Review of "General: Malta"
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Malta is by no means a pretty little Mediterranean island. It's incredibly built up, can be rather scruffy and is quite polluted. Vegetation is sparse on Malta - there are very few trees so it looks rather dusty and dry. But don't get me wrong, there are many spectacular looking buildings and beautiful sights scattered throughout the island. The blue of the sea set against the golden yellows of the sandstone buildings make for some picturesque settings. This was my third visit to Malta, (the first two were holidays as a child in the 1970's) and I was keen to revisit some old haunts and see if it lived up to my happy memories.~ LOCATION ~
Malta is situated in the middle of the Mediterranean between Sicily (58 miles away) and Tunisia (180 miles away). Malta is the biggest of an archipelago of three islands, the others being Gozo and Comino. It's a small and sunny island - some describe it as a kind of Mediterranean melting pot, where east meets west. It's quite tiny - only 27km long and 14½km wide. In fact, traffic and potholes permitting, you can drive from one end to the other in less than an hour. Flights from UK onto the island are made into Luqa International Airport and take about 3½ hours (a lot less with a good tailwind though).
~ HISTORY ~
Many cultures have left their mark on Malta as the island has been overrun throughout the ages by a variety of races such as the Romans, Arabs, Spanish, the Knights of the Order of St John as well as the British. Malta became part of the British Empire back in 1813 and due to its handy location in the Mediterranean, was a huge source of income after the opening of the Suez Canal. Malta suffered terribly during World War II through aerial bombardment and lack of supplies. In recognition for their valour, Britain awarded the island with the George Cross, which is still on their national flag today. Although Malta became independent from the British in 1964, their continuing love of all things British is reflected in all sorts of ways from driving on the left, to their red telephone and post boxes. The older Maltese love nothing more than a pot of tea and a bingo session. And the good news is that British tourists can do away with their travel plugs, as Malta uses the same 3-pin plug system as us.
Malta is home 400,000 people, but the population is often tripled by a steady influx of tourists. The Maltese are a hot blooded and passionate race, dark and swarthy looking. The older generation of Maltese are good-natured and extremely polite. However, the younger generation can be a bit abrupt and none to eager to serve. Many of the young girls in the shops acted like it was really far too much trouble to serve you, and all the reception staff in our apartments were downright rude and hostile.
The language of the island is Maltese, an Arab dialect with borrowings from Spanish, French and English. It's a rather strange sounding language but luckily there is no real need to try and get a handle on it. English is taught in all the islands' schools and most Maltese are fluent in it. Similarly, due to their proximity to Italy, Italian is also widely used.~ THE WEATHER ~
The climate on Malta rarely drops below 12°C. Snow and frost are virtually unknown and rain is only likely to fall between the months of November and February. Between April and September there is virtually non-stop sunshine with temperatures hitting up to 40°C in high summer. Although we were warned that October in Malta could be cooler (and prone to thunderstorms) we were blessed by a late summer heat wave and temperatures of between 23°C to 27°C.
~ WHERE TO STAY - THE MAIN RESORTS ON MALTA ~
The beaches on Malta are mainly rocky but the waters are excellent for both scuba diving and snorkelling.
To the north of the island and one of the quieter resorts in Malta. The only part of Malta that has genuine sandy beaches. The clear waters are ideal for windsurfing, snorkelling and scuba diving. It has lovely views across to Comino and Gozo (and is also the place to catch the ferry across to these islands).
~ St Paul's Bay / Bugibba / Qawra ~
A lively and modern resort area with plenty of rocky beaches. St Paul's Bay has a picturesque harbour with plenty of those pretty coloured boats Malta is known for. Bugibba is not for the faint hearted and best avoided if you are looking for a quiet resort. It is very built up and smells strongly of burgers and chips. It houses many beach front bars and restaurants sporting names like Huggy Bears and the Bognor - a bit downmarket to be quite honest. Qawra (where we stayed) is located just a little further up the coast. Although quieter than Bugibba, it is fairly built up and there is a lot of new accommodation under development.
St Julian's and Paceville are excellent for clubbing and those seeking an active nightlife. This is where most of the young Maltese and holidaymakers hang out. Lots of restaurants, bars and nightclubs as well as a casino if you're a keen gambler.
