As a five-year-old I went on holiday to Malta: I never forgot it, and eventually I went back. Their strategic location means these tiny islands have more archaeology and history crammed into them than anywhere else I have been.
A long, dusty, crowded conurbation runs across the northern central area of the main island, Malta, but outside it in the countryside – and on the smaller island of Gozo – people are scarce and development seems to have stalled somewhere in the 1950s.
The Maltese people are descendants of the ancient Carthaginians and Phoenicians, with a dash of Italian and other Mediterranean races, and the original influence shows in the tongue-twisting language – this seems to mainly consist of all the spare consonants not used elsewhere in European lingusitics.
- The way it’s so familiar and simultaneously so different
- Malta was British until the 1960s and the islands are full of reminders of those days. But their position in the heart of the Mediterranean, pulled in different directions by centuries of European and Arabic cultures, mean that the English influence is only the largest of many.
- The buses
- The Maltese bus service is unique – and not just because it is cheap and runs on time. The islands’ dry, rust-free, climate and the owner-operator status of drivers has produced a patchwork fleet of lovingly-maintained but ancient vehicles that are a tourist attraction in their own right.
- The weather
- It’s hot and dry – usually – but not so hot you can’t function. Best to go in spring or autumn though, just to be sure.
- Yellow stone churches with red domes
- The most spectacular is in Mosta, but every church on the island is a work of art.
- Strong currency
- If you’re used to exchange rates where a Pound Sterling makes you a millionaire in the local currency, Maltese prices come as a shock – the Pound’s worth less than the Lira. Forget this and your mental arithmatic in shops is likely to lead to a nasty surprise.
- Seedy old men who wave their hands manically while you park, then charge a Lira for having ‘helped’ you do it
- Also noteworthy are their close relatives (probably literally), the seedy old men who wave their hands maniacally in the general direction of tourist attractions, gibber incomprehensibly, and then charge a Lira for acting as a guide.
- The queue for the Gozo ferry
- Go early in the morning. That way you stand a chance of crossing before lunchtime…
Where to eat
- Trattoria AD1530 at Xara Palace Hotel, Mdina
- Pizzas and suchlike, reasonable prices and good service in a glorious setting. This is the cheap bit of the luxurious Xara Palace Hotel, but the standards are higher than its posh restaurant up on the battlements.
- Bacchus in Iguanez Street, Mdina
- This is the place to go for a fine evening meal in Mdina. Sunk into the walls of the old fortress – it’s actually a former gunpowder store – Bacchus is cosy, classy and friendly: we hadn’t booked and they were busy, but they still squeezed us in.
- Rickshaw at Corinthia Palace Hotel, Balzan
- You’ll be surrounded by diners with little experience of oriental food, but happily the restaurant and kitchen staff don’t share their ignorance. The menu jumps around across the entire region rather than specialising in one national cuisine, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
What to buy
- Soft drink, try it instead of Coke. At its best in a glass bottle from a vending machine under the baking hot sun in some dusty village square in the countryside.
- Maltese or Gozitan glass
- All the colours and designs you could imagine, with variations based on the locality of the glassblowers – Gozitan and Mtarfa glass are quite different.
- Gozitan pepper cheese
- Soft, creamy and firey hot, this doesn’t half wake you up at breakfast time!
Where to stay
- Xara Palace Hotel, Mdina
- Even if you have to sell a kidney to do it, try to stay here. This converted Seventeenth Century palazzo has only 17 rooms, some of them with views across almost the entire island. It’s as far from a chain hotel as you can get. The rooftop restaurant (de Mondion) is pants though – slow, poor service and plastic garden furniture.
Where to visit
- The Silent City is a wonderous thing. In the daytime it somehow survives the hoards of tourists without curling at the edges, while an evening walk through the quiet, dimly-lit (but safe) streets between all the historic buildings is something that stays in the memory for a lifetime.
- Teatru Manoel backstage tour
- This may only be the size of a provincial rep theatre but there’s no doubt as you tour it that it’s bigger in spirit than it is in capacity. The glamorous history, the auditorium’s swathes of gold and scarlet and vertiginous seats, and the sheer ambition behind it all mark it unmistakably as a national theatre that considers itself on a par with the best in Europe.
- Clapham Junction
- Some of Malta’s strangest archaeological remnants, these ruts in the bedrock appear all over the island. No-one quite knows how they formed, nor why so many of them converge on the area in the south of the island that was inevitably nicknamed after England’s busiest railway station because of them.
- All of it. It won’t take long.
Where to avoid
- Sliema and the rest of the built-up area
- It’s perfectly true that Malta is ‘largely unspoiled’ – Sliema’s the bit that stops them saying it’s ‘entirely unspoiled’.