There Is Only One Place Like Malta

There Is Only One Place Like Malta

By Constant Steyn

Why is Malta such an unknown tourist destination?  That is this tourist’s question following a weeklong visit filled with breath-taking discoveries.  
“Nowhere on earth is there a place the size of Malta with so many and such a wide variety of antique remnants which blends with the modern world.”

Reading this statement on a tourist brochure one could think it exaggerates.  But after having spent one week on the island, I came to realise that the author of the brochure did not exaggerate. Now, I am an ambassador of Malta.

Malta’s old world charm, history, culture and art blew me over.  I have to admit, that I only knew of Malta as the place mentioned in the Bible where the apostle Paul was shipwrecked (Acts 27 and 28).
Our arrival at the busy airport involved the usual red-tape.  When my wife and I arrived at the bottom of the escalator with our luggage, we were met by a friendly lady with “Malta Transfer”-tickets.

Within thirty minutes and at Euro 7 per person, we were on our way to our hotel in Sliema – a city next to Valletta and approximately half an hour’s drive from the airport.  

The Maltese drive on the same side of the road as we do in South Africa (because of their British colonial past) and everyone speaks English.  The island is not as dry as we were told, thanks to a better than normal rainy season.  

On our first evening, tired from the long flight from South Africa via Dubai and Lanarca (Cyprus), we felt right at home when we found a restaurant close to our hotel where rugby was shown on a big screen.  (Indeed, the six nations test between England and Scotland!)  

First some orientation:  The group of islands which forms Malta lies 93km south of Sicily and 288km east of Tunisia.  It consists of three islands – the main island of Malta, Gozo and the small Island of Comino.  There are also a number of smaller islands. Manoel Island lies in the Marsamxett Harbour between Valletta and Sliema and is the size of a few rugby pitches.  At the time of our visit the latter was closed to tourists due to restoration work.

Voyage of Discovery
We quickly discovered Malta’s excellent public transport system.  With a bus stop only about 100 meters from our hotel and at Euro 1.50 per person per day we could easily see all of Malta.  The ever present Hop On Hop Off bus service is also available as well as Malta’s own version, Malta Sightseeing.  However, if you have the time and you want to explore on your own I can recommend the public buses.  

The main purpose of our visit to Malta was a conference which my wife had to attend.  We travelled to Valletta daily. She to the conference venue and me with a map in hand to discover the narrow streets, wonderful Baroque architecture and interesting little shops on foot.  

The main road, Republic Street, is a pedestrian walkway with the odd delivery van patiently making its way through throngs of tourists.  The narrow side streets, typical of such an old city, is open to vehicles but only one at a time in any direction.  

Speaking of patience:  Maltese drivers are an example to their South African counter parts.  Not once did we see an aggressive driver who would mow down anything in his path in attempt to reach his destination.  Everyone waits patiently and if called for the reverse gear is engaged without hesitation to allow a fellow road user to pass. - Lucky guy

A feast of Baroque Art
One of the highlights in Valletta was a visit to the St. John’s Cathedral with its minimalist façade which does not event hint at the baroque interior.  This church was completed in 1577 under the guidance of the military engineer and architect, Girolamo Cassar.  Nearly a century later the Italian artist, Mattia Preti converted the sombre interior into one of the best and most fascinating examples of Baroque Art anywhere.  

A visit to the National Art Museum, also in Valletta, is not to be missed.  Here one can view more magnificent works of art by Preti and various other artists.  Looking at a painting called Valletta, View of Grand Harbour by Louis Ducros (1748-1810) one is dumbfounded when realising that the city wall and some of the buildings on the canvas are still standing today.  

Unforgettable places to visit:
If asked which impression will stay with me the longest, I would say it is the age-old limestone buildings and city walls which have remained intact everywhere.  We were told by Joseph Muscat, a farmer, that Malta is one big piece of limestone.  During a visit to his farm he showed us his wine cellar which is an old pit dug into the limestone.

However, the antique temples are also high on my list of unforgettable places to visit.  In Gozo you will find the Ggantija Temples which are some of the oldest freestanding structures on earth.  The complex consists of two temples dating from 3600 to 3000 BC.  Archaeologists say it is more than a thousand years older than Stonehenge!  

In the southern part of the main island is Mnajdra, a very impressive group of temples.  I did find it slightly spoiled by a large tent structure covering the temples built in an attempt to reduce further weathering.  

The oldest temple in this group also dates from the Ggantija era and the “latest” additions date from shortly after 3000 BC.  Gigantic limestone slabs fit on and into each other, and takes your breath away.

Like in the Middle Ages
Mdina is the oldest city in Malta and for me the most beautiful on the main island.  A city wall was built around it during the Middle Ages and probably remained intact due to the high elevation of the city on a rocky hill.  From a distance this city looks like a large fort.  Walking through the narrow streets one can easily imagine yourself in the Middle Ages.  

Another highlight was a day visit by ferry to Gozo.  The unnaturally blue colour of the sea during the twenty minute trip from Cirkewwa on the main island to Mgarr on Gozo, is what will stay with me.  
An unforgettable visit to the Azure Window revealed the most beautiful natural phenomena of the entire archipelago of Malta.  Wind erosion and waves created a natural rock arch in and over the water.  The arch hangs like a table in the deep blue water.  Erosion will eventually have the upper hand and then the arch will collapse but in the meantime some foolhardy tourists (me excluded) ignored the warnings and walked on the arch.  

Unbelievable View
A highlight on Gozo was a visit to the Cittadella.  Like Mdina on the main island it is a walled city dating from the Middle Ages and rising above the surroundings.  We climbed to the top and were rewarded with unforgettable views.  

And a low point of our visit?  That we had time for only one day on Gozo!  And another low point?  That we haven’t seen everything we wanted to see during the week we spent on Malta.

Tip:  Buy your air tickets right now and make sure you spend at least a week on Malta!

Article translated from Afrikaans.  Original article at http://www.netwerk24.com/ontspan/reis/2015-06-27-daar-is-net-een-plek-soos-malta

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