Editor’s note: Malta is one of the few Western European countries I have yet to visit, having never had it make sense in an itinerary. After reading this story from Sam, I know I just HAVE to make it work one day soon. For more of Sam’s writing, click here to visit his index page.
I am on my flight back from my most recent adventure and could not wait until I got home to write about it. There are mythical places that you see in movies that are too romantic and fairytalelike to seem real. Well, I just went to such a place, a tiny island nation in the Mediterranean that is called Malta. Like everywhere I go, I did not spend nearly enough time in Malta; in fact I was there for only two full days, but it is a place that not many Americans I know have visited. After all, while one might cross the globe to explore France and Italy, people seldom journey to visit the archipelago of three main islands that are home to less than half a million people. However, I was in Israel on a work trip, as I often am, and with Israel’s location in the Middle East, but also its proximity to North Africa and Europe, I always love to couple my trips there with a visit to a place that I have never been. When exploring where I could go for two days until I had to get back stateside, I found plane tickets for roughly $20 with the budget airline RyanAir from Tel Aviv to Malta and jumped at the opportunity.
Upon arrival in Malta, I rented a car (and braved driving on the left side of the road) and headed through the narrow streets of the main island, which bears the same name as the country, to my hotel, the Holm Boutique & Spa in St. Julian’s. This hotel was truly wonderful, with spacious rooms, each of which is designed differently, and it has a rooftop pool, and an indoor pool and spa. Best of all, it was a fraction of the price you would expect to pay for such a nice place. St. Julian’s is not where any of the main attractions are; however, with a beautiful location on the harbor, many say that it is where the best restaurants (our favorite was the Maltese seafood restaurant Zeri’s) and nightlife are on the whole island.
For my first day of sightseeing, I first went to the Sunday weekly fishing market in the small fishing village of Marsaxlokk. Being a native of Seattle, I am a lover of fish markets, and while this was completely different from the Pike Place Market of my hometown, it was no less impressive. Dozens upon dozens of stalls were lined up alongside the seaside promenade with locals selling their catches from the week: cartons of eels, booths of octopus and squid, and different fish and shellfish fresh and piled high with excited Maltese shoppers and restauranteurs taking their picks. In the backdrop of the market bobbed hundreds of brightly colored rowboats, likely some belonging to the merchants at the fish market.
A short drive away from the fish market are some of the most impressive ruins in the world. While I was marveled by the 4000 year old pyramids of Egypt, the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra make the pyramids look young. These temples, which are approximately 5600 years old, are the oldest free standing structures in the world. Standing cliffside by the Mediterranean, these picturesque temples are the best preserved on the island. Wander through their interconnected chambers and rooms, and stand in awe of their gargantuan stones, some of which weigh upwards of 20 metric tons, and try to imagine people moving these and setting them up so long ago without the methods we have today. Discovered at the sites were numerous “fat lady” sculptures, most of which are at the National Archaeological Museum. Inside the visitor center is a great 4D movie experience that even simulates wind and lightning for the viewer learning about the history of the temples.
Another twenty minutes up the road are the old capital twin cities from Roman times of Mdina and Rabat. Set atop a hill overlooking Malta’s vineyards, Mdina and Rabat look as though they are out of a painting. The winding streets with the old buildings that look like Tuscan villages are truly charming. In Rabat, there are numerous Michelin-rated restaurants, and my family ate at one of them, Root 81, which was delicious, classy, and elegant. The main sites in Rabat are the catacombs, old burial tombs underground. There are two sets of catacombs to visit: St. Agatha’s which are between 500 and 800 years old, named for the saint who fled to Malta only to be later executed in Italy, which have beautifully painted frescoes; and St. Paul’s, which, though lacking in artwork, are over 1500 years old and far more historic. Sadly, we had time only for one of the catacombs and we opted for history of St. Paul’s. There are over 20 catacombs that go underground there, some of which are small, while others twist and turn in deep, elaborate, underground tunnels, which allowed for the burial of dozens of individuals within. Interestingly, despite having a Christian name, the catacombs were used not just by Christians, but also by pagans and Jews. As a rabbi, it was very exciting to see 1700 year old menorahs carved into catacombs.
