Saturday, 6 June 2015

Malta - A Travel Guide

As I have made several trips to Malta it seams silly not to give you my travel tips. My in laws, in part are Maltese, that is on my mother in laws side. Let me start by telling those of you who do not know Malta that it is tiny, it is so small that it has a special inset in most Atlases. If you were to go on holiday to North America you would be lucky to see a whole state because, in case you had not noticed, America is huge, it is really really big, Malta does not have that problem. One of the main advantages of Malta's size is you can see everything it has to offer, but despite its size that is a lot far more than you might expect from a small island, for example Cyprus is more than four times the size of Malta with less than half of the historical wonder. Chances are you have seen Malta already even if you have never visited because the film industry in Malta is booming. I will name a few of the things filmed in Malta; Clash Of The Titans, Game Of Thrones, Troy, Munich, Captain Philips, Gladiator & The Count Of Monte Cristo, and that is the tip of the iceberg, see I told you you will have seen the island.
mehilla church malta travel  guide
valletta sign malta travel guide
Malta is situated in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Sicily but the Maltese language shares far more with Arabic than Italian. For those of you who fear going to a country where you will struggle to communicate do not fear as everyone in Malta can speak English, in fact my mother in laws generation had most of their lessons taught in English. 
Mdina Cathedral
mehilla curch courtyard malta travel guide
Part of that charm of Malta is rooted in the history of the country, which in turn is due to the location of Malta. As history shows there have been a few conquering nations and  Malta is a strategic wonder. In fact Malta was occupied for most of history; from 218BC - 870AD by the Romans, from 870 - 1091the Moors. Between 1194 -1530 Malta was ruled by Sicily. The knights of St John from 1550 - 1798, and was used as a base for the crusades. After that Napoleon ruled Malta from 1798 - 1800. In 1800 Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire until they achieved independence from the constitutional monarchy through a referendum. 
Valletta gardens
Malta sunset
This may sound like a history lesson but is is hard to ignore the history of Malta as you may only be  packing your bags for a sunnier climate you will still see the rich history is woven into the architecture, art, and even the cartography of some of the cities. Even if you don't make a purposeful trip to any of the historical sights in Malta you will still be surrounded by it.
Malta travel guide
San Anton Malta travel guide
San Anton Malta travel guide
So what are my recommendations for place to visit? Although I have given you a brief history of Malta from Roman times the history of the island goes back so much further and has many pre historic sites. One of these is the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni dating back to 3300BC. It is believed that is was first a sanctuary and later became a necropolis. It has three levels, and is the only known prehistoric underground temple. Due to the importance of the site the number of visitors that are admitted each day is understandably very limited and I would advise booking at least 3 months in advance. You can do this of the Heritage Malta website, this may sound crazy but trust me it is worth the planning. You can also buy a multi-pass on their site that offers you access to 21 different historical sites and is well worth buying, although the Hypogeum is a separate ticket.
Valletta streets malta travel guide
Included in the pass is Hagar Qim temple, it is dated back to 3600BC and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Also a mere 500m from there are the Mnajdra temples. Whilst you are there it is worth walking to to coast to see the uninhabited island of Filfla, although you cannot gain access to the island if you take some binoculars you may spot some of the birds that gave it protection as a special international bird area. There is also something fishy about this rock and it is that it is an area where great white sharks are known to breed. One of my other favourite prehistoric sites to visit is Ghar Dalam it is a very important site for palaeontologists and contains bones of ice age animals as well as a very cool cave.
fontanella tea garden Mdina malta travel guide
Malta is a Catholic island and littered with churches and cathedrals you really will see them everywhere and they are all beautiful in their own way but there are a few you should make a special effort to see the first being the Church in Mosta, Rotunda square. Not only is Mosta the third largest unsupported dome in the world but it also survived a bomb in World War II. On 9th April 1942 a bomb came through the dome and hit the alter but failed to explode. The detonator has since been removed and a replica is now in place as a testament to the event. The Cathedral of St John in Valletta is a wonder to behold and each of the countries from the 8 pointed star has an alter in the cathedral. It houses breathtaking iconography and two Carravggio paintings. On my most recent visit to Malta I saw the Sanctuary of Our Lady in Mellieha. It sits on the coast and is surrounded by beautiful grounds that offer stunning views across the bay, fashioned in a red/pink stone and houses wonderful murals. As I said before Malta is a Catholic country so please be respectful of that and dress appropriately when you visit religious sites and be courteous if you happen to arrive during Mass or another ceremony.
mehilla bay malta travel guide
As well as the many architectural wonders Malta has many areas of natural beauty and a landscape that goes from lush green to desert red depending on when you visit. Even if you visit in the summer months when the landscape is desert it is still lovely and the many public gardens will still hold the wonderful array of plants you can get in high temperatures. I have visited a few of the different gardens but my favourite and the flagship has to be San Anton. It holds some amazing specimens of plant life but a few years ago a further addition made to this area. The president opened up part of his garden, The Kitchen Garden with herbs, plants, a play area for little ones and farm animals. You can reach the Kitchen Garden by walking through San Anton. You can enjoy a drink and eat the local pastizzi and the proceeds from the cafe are donated to a community fund.
valletta buildings malta travel guide
I am not a big boat trip person, in fact I am a little nervous on small boats so I kicked up a fuss and almost didn't visit the Blue Grotto, I am glad Joe talked me round it was worth being brave and honestly it was so pretty that I did forget my boat fear, for a little while anyway. It is also favoured by divers, I have not and will never dive, I have many reasons most based around fear but my sister in law and her husband were diving instructors in Malta and even though they have worked around the world they still rave about dives off the Maltese coastline, in fact they got engaged underwater in Malta.
