Malta: The Mediterranean's Hidden Gem

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It was early summer and my wife and I were trying to decide where we should spend our next vacation. We’d already made arrangements to spend our trip with our friends and their young daughter who live in northern Germany. Their only requests were that it was somewhere easy to get to (important for traveling with the little ones), preferably an island with a beach and something that wouldn’t break the bank. We looked into the Canary Islands of Spain, somewhere tropical in the Caribbean such as the Dominican Republic and even the Azores. In the end, however, I fell upon a travel blog about the islands of Malta and we had our answer.

Prior to reading about Malta during my trip planning, I really had never heard of the country before. Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea, about 50 miles south of Italy. Consisting of just 3 main islands, only two of which are inhabited full time, the archipelago of Malta and it’s 450,000 residents is one the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries. Malta's location in the Mediterranean has given it great strategic importance as a naval base over the centuries. The list of countries that have at one point laid claim to the islands is vast and includes the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French and the British. Today, the main harbors of the capital city Valletta are lined with great walls and imposing fortifications. The people of Malta speak both Maltese and English and we had no troubling communicating with the locals during our stay.

Being the southernmost country in Europe with an average temperature of 73 fahrenheit, Malta is a popular holiday spot for many European travelers. The three main islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, enjoy mild winters with hot and dry summers. And being a picturesque Mediterranean getaway, you can be sure there are no shortages of beautiful beaches, bays and harbors to spend your time enjoying. With our vacation planned for October, the weather in Malta was exactly what we were looking for and both our friends from Germany and us had no problem finding easy connections from several major European hubs. So with that, the trip was excitedly approved by all and we were soon to join the 1.6 million tourists that visit the islands each year.  You can read more about the logistics of planning a trip to Mata on our recent blog posting found HERE.

Gozo Island

While it took some effort choosing a final destination for our vacation, one thing we all agreed on was that we preferred to start our vacation with some relaxation. And while this could be found elsewhere in the Maltese islands, there’s no more relaxing spot in Malta than in the island of Gozo. As noted earlier, Malta has three main islands. While the main cities such as Valletta on the mainland receive the vast majority of tourists, the island of Gozo is the place to be if you want some quiet and solitude.

Aside from the mainland, Gozo is the second largest island in the chain. Less populated and more rural than the mainland, Gozo passes on high rises and instead is covered with sweeping hills, terraced farmland and stunning beaches. The island itself has quite the history. It is believed the first inhabitants to the island of Gozo were from Sicily around 5,000 years ago. As we’ll visit shortly, Gozo is home to the Ġgantija temples built during the neolithic period and thought to be some of the oldest man made, free standing structures on earth. Add to that, Gozo is proposed to be the home of the Greek nymph Calypso from Homer’s Iliad. In Homer's Odyssey, Calypso attempts to keep the fabled Greek hero Odysseus on her island to make him her immortal husband. Luckily Homer escapes and his legend continued. Gozo, and the rest of the Maltese islands, were overtaken by Napoleon in the late 1700s, and for a few short years, Gozo was an independent country. However in 1801, Gozo re-joined the mainland and the two have been under one rule ever since.

Getting to Gozo from the mainland can only be made by water, preferable by ferry although I suppose one could get some exercise and swim for it. There is one ferry line, the Gozo Channel Line founded in 1979, that makes the 45 minute trip every hour and half. Current fares for a car and driver are about 15 euros or 5 euros to walk on. Information and schedules can be found here on the their website. Currently there is not a public airport on Gozo although an airport, and even a tunnel system, have been proposed several times in the past.

We opted to rent our car from the airport and take it over on the ferry. Since we wanted to explore the island, having our own transportation was best for us. Once on Gozo, getting around is fairly straightforward so long as you remember to keep on the left side of the road while driving as you would in the UK. We stayed at a charming airBnB in the hills which had a rooftop terrace and pool. We spent our first day exploring the main parts of town and getting our bearings, and fighting away that ever present jet lag.

Gozo itself is about 26 square miles and has about 37,000 residents. The main city on Gozo is Victoria and home to several nice cathedrals, the Citadel (dating back to at least 1500 BC) and plenty of outdoor cafes to grab a meal or coffee. Do as we did, and spend a day on foot exploring the shops, meeting the friendly locals and go back in time as you explore the city.

A short hike out of Victoria will take you to the Citadel, built and further fortified by the  Phoenicians, Romans and the Knights of St. Johns to name a few. It has served as a castle and place of refuge for the Gozo people, a prison and a stronghold in the islands many battles. The largest attack on the Cittadella took place in July 1551, when a large Ottoman force overtook the island and enslaved its then entire 6,000 person population. In other years, the entire population would migrate inside its strong walls each night for protection and leave again during the day to tend to the land. The Cittadella contains a number of churches and historic buildings, including the Cathedral of the Assumption. The citadel itself has been included on Malta's tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1998.

