Where can you find ceaseless chivalry, the cradle of Christianity and cool caverns to explore? That’s right, we are on the island of Malta a vacation destination that’s totally underrated. This place is amazing, and talk about your hot properties, Malta is an island that civilizations have been coveting and conquering for centuries.
Its location smack dab in the middle of the trade routes for Asia, Africa and Europe has made this place a Mecca for world powers. Since 800 B.C., the island has changed hands from one conqueror to another, and over the centuries it’s been controlled by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantine empire, the Arabs, the Normans, the Knights of St. John, the French, the British….phew! That’s a lot of rulers. Is there anybody left that hasn’t ruled there? Yeah, us, the Americans, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go there.
So what is it that has driven these acquisitions? While Malta is practically the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I immediately fell in love with its endless beaches……stunning waters, amazing historical sites, delicious local flavors, handsome handicrafts, and unique culture. It’s no wonder people have been salivating to get a piece of Malta for centuries. In fact, even today, smart travelers can’t get enough of this island.
With all these visitors, how do the Maltese manage to save the integrity of the island? With a trained militia, of course. All right, this guard is not necessarily on active duty anymore, but it’s this type of force that keeps me from conquering my own piece of the island. What I am talking about is the re-enactment of La Guardia, which represents a military performance that used to take place quite regularly in the time of the Knights of St. John. The re-enactment and the inspection by the grand bailiff (the high official in charge of the military commission), is to insure the report of the garrison to be in a high state of alertness.
The best part of the show is not the entertainment, it is the history it represents. It’s the story of the Knights of St. John and an island that had to defend not only itself, but the rest of the known world, against an evil empire. No seriously, that’s the truth.
In 1568 the knights of St. John defeated the Ottoman Empire and prevented a massive invasion of Europe that could have changed the world as we know it today. It’s for this reason that Malta is known as the nation that saved Europe.
But evidence of this history isn’t confined to the Fort of St. Elmo alone. It’s visible throughout the island in any of its seven walled cities. First is Birgu, which was renamed Victorioso after the 1565 siege, and this is a place you have to come to. You’ll see the Maritime Museum, the Inquisitor’s Palace Museum, the Malta at War Museum, and the St. Laurence Church. All definitely worth it. If you’re not a fan of war museums, than try one of the other fortified cities. My favorite of the walled cities is Mdina, because to me, it looks just like a Hollywood set. The main gate here was built in the 1700’s. You can see the original gate and the outline of the square. You can just imagine the drawbridge coming down over the moat.
Of course, if Mdina seems like a city out of a Hollywood set, maybe that’s because it is. Malta is often used as a backdrop in many Hollywood productions, but we’re not in the city to look for modern day points of interests. It’s history we’re seeking and this town has plenty of it.
Mdina was the capital of Malta from Roman times up until the 1500’s, when the capital moved to Valetta. And here, just like in the old days, it’s a walking city. Wear comfortable shoes and enjoy their shops and outdoor cafes.
On to Valletta, the city the Knights of St. John created after the siege of 1568. It is one of the very first modern cities built and the best way to appreciate it is to stroll amongst its streets. Don’t be afraid to walk around and get a little bit lost. I mean, it’s perfectly safe, and there are some amazing for you to see. For example, Malta’s famous for its doorways, the pretty colors and especially the bronze doorknockers in an endless variety of shapes and sizes.
But it’s not just the doorknockers that are worth a look. Take time to enjoy other unique features such as: the limestone facades that decorate all the buildings, or architectural touches like wooden balconies, religious plaques and even pregnant windows. Everywhere you look, it’s a picture.
If you’re impressed by the detail that they put into their houses, than you are going to be bowled over by the Grand Master’s Palace. The palace was built to reflect the status of the grand master and that stateliness is still there today. The palace is a treasure trove of artistry and weaponry. From its lavish gardens to its gorgeous furnishings guests are left with an impression of sophistication and elegance.
But the palace was not only a refined residence and administrative building; it was also the knights’ armory so you’ll find a plethora cool medieval armaments.
The knights built more than just an impressive palace and modern city. They also created one of the grandest cathedrals I’ve ever been in. I was overwhelmed by St. John’s Cathedral. Everywhere you look, you’re confronted by opulence and beauty. From the embellished high alter, to the superb marble memorial slabs (be careful not to trip over yourself) to the glorious ceiling by Mattia Preti. And, as if all this craftsmanship isn’t enough, just turn the corner and you’ll come upon Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John. Ah, it’s just beautiful.
Leaving the St. John’s Cathedral, you’ll want to take a look at Malta’s natural terrain. Now you could rent a car or hitch a ride on a bus, but that’s no way to see the countryside. No, today’s modern invaders need a vehicle that can take them up to the highest peaks and on the sandiest of beaches, so like General Patton, the best way to tour around Malta is in a jeep.
The reason jeep tours are so popular is that they will take you where the big buses won’t: the back roads. You’ll approach some of Malta’s nicest spots, scenic spots, from the back. There are lots of hills and stone walls.
There are many tour programs which are set. So, the route is always prepared beforehand. You could of course design your own custom tour. Off road, Malta is a very small place. So every scrap of land belongs to someone. You cannot just simply open a gate and drive on to someone’s private property.
Some of the best adventures you can have in rural Malta is exploring some of its religious and historical sites. From St. Paul’s Catacombs to the Temple of Hagar Qim, there is no end of interesting things to see from the open jeep.
