Malta dazzles with its rich tapestry of colour and history,
writes STEPHANIE AZZOPARDI
Landing on the small strip next to a modest building, it’s easy to forget you’ve just arrived at an international airport.
But don’t be fooled by its size, Malta is a country packed with beauty and culture.
For four twenty-somethings trying to savour the remainder of the European summer in late September, Malta is the perfect place to land.
A tiny nation situated in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and North African coastline, Malta is sunny most of the year, with the temperature sticking to a mild minimum of about 13 degrees in the coldest months.
A popular tourist destination for the British, the Maltese also have a soft spot for Australians.
As soon as we tell our taxi driver where we are from, we get a response we are about to hear over and over throughout our trip.
“There are more Maltese in Australia than in Malta,” he says.
This statement is not quite true, however, Melbourne and Sydney both boast large Maltese communities, due to a migration agreement in the mid-20th century.
With the entire population of Malta sitting at under half a million, it’s not hard to see how the misconception starts.
The beauty of this small island, about 246 square kilometres in total, is that you can see so much in just two days – and it doesn’t really matter where you stay, everything is close.
Malta is best described as an open air museum, with its historic honey-coloured buildings taking your breath away.
We first head to Rabat, home of St Paul’s Cathedral, named aptly because this is where apostle St Paul was said to reside after he was shipwrecked on the island in about 60AD.
It might be one of Malta’s most holy sites, however, there is so much for the non-believer to see.
Underneath the church is St Paul’s Grotto and the holy catacombs. Malta was hit severely by air raids during the Second World War, so the underground labyrinth was modified in the 1940s to accommodate the Maltese people during air raids.
We wander through the narrow tunnels and small “rooms” with makeshift beds carved out of the earth and find ourselves overwhelmed – it is definitely not an experience for the claustrophobes, or anyone approaching six feet tall (1.8m) for that matter.
We then walk to Mdina, the country’s medieval 2500-year-old former capital – a truly well preserved ancient city.
Unlike historic sites in neighbouring Italian cities such as Rome and Florence, Mdina is a tranquil place free of excessive tourists.
The quiet streets and alleyways give us a true idea of what life was like in the days of the Knights of St John, we wander through and then up to the city’s fortifications, with enviable views of the bay.
Mdina’s St Paul’s Cathedral rivals several European churches for its beauty, and – due to the lack of swarming crowds – has a calming feel you cannot get in the jam-packed Notre Dame or St Peter’s Basilica.
We take a bus to Malta’s current capital, Valetta. Valetta is a well-structured fortress of buildings built 450 years ago. The city is easily explored on foot, starting with the main strip, Republic Street, which runs from the Fort of St Elmo to the city gate. We weave our way through the alleys along to the waterfront; you cannot get lost, the whole city is structured in a grid.
We visit the impressive St John’s Co-Cathedral and wander along the waterfront.
This is where we sample our first Maltese meal. Traditionally the protein of choice is rabbit, however, those not game enough to eat it can indulge in a number of other things, including fresh seafood. We dine on stuffed squid in rich tomato-based braises with capers and olives.
There is an obvious Italian influence in Maltese food, with pasta easily accessible.
For a snack, try a traditional savoury pastry called pastizzi, with either peas or ricotta cheese inside; they are best enjoyed fresh from the oven, a perfect mid-morning snack from any number of Maltese bakeries, while you explore.
You cannot visit Malta without enjoying its stunning coastline, the Mediterranean laps at the sunny isle, daring us not to swim.
We decide to dedicate a day on the water to visit some of Malta’s most beautiful natural spots, Blue Lagoon and Gozo.
Captain Morgan Cruises can take you on a Comino and Gozo daytrip for 35 euro (about $52). The boat cruises to the Blue Lagoon on the island of Comino, where the water is crystal clear. We dock and then wander over the rocky cliffs to the little white beach and wade into warm Mediterranean waters. Unlike the majority of Malta’s rocky beaches, this sandy lagoon is an absolute treat.
After letting the threat of being left behind get too much, we leave this haven to board a speedboat and explore the area’s caves. Our captain has a little fun with us and drives so fast we all clutch all in half nervousness and half excitement as we feel as though we’re flying over the water to and around the natural wonders.
We then make our way to Gozo, another stunning site. The water is a deep blue and we realise the island is the perfect place to while away a week of swimming and diving and wandering the rocky terrain.
Our two days in Malta are up quicker than we can say “sahha” – a Maltese term that translates to “goodbye and good health”. As we take our taxi back to the tiny airport to make our way home, we all agree that this is truly an underestimated gem of Europe.
Take buses if you can, whether it be a hop-on-hop-off bus or the island’s public transport. Taxis are quite expensive.