Mairead Robinson discovers the unique charm of this Mediterranean jewel
The prestigious New York Times produced a list at the beginning of the year of the top fifty-two countries to visit in 2016. Right up at number three of this international recommended destination list, is the island of Malta. That may come as a surprise to many people considering all the hundreds of exotic countries and islands full of sunshine and culture throughout the world. But here is the thing – Malta has history, heritage and culture in spades; year-round sunshine; world-class hotels and hospitality and above all – it is safe, friendly, affordable and very accessible.
On a winter cruise last year, our ship docked for a day at Valletta and I was immediately fascinated with this beautiful city and decided to return in the spring of this year to discover more. Valletta is Malta’s capital city, one of the smallest capital cities I have ever come across, and was built by the Knights of the Order of St. John in 1568 and transformed over the years into the finest example of baroque. The city is studded with historical palaces, museums, churches, gardens, cafes, restaurants and shops. Valletta is built on a grid system and so it is easy to navigate, although some of the narrow steep streets will be challenging for those with mobility issues. However there is an elevator to take you from the harbour area up to the centre of town. Views are absolutely stunning, particularly over the Grand Harbour from the Barrakka Gardens and much of the centre is pedestrian access only, including the main shopping area and around St John’s Cathedral. Certainly no visit to Valletta would be complete without visiting the extraordinarily elaborate St John’s Cathedral built by the Knights of Malta between 1573 and 1578. It is one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals. It is the premier must-see in Valletta.
One day in this city will never be enough, as other impressive attractions include the Palace Armoury – one of the world’s largest collections of arms and armour still housed in its original building; the Palace State Rooms, the official residence of the Grand Masters of the Order from 1571 and now the seat of the Office of the President of the Republic of Malta; and of course the National War Museum with exhibits dating from the Bronze Age to recent times. The Museum of Fine Arts houses beautiful paintings, statues and fine furniture and the Museum of Archaeology also houses a spectacular range of artefacts.
If you are staying in the popular resorts of St Julian’s or Sliema, a bus into Valletta is only ten or fifteen minutes away, so you can visit several times during your holiday. Equally if you are up in the north of the island, in St Paul’s Bay, you are never too far from the capital and busses are very user-friendly. I particularly liked cosmopolitan St Julian’s Bay where I stayed in the lovely Meridien Hotel for a couple of nights with the seafront cafes, churches and shops on my doorstep. This is a great base for a holiday in Malta, as is popular Sliema and Paceville. All offer good resort facilities and access to all parts of the island.
To appreciate all that Malta has to offer, I would highly recommend taking the Hop On Hop Off bus. There is one for the North of the island and another for the South. Take the South one on a Sunday and hop off at the ancient fishing village of Marsaxlokk, home to around 70% of the Maltese fishing fleet and renowned for its seafood restaurants. It is a very relaxing and colourful place to enjoy a fabulous fresh seafood lunch and watch the men mending the fishing nets, the women cooking the fish and the Sunday market in full swing. You can also visit the beautiful Blue Grotto and the impressive Dingli Cliffs which are 220m high and there are some great walks south to the little Chapel of St Mary Magdalene with amazing views. The hop-on/hop-off bus gives a great running history and commentary in the language of your choice, which is really helpful as you discover the oldest temples in the world; caves dating back to 5,000 BC; the legacy of the Norman times and the spread of the Ottoman Empire in the 1560s.
If you like churches, you will love Malta. They say there are 365 of them on an island of 440,000 people, but I have been told that is a conservative estimate! I have never come across more impressive Cathedrals, Churches and Convents anywhere else in the world! And as cremation is not allowed in Malta, the graveyards offer a fascinating glimpse into both the traditional and modern lives of people on the island.
For me the biggest “wow” factor in Malta is certainly the Citadel of Mdina, known as the ‘Silent City’ fortified from as long ago as 1,000 BC when the Phoenicians built a protective wall to make a place of shelter. Later the Romans built a larger town there and it was given its present name when the Arabs arrived in the 9th century – Mdina is Arabic for ‘walled city’. Situated in the centre of the island the hidden laneways offer exquisite architectural detail and in Medieval times it was the favoured residence of the Maltese aristocracy – the baroque detail has to be seen to be believed!
It is from the north of the island that you can take the ferry to the islands of Gozo and Comino. I highly recommend a day trip to Gozo – it is less than €5 return – and again you can take the bus around all the sites. It is a more exclusive island, quieter than Malta and you can enjoy the historic charm of the capital Victoria, which is crowned by the ramparts of the Citadel. There are lots of shops and cafes, and an excellent local food and wine culture. Visit the café of Ricardo – Ta-Rikkardu – in the citadel itself where you can sample his homemade cheese, ravioli, and wine and also taste his own reared goat (Gidi) and the wonderful local speciality – rabbit. Order the traditional platter to get a great flavour of the island. Ricardo also gives demonstrations of his cheese making, and while a quiet-spoken humble man, he has achieved some international fame and been ‘discovered’ by many others before myself!
There really is so much to experience and enjoy about a holiday in Malta, and for Irish people there is a special affinity with this magical little island. You will find some Irish names locally and we both seem to share a similar sense of humour and friendliness. With everybody speaking English, the language is never a problem. I was not surprised to learn that many Irish couples are choosing to get married in Malta these days, and it is also becoming a very popular winter sun destination.
With all the concern regarding some holiday destinations this year due to political unrest, and with prices in the others sky-rocketing, I know where I am heading to for my next break later this year – it has to be Malta.
Tour operator from Ireland to Malta: John Galligan Travel, www.jgt.ie
Getting there: Ryanair flies five times per week direct from Dublin to Malta International Airport in the summer and three times per week in the winter. See www.ryanair.com for best available offers.
Accommodation: Mairead stayed at Le Meridien St Julians, Radisson Blu St Julians and Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa
Special thanks to the Malta Tourism Authority and Alpine Sterling www.alpinemalta.com
All information on the Maltese Islands and things to do is available at www.visitmalta.com