Southern Europe has this vibe that does not exist anywhere else in the world. The sun-drenched land offers drool-worthy produce year round – massive lemons, bright red tomatoes, juicy fruits- as well as beautiful people who have soaked up every ray of golden sun from the seemingly endless summer. The locals are genuinely friendly and ceaselessly accommodating
There must be something about all that Vitamin D….
The most interesting part of southern European locales is that they all feature this ridiculously long history of clashing cultures that has created some of the most fascinating architecture and unique cultures that the world has to offer. In the east, you have Istanbul, where Europe and Asia face off across the Golden Horn of the Bosporus, creating a melting pot rich with spices and flavors of many lands. In the West, you have Andalucía, Spain, where the Moors came up from Africa to rival one of Christianity’s most dominant monarchies, resulting in the ornate Mudéjar palaces we know today. Oh, and tapas.
Sitting pretty in the Mediterranean Sea is yet another remarkable example of what happens when many cultures rich in history and customs collide in one single land. Malta, the little spec of an island off the southern most tip of Sicily, farther south than the tip of Tunsia on the African coast, is a 95 square mile oasis of beautiful people, landscapes and customs.
At first, I caught myself thinking “If this island could talk, the things it would say.” But then I realized that the entire island sings: its ancient, high fortress walls tells of epic sea battles, siege and strong stands against multiple invasions; its cities tell tales of colonial occupation, religious devotion, Moorish influences, and the little-known merciless intrusion of Nazi bombs; its stunningly rocky coast lines and dry lands speak of a relentless and faithful people; the bays dotted with traditional fishing luzzu boats tell of a beautiful relationship with the azure sea that embraces the islands.
…And that is not to mention the bustling corridors of bars and clubs that are now host to Stag parties from around the world. If those walls could talk, we would have to cover our ears….
To really appreciate Malta, you have to have even the briefest of understanding of their past. The long history of this little nation can hardly be summarized without loss of crucial information, but the full tale would have all my readers snoring, so here is my best shot at something in the middle:
The islands have been inhabited since roughly 3500 BC by people that migrated via Sicily. They built some of the world’s largest megalithic temples, the ruins of which can be seen today. By about 2500 BC, the island was uninhabited until around the Bronze Age. Then a whole slew of people passed through and controlled the islands, starting with various Greek people who eventually gave way to Romans. It is believed that the apostle St. Paul shipwrecked on the island in 60 AD on his way to Rome. He resided in a cave and brought Christianity to the people- a statue and memorial can be seen in what is now St. Paul’s Bay. Eventually, Malta came to be occupied by Byzantine people, who eventually passed things along to Arabs. Normans came to posses the islands in the Middle Ages before they came under the control of the Kingdom of Sicily, who then gave the islands over to the Order of St. John- better known as the crusaders. The Order of St. John’s 8-pointed cross can be seen throughout the island and on the Maltese flag as it became a symbol of the people and land after the crusaders helped the Maltese people fend off a brutal invasion of the Ottomans. They continued to rule the land for approximately 250 years before Napoleon’s relatively short 4-year tenure on the island. As devout Catholics, the Maltese revolted against the French emperor and ousted him shortly after he settled in. In the 1800s, Malta was taken as a British colony, where it remained until 1964, when it became independent (which explains the driving on the wrong side of the road…) and they joined the EU in 2004 (so your Euros are good here).
A more recent little known history of the Maltese people is their involvement in the Second World War. As a British colony strategically placed between Fascist Italy and North Africa, Malta found itself in an un-ideally strategic position. At the end of the war, the entire island population was awarded the George Cross for civilian bravery during the endless bombardments that they sustained: a total of 15,000 tons of bombs were dropped, 6,700 tons of that amount during a single 154 day siege. The total 3,343 air raids landed Malta with the title of “Most Bombed” during WWII. All of these above facts make it absolutely incredible that anything on the island is still standing from its long and diverse history.
And yet, one of the things that Jimmy and I could not stop saying was: Everything is so….old.
And ooh my gosh beautiful! Stunning. Think pink-hued limestone cities wrapping around clear cerulean bays.