But we can’t tool around the country all day. You’ll want to look for plunder, and the best place to find that is in Malta’s villages. Each township has its own specialty, from locally produced wines to unique handicrafts. Why is it when you travel it’s addictive to buy souvenirs? Then, when you go home, you just throw them into a drawer. Well, I think it’s because a souvenir is something that triggers a good memory. You open the drawer and you go, “oh, that reminds me of my trip to Malta.” Well, Malta has a souvenir that you won’t throw in the drawer. They’re famous for hand-blown glass. I know it’s fragile but they can always mail home my favorite pieces.
Of course you don’t have to get an expensive souvenir to remember your trip. Sometimes the best reminders are bought for a bargain in the local markets. Try Marsaxlokk, which means “the southeast harbor.” Here’s where you want to come on Sunday mornings, because here is where you’re going to find the biggest market in Malta. Now while you’re here, you’re going to want to look at all the beautiful colored boats in the harbor. Here’s a little bit of trivia: on every boat there is a special symbol, to ward off the evil eye. Let’s head to the market in search of interesting trinkets and local culture, and in a fishing village, that means lots of fresh seafood. Octopus, squid, all the usual fish indigenous to the Mediterranean. Then, you’ll see some fish here you’ve never seen before. Be prepared, the market isn’t for the weak of heart.
Besides fish and produce, you will find inexpensive local items at great prices. Like 2 Lire for little sandals and things. Made in Egypt, well maybe not so local, but definitely cheap.
Malta is also known for its lace. From what I’ve learned about lace so far, it’s not how big the piece is, it’s how much lace is on the piece, and if its handmade, which it is in the village of Gozo, it’s going to be very expensive. On a budget, you’ll find lots of fun t-shirts to take home to the kids.
The next thing we need to find is a boat. We’re going to need to find a vessel around here, somewhere, because Malta has treasures that you can’t even find on land. There is a traditional Maltese fishing boat that is now used to take tourists out to see some of the most amazing turquoise water you will ever see.
So how much ocean spray should you expect? It can get a little windy, can get a little rough, but it’s an adventure for the whole family. While you’re out in the water, take part in one of island’s most popular sports, scuba diving. Or you could head to one of the jewels of Malta… The Blue Grotto, just one of the naturally occurring caves that were formed by years of erosion. And they are absolutely breathtaking.
The best time of day to go to the Blue Grotto is in the morning, when the waters are calm and the sun’s light hits it in just the right spot to make it sparkle. It’s also the best time of day to avoid the crowds that flock to this destination.
The island of Comino is tiny and practically uninhabited, except for a few residents at the local hotel. But it wasn’t long ago that this island was a haven for pirates. Today, though, it is the perfect place to go and commune with nature and one of the most beautiful spots to do that is at the Blue Lagoon.
In the summer time, this area can get quite crowded with sunbathers and swimmers so take a tip from me and try to go either early in the morning or later in the evening when most of the tour groups are not around.
Nature’s fun and all, but an uninhabited island isn’t much of a challenge for a someone that wants to conquer all the joys of Malta, so we’re setting out for the other Maltese island, Gozo. Even though it’s just a quick ferry ride to Gozo, there’re still plenty of things to do on-board like check out the coastline or get a bite to eat.
Once you land in Gozo, you’ll realize that it is very similar to its sister island. Like Malta, it has walled cities, ancient ruins, spectacular shorelines, local handicrafts, and a peaceful island atmosphere. It’s just a little more compact, which makes it the perfect place to go for a day trip.
You might be asking yourself, why go to Gozo if it offers many of the same things you can find on Malta? This island is believed to be Calypso’s Isle from Homer’s Odyssey. The first reason why you have to go to Gozo is for the lace. For nearly 200 years women on the island have been making world-renowned lace, and, today, it is still possible to find craftswomen creating these handmade masterpieces.
When purchasing a piece the things to look out for are intricate and tight stitching. Machine made items will not display these characteristics. Also, Gozitan lace has several unique features including: it’s cream or black in color, and the inclusion of the Maltese Cross and plump “wheat ear” leaves. If you find a piece that incorporates all these features, than you’ve found something that’s worth investing in. And it is an investment, because handmade pieces like these can get pretty pricey, but they’re worth it.
One has to bear in mind that it’s also a very lengthy process. For example, a shawl would take about six months to complete. That would cost about 75 Maltese Liras, which would work out to be just under 300 dollars. But you don’t have to buy a big piece like a shawl, they have plenty of different patterns and items to choose from, and even the smallest items are still really impressive.
My second reason why Gozo is a must see for any traveler is Ggantija. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Ggantia is the oldest free-standing structure in the world. I mean, Egypt has nothing on this place. Parts of this temple are a thousand years older than the pyramids. That’s incredible!
The name Ggantija means giantess, which I think is quite fitting because the site is actually home to two temples that span over 130 feet and they are the largest megalithic temples found on the Maltese islands.
Even in ancient times the Maltese islands were delivering sites that exhilarated its visitors beyond their expectations. Maybe that’s why Malta is still an island that welcomes hoards of visitors ever year. But today instead of handing over the deed to the island, they provide their guests with a great time and fond memories.
You know, this is a destination that really has it all. A Mediterranean climate, great beaches and resorts, good hotels, shopping, restaurants, and the amazing history! All this and it’s a non-stop flight from over a half-a-dozen places around Europe. Malta should not be missed on any visit to the Mediterranean.