Malta’s diminutive size as one of the smallest countries on the planet (visiting such places has become somewhat of a theme this trip) belies its intriguing complexity and appeal. The Maltese Islands (consisting of Malta, Gozo and a handful of uninhabited islands) are located between Sicily (north), Tunisia (west) and Libya (south), effectively at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Due to their strategic position, the islands have been settled and occupied by innumerable nationalities, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Knights Hospitaller, French and British. The Axis Powers attempted to be added to that list, yet Malta survived the intense carnage (as the base of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet, Malta was the most bombed place on Earth during World War II) and became critical to the Allied invasion of Italy. The Islands became independent in 1964, yet they remain a melting pot of cultural influences. This reality surprised me, as I expected Malta would feel somewhat like an extension of Southern Italy. Indeed, the Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Catholic religion and tomato-based cuisine certainly hint at the geographic proximity. However, when I arrived at the airport, I was shocked to hear the locals conversing in a language drastically different to Italian and sounding very similar to Arabic. I would later discover that Maltese is actually a derivative of Old Arabic, 40% mutually intelligible with the modern Tunisian dialect. Curious vestiges of British colonialism are also evident on the Islands, as English is spoken surprisingly well for Southern Europe, Maltese people drive on the left, red phone boxes are present and mushy peas are employed in an otherwise outstanding cuisine. I spent one week in Malta (dominated by attending Claire and David’s wedding), which proved to be grossly insufficient to explore its coastal landscapes, architecture and culture.
While you can never really escape human habitation in Malta, the population is predominately concentrated to a network of interconnected “cities” (essentially just neighbourhoods of one metropolitan area) around a series of bays on the northern coast. The buildings throughout are almost exclusively constructed of sandstone, characterising the metropolitan area with a distinctive golden hue, although the architectural richness varies between cities. While commuting between cities is relatively easy through the utilisation of the intuitive bus network, travel times can be excessive for the short distances traversed because of the frequent traffic jams on the narrow, windy streets. The streets are so tight in sections that the presence of footpaths is often sacrificed, resulting in rather treacherous routes for pedestrians. Consequently, I would find Malta to be an incredibly frustrating place to live, despite its unique beauty.
Most tourists stay in the heavily developed and commercialised neighbourhoods of Paceville, St Julians and Sliema, adjacent small, sandy beaches. Paceville is a grotesque mixture of international restaurants, generic bars and nightclubs catering to the type of vacationers that revel in drunken antics and masquerading their supposed coolness. St Julian’s is a mellower, though still heavily touristic, alternative. I stayed just near St Julian’s in an old mansion that had been converted into a lovely hostel (I was the only wedding guest aboding in dormitory accommodation in Malta). Hidden away from the coastal road within the residential area between St Julian’s and Sliema are incredibly beautiful streets where all the buildings feature the idiosyncratic Maltese balconies. The enclosed, wooden balconies are composed of identical structural designs throughout the streets, but their vivid paintwork gradually shift hue and colour from building to building, often forming coordinated rainbows. Sliema is the commercial centre of the metropolitan area and the key maritime transport hub. The city is situated on the northwestern edge of Marsamxett Harbour and has magnificent views of Valetta on the opposite side.
Valletta is the microscopic capital of Malta, situated at the tip of a peninsula between Marsamxett Harbour and the Grand Harbour. The city is World Heritage listed and possesses Malta’s most impressive architectural ensemble. The city was established in the 16th century by the Knights Hospitaller, who invested heavily in the construction of immense fortifications, oppulent Baroque churches and expansive palazzos in the formation of one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. Despite the confined geography, the Knights developed a city with a logical grid-like layout interspersed with piazzas and small gardens. Valetta is a thus a magnificent urban environment to amble through, especially in the near absence of traffic. The ramparts offer spectacular views of the harbours and neighbourhoods on either side of the peninsula. Natural rocky platforms are located below the fortification walls, allowing for locals and visitors to swim in turquoise bodies of water surrounded by ancient monuments. Probably the impressive vista in Malta is of the sandstone city of Valletta from Sliema, with the Neoclassical St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral dominating the skyline.