~ Sliema ~
One of the largest holiday resorts in Malta with a busy harbour, yacht marina and promenade. It is located only 5km from the capital Valletta. It's the most fashionable resort on Malta with plenty of upmarket shops as well as lots of recognizable UK high street stores.
The currency used is the Maltese Lira (some still call it the Maltese Pound). The exchange rate is approximately 60 LM to £1. All major credit cards are widely accepted throughout the island - both in the shops and restaurants.
The shops are mostly open from 9 to 12 and then from 4 to 7. Shops are closed on Sundays - probably because the Maltese are big on religion and Sundays are an important family day for them. The roads and resorts are a nightmare on Sundays as the Maltese gather in huge clans to spend quality time together. There are hardly any supermarkets on Malta (I think I spotted two very small ones). Fruit and vegetables are still bought from roadside stalls or from mobile vans that park up in the various villages and resorts. Malta is home to all sorts of weird and wonderful shops - some which have obviously been trading since the year dot. It was nice to see a record shop selling vinyl LP's still with the old fashioned His Master's Voice signage of dog and gramophone outside. In fact, Malta is the sort of place where you would be able to find that missing part for your mother's favourite hoover - you know, the part that they stopped making in 1974 (and she's never stopped going on about it since). Another anachronism of Malta is the inordinate amount of bathroom showrooms to be found on the island - they must be incredibly keen to be clean.There are sophisticated shops in Malta, but these are mainly located in the main resorts or towns such as Valletta, Bugibba and Sliema. The main shopping street is Republic Street in Valletta. Sliema is home to some familiar UK high street stores such as Miss Sixty, Body Shop, Lush, BHS, M&S, but I resisted the urge to visit them on this occasion.
Recommended buys on the island are filigree jewellery, Mdina glass, lace and pottery. Jewellery shops abound but I found a lot of the jewellery rather tacky and cheap looking - it looked like the sort of stuff that would leave a green mark if you wore it too much. However, the eight point Maltese crosses are particularly popular and make quite nice necklaces. Mdina glass, though, is absolutely beautiful and is spun into the most gorgeous colours and shapes imaginable. The craft centre in St John's Square in Valletta is well worth a visit, as is the Ta'Qali craft market near Mdina.~ FOOD & DRINK ~
There are plenty of restaurants on Malta but although you will be spoilt for choice in venue, the majority offer fairly bog standard catering. Malta does not offer much in the way of innovative food or haute cuisine. The majority of the restaurants on Malta offer fairly unimaginative and old-fashioned fare - egg mayonnaise, half a grapefruit and pork chops are popular choices. However, the Italian influence is everywhere from delicious home made ice cream to pasta and pizza being available in nearly all the restaurants. Despite being an island, seafood and fish are rather expensive, but most restaurant menus feature at least one octopus or prawn dish. Eating out is fairly reasonably priced - dinner consisting of starter, main course, coffee and drinks will set you back about £15 per person. However, if you are not a fan of foreign food you will be pleased to hear that MacDonald's units abound throughout the island, as do venues offering fish and chips.
The speciality on Malta is a whole menu based on rabbit called Fenkata. Starter consists of spaghetti with rabbit sauce followed by rabbit stew in a red wine sauce. I am reliably informed that it is delicious, but could not bring myself to try it, as I am not really a fan of rabbits as a food source. Another speciality is Bragoli - which is beef filled with bacon, breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic and then fried alongside onions and wine. This I did try, and it was delicious. If you are looking for a quick snack, try a Pastizzi - a puff pastry parcel filled with ricotta cheese - they're lovely.For local beverages, try Cisk lager as a slightly cheaper alternative to Stella Artois. There is also a local soft drink called Kinnie which tastes rather unusual - a sort of cross between coca cola and root beer. You'll either love it or hate it - there's no middle ground.
~ GETTING ABOUT ~
Malta is not huge so it is relatively easy to explore in a hire car. However, driving in Malta is an adventure. Roads are peppered with potholes and signage is rather hit and miss. The locals freely admit that the signage is poor and their suggestion is that if you are in any doubt about where you are going, it is best to head for Valletta and then reroute yourself when some more accurate signage reappears.
