Sailing into the port of Valletta in Malta, the largest of three Maltese Islands, was one of those magical moments where words can’t describe the ethereal feeling you get when you glimpse this fortified ancient city. The Maltese Islands of myths and megaliths, have the most incredible ancient structures that date back 9,000 years ago to the Stone Age. With a Mediterranean climate, jewel seas, quaint little fishing villages and attractive beaches I can understand why this island was fought over for centuries.
After departing Sicily it was only a short sail of 93 kms south to the Maltese archipelago that lies virtually at the centre of the Mediterranean, and 288 km north of Africa. The archipelago consists of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino with a relatively small total population of over 400,000 inhabitants occupying an area of 316 square kilometres.
We arrived at the Grand Harbour in Valletta, the capital of Malta, a fortified peninsula overlooking two harbours on either side. As well as forts absolutely everywhere, Valletta is adorned with beautiful baroque buildings and churches.
A highlight of Valletta was catching the lift from the waterfront to Upper Barrakka, the beautiful public gardens that afford amazing 360 degree views of the Grand Harbour and the city. The gardens comprise of a paved arcade on two sides that were originally roofed in 1661 and host a collection of famous bronze statues and memorial tablets. A saluting battery with ten cannons is found in the gardens directly beneath the top tier of the main garden.
Malta has often been called the ‘Fortress Island’ due to the great mass of military architecture that can be seen everywhere. The fortifications that can be seen today come from two distinct periods: those of the Knights and those of the British era.
From many strategic positions and lookouts around Valletta you can’t help but marvel at the feat of military engineering, but also because they are reminiscent of the era of chivalry, crusading, heroism and legendary battles. These forts simply blow your mind!
Due to the island’s great strategic importance as a naval base, it has an illustrious history with a succession of different powers. These have included the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Order of St. John, French and British, all having ruled these islands at some point in time. Malta became an independent state in 1964, and a republic in 1974.
The Knights of the Order of St. John came to Malta in 1530, having been ejected from their earlier home on Rhodes by the Turks in 1522. The Knights stayed for 268 years, transforming what they called ‘merely a rock of soft sandstone’ into a flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.
But even more impressive is that Malta has a rich prehistoric past. Dating of bones and pottery from all around the island has shown that it was first populated in at least 5,500 BC. Malta’s megalithic temples are claimed to be older than Stonehenge and older than the Pyramids of Egypt. There are literally dozens of ancient sites, eleven megalithic temples, with seven of them being UNESCO World Heritage Listed.
One of the biggest Maltese myths is that Malta was part of a great civilization of the past, possibly Atlantis. It is speculated that Malta is in fact the only remaining remnant of a much older civilisation. Legend says that when the city of Atlantis was destroyed due to its own evolved experimentations with the natural forces of the earth, the landmass which comprised Atlantis was split asunder and sunk into the sea, apart from a small fragment, which drifted on the earth’s crust until a huge tsunami blew it from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Interesting stuff!
We had pre-booked a cruise excursion titled “Treasures of Malta” and very excitedly jumped aboard our mini-bus to set off to explore this Maltese Island. We headed for the town of Mosta where we visited the Mosta Dome Cathedral which is very famous for its Rotunda, that is the third largest in the world.
Our guide explained the history of Malta as we travelled further inland into the island. The countryside is dotted with medieval towers, wayside chapels and the oldest known human structures in the world. No wonder the islands have rightly been described as an open-air museum.
We stopped briefly for a photo opportunity to capture the medieval fortress city of Mdina from a distance, that was formerly the capital of Malta. The old city is perched atop the highest hill of the island and gives panoramic views of Malta’s north and eastern landscape.
Mdina Cathedral dominates the town with its unique skyline and it is scattered with many historical buildings. We climbed the hill to Rabat, the historical suburban town of Mdina and marvelled at the narrow cobbled streets still existing and many ancient churches, catacombs and convents dotted throughout. At times it seemed impossible that our bus would even fit through some of the narrow streets of the town.
Our bus tour travelled to the western coast of Malta and the highest area of the island to a place known as Dingli Cliffs. The views were breathtaking, overlooking the small terraced fields below, the moonscape terrain, the open sea, and Filfla, the small uninhabited island off the coastline.
The beguiling sight of a tiny chapel, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene is perched on the edge of the cliffs, marking the highest point on the Maltese Islands. It was here that we discovered the locals trying to make a buck out of the tourists by attempting to sell bottled water at the hefty price of 5 euros!
Still on the western side of the island where there are steep cliff faces looming over the Mediterranean Sea, we came to Malta’s Blue Grotto. The site got its name from a British soldier who thought that since the area looked similar to the Grotta Azzurra in Capri, it deserved the same name.
