Malta: A fortified paradise

Malta: A fortified paradise

by: Genevieve Northup | .
Stripes Europe | .
published: July 12, 2016

Between Sicily and Tunisia lies Malta, a tiny island country that has been inhabited since 5200 B.C. Malta was ruled by various civilizations over time, emerging as a rich, diverse country and one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.

The Maltese Islands
Travel between Malta’s main islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – by water taxi or ferry. The urban island of Malta is packed with resorts, shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Valletta, the capital city, is jam-packed with important historical buildings and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Less developed than Malta, Gozo has its share of cultural sites and dining options, but offers a slower pace than the bustling main island. Unspoiled by urbanization, Comino’s sandy beaches and gently lapping azure water are a blissful retreat from the stresses of life.

Testaments to time
Malta’s heritage has thrived as excavation continues to uncover and preserve ancient history. Over the centuries, archaeologists have discovered many megalithic temples and burial sites that provide a fascinating account of Malta’s ancient past.

The Ġgantija Temples on Gozo are older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Considered the most elaborate temple ruins in Malta, the Tarxien Temples have well-preserved engravings and carvings worth seeing. The Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim Temples are another popular site, located less than a mile apart on a seaside cliff in southern Malta. And Hypogeum’s maze of burial chambers is the only underground complex from the Bronze Age discovered anywhere in the world. To preserve the Hypogeum necropolis, the number of visitors admitted each day is very limited, so purchase tickets.

To enrich your exploration of Malta’s archaeological sites, save time for the National Museum of Archaeology. Learn more about Malta’s history and see priceless artifacts recovered during excavations.

Fun in the sun
With 12 hours of sunlight on summer days, gentle breezes and little rain, Malta is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. 

If reaching new heights is your goal, you’ll love the 1,300 climbing trails in Malta. Seaside cliffs offer exciting challenges for climbers versed in rappelling and numerous climbing techniques.

Malta’s clear, warm water is perfect for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. The islands have dozens of sites for shore and boat diving, from vibrant coral reefs to eerie ship wrecks and mazes of underwater caves. To find out more about Malta’s diving locations and dive centers, visit www.pdsa.org.mt.

Comino’s Blue Lagoon is an idyllic setting for sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling, but it can be quite crowded during the summer. Other snorkeling locations include Cirkewwa and Ghar Lapsi. Before venturing out on your own, read about snorkeling safety and destinations at Malta Inside Out. If you’re new to snorkeling, will be snorkeling with children, or would prefer to have a guided adventure, book a trip with Aquatica Snorkeling Safaris.

Malta has a plethora of rocky and sandy beaches for reading a book, sipping cocktails and soaking in the Mediterranean sun. Several of Malta’s beaches also offer jet ski, paddle boat and windsurfing rentals. On the island of Malta, enjoy the sandy beaches at St. Thomas Bay and Ghajn Tuffieha, or the rockier waterfronts at St. George’s Bay and St. Peter’s Pool. Ramla Bay (also called Ir-Ramla il-Ħamra) is Gozo’s largest sandy beach, and the secluded Dwejra beach is a great location if you also hope to snorkel or dive. On Comino, lounge at Saint Marija Bay’s sandy beach, a less crowded destination than the Blue Lagoon. Be aware that some beaches are a bit difficult to reach, so plan your excursions in advance.

To spend the day on the ocean while stopping at top beaches and snorkeling or scuba diving locations, charter a boat or book with a day cruise company.

Interesting cultural sites
Forts and watch towers were built by the Knights of Malta in the 15th and 16th centuries to protect the valuable Maltese islands from sieges. Malta’s landscape is still adorned with many of these fortifications, creating a majestic backdrop for Hollywood films, including “Troy” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” 

Under the protection of the Knights of Malta, the country flourished between the 16th and 18th centuries. This “golden age” left its mark through incredible artwork, buildings and traditions that survive today. 

In the 16th century, St. John’s Co-Cathedral was commissioned by the Knights of Malta as the focal point of Valletta. The cathedral was updated in the 17th century to reflect Baroque architecture, further altered in the 19th century, and damaged during World War II. St. John’s has since been restored as an important place of worship and center for fine arts. 

Take a guided tour or watch a performance at the magnificent Manoel Theatre, opened in 1732 to provide wholesome amusement for Maltese citizens. And the lavish Rococo architecture of the National Museum of Fine Arts is as memorable as the extensive art collection, which encompasses various mediums from the late Middle Ages to present.

For a glimpse into the lives of Malta’s oldest and most affluent families, tour a privately owned 16th century manor. Casa Bernard and Casa Rocca Piccola are both open to the public Monday to Saturday. Rub elbows with the Maltese aristocracy on Friday evenings at Casa Rocca Piccola’s Champagne Tour, a swanky start to a warm night in the Mediterranean.

Shopping, dining and night life
Every vacation requires some retail therapy, so head to Valletta’s Republic and Merchants streets, the craft village in Ta’ Qali, or the towns of St. Julien’s and Buġibba on Malta. Malta also has several outdoor markets, including Valletta’s daily market (Monday-Friday) and larger Sunday market, Marsaxlokk’s Sunday market, and the market on Tuesdays in Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu). On Gozo, shop in Rabat (also called Victoria), or venture off the beaten path to purchase handmade items at the Ta’ Dbiegi craft village in Gharb. Shops are usually open Mondays to Saturdays in the morning and again late afternoon.

The dining choices in Malta are as diverse as the culture, with Mediterranean flair and abundant seafood choices. Try Braġioli (stuffed beef cutlets), huge Maltese salads and the popular lampuka (dolphin fish or dorado).

Party until sunrise at Malta’s hundreds of bars and clubs, or try your luck at one of the casinos. Waterfront resorts have the convenience of dining and night life under one roof, a bonus when you’re worn out from a day in the sun.

Tips for Getting Around
• Thinking about renting a car? Be aware that traffic drives on the left side of the road, and Malta is a busy, compact destination.

• Tourist areas are easily accessible with the bus system. Visit www.arriva.com.mt to review routes and timetables.

• Tourism offices are located at Malta International Airport and in Valletta, Mdina, Mellieħa and Rabat (on Gozo).

Direct flights from Frankfurt and Munich will have you in Malta in just over two hours. If you’re ready for a Mediterranean escape, dive into the culture, history and crystal clear water of Malta.

Tags: caves, Europe, food, history, Munich, outdoor, shopping, summer, Travel, UNESCO
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