Malta: Fishing villages, cocktail vans, and blue lagoons
We were fascinated by the idea of Malta. Although Malta is rarely a country you hear about when it comes to European travel, we loved what this small archipelago in the Mediterranean offered: beautiful water, ancient cities, small towns and gorgeous scenery. Located between Sicily and the North African coast, Malta would also be a great place to visit before heading to Sicily to renew our wedding vows, just a short flight from Valletta, the capital, to Catania, Sicily. We were sold.
Malta boasts 3,000 hours of sunshine each year and we can vouch for the azure skies and warm sun that bath this beautiful place in colors of blue and beige.
Why beige? Because limestone was used as the primary building material in Malta. Locals call Malta "the rock" and it's no surprise why. The buildings in Valletta, on the largest and most populated island, are hulking, solid places that are both beautiful and stoic. You can almost imagine invaders sailing up to the city walls only to wonder how the heck they could possible permeate this place.
The history of Malta is incredible and way too long and varied to share here, but here's a glimpse: The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Byzantines all left their marks on the islands (it's like a history book come to life). The Arabs, who conquered the islands in 870 A.D., influenced the language, and until 1530 Malta was an extension of Sicily. Napoleon Bonaparte even took over Malta from the Knights in 1798, on his way to Egypt. But there's more! There was a brief French presence on the islands before the Maltese asked the English for help to blockade them in 1800. The British ruled Malta until 1964, when it became independent, and in 1974 the islands finally became a republic. Malta joined the European Union in 2004.
That's quite a lot of changing hands for a few little islands! Yes, it's plural, islands, because Malta is made up of five islands, although the largest three are the only inhabited ones - Malta, Gozo, and Comino. We stayed on Malta in the St. Julian's section, which is walking distance, through the small winding streets, to the ferry to Valletta, and also along a seafront promenade and Balluta beach. This was the view from our balcony, and you can see the beach, but it wasn't exactly the kind of beach you'd want to lounge on - more the kind you'd find in a city where little kids and dogs run in and out of the water. There were way better beaches on the islands, which we'd discover.
Our first full day we decided to walk to Sliema and catch the 15-minute ferry across the Grand Harbor to the fortified city of Valletta. Lots of limestone buildings and beautiful statues and sculptures, but one thing we didn't expect: A saluting battery with eight working replicas of SBBL 32-pounders (cannons). We were lucky enough to be there for their daily firing at 12:00, which includes a ceremony of music and then boom! Very cool, and loud. Valetta is Baroque in style, with some Neo-Classical and modern architecture tossed in for good measure.
There are lots of fortifications and even palaces among the gardens and churches. It was damaged badly in the Second World War, but today it is truly beautiful and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We continued to wander around the walls of the city, through the little streets, grabbing a bite to eat and cocktails before eventually we decided we'd had our fill. Valetta is definitely a must-do in Malta but not a place you need to spend more than a day.
After taking the ferry back across the harbor we discovered someone waiting for us on the other side - Mr. Cocktail Van!! A van built out to provide a fully stocked bar, kind of like an ice cream truck for adults. He had fresh fruit and blenders and was ready to cool us off (have we mentioned that Malta was hot?). While we enjoyed our beverages, we also explored opportunities to take a boat to the islands of Gozo and Comino, and signed up for an excursion the following day.
Visiting Gozo and Comino are must-do's, and a boat cruise is the perfect way to do it. Not only do you get to view Malta and its coast from the sea, but you also gain an appreciation for what interesting islands they are (while enjoying a refreshment).
Malta is not lush and green, in fact it better resembles a desert landscape, all rocky with low scrubby brush. It makes the buildings that rise from the island even more striking, and you can appreciate the civilizations that had a vision for these small pieces of land in the Mediterranean Sea. A great example of this is the island of Gozo. There isn't much to see on this traditionally farming and fishing island, but it has adorable villages and a beautiful cathedral.
After lunch on Gozo, we visited the island of Comino and its famous Blue Lagoon. This island doesn't have much and is virtually uninhabited (it also doesn't have any cars). What is does have: beautiful water and white sand beaches. We spent some time perched on rocks in the sun, dipping in and out of the water when it got too hot for us. All in all, our day visiting these two islands was well worth it for a taste of the quiet and remoteness on the outskirts of this tiny country.
The next day we traded in the boat for a rental car and went to explore on our own. Two spots we wanted to see: The medieval "Silent City" of Mdina and the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. We started in Mdina, parking outside the city's walls and passing over the now-dry moat that once protected it. This fortified, raised city was once the capital of Malta and the center of the Maltese nobility and religious authorities. The apartments and palaces inside the walls have been handed down from generation to generation and people still live there, although it never regained its prominence or importance (hence the name the "Silent City"). Although we've never watched it, Mdina has also been filmed for Game of Thrones.
Next stop: Marsaxlokk. This small, traditional fishing village in the Southeastern Region of Malta doesn't have much to see, but it sure tastes good! Fish fresh off the boats was the perfect lunch, and the colorful fishing boats bobbing in the water right next to us provided the perfect background.
At this point we'd literally driven from one end of Malta to the other, which actually doesn't take a lot of time. But, we decided to take the long way back to St. Julien and stopped at a beautiful beach for a dip in the Mediterranean and a little nap in the sand before returning to the hotel.
On our last day in Malta, we were walking along the promenade that hugs Spinola Bay and we stopped to watch what we'd come to learn is a big deal in Malta: water polo. There happened to be a water polo club located along the shore and we'd noticed that every day there were teams there practicing or competing. Turns out water polo is one of the most popular sports in Malta and the level of play is quite high - there are more than twelve water polo clubs in this tiny country and Malta is competitive on an international level. Further past the club, we headed to dinner in the Sinola Bay section of St. Julien's, an area busy with restaurants, shopping and nightlife. And it gets lively, probably due to the drink specials...we'd never seen a bar offering a special for 60 shots before. That was about 58 more than we were looking for - even if the price was right.
As we prepared to leave this lovely place, we were so glad we'd decided to spend some time on this island country. When we were planning our trip, we thought that this may be it: the place we want to call home for a few years as we plan our retirement. At the end of the day, it wasn't that, but it was well worth the visit, and we would certainly go back if we had the chance. Thankfully, unlike explorers in the past, we won't have to scale limestone walls and fortified cities to enjoy this slice of sunshine and history.