Irish Independent, November 12, 2011
Malta’s like home – except for the glorious weather and the warm blue Med, says Thomas Breathnach
Good evening winter – this is Valletta Calling. With its year round-warmth and leave-the-phrase-book-at-home appeal, Malta’s long been a hotbed for the Irish winter exodus. Historically a magnet for British retirees, nowadays the microstate is dusting down its colonial image and embracing its ancient roots as the mythical Mecca of the Mediterranean. Combine city-break buzz, azure lagoons and ancient temples, and the Land of the Knights is a serious contender for an end-of-year jaunt to the sun.
We arrive in Malta International amid fanfare: Ryanair’s automated trumpet heralds the on-time arrival of our four hour flight, while applauding Maltese passengers celebrate their return to mid-20 climes. Aside from the weather, however, Malta could well claim to be Ireland’s most compatible destination: Eurozone, Anglophone and left-hand traffic, thanks to British colonization, we’re still in land of the three pin plug.
St. Julian’s, on the north coast of Malta island is our base for our stay. We arrive at the Radisson, in secluded George’s Bay, via a series of sheltered fishing harbours and narrow avenues of moorish architecture, all shadowed by fan-leaved date palms. Down in Paceville, the social hub of the town, Europop thumps out of neon cocktail bars, teenagers gather in hookah bars, while Maltese couples rendezvous for gelato dates. A Sicilian modello, married with Maghrebe chic – this is indeed the microcosm of the Med.
The ancient walled city of Mdina is first stop on our island trail. First built by Phoenicians around 1000BC, and later fortified by the Saracens, we enter the “Silent City” through its imposing moat and city gate. The streetscape beyond is immediately arresting: horse-drawn carriages trot through honey-hued streets, past churches and stucco-walled bastions. Labyrinths of sandy, winding laneways are adorned with ornate lanterns, every alleyway more enchanting than the next, every medieval doorway, more inviting.
It’s here we have our first helping of Maltese cuisine at Restaurant Ciappetti, where a hidden courtyard with cascading vines provides cooling shelter from the October sun. After a plate of sun-dried tomatoes, local sausage and bigalla (a delicious broad bean paté), we tuck into a hearty shank of lamb, fetaka (rabbit -the traditional dish), and a glass of Maltese Grenache.
With 350,000 people living on an island not much bigger than Achill – Malta is one of the world’s most densely populated zones, where towns flow into each other with little definition other than a “Merhba” (welcome) sign. A fortressed harbour town, the capital Valletta is a glistening façade of gilded baroque edifices and domed churches, where the country’s vintage buses still wind the streets, adding a touch of retro-Cuba. It’s not without the odd Marks & Sparks or red telephone booth either.
Malta is one of Europe’s most staunchly Catholic country, (divorce only got the nod here this October),
and spirals and domes of 365 churches pepper its islands. Valletta’s St. John’s Co-Cathedral (€6) arguably, tops them all. Home of the Knights of Malta – the chivalrous crusaders of St. John – the cathedral vaults us into the annals of medieval mystique. Inconspicuous from the outside – inside, a magnificently frescoed nave is buttressed with lavishly adorned arches. The insignia cross of the Knights, most of whom rest in tombs below us, is embellished throughout.
We follow the gasps of a troop of Russian tourists to the oratory, where one of the nation’s jewels awaits. Caravaggio’s magnus opus, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist – stands before us. His only signed work, the life-sized painting is as sublimely vivid as a still from a theatre scene. Little wonder the Maltese were afraid to send it to Italy for restoration.
Later in the old citadel of Birgu, we catch a ride with the latest transport fad on the island – segways (segwaymalta.com; €40). The futuristic eco-pogosticks have certainly caught the public imagination here – even the Maltese police force can even be seen gliding around on them. Following a quick briefing, (it’s just like riding a bike. Ok, a unicycle), we’re find ourselves in the ultimate sightseeing juxtaposition – whizzing around historic esplanades and alleyways like time-travellers.
Gozo Channel Ferries (€4.65 return) are the main artery between the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino. From the port of Cirkewwa we set off for Gozo, our liner packed to the brim with Maltese commuters, tourists and hoards of day-tripping English-language students.
Under cloudless skies, we first cruise along the coast of Comino – Malta’s smallest inhibited island. Dotted with caves and inlets, the island, once a hideout for pirates and plunderers, is today home to just four residents. turquoise waters lap against chalky cliffs and Comino’s famous Blue Lagoon, as the fortress of Santa Maria stands lonesome guard over the island.
Go-slow Gozo, meanwhile, is the self embracing country bumpkin of the Maltese archipelago. We leave its marina to find a welcome antithesis to the dense bustle of Malta. A skein of stone walls criss-cross a parched hilly landscape of farmland, only coloured by the odd butter-cupped blooms of wild rocket.
Laden with legend, Gozo is said to be the island where the nymph Calypso trapped Odysseus for seven years. But the history doesn’t stop there. Malta boasts Europe’s oldest temples, and Gozo itself is home to the world’s most ancient freestanding structure. Ggantija, the Giant’s Tower, thought to be a neolithic fertility cult site, dates back as far as 3600BC (pipping Newgrange by about 300 years). Surrounded by groves of olive and promegranate trees, we enter the temple to find a clover-shaped chamber flanked with colossal boulders. It’s an unfathomable site, and timeline – even the graffiti here is historic.
Back on Malta, we end our trip with a visit to one of the country’s top wineries – Meridiana (meridiana.com.mt; €10). Run by Marc & Josette Melici-Farrugia, the couple have been juggling their passion for viticulture, along with their role as Maltese ambassadors to the US, for the past four years. Josette takes us through the history of viticulture on the islands, from Phoenician times to today – while we sample some crisp and zingy Chardonnay with chunks of gbejniet – peppered sheep’s cheese. “Now, you’d really need some Irish roast beef for this” Josette admits, pouring us out the next tasting. We sip on the luscious red while gazing out over acres of vineyard. Oh Ambassador, with this Cabernet Sauvignon you are really spoiling us.
THE NEED TO KNOW:
Thomas went to Malta with Concorde Travel (01-775 9300; concordetravel.ie). A seven night B&B package with the operator starts from €377 (incl. flights).
Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Malta from €40 one way.
Located in the peaceful George’s Bay, just a stroll from St. Julian’s, The Radisson Blu – and a top breakfast (1800 55 74 74; radissonblu.com/stjuliansresort-malta) €45pps B&B.
For the rustic-at-heart, get away from the resorts with a self-catering farmhouse stay in Gozo. Villas with Concorde start €459pps – incl. rental car.
FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO
Take the plunge at one of Europe’s scuba-diving hotspots. With reefs, caves and shipwrecks, the waters of the Blue Lagoon (Comino) and Azure Window (Gozo) will leave you, goggle-eyed. (scubadivingmalta.com; €30)
Earn your supper by picking olives or fruit at a traditional Gozitan farm. If that sounds too much like hard work, enjoy a traditional Maltese cooking session – before dining on all the spoils. (tamena-gozo.com; activities from €7
Head to the beautifully restored warehouses of Valletta for some Maltese gift shopping. Mdina glass, with their funky vases and bowls, should do the trick. €20 will buy you your new dinner-table centre-piece.
Capture some of Malta’s best views at Dingli Cliffs. The highest point on the islands, breathe in the vista south over the deserted island of Filfa. Next stop, Tunisia.
Catch a relaxing ride through Valletta harbour on a dghajsa – a traditional Maltese fishing boat. (from €10). If pronunciation is a problem – just ask for the Maltese gondolas.