Malta always intrigued me because Americans including myself tend to associate the Mediterranean with Italy, Spain, France, and Greece among other countries. But just a bit further south, Europeans and those from Great Britain have been enjoying their holidays in the small country for years. In recent years, cruise ships have started adding Malta as a port of call to their itineraries but still, little is known about this gem in the Mediterranean.
The ferry ride from Sicily was about two hours from Pozzallo to the port of Valletta and I didn’t really know what to expect but was heavy with anticipation and looking forward to discovering for myself what is considered to be a weekend trip for many in that part of the world. I had fallen asleep when all of a sudden people leaped to their feet to look out of the windows. As much as I love to travel I still have minor phobias about flying and ferries so I assumed that something happened to the ferry and we all were going to have to jump off in order to keep from going down with the ship so to speak. Thankfully, my screwy mind was completely wrong and everyone was simply jumping up to have a look at the incredible view of Malta, slowly coming into view in the distance. It was like an ancient city had suddenly risen out of the sea and it had the same effect on everyone who happened to be looking in that direction. It’s quite a sight. It may be small but the main island is big enough to make a visual impact when approaching it in this way.
Situated between Sicily and North Africa, Malta has a varied background. It has been invaded by the likes of the Romans, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks just to name a few, gaining independence from the last occupiers, Great Britain, in 1964. As a yank, I’m grateful that my British buddies left their footprint because English is the common language in Malta next to the native Maltese language, making it easy for someone like me to converse with the locals and get around. Aside from the challenge of driving, (they drive on the left) it’s an extremely easy destination to travel to. This was one of those destinations where I planned to stay for two days and ended up staying for five. Though I was with many people during my stay in Sicily, I traveled by myself to this destination and felt completely safe and welcomed as a woman traveling singola.
Upon my arrival, I immediately noticed how incredibly dry the terrain looked but oddly enough, it created a really beautiful contrast with the Mediterranean sea. The limestone mountains create a very fine dust which is a bit of a pain if it’s windy at the beach, but picturesque nonetheless. The air and wind was really hot, it being the middle of July after all, but when you start to search out the activities on the main island and the island of Gozo, you can tell that there are plenty of opportunities to play in the water and enjoy the endless activities offered, or just hang out. My immediate impression was how ancient the country appeared, but at further inspection, I found that it is more modern than one would expect.
Malta is pretty progressive. This is an area that loves the arts, housing Renaissance and modern art at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, and encourages up and coming artists in every area, from photography to performance art. One photographer I have been a big fan of for years is Darrin Zammit Lupi. He is a native of Malta and has shot some of the most beautiful performing arts and travel photos in his native country and around the world. You can read his blog at www.darrinzammitlupi.wordpress.com but I encourage you to go to his website at www.darrinzammitlupi.com to see his gorgeous photos.
And the nightlife? Some people complain about the nightlife in the St. Julian’s area because it can get “Ibizaish”. (Ibiza, Spain is nightclub hell, but fun if you’re still in the nightclub scene.) In the summer, you’ll be lulled to sleep by the endless sound of thumping, or pissed off that you can’t sleep at all. For me, I didn’t care. I love to be in the middle of the excitement and I have no trouble sleeping. And since I live in an area where everything goes on lock down by 2:00a.m. it’s kind of fun to be in the middle of it all. The hotel I stayed at, the Hotel Valentina is located right in St. Julian’s and is updated, friendly, air conditioned, and walking distance to everything in the area. http://www.hotelvalentina.com It’s also close to the travel agencies who can assist with day trips to the Blue Grotto, tickets to the Marine Animal Park, and the various other activities offered in Malta. Also, check out http://www.visitmalta.com to check out the latest on what’s going on.
One of the areas I spent the most time in was St. Julian’s overlooking Spinola Bay. What a beautiful area. The restaurants have a heavy Italian influence (understandably given the location) and offer waterfront views. I had a fantastic time walking from Spinola Bay all the way down to Sliema, where you can find hotels, shops, and restaurants. The entire walk along this route is beautiful, since the curving promenade meanders along the coastline. Grab some fresh squeezed orange juice or a gelato and you’re in Mediterranean heaven.
Malta has no shortage of churches and cathedrals. I always say that churches and cathedrals are some of the architectural masterpieces of the world and should not be missed if you are an architectural junkie like myself. A word of caution: some of these churches have some serious steps leading up to the entrance so in hot weather, after you’ve huffed and puffed your way to the top, don’t swear at the top of the steps. The door to the entrance of the church may be open and you’ll receive unappreciative looks from those who quickly forgot how they felt upon arriving at the entrance.
Another part of the main island I really enjoyed was Marsaxlokk which is one of the oldest fishing towns in Malta. The elder fisherman still speak their own dialect which was really interesting to listen to. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before and they spend a lot of precious time working on their fishing nets whether the tourists are gawking at them or not. The boats in this port are works of art. Someone explained to me that most of the boats have an “eye” painted on them to protect them from the “evil eye.”
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I went off to the island of Gozo. I still dream about being on this island. In Homer’s Odyssey, Gozo is where Calypso held Odysseus as a prisoner of love for seven years. Prisoner? Oh please. I’m willing to bet that he probably nailed his own feet to the limestone rock to stay there. (But Homer left that part of the story out.) The entire island is about the size of Manhattan but it packs a punch in a small radius. The beaches and inlets are intimate and heavenly. The largest sandy beach in Gozo is Ramla Bay where Calypso’s cave happens to overlook. I was more interested in a small inlet called Xlendi Bay which is surrounded by white cliffs and some of the most beautiful, clear turquoise water. Again, small area, big punch. Approaching Xlendi is sort of……eh. But once you get up to it or better yet, go up to the cliff above it and look down unto it…. wow.
Gozo is known for producing many wonderful things characteristic to the islands, but one purchase I made which I will have as long as it holds up is a poncho from their lace-making house. It was 100 degrees out the day I decided to try on various black lace ponchos but thanks to me having some unknown foresight at the time, I still enjoy it every winter when I’m hanging out on my couch on a cold day.
Gozo is also known for their beautiful hand crafted glass. If you like Murano glass from Italy, you will love Gozitan glass. I still wish I had brought a piece home even though each piece weighs a ton. The beauty of their work is that each piece is artfully done to reflect the colors of Malta. The glass factory is still family owned where they train a new generation of glass blowers to continue their particular style of glass. http://www.gozoglass.co.uk/pages/gozoindex.html
I tried to take part in everything that Malta had to offer and still didn’t get through everything. There is as little or as much to do on these islands in order to have a fantastic holiday. Just as other Mediterranean islands have their own charm and personality, this should be on the list of islands to visit. The friendly, beautiful people, the delicious food, and endless discoveries I made during my short stay was enough to make me want to return which I just haven’t done yet but plan to because I’ve been longing for it ever since!