It’s a common Maltese tradition that once a child turns one, they’re made to choose from an array of symbolic objects that will supposedly determine their future path.
Pens for writers, calculators for accountants, rolling pins for bakers…
If I had taken part of this il-quċċija when I turned one, there’s no doubt about it: I would have raced straight past all these objects, and instead thrown myself on top of the snack table… because MY future (if I can help it) will be spent forever consuming Maltese snacks like imqarets and pastizzis.
The reason for my obsession? Earlier this month, I visited Malta for the first time as a guest of the Malta Tourism Authority, as many of you may have seen on Instagram. While plenty of helpful guides and informational posts are on their way, for now: I’d like keep things simple and show you Malta through my eyes. Here’s a photo diary recapping my four days hopping around the Maltese archipelago, one of the most unique destinations I’ve seen in a very long time.
When my boyfriend and I arrived late Thursday evening, fresh off our Air Malta flight, my demeanour mirrored that of an excited puppy. My nose was pressed against the glass throughout our entire taxi ride to the hotel, trying in vain to absorb all the details of our new destination. Our home base for this trip was the Fortina Spa Resort in Sliema, a former fishing village turned ‘party central’ that is today a hub for shops, restaurants and vibrant nightlife. In the dark, there was absolutely no way to anticipate the view we’d see the next day.
… because sunrise the next morning brought us THIS:
I have to say: at first glance, Malta is a confusing little place. Found halfway between Europe and Africa, their language sounds Arabic, but makes use of Latin letters; their greetings are very French “bonġu for good morning and bonswa for good evening”, yet the streets are dotted with bright red phone booths and British-style electrical plugs.
Here’s why: Malta is an archipelago that has been under rule until 1964. The unique identity we see today is therefore thanks to the combined influence of the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the French and the English. How’s that for a mix?
Of course, this unique identity manifests itself in a pretty ahh-worthy diversity of sights, crammed into a tiny total area of only 316 km². Before even having lunch on our first day, we had delved into an ancient world of megalithic temples at Ħaġar Qim (which dates back to 3600 BC), breezed through the impossibly vibrant waters of the Blue Lagoon and enjoyed the picturesque colours of Marsaxlokk, Malta’s main fishing harbour.
At lunch, with a view of the colourful fishing boats of Marsaxlokk, I learned the most crucial fact of my entire trip: that Maltese food is a force to be reckoned with. After stuffing myself with courses of delicious antipasto, seafood and dessert, I quickly realized that generous portions and delectable diversity would be a recurring theme of the trip…
After that stomach-expanding binge, we rolled our way to Fort St. Angelo, found in Birgu (Vittoriosa, in Maltese), one of Malta’s ‘Three Cities’. It was very lucky timing that we arrived in the city just before Freedom Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the British troops leaving Malta in 1979. One of the main celebrations is a regatta among several Maltese towns/cities, complete with colourful flags and proud fans bringing out the loudest in their sassy shouting. The buzzing atmosphere was contagious, with Cospicua (Bormla in Maltese), our driver’s hometown, being crowned the ultimate winner, apparently a very big deal indeed. Congrats George!
Exploring the Three Cities (Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua) is a dramatically different experience than the busier stops of Sliema or Valetta. These lesser visited Maltese gems offer a quieter, more authentic glimpse into daily Maltese life, complete with tranquil streets dotted with colourful balconies and confused residents wondering why you’re photographing their home. PS: if you get the time, hop on ‘dghajsa’, a gondola-esque Maltese water taxi to get amazing views from the water. It may not be one of the superyachts you’ll find docked nearby, but dayum if the views aren’t wonderful:
We spent our evening eating exploring Valetta, and the next day too, a painfully short time for a capital so rich in history. Bragging rights include being named the European Capital of Culture for 2018, which is why much of the city is being restored, with gorgeous boutique hotels taking residence in the baroque buildings so typical of the city.
Like a scene from Inception, the steep hills of Valetta can at times make it look like the streets are about to fold into you. There are only 8 flat streets in the entire capital, which means while your calves will get their workout, it’s all worth it. As you climb up the steep steps of Valetta (which are 450 years old in fact!), you’ll be charmed by painted wooden balconies (a new obsession of mine) alongside vintage shop signs and storefronts that invite a nosy perusal.
