BY PETE WOLSTENCROFT
This tiny island of a mere 246 square kilometres is best described by a single word: unique. The only place in the world where UNESCO has seen fit to designate the whole country a world heritage site. The only place in the world where a Semitic language is written in western script. Closer to Africa than to anywhere in mainland Europe, Malta is a prize that has been fought over for centuries.
Sitting comfortably in the lee of Sicily and just a short hop from both Tunisia and Libya, Malta is a product of both its geographical location and the cultural forces that have shaped it. To a native speaker of English, the language sounds strange. You get the feeling that you can get the gist of what people are talking about, it is just that there are two brick walls between you and them. The language is roughly 70% Arabic with Italian, French and English making up the balance. But if languages are not your thing, then fear not: just about everybody speaks English to a very high standard, although – as ever – making an attempt to speak the local language is always welcome.
The language is roughly 70% Arabic with Italian, French and English.
Architecturally speaking, the whole island looks like it was designed to ward off attack, especially from the sea. The reason for this is, that it was coveted by powerful enemies, most notably the Ottoman Empire, whose forces besieged the island for six months in 1565. Approaching the capital, Valletta from the sea (a common thing to do, as ferries run all around Malta), you are faced with towering stone bastions, forts and gun emplacements. Sail powered ships would have been torn to shreds by any defending garrison: even the inept. But Malta’s defenders were the Knights of St John and they knew a thing or two about warfare.
I suspect that those familiar with Gibraltar will feel at home in Valletta. Rock-hewn tunnels lead to spacious plazas. Steep narrow lanes wind inexorably to the highest point. Cannons still fire daily at 12.30 PM from the saluting battery and the climate makes it easy to live life on the streets. Most restaurants and bars have outside seating, for who would sit indoors when a perfect azure sky is your ceiling? Outdoor markets display their colourful wares to tempt passing trade. Businesses advertise their somewhat niche trades from the narrowest of doorways in tiny back alleys. I saw one old chap, whose sign proclaimed that he produced cane work, patiently whittling a stalk of what looked like sugar cane from the stygian depths of a tiny workshop.
The unique look of the island has drawn film directors for many years. Perhaps the most famous movie shot on Malta was Gladiator in 2000, when various locations were used as stand-ins for Rome. If you go to the former capital, Mdina you can feel history seeping out of the very pores of its stone citadel. Only a handful of people live there nowadays – leading to its nickname: ‘The Silent City’, but the atmosphere is so thick as to be tangible. Built on a low hill above a limestone plateau, its elevation makes it quite windy and the mournful sighing of breezes funnelling down its narrow alleyways makes for a memorable soundtrack to any visit. I know it is a bit gauche to admit it, but both my wife and I are fond of those trackless tourist trains that serve many cities. We went on them in both Valletta and Medina and found them to be a great – if slightly naff – way of getting a quick overview of places where historical overload can sometimes be a touch overwhelming.
Who would sit indoors when a perfect azure sky is your ceiling?
One of the chief reasons to visit any country is its cuisine. Malta’s aforementioned location opens it up to a great swathe of culinary influences. Naturally, as an island, fish will always be a mainstay. We tried both tuna and gilt head bream and had they been any fresher, they might have leapt off the plate. Rabbit is another staple, which, I suspect, is a remnant of the Phoenician presence. If, as I do, you like the typical strong flavours of the Levant: garlic, olive oil, parsley, tomatoes and plenty of fresh herbs, then you should enjoy Maltese food. (Honourable mention must go to Ta’ Kris restaurant in Sliema, which I think is quite simply the best restaurant I have ever visited.)
At the end of the year, Maltese families like to get together to celebrate (Roman Catholic) Christmas. Many towns feature mechanical cribs recreating the Nativity scene in Bethlehem. Midnight Mass is a hugely important affair, after which it is the custom to come together as families and eat a Christmas breakfast around 2 AM. The melange of delicacies on offer includes such strange culinary bedfellows as turkey, lasagne and traditional Christmas pudding. The wine flows and whilst Maltese wine might not have appeared on everybody’s Bacchic radar just yet, I can reassure readers, that they are unlikely to be disappointed. (And if, for some strange reason, you don’t like wine, don’t worry, there is a craft ale scene on the island. We tried a couple of bottles of San Blas IPA, brewed by the Lord Chambray brewery on neighbouring Gozo and we loved it.) Malta’s stony interior is strewn with prickly pear cacti. The clever islanders have decided to defy its thorny defences and to make a liqueur out of it. Called Bhajtra, it could easily replace Port in any festive meal.
I can recommend Malta as an ideal place for a winter/Christmas break, and for those of you worried about the pandemic, I am happy to report that approaching 87% of the population have been vaccinated against Covid-19 and the Maltese people take bio security very seriously indeed. All you need to do now, is to check those flight times.