valletta harbour malta travel guide
valletta square malta travel guide
You cannot leave Malta without spending at least a couple of days in Valletta, described by my friend who is big into cruises as the nicest ports she has sailed into. I have not seen it from the sea but it is just as nice on the shore. Valletta is built on a grid system so you won't get lost. The city is steeped in history and was built for the Knights of Saint John, before their arrival nothing apart from a small watchtower stood on the peninsular. The city was built with defense in mind so it is fortified with a deep moat and bastions, when I first  visited Malta I was lucky enough to see the old gates that stand behind the fountain surrounded by small yellow buses on the approach to the city. Sadly the yellow buses have been replaced and the gate remodelled, if you can find an old image on Google do so. That being said the city is still stunning. Given the wealth of history in Malta there are many museums to visit in Valletta, they like the Maltese people are small but perfectly formed. My must see recommendations for Valletta are; Casa Rocca Piccola a privately owned home with hourly tours simply overflowing with beauty and history, if you are lucky the Marquis will pop out and join the tour himself, (he loves to talk & talk & talk but everything he has to say is interesting, the upper & lower Barraka gardens with terraces, canons and great views across the harbour, there is now a lift linking the two gardens which saves your feet. There are two museums that you should definitely see the Malta Experience and The Knights Experience, they are like a cheat sheet for the island's rich history they each take under an hour but you really will learn so much from them. The Inquisitor's Palace is also on my must see list mostly because most of the others around the world were destroyed as a reaction to their torturous ways. When you see how small Valletta is you may think that I have mentioned all there is to see but in fact there is plenty more from the main square filled with fountains to the national library.
valletta harbour canons malta travel guide
If you only visit one one other city in Malta make it Mdina the silent city. Driving up towards Mdina is still one of my favourite views. The walled city has a population of less than 300 and has been enveloped by Rabat. There are historical settlements in Mdina dating back to 4000BC. It is situated on a hill in the centre of the island so it is easy to see why it had great importance. You should visit the Cathedral and the small museum underneath it. You should also eat Baci cake in Fontanella's,  it has the best views. Just walking around the tiny walled city drinking it in is the thing to do, looking at the pretty doors and cute windows and browsing at the Mdina glass in the shops. Speaking of Mdina glass, just a short distance away from Mdina is  Ta'Qali, (crafts village). It is a collection of shops and workshops on an old airfield, you will not be aggressively sold anything and you will get to watch the artisans blow and sculpt glass. Dating back to 1968 when they were the first glass factory of Malta they have extended their range of products and colourways, although you can buy Mdina glass all over the island the crafts village is the only seconds shops, and I have a number of pieces and cannot see why they are seconds the quality is still very good.
valletta windows malta travel guide
There are similarities between Italian and Maltese cuisine but there are a multitude of dishes endemic to the island, here a a few that you really should try on your visit the first being pastizzi. I was recently asked by my friend in Paris, "what is a pastizzi?" I explained to her that it is the tastiest coronary you can get for under a euro, and I am right. The dough is made with layers of butter, so much that when it is cooked it flakes up and looks like filo pastry, but it isn't. They are filled with either ricotta or spiced peas, and did I mention they are addictive and delicious and hey you are holiday so eat away! Zebbuġ Mimli (large green olives stuffed with tuna fish), Fażola bajda bit-tewm u t-tursin (butter beans with parsley garlic & olive oil), Bigella (mashed fava beans and spiced), Suffat tal-fenek (rabbit stew), Timpana (essentially a pasta pie with pork beef and lardons) and Gbejna (a small hard cheese made with sheep or goats milk).
Mdina Malta travel guide
So the practicalities of visiting the island. The weather is nice most of the year. I have visited in February, March, May, June & July.  If  you are wanting time on a beach then February & March are not the best however it is still pleasant enough to wander around and see everything else the island has to offer. You will need a jumper and a jacket in the evening, the advantage is the island is green all over. By May it is lovely however my family were still in coats any of you from Northern Europe will find it warm, June and July are very warm and apparently it gets even hotter in August. Like all holiday destinations it is obviously more expensive to travel in the school holidays. As we always stay with family I cannot make any hotel recommendations however I am a huge fan of Air BnB everywhere and this may be a chance to have a quieter holiday as the popular areas have lots of hotels in and can get busy. For getting around I would drive, we always hire a car. Remember when I said the island is tiny well this means you cannot get lost, you can go the long way round but you will find your way, we always do and the scenic route shows you more of the island so it is a win win. Parking in certain places can be tough so practise your reverse parking. In Malta they drive on the left and the plug sockets are the same as British 3 pin. They are now part of the euro zone and although it is not as cheap some places it is certainly cheaper than many other European destinations.  There are lots of restaurants and wine bars in most areas, especially the towns and cities but I have 3 recommendations for you, The Veduta in Rabat, just outside the walls of Mdina and sitting outside you will have great views of the island whilst you eat. The Melita which is right by San Anton gardens and is nice day or night, you can sit in their pretty gardens and I love their ice creams. Also San Paolo Naufrago a very nice wine bar in Valletta, it is a restaurant but I have only had drinks and snacks, they sometimes have live music and it has a very cute tucked away location.
valletta fountain malta travel guide
So there you have it, my guide for Malta. As you can see this tiny island required lots of writing, evidence that great things come in small packages. I plan to write a travelling with children guide to Malta so keep your eyes peeled. If you have any specific questions you want to ask I have a band of island experts ready and waiting so feel free to email.

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