After a short 20-minute cab ride from the tiny airport to the Intercontinental in St. Julian’s Bay, Jimmy and I were ushered up to the club lounge floor, courtesy of the status we have acquired after a number of stays with the IHG brand throughout Europe (post coming soon about what we do to gain these points). As we left Finland at a miserable 6am, it was still only 10am in Malta, so we made it in time to enjoy breakfast in the club lounge before cleaning up and heading out to explore out neighborhood while our room was prepared.
St. Julian’s is north of the capital city, Valletta, and according to our hotel cab driver, the best place to stay on the island. Because Malta is such a small island, you can drive between towns in less than 30 minutes from this area, making the entire island perfectly manageable for a single vacation.
The Intercontinental is situated in Paceville, the northern part of St. Julian’s, which has become the nightlife hub of the island, as the main night-life artery that ran through this young, Stag-party saturated neighborhood. For Jimmy and I, this was a selling point. We were able to walk through the streets, crowded with all ranges of night owls and buzzing with energy, on our way home from dinner most nights, and even grab a night cap while watching the never-ending show. Had we been staying outside of Paceville, I don’t think that we would have sought out the party, so it was nice to get to experience it in passing each night.
That said, one of the main complaints for hotels in this area is that some patrons were taken aback by how not child-friendly it is; which should be readily apparent through even a little bit of research. If you don’t want to escort your children through a mob of people enjoying the ridiculously cheap drink specials and explain to them why there are clubs designated for “Gentlemen,” maybe don’t stay in Paceville (St. Julians, however, is a safe bet!).
Just a 5 minute walk from Paceville was Spinola Bay, a small little inlet with the most charming seaside restaurant-strung boardwalk. We walked through here multiple times during our stay, and even ducked into one of the welcoming restaurants for a refreshing salad-and-spritzer lunch one afternoon on a shaded terrace. On our final night, we returned for a stroll and some traditional rabbit dishes by the light of the glimmering bay.
Continue walking another 10 minutes beyond Spinola bay and you will find yourself in St. Julian’s Bay, which is home to more terraces perched over calm bays as well as some stunning architecture and unique swimming holes. Another 15 minutes walk from St. Julian’s bay will drop you in Sliema, a busy little city full of shops and cafes, all with a panoramic view of the capitol Valletta across the bay. Most ferries to the adjacent islands and to Valletta leave from Sliema, so it seemed to be the busiest spot on the island.
After our first day wandering this area, we took the walkway that snakes along the coastline between St. Julian’s and Sliema and found that there were endless rocky shores where scores of beautifully bronzed people whiled their days away. Beach clubs and lidos with beds and umbrellas to rent line this part of the coast to accommodate the sun worshipers fleeing the nearby towns.
After taking a break from the heat for a local Cisk beer, we continued out walk towards Sliema and found the most remarkable swimming pools, hewn out of the rocky shore. I can’t find any information about these rock-pools, but they seem to have existed in this place for a very, very long time. Obviously, we had to return and try them out, so we made them our destination for our last afternoon before our evening flight.
There are some 360 Catholic Churches in Malta, each with its own feast day, which is celebrated in style. Apparently, the week we were there was one that is particularly holy, so we got to enjoy fireworks starting from 10 am into every night. The streets were trimmed with festive banners, floating in the island breeze, and the churches were lined, door to steeple with festive lights. One night, we were treated to a marching band, winding its way through the narrow streets. It was so special to be there and experience the festive atmosphere and witness the small neighborhoods, decked out for the local holiday.
Our skipper from the first night’s sunset cruise, Rob, gave us some excellent dinner and bar suggestions for our stay. One of my absolute favorites was this fun little Italian joint, La Pirata. Located between Pacevill and Spinola Bay, (and miraculously open on Sunday afternoon) the small little restaurant fires up fresh pizzas and pastas featuring the fresh fruits of the sea, all accompanied by a great wine list. I ended up ordering fresh salads with a big ball of mozzarella di bufala at neeeaalry every meal, but this one was the absolute best. I mean….just look at it. Jimmy’s seafood pasta may have been amazing, but I think my mushroom risotto took the cake! In the end, however, it was definitely the complimentary Limon cello and lemon sorbet that really put us over the top. I would, without a doubt, eat there again.
…and again, and again, and again……
I hope this little appetizer of Malta has you ready for more. Up next is our day trip to Malta’s sister islands of Comino and Gozo!