Malta: Ancient history, cultural beauty and sumptuous ocean cuisine
Friday 13 September 2013
Situated at the heart of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, bathed in year-round sunshine and brimming with cultural and natural beauty, the twin islands of Malta and Gozo are in so many ways the ultimate holiday destination.
From world famous cultural sites and high-octane adventures to luxurious spas and cocktails al fresco, there really is something for everyone on these small but perfectly formed islands. Whether you’re a beach goddess or a thrill seeker, a culture vulture or a night owl, the islands of Malta and Gozo are the perfect location for a relaxing and fascinating break for even the most discerning traveller.
The history of Malta is the history of Europe
Settled more than 7,000 years ago, the history of Malta is practically the history of the human race. The islands are dotted with breath-takingly huge megalithic ruins basking in the Mediterranean sun, some of which are five millennia old or more. That’s not it for Maltese history; from Phoenician traders to the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, through the Muslim Emirate of Sicily in the Middle Ages, the subsequent Christian reconquest and the Holy Roman Emperor, and its eventual occupation by the British Empire, Malta has played an integral role throughout European history.
The whole nation might cover just over 120 square miles, but it hosts no fewer than three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s the ancient majesty of the massive, free-standing Ġgantija Temples on Gozo, the subterranean mystique of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum on Malta and of course the much younger but no less spectacular fortress-city of Valletta – which was once described by Benjamin Disraeli ‘a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’.
However, there’s much more to Maltese history than just its most famous sites. There are many more megalithic monuments, some of which are thought to be the oldest free-standing buildings known to man, which rub shoulders with Bronze Age dolmens, Punic tombs, remains of Roman villas, grand medieval Christian churches and, of course, the mysterious cart tracks at ‘Clapham Junction’, which are thought to belong to an ancient civilisation unique to the island.
Valletta, ‘the most humble city’
This beautiful, fortified capital of Malta is a treasure trove of historic scenes, café culture and shops. Meander along Valletta’s cobbled streets and sun dappled squares and soak up the culture of this majestic 16 century fortress city, with Renaissance cathedrals, baroque palaces and some of Europe’s finest art work at every corner.
Built during the rule of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, more famously known as the Knights Hospitaller, following the Siege of Malta in 1565, it is named for the Grandmaster of the order, Jean Parisot de Valette, and it is as awe-inspiring as the story of its founding might suggest. The city, built in a mixture of baroque and neo-classical style, packs an amazing 320 monuments into an absolutely tiny area – only 7,000 people live there – but it’s a must-see for any visitor to Malta.
More to Malta
There’s much more to Malta, of course, than its picturesque capital and historic ruins. Malta’s dramatic coastlines are made for exploring, with cliffs perfect for climbing and deep water soloing. For the luxury-minded, there’s nothing better than to lounge on a yacht alongside the Blue Lagoon and the Azure Window, or dive deep into the clear waters to swim amongst shipwrecks and vibrant sea-life.
For a sample of the island’s high octane nightlife, take a night time trip to St Julian's and dance the night away amongst Malta’s beautiful people - enjoying beachside bars, stylish hangouts and the hottest members' clubs.
As befits Malta’s status as an ancient trading hub for the entire Mediterranean, its cuisine is influenced by anyone from the Italians and French to North Africa and Greece – with just a touch of British from the days of the Empire.
Of course, Mediterranean staples like cured meats, aromatic cheeses and fine wines abound, as well as delicious ‘ħobż Malti’ – the local bread, which is baked in wood-burning ovens for a light texture with a crunchy crust. It can be eaten with olive oil, Maltese tomatoes and other flavours like capers, onions and goat’s cheese.
Gozo, ‘the Isle of Calypso’
Gozo has a much more rustic character compared to its sister island. With an area approximately the size of Manhattan, just 31,000 people call it home, living in sleepy villages amidst rolling landscapes – but it is still well worth making the visit.
It’s been settled almost as long as Malta, as the dramatic Ġgantija temples in the centre of the island demonstrate, but much of Gozo’s fame comes from its ancient association with Ogygia, the island home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey, who takes Odysseus prisoner for several years on his long journey home. Indeed, her cave is still there on the island, set into a cliff overlooking Gozo’s famous sandy beach Ramla Bay.
Aside from its proud ancient and classical histories, Gozo is also home to an incredible 46 churches. Not to be missed is the Rotunda in the village of Xewkija, which has a dome larger than that of St Paul’s Cathedral, and which can hold 3,000 worshippers.
What’s more, Gozo is well known for its carnivals. In particular, the famous carnival at the village of Nadur is a week-long masquerade that attracts revellers from all over Malta and the rest of the world. It’s unique for so many reasons, not least that there’s no organising committee; people simply turn up in disguise and make merry.
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