I promised I’d blog about my holiday to Malta and here I am, finally here with some images and a run through of our holiday. After a difficult year in many ways, Cat and I were looking forward to this much needed holiday to Malta, (Ancient Roman Melite, the honey island although by rights it ought to be called The Prickly Pear Island).
We’d both been before, though not together. I went in 2011 at roughly the same time of year while she last went around spring 2005, some 8 years before we met. It was hot and dry although the weather forecasted rain, we only had some overnight on our first night. Daytime temperatures didn’t drop below 29C all week.
I was captivated by the island on my first visit, mostly its stunning capital city Valletta and the endless banks of prickly pear and always wanted to return to see the things I missed last time.
A much busier set of islands (Malta consists of three islands – the main island, Gozo, and Comino) in terms of traffic than the laid back Greek main roads I’ve been used to. Hardly surprising that Malta is the world’s fifth most densely populated country. With no railway or tram and an (admittedly efficient) bus network, the public transport is creaking a bit.
They drive on the left, contrary to most of Europe, due to strong links with the UK which ruled the country directly between the early 19th century until 1970s when it became independent. Malta is one of two European countries aside from the UK in the Commonwealth; the other is Cyprus. This means Maltese people all speak English as a second tongue and most road signs are familiar to Brits too.
We stayed in Qawra (pronounced Ow-rah, Qs are silent in Maltese, a language related to Punic and Classical Arabic). It’s a lovely peninsula which also contains the even more touristy town Bugibba to the south. The two towns share a bus station. Just one hour from the capital Valletta and less than that to the Cirkewwa port for crossing to Comino and Gozo, we were well placed in Qawra to get to most places. As we were only there a week, flexibility of location was key.
Day one we walked around the peninsula, got used to the temperature and enjoyed the sunshine. We located the bus station and the supermarket, before heading back to the hotel to sit beside the pool for a bit. A nice relaxing day all in and the adventure had not yet started.
Day 2 was the day I’d been anxiously awaiting. We had breakfast, a lazy morning and then headed to the bus station to go to a town to the southeast of the capital Valletta called Paola for early afternoon. There isn’t a lot to see or do there except for some pretty buildings serving as a great example of the fusion of European and North African styles, but it draws the crowds every day to see the jewel in Malta’s archaeological crown – the Hypogeum. I missed it in 2011 but this time ensured I booked tickets way in advance.
This is an underground temple/necropolis built in a similar design and layout to several above ground temples across the Maltese Islands (Ħaġar Qim (pronounced Haggar Eem), Mnajdra (pronounced how it looks) on the south coast of the main island and the Tarxian Temple a few hundred metres away from the Hypogeum in Paola, finally the Ġgantija (I think pronounced Gee-gant-ee-ya) on Gozo). But this is unique because it is the only subterranean temple on the islands while the others are all above ground. Its preserve style, roof and decoration also show how the above ground temples might have looked. It’s at least 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.
It’s a fully guided tour taking 10 people at a time. The tour lasts one hour including a video exhibition and then an audio guided tour of each of the chambers. If you’re heading for Malta and would like to see it, you must book your tickets months in advance.
Day three we went to the aquarium and spent some time by the pool during the day. This was an opportunity to try out my camera in dark interiors. The limits of the D3400 became apparent here. At higher ISOs, there is a lot of noise which I had to use for higher shutter speeds. I got some nice photos though.
The evening was another test of the camera’s abilities. We had a tour called “Malta by night”. We started off in the gorgeous “Three Cities” area of Birgu where we took a gondola ride out into the Grand Harbour after sunset. The other gondolas had six people, but ours had just four – us and a single sex couple. It was a magical experience as you can see from the image below.
We returned to Birgu for a night time tour of the town including the Ottoman siege of Valletta (which ultimately failed with massive casualties to the invading force against the fortified harbour). We were shown two important early modern music clubs which are now trendy bars. This was the opportunity for a toilet break before getting on the minibus and heading off for a guided tour at the stunning climax – Mdina.
If you’ve been to Malta and not seen Mdina then I’m sorry to say you missed out on an important sightseeing trip. Mdina is a medieval walled town with imposing entrance ways and some of the oldest buildings in the country. It has a Natural History Museum housed in the former summerhouse of the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John, lots of old churches, including the island’s only (now disused) Greek Orthodox Church, and a lovely restaurant overlooking the walls. From the far end, you can see some 75% of the mainland.
I’ve not yet mentioned, but during the Middle Ages, Malta was a stronghold for the Knights of St John, or the Knights Hospitaller. Mdina was the island’s capital then but now it’s Valletta on a peninsula overlooking the Grand Harbour. More on the capital city later.
Mdina’s narrow winding streets are atmospheric. You will notice that most are not regular or straight, they curve in every direction. This is a clever defensive move as archers racing through the streets are stymied and could not get a straight line of sight when pursuing defending soldiers. Needless to say, Mdina was never conquered during this period. In the 16th century, the town gave way to the new capital city which the Knights held until Napoleon arrived in 1798.
The tour ended quite late and we were back at our hotel around 11pm. A day of rest followed. Due to the NYC Midnight fiction writing competition we both entered, day 4 (Saturday) was a room and pool day. You basically have a weekend to write a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction. We wanted it done and dusted because Sunday we had another excursion although it didn’t quite go according to plan.
More details in part 2 🙂