For a tiny place, the Mediterranean island of Malta packs in a lot of history, as Ross Werland discovers.
The danger of going to Malta for a relaxing holiday is that a history lesson might break out.
Frankly, the place even exceeds the limits of history, because we don't really know a lot about those people who built the temples here that predate the pyramids by about 1000 years.
The people we do know about made the two main islands of Malta a destination as soon as mankind learned how to float boats in one direction. Its desirability for navigation makes sense, because it sits nearly equidistant from each end of the Mediterranean.
Because war has so defined the place, the warmth of the Maltese toward strangers is all the more amazing. If you're lost, I know for a fact that they will gladly help you get found, and they will do it in English, thanks to a British past dating back two centuries, though now it's an independent and also Maltese-speaking country.
Sitting about 100 kilometres south of Sicily, the nation of Malta is about 316 square kilometres, most of that on Malta, the biggest of the stunningly deforested handful of islands. Although its 408,000 people make it the most densely populated nation in the European Union, the main island actually has enough countryside to get lost in if you're driving, which I was.
I rented a walled villa in one of the oldest cities, Zurrieq (pronounced like Zurich), because I wanted a more genuine Maltese experience and not one more urban European visit. Honestly, although the capital of Valletta is beautiful in its antiquity, if that's all you experience of Malta, you might as well pick any of half a dozen Italian cities for the same kind of holiday.
My favourite small town is the Norman city of Mdina (St Paul's Cathedral and the gorgeous medieval Palazzo Falson house/museum). You probably could get your fill of ancient architecture in Valletta and environs, but Mdina is a fascinating, scenic place to walk, with immaculate, narrow stone streets built on a curve, supposedly to make the flight of arrows more difficult. There also is a fair share of shopping, so you will find that Maltese-cross pendant you didn't know you wanted.
The picture-perfect fishing port of Marsaxlokk (pronounced marsa-shloke and home to a fishing fleet and attendant great seafood) is near the airport and thus a great way to decompress whether coming or going.
On a Saturday in Marsaxlokk, restaurants offer all kinds of alfresco dining. I randomly chose one of the tents arrayed along the harbour and had some of the best fish, amberjack, I've ever tasted (they call it acciola).
I liked Zurrieq for a different reason: Not a tourist town, it seemed the most genuinely Maltese. It's also where a shopkeeper - a sweet man - started crying when talking about the global economic downturn. Until that moment, I'd envied his situation in life. Turns out he envied mine.
The town seemed Italian, with old men gathering on the streets near dusk to talk about a day that was a lot like the one before. Meanwhile, the old women went into the main church, I think to pray for their old men outside.
I'm not a foodie, but the standard fare of Malta seemed bland for a country so close to Italy, where you can find great restaurants blindfolded. I'm sure there's great food here; I just didn't find it, with that one exception in Marsaxlokk.
The only smart restaurant I wanted to try was the one in Mdina seemingly favoured by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie when he was shooting a movie here in 2011 (World War Z, set for release in 2013). The man answering the phone at De Mondion seemed stunned that I thought I could make a same-day reservation. I didn't try again.
Malta's national dishes are rabbit stew and lampuka. I thought the "stew" part meant I would not see enough rabbit shape to discern that I was eating a bunny. But there that big leg sat. The lampuka was OK, but my serving was no big deal.
You could spend an eon visiting crypts, churches and museums. For a comprehensive history lesson in one 45-minute sitting, do it with a film, The Malta Experience (themaltaexperience.com) along the Grand Harbour in Valletta. See St John's Co-Cathedral in central Valletta for jaw-dropping opulence. This place is integral to Maltese history's chief players: the Knights of Malta.
You should see at least one of the prehistoric temples. Some are on the smaller island of Gozo, requiring a ferry ride. I preferred the Hagar Qim Temple on the southwest coast of Malta, minutes west of Zurrieq. (How the heck did those guys quarry and transport an 18-tonne stone?)
And spend a day in Mdina. The Normans did nice work. Trust me. History can make for a relaxing holiday.
IF YOU GO
Flying to Malta means you will have a connection. Mine was in Paris, requiring a 2 -hour flight south. The cost was in line with most European destinations.
GETTING AROUND: Arriva Malta (arriva.com.mt) provides bus services all over Malta, including the airport. Daily and weekly passes are dirt cheap. If driving, expect Italian-like intensity while driving on the left. GPS advised.
STAYING THERE: I rented through homeaway.com, but the Malta Tourism Authority provides a wide array of options at visitmalta.com. There you also find links to historic sites.
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