26 April 2021
Mini but mighty
Malta sits slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Sicily in Italy. At just 121 square miles – that’s just a fifth the size of Greater London – the island is absolutely tiny! Amazingly though, this lilliputian isle is home to 440,000 souls, making it one of the most densely populated territories in the world! In Europe, its population density is beaten by only two other countries: Monaco and the Vatican City. With three islands to call home – Malta, Gozo, and Comino – the Maltese people somehow make it work… Most live on the buzzing main island of Malta, while Gozo offers a more rural experience. Comino is largely uninhabited – boasting a whopping three inhabitants.
Maltese people are best known for their friendliness, and when I arrived there late October to find bright blue skies and temperatures still around the 23º C mark, their sunny disposition made perfect sense to me. When you’ve got over 8 hours of sunshine a day, why wouldn’t you be happy?! But the longer you spend in Malta, the more you realise that there’s so much more to the place than its balmy weather. It’s rich with history, alive with cultural and religious festivals, home to an abundance of hearty food and full of natural wonders.
What makes Malta, Malta?
1. The richest of histories
Described as the “navel of the Mediterranean”, Malta’s central location gives it unrivalled strategic and historical importance. The island has long been the focus of the world’s most powerful regions, whose occupations have all left an indelible mark on Maltese culture, as well as an impressive collection of UNESCO-recognised sites. Malta’s history – and thus, its culture – are truly unique to its location and the influence of various occupations throughout the archipelago’s long history. It wasn’t even until 1964 that Malta gained its independence, and with so many nations influencing the islands until then, the Maltese people now have the most eclectic blend of cultures you’ll ever come across. For the traveller who loves history and culture, the islands offer the chance to go on an enchanting journey through the annals of history, culture and the very heart of Mediterranean civilisation.
2. Its tiny capital, Valletta
Valletta is Malta’s miniature capital city, built by the Knights of St John on a peninsula of just 1 kilometre by 600 metres. This magnificent fortress of a city, hand-built in just 15 years, rises steeply from two deep harbours, boasting impressive bastions, forts and cathedrals. Though small, Valletta is described as “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world”, retaining its 16th century elegance with baroque churches and lavish palaces boasting rich sculptural motifs. Its founder, Jean Parisot de la Valette – who the city is named after – declared that Valletta should be “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. The quote is a reminder of the sexism that was characteristic of its time – after all, why couldn’t it be a city built for ladies too? But I understood what Valette meant: he wanted this city to be one of refinement. It was clear to me, as I walked the city’s cobbled streets, exploring beautiful gardens and museums filled with some of Europe’s finest artworks, that the capital as it stands today, has definitely fulfilled his wish…
For all its elegance, Valletta’s walls also tell a gruesome story of war and conquering; the history buff in me loved seeing remnants of the city’s past. From strong bastions and deep moats, right down to the uniform grid formation of its narrow streets, Malta’s history as a strategic naval base is clear in the architecture of Valletta. Some of the city’s streets fall steeply as you get closer to the tip of the peninsula – a throwback to times when this magnificent city’s purpose was to protect its inhabitants from oncoming attackers. To this day, the scars of war are visible in Valletta – most notably at the site where the Royal Opera House once stood, right in the heart of the city. Its ruins add to the dramatic history of the city, creating a perfect picture of the beauty and splendour of the original building… and they make for a pretty snazzy open-air stage for the Pjazza Teatru Rjal, where you can catch all kinds of shows – from concerts to carnivals and even ballet!
3. Gozo: an island of mysteries
Though only separated from the main island of Malta by a mere 5km stretch of sea, Gozo has a rich (if troubled) history that deviates quite significantly from that of the main isle. In 1551, the island – lacking the same defences as mainland Malta – fell prey to a terrible siege by the Turks. The Cittadella – a township wherein most of the island’s tiny population took shelter from any sign of danger – was sacked and most of the island’s small population were taken into slavery. It was a devastating blow that the island struggled to recover from, and remnants of that terrible period are clear in the island’s architecture and culture today. The Cittadella was transformed into the imposing fortress we see today, with military structures being propped up to defend the people of Gozo as they resettled back on the island. This tragedy saw more than just military architectural developments brought to the island, though. As Gozitan survivors, the mainland Maltese and even Sicilians moved to repopulate Gozo, this tiny isle saw the introduction of baroque architecture for the first time, with fine embellished facades and balustrades which can still be seen today. The 1551 raid also influenced an irremediable shift in the Gozitan character and identity, which is why you’ll notice that people on this island have noticeably different lifestyles, accents and dialects. The distrust that stemmed from this betrayal by the Turks has created a people that, though still friendly, tend to keep a little more distance than their mainland counterparts.