Gozo beaches

My wife was born to live in the water. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she spent nearly every weekend at a beach snorkeling and shell hunting. There was no doubt then that we’d explore some of the beautiful beaches on Gozo and boy did Gozo not disappoint.

A short walk from our farmhouse was Dwejra Bay and the then famous Azure Window. I say then famous as the beautiful arch in the bay collapsed in a storm in 2016. As we approached the bay, we walked along the rocky coastline. To our surprise and delight we looked down and found the entire rock shoreline was covered with petrified sea dollars. Some broken off, others almost perfectly encapsulated in stone, the entire cliff was covered with hundreds of them. It was so much fun walking around and hunting for the perfect specimen. When we visited, in 2016, our attention was drawn to the Azure Window, a huge arch on the water. During calm waters, one can dive on the fallen rocks now lying on the seafloor. Not far from the site of the arch is the blue hole, a small pool on the bay’s edge where one can take a dip and do a quick snorkel. On your way out, stop by the Inland Sea, a circular bay open to the ocean via a above-water tunnel in the hillside. Grab a cool drink and take in the picturesque mediterranean bay.

On the Northwest side of Gozo sits San Blas Bay, a stunning beach with cinnamon-orange sand. Getting down the beach from the small parking area is a feat in itself with a very steep road down to the sea level. It is recommended that tourists do not attempt to drive the steep hill and either walk as we did or take a ride on a local’s jeep. Once in the bay, you are likely to have it to yourself. We enjoyed this special spot for hours before we saw another soul.

One of the more popular beaches on Gozo is Marsalforn Bay. Surrounded by a few hotels, shops and restaurants, this bay is popular with tourists and locals alike. It’s also a common spot for Maltese to own a small vacation house. A beach of sand and small pebbles is backed by a promenade which runs right round the head of the bay, providing a pleasant place to stroll. The small beach is perfect for children as the water is often calm and the bay protected. Small fishing boats line the bay and numerous dive outfits are based here if you’re interested in getting under the waterline. Certainly more populated and built up than most of Gozo, Marsalforn Bay is a great place to grab dinner and watch the sunset around you.

Ghasri Valley, or Wied il-Ghasri, is a stunning, narrow creek that seems right out of a postcard. We parked up the hilltop, and made the short walk down to the bay. Winding down the 100 steps, the view of the blue waters are unveiled and our breath was taken away. The very small, rocky bay is a great place to enjoy the sun and take a quick snorkel. There are several caves in the inlet and dive groups often launch from the bay to scuba out in the free waters beyond the mouth of the inlet. While small and sometimes crowded, the beauty of this bay is not to be missed.

On our way home from Marsalforn Bay,  we were treated with the a chequerboard of rock-cut saltpans protruding into the sea. These 350-year-old salt pans, which stretch about 1.5 miles along the coast, are more than just scenic. For generations, families have been using them to produce fresh sea salt, pumping ocean water into the flat pans and waiting for the sun to do its part. We stopped and talked to some locals who own the salt pans and bought a few bags of fresh salt to take home. Nearly two years later we’re still using the delicious salt on our home cooked meals.

Gozo temples

One of the must-do items on your Gozo vacation is to visit the Ġgantija temples. These two temples, built between 3600 and 3200 B.C, are now an incredible World Heritage Site worthy of your time. These temples, built even before Stonehenge in England and the pyramids of Egypt, fell into disuse around 2600 BC and were not restored and opened to the public until the 1800s. Built from limestone, sometimes with enormous stones, the Maltese folklore states these temples were built by ancient giants millennia ago. In fact, the name Ġgantija is Maltese for giant. Some of the megaliths exceed 15 feet in length and weigh over fifty tons.

The temples were thoughtfully built from two types of limestone. Hard, dense coralline limestone was used for the construction of the outer walls while softer, smoother, Globigerina limestone is reserved for inner items such as doorways, altars and decorative slabs. Each temple consists of a number of apses flanking a central corridor. During prior restorations, evidence of paint and plaster suggested the temples were once painted and decorated. There is a large gathering space outside the temples which is thought to be for ceremonial use.

One of the great things about visiting the Ġgantija temples is that, unlike Stonehenge, you are able to walk right up to them, visit all the chambers and spaces and get up close and personal with the surviving details of the stones. You’ll see small windows leading from room to room and different patterns chipped into the stones for decoration. And as an added bonus, from the temples you’ll have a panoramic vista of the Gozo countryside. After you’ve walked in and around the temples, head over to the Gozo Museum of Archaeology in Victoria to see pottery and figurines from the Ġgantija site as well as a model of the temple.

Valletta

After spending 5 days on Gozo, enjoying all the beauty to be found there, we spent the remainder of our trip on the mainland. As we noted earlier, the history of Malta could be told as the history of the modern world. Located in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Libya and home to over 7,000 years of history, the story of Matla is varied and rich. To know the history of Valletta, the capital of Malta, one must know the history of the Knights of St. John who built the rocky peninsula into the fortified and densely populated UNESCO World Heritage Site it is today.

