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Magical Malta Heritage and high times on the Mediterranean’s most underrated island

12th May, 2013
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For a country half the size of London, Malta packs a mighty punch.

It has archeological sites older than the Pyramids, the Parthenon and even Stonehenge. The capital Valletta was once known to the ruling houses of Europe as Superbissima – meaning ‘most proud’.

Benjamin Disraeli named it ‘a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen’. Unesco has put this marvellously well-preserved 16th century walled city on its elite list of World Heritage Sites, judging its crush of 320 churches, palazzos and fortifications one of the world’s most impressive historic areas.

Then there are the Maltese themselves, apart and proud in the Mediterranean, drawn from stock so brave the whole country was given the George Cross for holding out against the Germans and Italians in the last war.

Not that first-time visitors guess any of this when they fly in over low hills and terraced fields. It looks, and sounds, so cosy and tame. The very name is a simple anagram of what the Phoenicians, one of many proprietors down the years, called it – Malat, meaning safe haven.

And, like a stick of Blackpool rock, the country (that’s Malta and its pebble-dash of tiny satellite islands) is shot through with a familiar sense of Britain, with red phone boxes and many a British pub.

Look closer, though, and you’ll discover a distinct and different land with 7,000 years of history, with quaint towns, and a coast indented with coves, beaches and tongue-trippingly named fishing villages such as Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga. Think of it as the aperitif to the history and heritage of the countries around it. But one thing you can never say is: ‘Malta reminds me of…’

A good way to start a visit is on a harbour tour in Valletta, to gauge the fine work of the Knights of St John, in their fortified city perched on a high rock above the deep water port.

They inherited the building contract from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans and Arabs, who all contributed to Malta’s heritage.

Top of my list is the St John the Baptist Cathedral, starring Caravaggio’s Beheading Of St John. The artist was here on the run from nearby Italy, after killing a man.

Among the many highlights in Valletta is the National Museum of Fine Arts, in an exuberant Rococo 1570s building, and the Museum of Archaeology. Mdina is another town of distinction. Tourists’ cars are not allowed up its narrow, twisting streets, and rightly so. It’s worth the steep walk to find the Fontanella Tea Garden, a cafe with a view of the island and out to sea, selling cakes of distinction.

Huge churches dominate many towns. Mosta’s St Mary’s Church has a miracle (or a piece of great good luck?) to relate. One day in 1942 a bomb penetrated its glorious blue, gold and white dome, as 300 people prayed inside. It landed on the mosaic floor but did not explode.

Gozo is Malta’s smaller sister island, 30 minutes by ferry.

On the way you pass the tiny, car-free island of Comino, a place of solitude and views and walks. Gozo, said to be the mythical home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey, is greener and more rural than Malta, studded with Baroque churches and old stone farmhouses.

Oleander, bougainvillea and geraniums create a luscious palette of colour in the summer.

All roads in Gozo lead to Victoria, topped by its imposing citadel. There’s a big morning market in the main square, It-Tokk, where stalls are stacked high with Gozitan lace, knitwear and silver trinkets.

The islands’ fabulous archaeological wonders are much less well-known than they deserve to be. There are seven megalithic monuments to visit, their purpose as strange as some of their names – Ggantija, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta’Hagrat and Skorba. They were fashioned by advanced people living here between 4100BC and 2500BC – well before Stonehenge was even a building site.

Some things do change in Malta. Last year the island’s much-loved fleet of ancient, smoke-belching British buses was retired in favour of new models. As a result, public transport lost a bit of character.

Another change, however, is more positive. The tourist spotlight shines on five new destinations in the islands, listed under the EDEN (European Destinations of Excellence) banner.

The Europe-wide initiative, launched in 2006, promotes emerging destinations, such as villages off the main tourist beat. Nadur, for example, has created paths through farms and olive groves. Other EDEN villages include Gharb, Senglea, Mellieha and Santa Lucija. Malta dines well, mixing local and Mediterranean dishes with imagination.

Fresh fish is everywhere, the local star being lampuka. Aljotta, the island’s famous fish soup, comes laced with garlic, chilli, tomatoes, rice and chopped marjoram and parsley.

For something even more traditional, discard all sentiment and ask for rabbit. Then find yourself a village festa, the week-long celebration in honour of the local saint. There’s bound to be one somewhere, with much parading and passing round of nougat and strong wine.

In the summer, the Maltese never stop partying.

Source: Daily Mail by Gareth Huw Davies

Published: 12th May 2013

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