The history of this island is not all doom and gloom though! This secluded haven is home to the most important archaeological site in all of Malta: the Ggantija Temples. At roughly 5,500 years old, these temples are the oldest standing buildings on the planet! But the truth of how these magnificent structures came to be is still a mystery. The Gozitan people I met at the site were happy to tell me everything they knew about it, though. There’s a sense of wonder in the stories about the temples’ conception. Some believe the temples were constructed by a gigantic race of people, which is where the temples got their name from: Ggantija is Maltese for “Place of Giants”. One such story tells of a giantess named Sunsuna, who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, bearing a child for a human man. When the child was born, Sunsuna nursed it while she built the temples as a place of worship. Archaeological theories all seem to point to the temples being a celebration of womanhood: something that I, a solo travelling woman, love. Full-figured feminine figurines excavated from the temples suggest that they were either used for fertility rituals, or that this was the work of a matriarchal cult. A shrine to women – now that’s my kind of history…
4. Mdina: The Silent City of Malta
Driving through the Maltese countryside, a white city appeared in the distance. It loomed over the island from one of its highest points, as if surveying. I later learned that my observation was true: this city had once been the capital of Malta, chosen because its location gave a birds-eye view of the seas. My guide – a Maltese woman named Gertrude, who had kindly offered to show me around – pointed it out to me excitedly. “That’s Mdina,” she said, “It’s older than Valletta – I’ll take you to see it!”
Cars aren’t allowed in Mdina, so you’ll need to park nearby and walk the rest of the distance. Fans will immediately recognise the dramatic Main Gate from Game of Thrones – a great indication of how unreal this place feels. It’s kind of hard to imagine that this is a place where people actually live, not just a film set! Walking through the golden stone arch brings you face to face with a miniature walled city where time stands still. Ancient ramparts, old sandstone buildings, and a mix of Medieval and Baroque architecture make walking through the city feel as though you have been transported back in time. We were even offered a horse and carriage to get around – real old school vibes! The city takes its namesake seriously – on top of cars not being allowed to enter its walls, businesses have strict noise regulations and there are signs reminding you to be quiet everywhere! It took a moment to get used to it, but being unable to talk too much gave me the chance to really take everything in and see Mdina for what it once was.
Mdina is home to St Paul’s Cathedral – one of Malta’s most important religious sites. Visiting a church or cathedral in Malta is an unmatched experience. It’s an incredibly religious Roman Catholic country, with around 95% of the population identifying as Christian. The island is said to have a church for every day of the year (there are actually only 359 – but close enough), and each one is beautiful. St Paul’s Cathedral is still a working church, so if you’re planning to visit on a Sunday, be sure to dress appropriately to avoid looking out of place next to churchgoers after mass! The church is beautifully crafted, with a dome and marble columns. Inside, the walls have gilded details, and even the ceilings look magical, being adorned with beautiful 18th-century paintings.
Before leaving the city, stop to sample the flavours at one of Mdina’s gelaterias and take in the views over Malta from atop the city walls. It’s one of the best views in the country, and since Malta is such a tiny island, you can see straight out to Valletta and beyond!
5. Unrivalled friendliness
Malta is renowned for the friendliness of its people, and there’s good reason. The Maltese are known for their warm, if sometimes loud, personalities. I had never been to Malta before and was pleasantly surprised to find that English is one of their national languages, so it was super easy to make friends. Beyond that though, my trip proved that Maltese hospitality really is a thing!
Take Gertrude for example – she was my taxi driver from the airport. The entire ride to my hotel, Gertrude talked to me about island life, pointing out the best spots to see and even her own home! We got along really well, but I assumed that her kindness was reserved for me as a paying customer. Once I got out of the taxi though, she asked to exchange numbers, and later that day let me know that she had nothing to do that weekend, so would be available to show me around her country – free of charge! I was really surprised. Maybe it’s because I’m from the capital of “mind your business” London, but I assumed there must be some kind of catch. I couldn’t help feeling suspicious… Would she ask me to pay afterwards? Did she fancy me? Was something more sinister afoot?
But no, a request for payment never came, she had a husband and kids, and she genuinely just thought she’d stumbled across a great opportunity to make a new friend. Our weekend together was the best part of my trip, and she did not hold back at all with the role of tour guide. She even invited me to eat with her and her family! To this day, Gertrude and I stay in contact, and I have her to thank for the wonderful local’s insight I got into the country.
