I must be hungry. I can tell because every intro I am coming up with involves a food analogy: Malta is like tangy cheese/fresh fish/salty ham. It’s not, but that’s all I can think about. And it’s all Malta’s fault. Its food is amazing; but more of that later. I’ve had my lunch now, so I will focus on another focal point of this country: its history.
This diminutive country has a history so jam-packed, so varied, that it’s a wonder it hasn’t sunk under the weight of it all.
The red phoneboxes and right-hand-drive cars remind us that Malta has only been independent of the British Empire since 1964; the guttural sounds of the Maltese language are due to the Arab rule; this was preceded by the Romans, who established the Roman Catholic Church still so prevalent; and this is yet to mention the influences from the Phoenicians before them, the stint of the Knights of Malta and even Napoleon, who hung out there for six days, capturing it on his way to Egypt, as you do.
Malta’s chequered history is down to its somewhat unfortunate position: the three small islands of which it consists (Malta, Gozo and Comino) are mere dots in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy, Tunisia and Libya. This caused it to, quite literally, get caught in the crossfire whenever there was some sort of battle going on, be it Napoleon’s mission, the Crimean War or World War II (in which Malta was near flattened). But the Maltese quite rightly wear their strong little country’s past as a badge of honour, and the historical hotchpotch that has formed its current culture is all part of its appeal, bringing in plane-loads of tourists every year.
Lured by the premise of a ‘girly holiday’ I recently hopped on an AirMalta flight myself. I can report it is indeed a great girly getaway, but I also don’t know many men who would turn their nose up at the chance to eat awesome food, drink bucket-loads of booze, enjoy crazy nights out and stay in a mod-conned pad with a bunch of mates… you?
My holiday romance:
Upon landing in Malta, we take a short taxi ride to Cirkewwa (stopping to take snaps of the multi-coloured ramshackle houses that served as the set for Popeye in 1989 – random), and hop on the ferry over to Gozo, which is smaller, greener and quieter than the island of Malta.
Staying in an authentic limestone-built house, which is part of a small complex called The Hamlet, it has a private pool with views over rolling countryside, a huge lounge with arched beams and a beautiful fully-equipped country kitchen.
Expensive? Well, yes, but it can sleep eight, so you’ll pay a similar rate as you would for a hotel room anyway, and you get the whole place to yourself. Perfect for a group of mates for a big birthday, a hen do or just because, y’know, you only live once.
Arriving at 6pm we have just enough time to freshen up (the showers here are amazing) before heading out to Patrick’s Tmun Restaurant in Gozo’s capital, Victoria. And here is where I first meet my holiday romance: he’s Maltese, he’s incredibly tasty, and his name is ‘local produce’. Everything I put in my mouth on this trip (now now, behave) is impossibly delicious. At Tmun, I have my first taste of the local sheeps’ cheese, gbejna. Cured, crumbly and rolled in cracked black pepper, it is a punchy introduction, particularly when paired with rich Maltese sausage (again, behave).
Every course from then on just gets better each time, and we pair our meal with a bottle of Ulysses Shenin Blanc, which effectively replaces water as our daily need for the rest of the trip. Even the next morning I’m not shaken from my delicious dream as I’m greeted in the kitchen by catering chef George Borg (great name), who feeds us with more local cheese, this time fresh and soft, paired with local ham, stuffed greedily into a croissant and drizzled with honey. Yep, it’s definitely love.
Gaga for Gozo
It’s all a bit creepy, to be honest. Faded photographs of smiling faces peer out of frames with scrawled, yellowing letters joining them behind the glass; baby’s clothes, neck braces, leg casts and some sort of gimp-looking mask hang from the walls. We’re in Ta’ Pinu, a Roman Catholic church where locals come to pray to the Virgin Mary when a loved one is sick or injured. When cured, they thank her by bringing an item of memorabilia to the church – a photo,a cast… or a weird gimp mask, apparently.
It is a beautiful church, though – creepy stuff aside. Next we head back to Victoria, named in honour of Queen Victoria for her Jubilee Year. We climb up to the battlements of the Gran Castello Citadel, which offer stunning views across the island. Copper church domes reach above the jigsaw of houses, while green fields are criss-crossed with yellow stone walls and the undulating landscape rises and lowers to greet the sea. Soon after, we find ourselves nestled in the heart of the lush fields and hills, as we take a trip to Ta’ Mena Estate, a farm and vineyard with a vivacious owner who will happily tell you why he traded life as a banker for a life outdoors. Crunching our way through the gravel pathways, we are greeted by impossibly cute week-old kids (as in goats, not babies), honking geese, quacking ducks, grunting pigs and, er, rabbits (Old MacDonald failed me there).
The rows of vines stretch out in the sunshine and we settle down for wine tasting and more of that delicious local cheese, this time coupled with locally made olive oil and tomato paste. All grown and made on site. The love affair continues.
Feeling woozy in the sunshine, we sensibly attempt to combat this by moving on to have yet more wine and food at Il Kartell. Perched on the waterfront, we enjoy tapas-esque bites of local produce, followed by the from sea-to-plate catch of the day, lightly seasoned to perfection.
After lunch, if you have the energy, make your way to Dwejra Bay. Here, time and sea have worked together to produce some of the most remarkable scenery on the islands: the Azure Window and the Inland Sea – where the craggy rock has parted to create picture-perfect frames and coves – and Fungus Rock, which stands just off shore like a stepping stone for giants about to dive into the sea. For us, though, our afternoon consists of being pampered at the gorgeous spa at Kempinski San Lawrenz, which is lucky as I’m bordering on a deliciously sleepy food and wine coma. The seriously impressive Kempinski (rooms from €100 per night) is perched a few minutes away from the harbour and surrounded by countryside. The five-star spot has channelled the Arabic influence from Malta’s varied history, with dark carved woods, caramel-coloured marble and gilded gold finishings. A blissful back, neck and shoulder massage using ayurvedic oils is followed by a stint in the sauna and Jacuzzi, which is swiftly followed by a snooze on my huge hotel bed.
Want to find out more? Check out the Visit Malta website.