In a somewhat hazy state the day after the wedding, I went on a day trip to the ancient capital of Mdina in the south of Malta. Despite being located just 9km from my accommodation, the bus trip via Valletta (effectively the interchange for all routes on the island) took well over an hour – slower than if I just jogged the route! The journey through the hinterland provided an appreciation for Malta’s arid environment; Malta is essentially just a cluster of desert islands, with minimal vegetation, no water sources (the water supply is obtained from desalination) and complete dependence on imported food. Mdina is situated on the highest point on Malta, providing visually arresting views of the surrounding landscape and coast in the distance. Mdina was established by the Phoenicians and served as the Roman Empire’s base on the islands, but the existing town and its thick fortifications mostly dates to the Norman and Knights period. The town consists of narrow, winding and atmospheric medieval streets, plain, block-shaped sandstone buildings, a smattering of Baroque churches and tiny plazas with cute fountains and sprawling agapanthus bushes. With only 600 residents living the fortified walls, most of the population now live in adjacent Rabat (Arabic for suburb), a pretty area of townhouses with the characteristic Maltese balconies.
I accompanied Australian Matt and British Chris, who I met at the wedding, on an excursion to the Blue Grotto in Malta’s south. We arrived early in the morning and went for a swim in the crystalline water in an amiable location off the rocks with recreational fisherman nearby. The amiability was ruined somewhat by one of the fisherman pissing behind one of the rocks very close to my bag. We caught a small boat around the cove to marvel at various limestone caves and travel through the cavernous Blue Grotto itself. The best perspective though was obtained from a roadside viewpoint above the Grotto.
On my last day in Malta, I visited the famed Sunday market in Marsaxlokk on Malta’s east coast. Marsaxlokk is basically the ultimate representation of a paradisiacal Mediterranean fishing village. Sandstone buildings sprawl around an aqua blue bay, with large outdoor dining areas overlooking the waterfront aligned with palm trees. Just the pebbly beach are numerous wooden boats painted in a myriad of colours. On Sundays, hundreds of stalls materialise in the village selling fish, cheeses, deli goods, pastries and the usual paraphernalia. I walked around 30 minutes from the village through arid and exposed landscape to St. Peter’s Pool. The area consists of a series of small coves with strange rock platforms overlooking mesmerising turquoise water, perfect for swimming.
Prior to travelling to Malta, I had been exposed to rather negative reviews of the country’s cuisine. Clearly they had absolutely no idea what they were talking, because as I somewhat expected, Malta is a culinary gem (its not really possible to border the Mediterranean and produce mediocre dishes). While the Maltese kitchen is similar to Southern Italy’s, the notable distinction is the veneration of obscure proteins like rabbit, quail and octopus. The non-tourist trap restaurants (I was “trapped” on one occasion) are very generous with their portions and generally provide customers with a free appetiser plate of Maltese bread (sourdough), sweet tomato paste and bigilla, a spread made from mashed broad beans. Spaghetti is the most typical pasta to eat in Malta, which constituted my entrée for several meals. I ate spaghetti with octopus sauce, spaghetti with rabbit sauce and spaghetti with Maltese sausage (distinctive with its seasoning of coriander seeds) sauce, all of which consisted of rich tomato bases and were delicious. Malta’s national dish of fenek moqli is rabbit panfried in white wine and garlic, an absolutely delectable dish definitely worth the annoyance of dealing with bunny bones. My favourite form of eating rabbit though was in staffat tal-fenek, a rich tomato and red wine based stew with olives and herbs. Another classic Maltese main is bragioli, or “beef olives”, which consists of spiced balls of beef stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and served in a tomato and pea sauce (unexceptional). I indulged in several naturally tantalising seafood dishes, including octopus panfried in white wine (I find octopus a real hit or miss protein - this was outstanding) and fried calamari with salad. I also tried pieces of lampuka (dolphin fish), Malta’s favourite sea critters, on ftira, which is similar to foccacia and topped with tomatoes, cheese and other ingredients. Maltese towns and villages and dotted with tiny fastfood outlets that sell the country’s beloved, calorific and flabbagastingly cheap treats. Particularly popular and moorish are pastizzi, which are diamond shaped filo pastries stuffed with ricotta, mushy peas or creamy chicken (30 euro cents each!). Their larger cousins, qassatats, are made with shortcrust pastry instead and feature the same fillings. Also very common are oven-baked containers of macaroni or rice in tomato sauces and covered in mozzarella and pastry. Maltese sweets are surprisingly lacklustre, with inferior versions of Sicilian cannolis and North African makroud. Malta’s favourite beverage is not coca-cola but rather kinnie, a bittersweet soft drink made from blood oranges (moderately nice but very strong).
Malta is surrounded by mindbogglingly clear water, possesses a remarkable wealth of attractions and boasts a delectably extensive cuisine for such a small country. I spent the duration of my one week exploring the main island of Malta and attending wedding-related events, so I never had time to visit Gozo or scuba-dive (Malta is apparently the best location in the Mediterranean to dive). Malta definitely exceeded my expectations and I definitely intend to return!
That’s all for now,