6. The prettiest landscapes you’ve ever seen…
For all the other insanely beautiful places in the Mediterranean, there’s just something unbeatable about Malta’s landscape. Whether you’re walking along rocky coastlines or limestone cliffs, its natural beauty has a lot to be said for it. For such a tiny island, it really packs a lot: golden sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, lagoons and caves. You can go snorkelling or diving to explore the Mediterranean’s reefs and even shipwrecks, including the WWII destroyer HMS Maori – one of the island’s most famous wrecks. Follow stunning walking trails to isolated coves and historical structures, or check out quaint fishing villages and terraced farms where you can try out horse-riding in the island’s open valleys.
7. Hearty food and a diversity of cultures
Thanks to centuries-long relationships between the Maltese and various civilisations who occupied the islands over the years, Maltese food is an eclectic mix of Mediterranean taste. Maltese food is rustic and based on the seasons, so you’ll find that markets are really interesting to have a look at, since they’ll always have something different depending on the time of year.
Head to a fish market to see what the season’s catch is. There’s usually a huge array of fish, since Maltese waters are home to such a diverse catch. You’ll find everything from bass, stone fish, grouper, dentext, red bullet, and even swordfish!
I’d also recommend taking some of Malta’s indigenous wines home as a souvenir! There are two types you can choose from: gellewza and ghirghentina.
While you’re in Malta, be sure to try some of the staples:
This dish is slow cooked for 2 hours until the meat is so tender that it’s falling off the bone. It’s served with thick tomato sauce gravy and vegetables such as potatoes, garlic, carrots and onions.
In Malta, rabbits are not pets, but food. This might seem strange at first, but this is Malta’s national dish – so I really recommend trying it! It’s surprisingly good, once you get over the fact that it’s a rabbit… I’d say the flavour resembles chicken. As interesting as the choice of meat is though, the sauce is really the main event in this dish!
This is a Gozo island specialty and is definitely worth trying if you head off the mainland. It has a thicker dough with a distinctive taste, and is served with potato toppings instead of the usual meat or veggies you find on pizza.
If you love pasta, you’ll love this. It’s essentially a pasta bake with a Maltese twist! It’s made up of pastry, macaroni, Bolognese sauce, tomatoes, garlic, onions, minced meat and cheese. It’s super carby and super hearty – so it’s perfect fuel food if you’re trying to survive a long day of outdoor adventures!
Lampuki, also known as mahi-mahi or dolphin fish, is a migrant fish species that can be found in Maltese waters from August to December. It’s a common delicacy in Malta and can be served in a variety of ways. One of my favourite ways to eat it though, is lampuki pie. This was recommended to me by Gertrude, who said it was loved by the locals, and I can see why! It’s simply lampuki baked into a flaky pie crust, usually with other fillings such as olives, spinach, cauliflower, walnuts, onions, sultanas and tomatoes.
Good to know
People drive on the left-hand side.
There is a regular ferry from Cirkewwa (northernmost tip of Malta) to arrive at Mgarr, Gozo. It also stops at Comino Island.
Popular filming location for big-budget productions – Gladiator, World War Z, Game of Thrones.
There are lots of cars – 2019: over 397,000 vehicles registered compared to population of 442,480 & relatively small road network. Expect traffic jams and a lack of parking spaces.
Opposition is part and parcel of Maltese culture: religion, politics, footballs, local band clubs etc. Heated discussion is considered normal – so don’t take it personally.
Malta is home to 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (confirmed/tentative): Valletta, the Megalithic Temples of Malta and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum = confirmed; Grand Harbour, Victoria Lines Fortifications, Maltese Catacomb Complexes, Mdina, Cittadella (Gozo), North West Coastal Cliffs and Dwejra (Gozo) = tentative.
14 public holidays per year – among the highest in the EU.As a religious country, Malta hosts 75 village feasts (‘festa’) between June-September. Religious celebration to honour the town’s patron saint – fireworks, religious processions, band marches.
Make Malta a must-do
I decided to go to Malta on a whim – I knew nothing about it and, when I got there, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe I’d never been pushed to go before! I’m a young woman who travels solo, and I felt incredibly safe in Malta. I don’t know if it’s because I was with a local, or if the country is just that safe, but at no point was I cat-called, leered at, or followed – so Malta wins big points for that in my book. This tiny archipelago was easily one of my favourite places I’ve ever been to in Europe – it satisfied the history buff, the foodie AND the hiking explorer in me, and I got to laze around tanning on spectacular beaches too. It’s basically every type of trip you could want, all rolled into one!