A Piece of the Past

The Maltese islands are the perfect place to learn about Mediterranean heritage.

The Maltese islands are the perfect place to learn about Mediterranean heritage.

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Visitors to Europe often marvel at the rich history of the continent and the distinct cultures found in the countries there. The ancient churches, the historical monuments, the vibrant art scenes and the world famous cuisines in countries like Italy, France, Spain and Germany combine to lure millions of visitors every year.

There’s even a place in Europe where you can experience the heritage of multiple cultures, some ancient, others more recent, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Crusaders, the French and finally the British. That’s why we chose Malta, and we learned more than history on our trip to these beautiful, ancient islands.

Lesson Number One

By far the easiest way to reach Malta is by hopping on an Air Malta flight or one of the many budget airlines that serve the capital Valetta from various European cities. Easy, however, is often frowned upon by those who consider themselves “real” travellers, such as my travel companion on this particular trip, so our journey to Malta was made on a ferry from Catania in Sicily. The trip was so rocky that I felt I was still swaying back and forth on the waves of the Mediterranean two days after reaching dry land. So, lesson number one: “Fly to Malta”.

After settling into the lovely villa we had rented, we discussed the pros and cons or hiring a car or a bicycle. Malta isn’t very big, but it’s quite hilly and during August when we were there it gets relatively hot during the day. A lot of the attractions are on the east coast but the old capital of Mdina is located in the island’s interior. Again, the easy choice would have been to rent a car, but we chose the more difficult other option.

Lesson Number Two

Valletta is located on a peninsula on the east side of Malta and has a wealth of attractions within a very small area. We rented bikes but ended up parking them for the day while we explored the city on foot.

Valletta was one of the first sites to be inscribed by UNESCO to the World Heritage list and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you look historical sites vie for attention with stunning architecture and sweeping views over the Mediterranean.

Some sites, such as the St. John’s Co-Cathedral will only wow you once you’re inside, while others, such as the Fort St. Elmo, located at the tip of the peninsula, is instantly recognisable and draws the eye.

Just next to St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral sits the Manoel Theatre, which is one of the oldest working theatres in Europe. Walking down the street outside the theatre, Old Theatre Street, which slopes down to the waterfront, it is easy to feel the military history of the city, with architecture and city planning based on Italian Renaissance principles.

The theatre is still active and every week performances such as concerts, operas, musicals and dance breathe life into the old structure which was built in just over a ten month period back in 1731-32.

On the day we visited there was a famous pianist in town and tickets were sold out. As an alternative, we ended up with tickets to a family show in Maltese. So, lesson number two: “Book tickets to Manoel Theatre in advance if you want to see a specific performance”.

Lesson Number Three

The next day we decided to explore the old capital of Mdina, which was a good ride from our villa in Mellieha Bay on the northern tip of the island. We rose early in the morning to avoid the daytime heat and slowly made our way through scenic surroundings. In some ways the views reminded me of the terraced fields commonly found in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Laos, although not as green and lush.

Arriving into Mdina is a rare and beautiful sight. The town sits on a small hill and despite its humble size, stands out from the surroundings in all its glory. The name means ‘Fortified Place’ in Arabic, and we entered through an elaborate gate in the city wall that was too narrow for cars.

During medieval times, the city was called Citta Notabile, The Noble City, because it was the home of Malta’s nobility who built it as one of the most pristine in Europe. Up until the arrival of the Knights in the middle of the 16th century, Mdina was the capital of Malta and until this day still houses the seat of the Maltese Bishop. The architecture is a mix of medieval and Baroque and the streets are lined with well kept grand mansions featuring intricate decorations and fabulous stone work. My phone camera really didn’t do the wonder of this ancient city justice, so, lesson number three: “Bring a good camera”.

Lesson Number Four

Next we visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is almost as elaborate as the Cathedral of St John in Valletta, but less crowded and somehow more intimate. We also toured the Cathedral Museum which houses a small collection of artefacts, but more significantly is also home to the entire archive of the inquisition of Malta, which was banned by Napoleon when he invaded.

Mdina is so small that it can be seen in just a few hours and we spent the rest of the day just strolling around the small streets and sampling some excellent food at a local eatery, which also served potent local wine.

Only too late did we remember the fact that we had to spend a good couple of hours cycling along dodgy roads back to Mellieha. The only hotel inside the city walls of Mdina is the Xara Palace, which by some accounts is the most exclusive on the entire island. Not wanting to splash almost $200 for a night there, we spent the night at a lovely Valley View Villa Retreat just outside the town and by accident got to experience the pear of the surroundings after the day trippers left. So, lesson number three: “Let spontaneity rule”.

Some Useful Online Tips

If you prefer to learn your travel lessons before you visit Malta, here are some useful online resources for more information about the country and its attractions.

  • The national carrier flies to Malta from major European cities daily, visit www.airmalta.com for schedules
  • The official tourism site for Malta is an excellent place to find inspiration and current information in order to plan your trip: www.visitmalta.com
  • The website for the Manoel Theatre lists upcoming events and theatre news, visit www.teatrumanoel.com.mt
  • Located in a 400 year old building in the heart of Valletta, Guze Bistro is the perfect place to soak in the rich architecture and history of the city while enjoying delicious Mediterranean cuisine. Check out the menu at www.guzevalletta.com
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