The sun streams down putting a warm glow on the creamy limestone carved into baroque curlicues or solidly built into awesome fortifications. Above is the bright blue of the sky, below the sparkling azure of the Mediterranean. It is an average day in Malta.
Malta is an ideal place for a holiday in so many ways. The sun shines for 300+ days of the year in this island nation that lies between Europe and North Africa. The sea that surrounds it is warm enough to swim comfortably from May to October/November and cleaner and clearer than almost anywhere else in the European Mediterranean. There are now six blue flag beaches and Malta is a Mecca for divers.
It is incredibly easy to get to – under three hours from numerous UK airports – and everyone speaks English. There are no particular problems with health, hygiene, culture or crime. Malta is reasonably priced and has plenty of excellent restaurants (see cuisine in Malta and the country’s 10 best restaurants). What more could you ask?
Some extraordinary sights, perhaps? Malta has plenty of those too. In fact this tiny nation has the greatest density of historic sights of any country in the world. It has several World Heritage Sights including the whole of its charming capital Valletta, built by the Knights of St John (the Knights of Malta) in the 1570s. It is still very much their city of narrow streets overhung with painted wooden galleriji (enclosed balconies), hidden churches and elegant squares.
Malta’s culture goes back a lot further than the sixteenth century however: Malta is the unexpected home to some of the oldest freestanding stone buildings in the world – older even than the Great Pyramids. Built of limestone blocks up to 50 tonnes in weight, these are megalithic buildings up to 2000 years older than Greece’s famous palace at Mycenae. The remains of Malta’s unique temples all have World Heritage Status and several can be visited, across Malta and Gozo.
Little is known about the temple builders except that they were farmers who came from Sicily – visible on a clear day just a day’s sailing from Malta. They were only the first of the Mediterranean’s wanderers, traders and empire builders to land in Malta. Almost every significant power in the Med has realised the value of this island base with its stunning natural harbours – and each has left its mark.
The Phoenicians were here – and their ‘eye of Osiris’ is still painted on Malta’s colourful traditional boats. The Romans centred their rule on Melite (now Mdina) leaving remarkable catacombs around its walls with impressively carved tombs and underground dining tables.
The Arabs came and gave many of Malta’s towns and villages their names, and strongly affected the language. Medieval rulers have left us the labyrinthine fortified walled towns of Mdina and the Gozo Citadel, as well as the layout of delightful harbourside Birgu (Vittoriosa) which went on to become the first capital of the Christian warrior-monks, the Knights of St John, when they were given Malta (for a nominal rent in Maltese falcons) by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1530.
Following the Great Siege of 1565 in which the Ottoman Turks very nearly took Malta, the Knights constructed their new heavily fortified capital on a defendable peninsula. As times became more peaceful the Knights spent more effort on living well and decorating their city, turning Valletta into a baroque gem. St John’s Co-Cathedral is an unrestrained celebration of this time.
Napoleon put an end to all that and the British helped the Maltese shift him out in turn, leaving Malta in British hands from 1800 until independence in 1964. The incongruous red letter boxes and almost universal understanding of English attest to that, along with a very significant Allied Second World War legacy.
16,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta (four times what fell on Dresden) and the islands besieged until they had all but run out of food and fuel. There are several underground WWII shelters to visit – each with its own stock of stories – as well as the Lascaris War Rooms where General Eisenhower commanded the invasion of Sicily.
Malta was crucial to the Allies, serving as base for the Mediterranean fleet disrupting supply lines to N. Africa and in 1942 George VI awarded the entire population the George Cross – the highest civilian honour. The Maltese remain very proud of this medal. There are copies in several museums and the award is celebrated annually in Valletta’s main square.
So there is no shortage of things to see and do in Malta. And when you have had enough action on the main island, hop on a ferry (just half an hour) over to Gozo. Malta’s little sister island is where the Maltese go for a break. It is calmer, more rural, with unspoilt countryside and sculpted coastal landscape, traditional villages, restaurants with great food and plenty of character, very friendly people and good beaches. It runs, residents like to say, on GMT – Gozo Maybe Time. It is the perfect place to relax.
Now that really is all you could need for an ideal holiday!