From 1530 to 1798, the island of Malta was ruled by the Order of St. John. In 1530, Spanish Emperor Charles V gave possession of Malta, Gozo and Tripoli in Libya to the Knights of St. John. By 1551, the Ottoman Empire had overtaken Tripoli but they were unable to take the Islands of Malta. Following a 1565 siege by the Ottomans for Malta, the Knights decided to settle permanently in Malta and began to construct a new capital city in Valletta. The city itself was named after the Grandmaster who lead the Knights to victory in the battle against the Ottomans, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette. For the next two centuries, Malta went through a Golden Age and saw a flourishing of the arts, architecture and an overall improvement in Maltese society. By the late 1700’s, the Knights began to decline and in 1798, French forces under Napoleon invaded Malta and expelled the Knights resulting in the French occupation of Malta. The Maltese eventually rebelled against the French and the islands were returned to to the Knights by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 but the British remained in control and the islands formally became a British colony.

A visit to Valletta today will bring you back in time as you walk through the heavily fortified city. Valletta, an important sea port for centuries, is fortified from the water up. Immense and imposing limestone will meet you at every turn. These walls, first began in 1552 and not completed until 1856, played an important role during several battles for the much coveted island. The first fort constructed, Fort Saint Elmo, played a pivotal role in the 1565 Great Siege of Malta when the Knights of St. John successfully prevented the Ottomans from overtaking the capital. Following renovations to the deteriorating fort, Fort Saint Elmo can be toured daily and currently houses the Malta National War Museum.

One of the big draws to us in visiting Valletta was to make a stop at Saint John's Co-Cathedral. From the exterior, this Roman Catholic cathedral is rather austere, so much so it can appear more as another fortress than the beautiful cathedral it truly is. The magic of Saint John's Co-Cathedral lies in the ornately decorated interior which is a magnificent representation of Baroque design. From the moment you enter the grand naive, every arch, column and facade is covered with gold and brilliant frescoes. The barrel vault ceiling is painted with scenes from the life of the cathedrals namesake, St John the Baptist.  With our eyes trained to the ceiling it took a few moments to notice that the entire floor is a series of tombs from over 400 Knights of St. John. The cathedral also houses 9 chapels which entomb numerous Grand Masters of Maltese history.

Perhaps the best reason to visit Saint John's Co-Cathedral is to see the spectacular painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by renowned Italian artist Caravaggio. This large 12x17 foot painting was commissioned by the Knights of Saint John to be the altarpiece of Saint John's Co-Cathedral and turned out to be the final altarpiece Caravaggio would ever paint. Often cited as one of the most influential paintings of Western Art, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist captures the scene just as the beheading is to take place with St. John pressed to the ground and the knife at his throat. Light and dark interplay well together in the painting. The first and only time Caravaggio’s signature was included in a painting can be found written in the blood that pours from the wound to St John’s head at the base of the painting.

Temples and catacombs

Just as with the small island of Gozo, mainland Malta is also home to some relics from long ago. The massive ruins of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra stand on a rocky plateau on the southwest coast of Malta overlooking the sea. Built sometime between 3,600 BC and 2,900 BC, these temples were also constructed from two types of limestone found on the island. These stones, some of which are over 20 feet long and weigh over 20 tons, are stacked upon one another in such perfect alignment that during certain points of the year the light of the equinox shone within the inner temple. Unlike the temples of Gozo that still stand in the open air, the temples of mainland Malta are covered with protective tents to stave off the ill effects of rain and weather from the soft limestone. Currently 6 of the 20 temples located on Malta have been collectively recognized as World Heritage Sites.

Moving a few millennia in time we come to the construction of a series of catacombs located in the old Roman capital of Mdina as the law of the time prevented burial in the city itself. These catacombs take their name from their proximity to St. Paul’s church and grotto, where the apostle is believed to have preached during his sojourn in Malta. Dating back to the 3rd and 4th century, there are several hundred tombs, sometimes interconnected, located underground. Many of these tombs, or hypogea, are quite large with the biggest covering an area of several thousand square meters. The burial ground fell into disrepair and unuse until the late 1800’s when the site was cleared and investigated in 1894 by Dr A.A. Caruana, the pioneer of Christian era archaeology in Malta. Many of the tombs have been restored and we were able to tour many of them. Descending down the dark stairs once lit by candlelight, look up and notice religious markings on the entrance to signify the beliefs of the dead. Often the main chamber has a circular rock table that the Romans employed to commemorate the dead at the time of burial and during the festival of the dead each year. The catacombs are now often lit showing the maze of tombs and walkways. Some tombs are quite small for infants and children. Others are stacked up the walls. The catacombs mark the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta. For us, It was a surreal and remarkable place to visit and one we won't soon forget.

Why you should go

Malta has all this and more to offer you should you take our advice and pay this special place a visit. Follow the links below to learn more about our travels to Malta and the great adventures that await you on your visit. Thanks for reading and happy travels.