Malta a Microcosm of European History
90 minutes by fast ferry from Sicily and served by frequent flights out of London, Malta is easily accessible. The mild Mediterranean climate, low prices, and English-speaking citizens (English is one of Malta’s two official languages) make it a favored destination for British based package tours.
Malta rocks! But, don’t pack spandex, sequins, or dancing shoes. Your Speedo and hiking boots are more the uniform of the day. The ‘rocks’ on the Maltese islands are older than the pyramids and only part of the draw to this surprising mid-Mediterranean destination.
Malta a Microcosm of European History
Around 5200 BC the first tourists from Sicily landed in Malta and settled on the islands. From 4000 until 2500 BC an endogenous megalithic culture thrived on the islands of Malta and Gozo. Remnants of this culture displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Valetta show them to have been peaceable types who worshiped an earth mother goddess. Despite the later tenancy of Phoenicians, Romans, Spanish, French, Knights Templars, and the English, it is the megalithic culture that left ruins unlike any other in the world.
Most of the relics in the museum come from the Tarxien temple site that dates between 3000 and 2500 BC. Tarxien is easily accessible via public transport from anywhere on the island. Additional objects come from the Hypogeum, a worship site and the burial chamber of more than 7,000 people. The Hypogeum is currently closed to visitors; the earliest possible opening is tentatively scheduled for August of 2000.
You may choose to cruise but it’s best if you do it on a boat — Malta has limited Malta beachesnightlife. Captain Morgan’s Undersea Safari is a good choice. It leaves from St. Paul’s Bay four times daily for a brief trip around St. Paul’s Island. While sitting below decks you’ll see the underwater vegetation and fish that thrive in the clear sapphire waters surrounding Malta. Captain Morgan’s offers a variety of tours by boat to local scenic spots and sights.
Malta is a ‘couples’ destination. Most evening entertainment centers on hotel-based bars and cabarets catering to the British package tour crowd arriving in pairs. In this heavily Catholic country topless bathing and outdoor amorous extremes are legally frowned upon. During the mild winter months the tourist crowd is elderly. The younger bunch slips in with the coming of spring. Spring is also when the islands burst into bloom for a few short weeks most of the year they’re rather rocky and plant life is sparse.
If you or your partner has a passion for prehistory, consider an early spring or late winter visit. You’ll find the ancient sites crowd-free and accessible. The prices are unbelievably low a nice double room with breakfast and dinner included will run around twenty dollars American.
Maltese buses are a tourist attraction on their own. Owner operated and amazingly Vallettainexpensive — less than $2.00 will take you all over the island twice. Each bus is distinctive with decorations inside ranging from religious shires to cartoon characters. Most routes involve a change in Valetta near the Archeological Museum, St. John’s co-cathedral, and the open-air Sunday market. Grab a free bus route map on your first pass through the central terminal in Valetta. It’s in English and you’ll find everywhere on the island within your range.
Touring the ancient sites is incomplete without a journey to the rural heights of Malta’s rocky south coast. Set in open countryside with the sea as backdrop the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are a scenic bus ride from Valetta. The two temples are part of a temple park with a paved path connecting them. From the nearby bus stop the Hagar Qim Restaurant is an easy stroll and perfect for a pre-temple refueling. With an outside patio overlooking the countryside down to St. Paul’s Bay the menu runs the gamut from hot meals to gooey pastries with everything in-between. It’s a good time to try the inexpensive local wine — the dry white tends toward the tart. The local sweet wine is extremely sweet — more of a desert wine than most.
Map of MaltaArcheology buffs must take the ferry to nearby Gozo for a gander at the oldest freestanding building in the world. Older than the pyramids, the Ggantija site on Gozo is accessible by bus, however the schedule is sketchy and you may find yourself taking a taxi back to your boat. The oldest portion of the complex dates back to 3600 BC.
The ferry ride across the glassy surface of the Mediterranean is well worth the trip to Malta’s smaller sister island. Gozo has unspoiled red sand beaches, expanses of fossilized rock line the waterfront and from the Calypso’s Cave area there is a breathtaking view of the Island. On Gozo families still follow a custom of placing a blooming plant on an external shelf beside the front door to advertise the presence of a marriageable daughter.
Back on Malta, move to medieval Mdinatimes by visiting the walled city of Mdina. The former capital, located in the center of the Island, has only 500 residents and restricts motor traffic. Significant sights include a cathedral, a Norman house and the cathedral museum. The highlight of a visit to Mdina is not any specific sight; it’s strolling the stone streets and walking the walls left by the Knights Templar who ruled the tiny island nation for centuries. Mdina does boast one of Malta’s better restaurants, Bacchus. Which is sited in a medieval vault. Serving international cuisine, it is open for lunch, dinner, and snacks.
Most Maltese restaurants and hotels serve standard British foods — fish and chips, meat pies, and the ubiquitous chips. The British Hotel in St. Paul’s Bay serves a wider selection of Maltese dishes than most — featuring rabbit, a staple of Maltese menus.
The Roman occupation of Malta left a mark, which you can explore in the Roman Villa after viewing the sights of Mdina. The villa is a short stroll through the gardens that join Mdina to its more modern counterpart Rabat. The primary feature of the museum is the mosaic floor of a Roman atrium.
Street in ValettaShopping — that vacation essential — won’t break your budget in Malta. While the shops offer little other than chunky wool sweaters a trip to Maraxlokk should satisfy shopping and seafood urges. A short bus trip from the Tarxien temple, the charming fishing village has a daily market along the waterfront offering exquisite table linens, lace, and local candies. Around the harbor colorful Maltese boats bob and a series of seafood stands offer shrimp specials. Numerous cafes proffer a dish of boiled shrimp and glass of local wine for around two dollars and fifty cents. Ignore entreaties to visit the Valetta market — you’ll find the same stuff available at your local flea markets. Go to Maraxlokk and invest fifteen dollars in an embroidered tablecloth that will last a lifetime.
Even independent travelers do well to make arrangements through Air Malta or a British based package tour company. With most hotels offering half-board arrangements you’ll find accommodations to suit any idiosyncrasy and avoid the hassle of making independent arrangements.
Malta’s rocks, museums, and city streets provide a microcosm of European history at a minimal price. Couples who want to get away from the party/bar circuit, history fans, or even a solo traveler seeking a bit of sun to sit in for awhile might find this tiny nation to be a miniature paradise.