Tuesday, 6 June 2017

MALTA: A Story of 'Love at First Sight'

I fell in love with Malta as soon as I stepped off the plane.  It’s difficult to find a bad word to say about this tiny nation; there’s history by the bucket load, the people are great, it’s affordable and to top it all off it’s almost always sunny!

With over 7000 years of history under its belt, Malta has developed a rich and unique culture.  The islands sit in a strategic position at the crossroads of Europe and North Africa, with countless historic invasions and colonisations each adding their own ‘layer’ to the cultural fabric.  The romans left the Catholic faith, the Italians left the laid-back way of life and the Arab legacy lives on through the fascinating Maltese language.  But perhaps the most obvious influence comes from the British.  Malta was under British rule between 1813 and 1964 and this period has undeniably left its stamp upon Maltese life.  Iconic red phone boxes and Royal Mail post boxes can be seen on every corner; vintage English buses are a common sight on the streets and the English language retains co-official status alongside Maltese. 

The thing I love the most about Malta is the abundance of history.  The islands are like an open, living history museum – history is everywhere!  Every street, every building and every harbour has its own story to tell.  If you only visit two places whilst in Malta, my best recommendations are Valletta and Mdina.

Valletta is Malta’s bustling capital and the hub of island life.  The UNESCO-listed old town of is surrounded by huge walls, bastions and ditches making it one of the most heavily fortified cities in all of Europe.  It’s a small city which can be easily explored by foot in a day.  The place has a great energy - it feels so full of life.  I became fixated on the brightly coloured enclosed wooden balconies which every building seems to have – I’m not really sure where or when they originated, but they are beautiful to look at.  Whilst in Valletta, don’t miss the view of the old harbour from the Barrakka gardens – it’s stunning. 

Alongside Valletta, Mdina (pronounced ‘im-deenah’) is the second jewell in Malta’s crown.  This small hilltop city is ancient – the area has been occupied since the 8th century BC, but the city’s current name was given by Arab invaders in 870 AD (‘medina’ is an Arabic word meaning ‘city’).  Like Valletta, the fortifications of Mdina are very impressive.  I really enjoyed getting lost in the charming maze-like streets and alleyways.  The golden colour of the buildings almost glistens against the cobalt-blue summer sky.  Mdina occupies the highest point in Malta which gives some fantastic views over the countryside.

To say Malta is an island nation, there is a surprising lack of beaches (the most notable exception being the village of Mellieħa - don't ask how this is pronounced!).  Which is a shame as the water is warm and crystal clear.  Malta’s real coastal charm comes from the scattering of small fishing villages, where the peaceful way of life has gone seemingly unchanged for years.  My favourite of these is Marsaxlokk (pronounced ‘marsa-shlock’).  Asides from the outdoor market and hordes of seafood restaurants, there’s not a great deal to do in the village, but it’s very picturesque and a lovely place to relax.

Malta is small and getting around is cheap and very easy.  There is an excellent government-owned bus network, which uses Valletta as a hub.  Just about everywhere has a bus stop and buses on most routes are frequent.  Single fares cost EUR 1.50, but for those staying longer than a few days a travel card costs EUR 15 and allows 12 journeys.  Allow plenty of time for bus journeys as the roads in and out of Valletta are often congested.  The three islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) are well-connected with boat services.  Budget airlines Ryanair, EasyJet and WizzAir offer cheap flights to Malta from many UK and European airports.

Budget accommodation is easy to find in Malta – there’s a good scattering of backpackers’ hostels mainly in Sliema and St. Julian.  Expect to pay around EUR 10 per night for a bed in a hostel dorm and between EUR 8-10 for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.

I absolutely loved my time in Malta and would rate the nation very highly as a travel destination.  There’s absolutely loads to see and do, it’s affordable and it has an excellent public transport network so I’ve given Malta the maximum ‘backpackability’ score of 5. 

For such a small country, Malta has made a big impression on me.

Have you been to Malta or thinking of visiting?  Let me know in the comments below!  Thanks for reading,

Elis Griffiths. x

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