It is a sight to behold. There is a massive arch (over 30m) and a system of six caves that were created by centuries of persistent action of the waves and the elements. The sky reflects the white sandy seabed, giving off a bright cobalt colour while the caves mirror the orange, purple and green off the minerals in the rocks.
Towards the end of our tour and possibly my favourite part of the island, was a visit to the quaint fishing village of Marsaxlokk. It had all the ingredients of a cute little fishing village with picturesque scenery of brightly coloured boats (luzzus), waterfront markets in full swing, a town square with a pretty church and many seafood restaurants lining the harbour.
Day two of our exploration of the Maltese Islands took us into the second largest island, Gozo. Our ship arrived in the early hours of the morning and we were tendered into the port of Mgarr amid very choppy seas. We hadn’t pre-booked a tour so we decided to try the hop on hop off bus that would take us around the small 67 km² island.
The younger sister to Malta is more greener, more rural and laid-back, but still comes complete with historical sites, forts and amazing panoramas, as well the well-preserved prehistoric temples of Ġgantija.
We rambled around the island on the double decker bus with the crisp air giving us a blow dry. The journey took us through rich and fertile valleys with farms dotted everywhere growing fresh produce such as tomatoes and grapes. Our first stop was at Ramla Bay, Gozo’s most popular beach and referred to locally as “Ramla il-Ħamra” – the Red Sandy Beach!
Back on the bus we continued through farmland, past the Savina Creativity Centre at Xewkija, the prehistoric temples of Ġgantija, Calypso Cave, and then downhill to the seaside village of Marsalforn Bay.
The Summer resort town of Marsalforn boasts a small picturesque bay with turquoise waters and a tiny sandy beach. The main promenade runs right round the head of the bay, providing a pleasant place to stroll and a gathering place at one of the waterfront restaurants for local families and visitors alike.
Marsalforn is a popular base for diving enthusiasts, who can choose from a variety of diving schools and dive sites. The village is is also well served with restaurants, bars, self catering apartments and hotels.
There are also several good boat trips on offer including a cruise around Gozo (with swimming and snorkelling stops) and a trip over to Comino and the legendary Blue Lagoon.
Gozo’s commercial and cultural capital is recognizable by its strategic position with the Citadel perched on the uppermost part. This enclosed fortified part of town has a Cathedral, the Gozo Law Courts, the old Bishop’s Palace and a few museums.
The centre of Rabat(Victoria) is Pjazza Indipendenza (Independence Square), known as it-Tokk. The square is dominated by the Banca Giuratale, built between 1733 and 1738, formerly the seat of the municipal government of Gozo. In the mornings, there is an open market that shares the square with several open air cafes.
A little further from it-Tokk is Villa Rundle Public Gardens, laid out by the British in 1910 and recently refurbished. With a variety of local and imported trees and a cooling fountain, the gardens are an oasis of peace.
As we wound around the narrow roads of Gozo we climbed to the Ta’ Pinu Basilica just outside Gharb. This impressive neo-romanesque church is a popular place of pilgrimage.
In the actual village of Gharb there is the Gharb Folklore Museum and the Ta’ Dbiegi Crafts Centre.
Next we came to the curious coastal landscape of Dwerja Bay with a few interesting geological features. Here lies an Inland Sea enclosed by cliffs and connecting to the sea via a fissure. There is also the Azure Window, carved out of the cliffs by waves, and jutting out from the sea is the Fungus Rock formation.
Our last stop was at Xlendi Bay, a tiny fishing hamlet that is now a popular seaside resort. The bay is flanked by an impressive cliff on one side and there is a small sandy beach leading into shallow waters. For the more adventurous it is delightful to swim and snorkel in deeper water off the long stretch of rocks bordering the beach.
This very scenic harbour is dominated by Fort Chambray, commissioned by Jacques François de Chambray of the Order of St John in 1749. Although it was never fully completed it still stands proud overlooking the harbour. It’s an extremely busy harbour with a ferry terminal and ferries going between the three Maltese Islands, brightly coloured fishing boats and a yacht marina.
Overlooking the harbour is the neo-Gothic Lourdes Chapel, Velsons Winery and the Żewwieqa waterfront with the Gleneagles Bar and a few restaurants including the kitsch verandah of the Seaview Restaurant.
There is no doubt that the Maltese Islands really are the Mediterranean’s best kept secret. Can you imagine islands steeped in 7,000 years of rich history and culture? Boasting year round sunshine, clear azure Mediterranean waters, world-class diving sites, stunning natural attractions and authentic off-the-beaten track locations. I could easily lose myself completely in these incredible trio of islands!
This post is part of the Lovin’ Life Linky with a Lovin’ Life Team of the “ageing positively” kind who are as keen as I am to promote the Lovin’ Life mindset. The Lovin’ Life Team includes:
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 4 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now 60. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland. She enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, movies, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.
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merry christmas 2017