A Mediterranean oasis
Date Posted: 14/05/2011
Lee Jamieson discovers the unspoilt beauty of Malta
Malta, along with its sister islands of Gozo and Comino, is an oasis at the heart of the Mediterranean. Despite its small size, Malta’s rich historical and cultural offering can more than satisfy whether your group be culture vultures, serious foodies or into outdoor pursuits.
Malta’s troubled past is evident in its culture and architecture which has been shaped by the island’s various rulers including the British, French, Normans, Byzantines and Romans. For this reason, the island’s capital city Valletta is an architectural “patchwork quilt”, where modern branded shops and traditional British telephone boxes nestle between the grand Baroque architecture.
To experience Valletta’s opulence at its best, take your group to St John’s Co-Cathedral which is renowned for its artistic treasures. Commissioned in 1572 as the conventual church of the Knights of Malta, the building offers a dazzling array of treasures and artefacts including tapestries by Rubens and Poussin and paintings by Caravaggio - a must for the art lovers among you.
Top three sights
1. Ggantija Temples, Gozo
Gozo has a remarkable claim to fame: it is home to the oldest freestanding structure in the world. This unassuming stone temple predates the Egyptian Pyramids by more than 1,000 years and offers a tantalising glimpse of a forgotten civilisation that lived on the islands some 3,500 years ago.
2. Saint Agatha’s Catacombs, Mdina
Hidden beneath the picturesque town of Mdina is Saint Agatha’s Catacombs, a remarkable underground basilica comprising 4,100 square feet of fresco-decorated catacombs. If legend is to be believed, Saint Agatha secretly practiced Christianity from this location during the Christian persecution.
3. Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta:
No trip to Malta would be complete without visiting the island’s most important building, the Grand Master’s Palace. In typical opulent style, the palace was built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John and was home to the Grand Master. The seat of power has trickled down through the ages and the building is now used by the Maltese Parliament. GTOs need to time their visit carefully as the palace closes to visitors when Parliament is in session.
Malta for history buffs
For those in your party wishing to dig deeper into Malta’s history, the Malta Union of Tourist Guides can arrange a tour of Valletta’s Houses to reveal the city’s rich, but troubled past. Your group will be guided around some of the houses and palaces that originate from the city’s initial foundations and will learn about the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants. For those of you more interested in ancient history, a trip to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in nearby Paola will leave a lasting impression. This underground necropolis dates back to around 3,600BC and features spectacular chambers hewn from the rock decorated with some of the world’s best-preserved prehistoric art. Discovered in 1902 by sewage workers, it is said to be the only prehistoric underground temple in the world and earns its prestige as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. GTOs are advised to book early as only 80 people are permitted entry each day and there can be a three-week wait on tickets.
Malta is proud of its gastronomy and the Malta Tourist Office is on hand to help you arrange a food tour should you be interested. Traditional delicacies include Malta’s rabbit-based national dish, fenek, and pastizzi pastry cases filled with ricotta cheese or mushy peas flavoured with curry.
For those with a sweet-tooth, the Chocolate Festival in Hamrun is a must. Taking place on 30th October, this is a celebration of all things chocolate: chocolate sculptures, paintings and a chocolate cake competition. The festival culminates in a parade where the Grand Master Perellos comes to taste the original chocolate drink of his era.
Why not wash down your group’s culinary experience with a wine-tasting tour? A trip to the Marsovin Cellars in Marsa will reveal the entire wine-making process from grape to bottle. Wine sampling is also available, where staff will be on hand to guide your group through the different Marsovin wines, accompanied by a selection of local savouries. The tour lasts two hours, but bespoke tours for groups can be arranged on request.
Malta’s sister island of Gozo is a short sea plane or ferry ride away and is an ideal destination for more discerning groups. Boasting some of the safest beaches in the Mediterranean with warm temperatures and calm waters, I think it’s a perfect place for your group to unwind and soak up Gozo’s laid-back character.
With an array of outdoor activities and water-sports on offer, Gozo is also the place to let the more adventurous go wild. Although diving and snorkelling are the most popular group activities; rock climbing, sailing, horse-riding and abseiling are also available.
For a sedate day trip, why not visit Comino, the tiny island that sits between Malta and Gozo? The island is wild and rugged and boasts dramatic cliff views and rocky precipices - which is a lot to pack into a land mass of less than two square miles.
With only a handful of people permanently living on Comino (even the policeman and priest commute from Gozo), the island has an ‘untouched’ quality. Therefore, you will find that the island’s few attractions have an enchanted feeling about them and have been capturing the hearts of visitors for years.
Blue Lagoon is a prime example. This natural inlet features crystal-clear azure waters and a small beach flanked by flat rocks - a lovely place for you to relax and unwind. Your group can also visit Saint Mary’s Tower, which is the most visible structure on the island. The tower was built in 1618 by the Knights of Malta, although there had been plans to build it as early as 1416. The tower formed part of a chain of defensive towers located at vantage points along the coastline of the Maltese islands. In later years, the tower was used as a prison for suspected spies during the French Blockade and was also used during World War One and Two. This magnificent site is well worth a visit.
Try: Snorkelling in the shallow waters around the Azure Window on Gozo. This natural rock formation has become Malta’s most famous landmark and marine life is abundant there.
Go: Malta’s balmy Mediterranean climate makes it a year-round destination with mild winters and roasting summers. The best time to visit is between May and October when temperatures average a sublime 33 degrees Celsius, but the summer months of July and August can be uncomfortably hot with temperatures peaking at 35 degrees. Festa season is a popular time to visit (between June and September) when every town and village across the island celebrates with fireworks and a carnival atmosphere.
Buy: Beyond the modern shopping outlets in areas like Sliema and Saint Julian’s, Malta still has a strong market scene which keeps the island’s traditional crafts alive. Visit any town or village on market day and your group can haggle over handcrafted silver jewellery, glass and wicker products. Gozo, in particular, is famed for its fine lace and it is not uncommon to find women working the bobbin on their doorsteps. On Malta, the main daily market takes place in Valletta’s Merchant Street, while on Gozo your group can visit the daily market in Victoria’s main square.
Eat: Malta blends English, Mediterranean and north African flavours, courtesy of the island’s diverse range of visitors, invaders and rulers. Although there are regional variations, especially between the islands, a rabbit dish called fenek unites Malta. Other staples include wild-thyme honey and local olive oil served with hobz biz-zejt, a type of Maltese crusty bread. As one would expect of a Mediterranean island, fish dishes are very popular. Malta’s most famous fish market occurs in the village of Marsxlokk every Sunday morning, and makes for an interesting stop on a day trip.
Drink: Malta produces its own lagers and wines. CISK is an award-winning Maltese lager and is widely available on the island. Locals are also proud of Malta’s wine industry and vineyard tours can be arranged if desired. Beyond local offerings, most of the international beer, lager and wine brands are available.
Flight time: 3 hours London to Valletta.
Time difference: GMT +1hr.
Currency: The euro £1 = €1.17 currently.
Language: Maltese, with English widely spoken.
Red Tape: Entry visas are not required by anyone holding a British or EU passport. You are advised to check with the Malta High Commission if you will be travelling with non-EU nationals.
Malta Tourist Office: