An archipelago at the foot of Europe with a tiny population and no natural resources, Malta is often overlooked and underestimated. But what it lacks in stature and people power it makes up for with a strategic location, a colourful past and, with its accession to the European Union last year, an apparently bright future.
Malta lies at the heart of the Mediterranean, about 100km south of Sicily and almost 300km from north Africa, a location that ensures more than just year-round sunshine. Before arriving in the country it helps to cram a little on its eventful past.
Over the past 2000 years, Malta has been colonised by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish, French and British.
It gained independence in 1964, but evidence of its conquered past remains, from the similarities between the national language Malti and Arabic to the status of English as an official language.
Sightseeing starts in the capital Valletta, a walled city founded by the Knights of St John, a military order which ruled Malta from 1530-1798. Their history is preserved in Valletta’s churches and Auberger – the inns that housed the knights – and their story is presented in a host of museums.
The Auberge de Castille et Leon, overlooking the harbour, is the grandest of the Auberge buildings, many of which are now used as government ministries. Once home to the Spanish and Portuguese knights, it now houses the offices of the prime minister and is said to be the most photographed building in Valletta.
Also worth a visit are the art gallery and the armoury at the Grand Master’s Palace, the Malta Experience – a 45-minute multimedia presentation – and St Paul’s Shipwreck Church, named after the Apostle Paul, who is reputed to have brought Christianity to Malta after shipwrecking his vessel off the coast in AD60.
The main shopping strip on Republic Street has some familiar brand names and a few decent cafés, but really there isn’t enough in Valletta to entertain for more than an afternoon. The city’s population, now less than 10,000, has been falling since World War II and the streets are noticeably quiet. Tourists don’t come to Malta for the bustling crowds or the hectic nightlife, however. Many don’t even stay, instead hopping on a boat to neighbouring Gozo – one of just three inhabited islands making up the Maltese island chain – to sample a quieter way of life.
The third and smallest of the inhabited islands is Comino, which is worth visiting for its Blue Lagoon. The inlet’s crystal clear, turquoise water is perfect for swimming and snorkelling, but get here early if you want to bag a good sunbathing spot. The rocky strand is small and fills up quickly.
Boat companies organise trips to the Blue Lagoon from the tourist resorts around St Paul’s Bay and St Julian’s Bay, many of which also take in the Santa Maria caves and St Paul’s island, where the Apostle is reputed to have first come ashore.
Back on dry land, Malta’s ageing fleet of yellow buses will take you to Imdina, a medieval city that served as Malta’s ancient capital. Imdina is picturesque and full of history, but again it is compact and its attractions limited, so don’t plan on spending more than an afternoon here.
Highlights of the town, which can be circled on foot in a few minutes, are the dungeon museum and the natural history museum. Nightlife is centred on the tourist resorts in St Paul’s, St Julian’s and St George’s but even in these supposed hotspots don’t expect too much, especially out of season. Lacking big city or package resort style partying, nightlife is timid.
A good bet is to head to a restaurant and while away the evening drinking the local Marsovin wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of the meal itself and very drinkable. Accompany with a traditional Maltese dish such as rabbit stew or bragioli – spicy beef rolls – for the complete Malta experience.