the sea. The Maltese Islands have a pleasantly sunny climate with a daily average of around 12 hours sunshine in summer going down to 5 to 6 hours in mid-winter. Summers are hot, dry and very sunny. Day-time temperatures in summer are often mitigated by cooling sea breezes, Spring and autumn are cooler, and Winters are mild. Annual rainfall is low, averaging 568mm a year. Bathing in the sea is quite possible well into the ‘winter' months, and the peak beach season can last until mid- to late October.

Malta lies virtually at the centre of the Mediterranean, 93kms south of Sicily & 288kms north of Africa. There are 6 islands in the Maltese archipelago but only 3 are inhabited, Malta, Gozo & Camino. They may be small islands but between them, they offer over 7000 years’ worth of history. Malta is the largest island and offers everything from ancient treasures, golden sandy beaches, buzzing nightlife and has managed to retain its heritage & culture.

Valletta is Malta’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage City was named after its founder the respected Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Jean Parisot de la Valette. Started in 1566, Valletta was completed, with its impressive bastions, forts, and cathedral, in the astonishingly short time of 15 years, even more, remarkable is considering the fact that mechanical tools did not exist at the time and the whole city was built entirely by hand. Valletta is abundantly rich in sites to see and explore, intriguing historical buildings around every corner: votive statues, niches, fountains and coats of arms high up on parapets. Narrow side streets are full of tiny quaint shops and cafés, while Valletta's main streets are lined with larger international branded shops for fashion, music, jewellery and much more. St John's co-Cathedral & museum are definitely not to be missed, this elaborately adorned church is home to world famous artistic masterpieces by Caravaggio and Mattia Preti. Apart from beautiful Baroque churches, other places of interest include the various grandmaster auberges, piazzas & museums.

Don’t miss the synchronised fountain, dancing to live music in the Palace Square at certain times of the day and maybe take in lunch at Café Cordina which is over 175yrs old and located on the old Palazzo near the fountains.

We also visited Mdina which is an ancient walled city with an amazing mix of medieval & and baroque architecture. The history of the Mdina can be traced back to more than 4,000 years and is also known as the ‘Silent City’. It was Malta’s first capital during the time of the Knights of Malta & also a colonial settlement in Imperial Rome. On the way to the Mdina we visited a glass blowing factory & showroom where you can purchase Mdina glass made into a beautiful rainbow coloured jewellery, vases & other home décor objects.

The ‘three cities’ (Vittoriosa, Senglea & Cospicua) is well worth a visit which we toured with ‘Rolling Geeks’ – a self-drive, electric car with pre-programmed GPS & narrative (it was like having our very own Tour Guide in the car). It was a lot of fun and very easy to navigate with winding streets. With breath taking views from Gardjola Gardens the tour also took us to awe-inspiring churches, traditional piazzas, and architectural riches ending in the Grand Harbour Marina with its trendy waterfront lines with cafes & restaurants.

If you're visiting Malta with children you'll enjoy a visit to Popeye's Village in Mellieha where the original film with Robin Williams was shot complete with a backdrop in 1980.

The countryside of Malta is dotted with medieval towers, wayside chapels and the oldest known human structures in the world, the Islands have rightly been described as an open-air museum.

Malta’s other big draw is its coastline. It’s pretty rugged, with rocky coves mixed in with a few sandy spots. The biggest swathe of sand is at Mellieha Bay, while resorts like Qawra and Bugibba have flat rocks and platforms for stretching out in the sun. Sliema, on the east coast, is a former fishing village that’s now better known for its stylish restaurants and wine bars. Wander north along the promenade and you’ll hit St Julian’s, an upmarket town with a decent helping of bars and clubs.

Over the past few years, Malta has experienced a definite and positive shift towards greater cultural acceptance of LGBTIQ in all aspects of life. This, together with recent changes in legislation introduced by the government, saw the Maltese Islands rise to first place on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Europe Index in 2016. I was surprised at how reasonably priced the meals & drinks were in Malta, a cocktail costs around €5, a glass of beer from €2 and main courses in a restaurant from approx. €6-7 and the portions are generous.

Traditional Maltese food is rustic and based on the seasons. Look out for Lampuki Pie (fish pie), Rabbit Stew, Bragioli (beef olives), Kapunata, (Maltese version of ratatouille), and widow's soup, which includes a small round of Gbejniet (sheep or goat's cheese). A trip to the Marsaxlokk fish market on Sunday morning will show you just how varied the fish catch is in Maltese waters. I saw a local restaurant offering freshly caught seabass lunch for €10.

For such a small island, Malta packs a lot in. You’ve got beaches, chic harbour towns, and enough centuries-old sights to keep you busy for weeks. It’s a real up-and-comer on the clubbing scene, too, and has a calendar that’s crammed with carnivals, festivals, and parties.

My top tip for anyone visiting Malta would be to twin their stay with a few days in Gozo which we also visited and you can read all about in another blog you’ll find on my website blog.