The bus service around the island is second to none - buses are extremely cheap and plentiful. Virtually anywhere on the island can be reached by bus even if you have to travel via the rather enormous bus terminal in Valletta. One word of warning though, the buses are rather old fashioned, and coupled with the bumpy Maltese roads and erratic Maltese driving, do not make for the most comfortable and stream lined of rides.~ THINGS TO DO - THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF MALTA ~
As I said earlier, Malta is full of history and honey coloured architecture. In fact, Malta/Gozo house megalithic temples which are some of the oldest stone built constructions in the world. They have been dated between 3600 and 3000 BC - predating even the Egyptian Pyramids.
~ Valletta ~
The capital of Malta and home to the largest port in Malta. It's a rather quaint walled city built by the Knights of St John in the sixteenth century, but it was severely damaged during World War Two. It's full of interesting architecture, cathedrals and churches. You can take a ride in a horse drawn carriage around the city and harbour.
A twenty-minute boat trip to some of the clearest and most beautifully coloured water I have ever seen - almost turquoise in colour (caused, I was told, by the phosphates in the rocks). The limestone caves also house pink coral and stalactites. You can swim in the caves if you tip the boatman a bit extra.
~ Mdina (also known as the Silent City or Noble City) ~
Mdina can be seen for miles, as it is perched on a high ridge rising out of a flat landscape. Mdina's medieval walls and fortifications were built above Arab foundations. No cars are allowed inside so it remains as tranquil and peaceful as it was in olden times. It has extremely narrow streets with houses on either side so close that the occupants could almost shake hands. Mdina is the old capital of Malta and still home to many of the Maltese nobility - even if many of them have had to turn their homes into cafés or restaurants. Maltese hospitality again proved to be a bit hit and miss here. We could still waiting for the coffee and cakes that we ordered in one such cafeteria - 15 minutes after placing our order we remained hungry, thirsty and largely ignored - so we left.
Nearby is Rabat - another town of winding medieval streets and passageways. It has a quiet, almost country town atmosphere. St Paul's Catacombs (Entry = LM 1) are well worth a visit, but don't expect much in the way of pre-printed information or guides on the site. The catacombs were not rediscovered until 1894 but they are a good example of early Christian tombs. The steps lead down into a veritable underground maze with passageways leading off from the main chamber into all sorts of dark alleyways and secret crevasses. Although, children would love to explore down here it could prove dangerous as it's really not too well lit. You will be largely left to yourself, without map or guide, so it may be wise to take a torch with you (or a ball of string..).
~ The Crafts Village at Ta'Qali ~
First appearances can be deceiving here, as it very much resembles a run down industrial estate. However, if you care to investigate further, there are some delightful displays and talented artisans at work here. There are around 20 companies and individuals housed in former World War II aircraft hangars. Entry to the "village" is free and you can wander around looking at the various glass blowers, potters, jewellery craftsmen and carpenters all at work in their individual studios. Most of them have their crafts on sale, so if you like what you see, you can inevitably buy the finished product. The Mdina glass blowers are particularly worth a visit as they work in the most horrendous heat (with scant attention paid to health and safety legislation) and produce the most beautiful stuff imaginable in spectacular colours and shapes.
Malta failed to live up to the magical memories of my childhood. Tourists seem to be accepted rather than welcomed nowadays. Although the older Maltese were friendly enough, I found so many of the younger generation to be totally unsuited to working in the tourism and hospitality industry - their attitude was just all wrong. However, I'm sure that it wasn't just Malta but the cynicism of adulthood playing it's part in taking the shine off my childhood memories. It has to be said that Malta is quaint, unique and a total one-off. They broke the mould when they fashioned Malta, as it's still totally different to any other Mediterranean island I've been too. The architecture is truly stunning in places and the atmosphere of some of the more historical sites truly memorable. Malta has more than enough attractions and entertainment for all ages and tastes. Recommended as a one off visit to somewhere a little bit different, but you really wouldn't want to go back year, after year, after year. Maybe I'll leave it another 20 or 30 years before I go back…..
~ MORE INFORMATION ~
More information can be found on Malta from the Maltese Tourist Board:-
Suite 300, Mappin House
4 Winsley Street
Telephone: 0207-292-4900Website addresses are:-
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