Most impressive though is that most of the treasures of Valetta are hidden from plain sight. The beautiful baroque facades of Valetta’s streets mask even cooler wonders, like the Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, which drips in gold and opulent art or the Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th century palace crammed with impressive paintings and antique collections. The magic continues even below street level, where you’ll find an underground series of tunnels constructed by the Knights of St John when Valetta was first built, open to the public only for select occasions.
But guess what? That’s not where the surprises end.
What if I told you in the Northwest corner of Malta, there was a film set turned theme park, where the flat rooftops typical of the Maltese skyline gave way to coloured houses with pointy roofs and a Disney-esque whimsy?
Yes, Malta has that too, and it’s called Popeye Village.
Our third day brought us to this wonderfully random theme park, which has taken residence by the turquoise waters of Anchor Bay since the 70s. Here, even in the off-season, colourfully dressed characters roam the small park, messing with guests (no joke – hiding in dark corners and jumping out!) while bringing you into the heart of the Robin Williams Popeye film which shot here decades ago. I’ll detail our full visit in a later post, but it was a hilarious way to spend the morning.
Ditching Disney for Game of Thrones, our afternoon brought us to Mdina, Malta’s former capital, a walled city perched atop a hill, making for some of the best views in the country. Known as the “Silent City” due to the fact that it doesn’t allow cars, stepping into Mdina can feel like a step back in time (once you’ve ditched the main streets). The honey limestone facades are inviting but dangerous, because heading into the back alleys is like entering a maze. Still, not to worry – Mdina is so small that even the directionally challenged like myself are able to find their way with ease… eventually. It’s worth noting of course (for my fellow nerds) that several scenes from Game of Thrones Season 1 were filmed here.
Our last day was spent in Gozo and Comino, the other two main islands that complete the Maltese archipelago. Gozo recently made headlines when it lost its key attraction, the Azure Window, to a heavy storm that caused the total collapse of the arch. In classic ‘silver linings’ fashion, I was determined to dig deeper and discover what else Gozo had to offer.
… and the truth is, there’s a lot.
After all, Gozo is where the Maltese go on vacation, and despite the short 20 minute ferry ride that will bring you to Gozo’s shores, the two islands march to dramatically different rhythms.
The pace of life is simply different in Gozo. Slower, less chaotic. With a reputation as Malta’s greener island, it offers plenty of opportunities to relax and, if desired, indulge one’s adventure junkie. In fact, Malta offers some of the best scuba diving opportunities in Europe, the Blue Hole in Gozo being among the most popular.
But if you’re a less adventurous soul simply craving beautiful sights, Gozo is loaded with them. Among our stops for the day were Dwerja Bay (former home of the Azure Window), the Ggantija Temples and the Cittadella, all of which felt relatively untouched by tourists.
But beyond the ‘must-sees’, there was something truly captivating about the island’s atmosphere… Whether it was the toothy old man proudly selling salt by his family’s salt pans, or the chatty woman making lace down a hidden alley in Victoria, there was a subtle charm to Gozo (and its people) that melted my big city heart. Or, at the very least, convinced me to buy some salt and lace (neither of which I really needed).
Still, how could you ever say no to this face? (Yes, that’s her on the cover of a magazine).
Our day capped off with a quick visit to Comino, whose bright blue waters had taunted us since that morning’s ferry ride. With a grand population of four, Comino’s main draw is its impossibly Blue Lagoon, which appears dramatically Photoshopped, but is of course, the real deal. The windy waves of April didn’t allow for a safe swim, but it was great fun exploring this tiny island anyways, which becomes a magnet for swimmers and sunbathers in the summer.
And now, even weeks after my visit, sometimes, when I close my eyes, I still imagine the irresistible smell of a freshly fried imqaret, soon to be devoured with a cool scoop of creamy Maltese ice cream. After four full days of exploration, I boasted not only a fuller waistline, but a fuller understanding of what exactly it is that makes Malta so special. Even so, it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
It was a great visit, but it certainly won’t be my last.
A huge thanks to the Malta Tourism Authority for hosting me during this trip! All experiences, words and opinions are my own.