Standing on a cliff overlooking the near-deserted beach in Ramla Bay on the northern shore of Gozo — the second largest of the islands that make up the Maltese archipelago — the mind easily wanders to the vast swathes of time that have passed while this tranquil scene in a little-known corner of Europe has remained unchanged, a sleepy witness to little of significance while the world developed at a frantic pace elsewhere.
Yet Malta — a cluster of three inhabited islands in the central Mediterranean that together cover just over 300 square kilometres — has actually seen more human history than almost anywhere else in the world, around 6,000 years in total. Even the small slice at Ramla Bay is home to a story; that of literary hero Ulysses, who was reputedly shipwrecked there and spent seven years spurning the advances of the nymph Calypso — after whom the cliffs are now named.
And that quickly becomes a recurring theme in Malta — it boasts a myriad of stories, some whimsical, some enlightening and some chilling, which are all fascinating to discover.
Back in my native United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, the archipelago gained an undesirable reputation as a destination for middle-class, grey-haired couples looking for some guaranteed sunshine but not a great deal of fun. And while Malta is still trying to find its niche in the overcrowded marketplace of Mediterranean destinations, it is quickly obvious there is more to discover than just its beaches and weather.
I met Mariella Bose, the guide the Malta Tourism Authority provided to talk me through my busy few days on the islands, in the lobby of the Corinthia Hotel on the morning of my first full day in the country. The surroundings are grand and the view of the swimming pool and St George’s Bay beyond is a fine introduction to Malta’s charms. She reels off a list of some of the places we will visit — the nearby capital Valletta with its Grand Harbour and architectural wonders; the Unesco-protected Neolithic temples; the walled city of Victoria on Gozo; the tiny island of Comino — and we set off for our first taste of history.
The eastern coast of Malta is something of an urban sprawl, with a cluster of once-distinct towns now squeezed together to form a mostly nondescript concrete path up to the crown jewel that is Valletta. Built as part of a defensive fortress in the 16th century by the Knights of St John, the entire city is now a World Heritage Site. It may only be 0.8 square kilometres in size, but Valletta is the heart of Malta. It houses the country’s president and parliament at the Grandmaster’s Palace, as well as St John’s Co Cathedral with its ornate, gold-plated interior and the Caravaggio masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist within, plus the National Museum of Archaeology and a host of other attractions.
Valletta’s narrow streets are busy and have the friendly feel of many other Mediterranean cities, but if anything they are even more relaxed than the likes of France and Italy — and safer too. Mariella waves and chats to a variety of laid-back, olive-skinned locals while we enjoy an al fresco espresso in the warm sunshine, surrounded by an array of charming limestone Baroque buildings, the likes of which monopolise the city.
The view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens gives you a sense of the scale of Valletta’s fortifications as you tower far above the Grand Harbour, which for centuries sheltered an array of war fleets and now houses the many giant cruise ships that release thousands of welcome tourists into the city and country beyond.
A short ride in one of the island’s traditional water taxis (which are known as dghajsa, pronounced “daysa”, and are similar to gondolas) took us across the harbour to the area known as the Three Cities, where we visited the Inquisitor’s Palace, which played a key role in ensuring the catholic residents of Malta stuck rigidly to the rules of their religion during the dark days of the Roman Inquisition, but now includes a museum showcasing the Maltese way of life. The area’s streets are quiet during the day but, on the last night of my trip, the town of Birgu began its annual Festival of Lights, which has the feel of an old-fashioned community event, as residents of all ages and a smattering of tourists mingle amid the sounds of live entertainment and smells of local dishes being freshly prepared.
Outside Valletta and its adjoining towns, the regular theme of the rest of Malta quickly becomes apparent — dozens of bays and fishing villages on the coast and prickly pear-dominated countryside specked with pretty towns built on plateaus of rock that occasionally rise out of the landscape.
The journey to Malta’s next-biggest island, Gozo, is best taken on the busy main ferry that heaves and clanks its way across the channel in about 25 minutes. As on Malta, the excellent hop-on, hop-off buses make seeing all the sights a breeze. Gozo is more agricultural and untouched than Malta, but there is still plenty to see — such as the Ggantija temples, which date back to 3,600BC, making them the second-oldest religious buildings on the planet.
The island’s capital, Victoria, is a small town squashed inside the restrictive confines of its early 17th century fortifications. A tour on foot only takes half an hour or so, but that’s just enough to work up an appetite for a visit to the rustic Ta’ Rikardu restaurant on Fossos Street. After an extremely enthusiastic Scottish welcome, Mariella and I took a seat on a bench in front of one of the long tables in the upstairs dining room and delighted in sampling some of the island’s fresh local cuisine — including a platter of antipasti, homemade goat’s cheese ravioli and the area’s speciality, rabbit casserole.
As well as all the history and culture, the islands also boast a series of spectacular natural wonders, particularly where the soft local limestone has been eroded by the clear blue waters to produce the cave-like Blue Grotto on the southern coast of Malta and the near-perfect arch of the Azure Window on Gozo, which is also one of dozens of popular dive sites located all around the archipelago.
After a satisfying taste of Malta’s history, culture, food and nature, I just had time to sample the surprisingly active nightlife of the Paceville area and some of the country’s excellent local beverages before my time there was up.
So while the story of Calypso’s Cliffs may be nothing more than a myth — and finding a spare seven years to match Ulysses’ stay could prove tricky — Malta remains both a relaxing and enlightening destination, with plenty to offer no matter how grey your hair.
Emirates operates daily flights from Dubai to Malta via Larnaca, Cyprus (from about Dh2,900 return per person).
Malta offers accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets, but if staying in Valletta, be sure to check out the St Julian’s area, which is well located, features stunning coastline and boasts hotels such as the Corinthia, Radisson Blu and Le Meridien.
For a taste of luxurious relaxation and pampering in a quiet countryside setting, try the Ta’ Cenc Hotel & Spa on Gozo.
Valletta: Trabuxu is a tiny but charming restaurant tucked away in one of the walled city’s narrow streets. Stylishly decorated and with local art hanging on the walls, it serves excellent Mediterranean-style food — perfect for a long lunch.
Marsaxlokk: In the south-east of Malta lies the busy fishing village of Marsaxlokk and close to the water is La Ruelle Restaurant, which serves fantastic seafood in a friendly, traditional environment.
Mellieha: For modern gourmet food in an elegant atmosphere, the classy Arches restaurant is perfect. Located right on the town’s busy main street, the interior is a world away from what’s outside and the food and service more than live up to expectations.
Gozo: At the other end of the scale to the Arches, the walled city of Victoria, the capital of Malta’s second island, boasts the rustic, laid-back Ta’ Rikardu restaurant. After an extremely enthusiastic Scottish welcome, take a seat on a bench in front of one of the long tables and sample the island’s fresh local cuisine — such as a platter of antipasti, ravioli or the area’s speciality, rabbit casserole. The goat’s cheese used in the recipes is made on site.
There are a number of spectacular public festivals held throughout the year. Check before you go and try to coincide your visit with one to get a taste of local life.
Grandmaster’s Palace; Merchants Street, Valletta.
St John’s Co Cathedral; St John’s Street, Valletta.
The National Museum of Archaeology; Republic Street, Valletta.
Malta 5D; Old Bakery Street, Valletta.
Lascaris War Rooms; Battrey Street, Valletta.
Inquisitor’s Palace; Kan. L. Fenech, Birgu.