A ten-minute walk away from the catacombs is the old walled city of Mdina. The walk through the walls reminded me of those of Dubrovnik in Croatia, and in the small old town is St. Paul’s Cathedral, a spectacular domed structure that is beautiful up close and also when looking at the town from the valley below. The modern cathedral dates back to the beginning of the 18th century, and is supposedly on the site where St. Paul was welcomed by the governor of Malta. Rabat and Mdina, which are walled and are pedestrian only, not having cars go through their main streets, are similar to the modern capital of Valletta, where I spent my next and final day in Malta.
Valletta, with a population of roughly 6000 individuals and being 1 kilometer by 600 meters in size, is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. However, do not let its size fool you; Valletta was named the 2018 European Capital of Culture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its 16th century founders declared Valletta to be a city “built by gentlemen for gentlemen.” Built on a peninsula and perched on a hill, and overlooking the sea, a harbor, and three cities also built on peninsulas across the harbor, this might be the one capital in Europe that you can easily explore in a couple of hours. The skyline of Valletta is dominated by St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a massive cathedral built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John. Allow at least an hour to explore the cathedral and its eight chapels, each dedicated to different regional divisions of the faithful who made up the order. In each chapel is spectacular artwork, and underneath the altar are catacombs that you can see as well. However, the main sites of the cathedral are the oratory, featuring a massive portrait of the beheading of John the Baptist, and six vaults of the ceiling of the nave, each one depicting different scenes of the life and death of John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Knights of St. John.
Throughout Valletta there are many other museums and great sites. Be sure to check out the new Renzo-Piano parliament building and city gate, as well as take in the view of the harbor and the three cities below (which you can easily ferry to) from the Gardens of Upper Barrakka, created as a shady haven in the late 16th century for Italian knights. At 4pm daily, the multiple cannons of the garden are fired off in a salute. Other sites that are considered highlights of the capital are the Grand Master’s Palace, the dominating Fort of St. Elmo, and the National Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, I visited Valletta on Monday, and these sites – as well as all under the control of the Heritage Malta division – are closed on Monday, but that did not stop me from grabbing a gelato and enjoying roaming the streets.
I hope I can return to Malta and have a couple days to visit the second island of the archipelago, Gozo, known for its natural beauty and its central medieval city, also called Rabat (but renamed Victoria). On Gozo there is great diving and boat trips out to the Blue Lagoon, while Malta Island has the Blue Grotto, a series of caves that you access by boat (unfortunately the waters were stormy while I was there so no boats were running). Yet, what I enjoyed most about Malta was all of its surprises. Firstly, the language. While there is indeed a lot of cultural influence from nearby Sicily, I expected the Malti language to be similar to Italian. Instead, when I arrived from Israel, I was taken aback thinking for a second that people were speaking Arabic or Hebrew to me, except I did not understand them. It turns out that Malti is a Semitic language and not a Romance language. Another surprise for me was, despite the strong religious tradition of Malta, with the country even bearing a cross on its flag, the country is very progressive with the most LGBTQ+ rights of any country in Europe. Finally, I was surprised to see that despite the small population, the Maltese people have incredible pride in their country and politics. The day we arrived in Malta was the day of the Maltese national election, with the Labour Party cruising to victory and Prime Minister Robert Abela remaining in power. For the following two days, we watched tens of thousands of Maltese take to the streets and ride on top of semi trucks dancing, blasting music, and waving flags. In the midst of the celebrations, I talked to a friendly man who proudly told me that he was Prime Minister Abela’s uncle; he then asked me if I wanted to meet him and promptly introduced me to the Prime Minister who was passing by for his inauguration celebration. The prime minister could not have been friendlier, and even posed for a picture with my baby, despite her being in complete meltdown mode at that moment. All of that just added to the miracle of Malta, a place where everyone seems to know each other and where everything is unexpected, beautiful, and looks like it out of a fairytale. Next time you are in the Mediterranean, book yourself a few magical days in one of Europe’s best kept secrets, which soon will not be a secret anymore.
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