The guidebooks have got it wrong about Malta - discover the island for yourself (with a little help from me!)
The Malta Tourism Authority has tried for a long time now to pitch Malta as an alternative to Ibiza, or Magaluf, all sun, sea and (sex), exactly what every 18-30 year old hankers after, surely? Other guides will have you believe that Malta is really just England, just smaller and sunnier, and possibly stuck in the 70s, with its red phone boxes, chips on every menu and battered Ford Cortinas around every narrow corner.
They’re both wrong. Malta is not any other country, it is very much itself, and rather than following the guide book, submerging yourself in the rich culture is the best way to understand the island. After all, the people of a nation do not live sandwiched between the pages of the latest Rough Guide, but are demonstrating what it is to be Maltese, and what it is to be in Malta, as they make their way around this Mediterranean Island.
So the best thing for anyone thinking of travelling to Malta to do is to ignore all the guides.
But if you’re still reading this, I can see that you’re not going to do that. So I will at least attempt to guide you to those places that help uncover the real Malta. Visit the main towns and cities, tick off the tourist attractions – just do it your way.
Civilsations and cultures, eras and epochs have all left their mark upon Malta, and this incredible fusion makes the island a fascinating place to explore history. But rather than succumbing to the pressures of the ‘authentically’ dressed guides trying to coerce you into visiting The Knights of Malta exhibition, a series of tableaux and cinema screening of a documentary, to really get a feel for the legacy left by the Knights it is essential to wander the quiet streets of Mdina. There has been a settlement here since the time of the Phoenicians, around 700 BCE, but it was when Malta passed to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in 1530 AD that the citadel took on its present form. To really get a flavour of the city, stay at the Point de Vue guesthouse.
Walk from the stone gate in whatever direction your inner compass takes you, gazing at the big brass door knockers, inhaling the smell of caponata as a maltese mother cooks for her brood, and hear the whisperings of the past, the passage ways holding a thousand secrets. With luck you will eventually make your way to the bastions, and see before you the commanding view of Malta.
As well as being arrestingly beautiful, this view reminds you of the quirks that makes Malta unique. You can see the rotunda of Mosta Dome, the third largest unsupported dome in the world. View the often surprisingly green expanse of fields, punctuated by clusters of limestone villages, like little heaped piles of mini Toblerone. Follow the windy roads and dry stoned walls to the horizon, stretching out to Dingli Cliffs, where the island of Filfla is located, uninhabited and closed to visitors, due to its unique ecological habitat.
The old capital shares its stunning yet subtle architecture with the new capital, Valletta. Whilst sitting under the green umbrellas of Café Regina in Republic Square with a coffee is an ideal way to relax and while away a few hours, I would also recommend a visit to one of the kiosks (try the second one on the left that you come to when facing the gate) a purchase of Cannoli, light pastry tubes filled with ricotta cheese, pistachios, and dried fruits, and a cool Kinnie, a soft carbonated drink flavoured with bitter herbs that is to all visitors of Malta a bit of Marmite topic – you either love it or hate it.
(If you hate it, you’re wrong.)
With your recently purchased sustenance swing your legs over a wall and spend some time out watching the bustling Fountain Square. If the fumes don’t get you, watching the Maltese bustling in and out of City Gate and around Floriana Bus terminus, the honking of the bright orange buses, each one personalised with icons of the Virgin or Christ, or adorned with scarves pledging allegiance to Roma or Manchester United is a more revealing way to understand the Maltese.
People going to work, meeting friends, running errands – this, after all, is life.
Sliema & St. Julians
The promenade that links the coastal towns of Sliema and St Julians is a joy to walk day or night, the light either coming from fervid rays of sunshine, reflections from the sun dappled sea at sunset, or the effulgent lights that flicker from the fairy light adorned palm trees and restaurants that grace the path. Other guides will tell you that should you find yourself on a hot date and your stomach start rumbling whilst in St Julians head straight to San Guiliano, an Italian restaurant overlooking Spinola Bay. But why not grab yourself some pastizz (beautiful hot ricotta filled pastries), or an ice cream from La Gelateria del Buon Gelao Artigianale, and climb down the steps to the benches by the water side. From here you can admire the bougainvillea-clad caf'es and restaurants, gaze at Richard England’s LOVE sculpture and its reflection in the ripples, and watch the Dghajsa and the Luzzu bobbing on the calm water, before they are taken out again in the morning by fisherman seeking the day’s catch.
Three easy ways to explore the main towns in Malta, without doing it the mainstream way. I leave you to discover the rest yourself. For an island of just over 300 square kilometres, there’s quite a bit to submerge yourself in.