Sunshine Island: A Maltese Odyssey

Callum June 2, 2015 0
Sunshine Island: A Maltese Odyssey

Janet Myers takes in the sun-kissed sights, sounds and comforts of Malta…

Looking out across azure blue water while waiting for our ferry to depart Gozo for the mainland,  I wondered why I had never visited Malta before. We had been wanting to blow away the winter cobwebs, and with the expense of Christmas still weighing on our bank balance had been glad of our cheap flight out there.

In Malta’s former capital of Mdina – known today as the ‘Silent City’ – we took a horse-drawn carriage ride around narrow medieval streets, marvelling at the mix of medieval and baroque architecture. Mdina’s history goes back over 4000 years, with historical records suggesting that St Paul stayed here 2000 years ago after being shipwrecked. Today, fewer than 300 people actually live within its confines,  many of them in religious orders.

These and other facts came courtesy of our driver, who frequently lifted the fringing of carriage canopy to lean in and give us a running commentary – “Here live seven sisters who belong to a closed order and have never set foot outside; here they film many movies, including The Count of Monte Christo; this is the Bishops’ palace but the current one won’t live here – he doesn’t like it, so it is now the ex-palace…”

Gozo grandeur
Despite it being January we found Malta to be warm and sunny, making the small island of Gozo look like a gem set in a shimmering sea of blue. The island experiences some 300 days of sunshine each year, so few visitors will see it otherwise. Gozo lies three miles north of mainland Malta and can easily be seen in a day, though the prospect of staying for longer to appreciate its tranquillity and easygoing pace is an inviting one. Getting there involves a half-hour ferry ride, with boats leaving every 45 minutes.

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The basilica of Ta’ Pinu National Shrine

As the ferry comes in to dock, you can clearly observe the Citadel rising above Gozo’s capital town of Victoria (also known as Rabat), which occupies high ground said to have been settled since Neolithic times. We found modern-day Victoria’s pretty market square a great place in which to enjoy a coffee and soak up the atmosphere. At the time we were there, works were being carried on many of the access roads around the Citadel, which made gaining entry somewhat hard, but once the works are finished, the routes should be greatly improved.

Gozo’s National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu is a sight not to be missed. In 1883 a woman from the nearby village of Għarb heard a voice instruct her to recite the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer three times while passing the small chapel that then occupied the site. It quickly became a centre of pilgrimage, and the number of visitors soon overwhelmed the little church. Today’s monumental shrine to Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu was built between 1920 and 1931 and is an architectural masterpiece – particularly inside, with its superb sculptures and Maltese stone craftsmanship.

To the west of the island you’ll find the Azure Window. One of Gozo’s most visited natural sights,
it’s a 50-metre high Limestone arch within the Dwejra Point cliffs created by sea erosion that appears to form a perfect ‘window’ shape. Being January, the colourful boats that offer trips to view it from the water were mostly drawn up onshore, but I was able to spot one boatful of brave souls in the swell. Personally, I was quite content to soak up the sight from terra firma, enjoying the surrounding stillness and quiet, broken only by the sound of crashing waves.

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A glimpse through Gozo’s Azure Window

Natural wonders
Back on the Maltese mainland, a visit to the Blue Grotto outside the southwest village of Qrendi is highly recommended. It consists of another massive arch, this one over 30m in heigh, and a system of six naturally formed caves. Thanks to how the Blue Grotto’s elements have come together over countless years, light from the sky hitting the area’s white sandy seabed causes causes the waters to turn many brilliant shades of phosphorous cobalt, as the cave walls simultaneously shimmer with orange, purple and green due to the minerals embedded within them.

The whole spectacle is visible from sunrise until around 1pm each day, and can be viewed from one of the small boats that regularly ferry visitors out there. It’s exceptional sight, but one that’s also very weather dependant.

With Malta’s history going back thousands of years the island is home to some great archeological sites, notably the UNESCO-listed temple complexes of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim on the southern coast. Both are among the most ancient religious sites in the world – considerably older than Stonehenge, say – and have multiple rooms, flooring, roofs, monumental doorways, stone furniture and statues.

Valletta calling
No trip to Malta is complete without a visit to its capital, Valletta. The narrow streets – many of them one-way – are often steep and clogged with traffic. With parking almost impossible, driving a hire car in town is generally not a sensible option.

For pedestrians, the kerbs are often high and the ground underfoot not always easy to traverse – but there are other ways of getting a good overview of the town. A 90-minute ‘Grand Harbour’ boat tour will take you around the harbours and bays either side of the peninsular Valletta occupies, giving you wonderful views while an informative commentary fills you in on everything you need to know.

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Valletta from Tas Sliema

From the outside, St John’s Co-Cathedral is somewhat unassuming – but if you plan on visiting any of the capital’s places of worship, make this one your priority. Its interior positively drips with gold, set against intricately carved stone wall designs, a painted vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes marking the life of St John. Among the Cathedral’s many treasures is a unique Caravaggio painting the depicts St John’s beheading, and a splendid vaulted central nave adorned with frescoes by the Baroque artist Mattia Preti.

In conclusion, I found Malta to be well worth the trip, and a place we shall definitely visit again. On the whole, we found that the prices in Euros for food and drink and entry to attractions were about the same as the UK. Return airfares for myself and my husband, flying Ryanair from Bristol Airport, came in at under £100 – as did the double room we’d booked at a four star spa hotel via booking.com. That’s just under £100 each for the trip! It’s worth hunting online for a good deal, as there quite a few to be had during the first half of the year.

PX traditional boats at the blue grottoBe Prepared
10 points about Malta that people with mobility needs should consider before visiting

1 Think carefully before hiring a car, due to the near impossibility of being able to park in many areas without lots of difficult walking afterwards. If you must have a car, then you’ll drive on the left and can expect plenty of road signs – just beware of the one-way systems and considerable road works at the time of writing. Otherwise, public transport is inexpensive, frequent and calls everywhere. The buses have easy access from the kerb.

2 Taxis, open-top buses and organised tours are also good options for getting around. At 17 by eight miles, the island is small, making for short travel distances.

3 Most of the horse-drawn carriages are not easy to get into and have little foot room, so they won’t be suitable for all.

4 The local boat tours offer a great means of sightseeing. Most operate from the northeast town of Tas Sliema and visit many different parts of the island, with tours varying in duration from an hour to a full day.

5 Take your swimwear. There are no ‘mega beaches’ as such, but plenty of spa hotels and great pools everywhere. You can take a dip in the sea in many small coves, while divers will find it a great place for experiencing some amazing blue waters.

6 It is best to visit outside the main season, since the island gets very crowded during summer months

7 The cuisine is broadly similar to the UK with an Italian bias, but you’ll also find some Indian and Chinese restaurants and some excellent fish. One word of warning – portion sizes tend to be very large, often with enough to share between two. Rabbit is a local favourite and the pizzas are excellent. Honey is widely used as a sweetener.

8 Attractions for children include the Malta Falconry Centre outside the village of Siggiewi and the Malta National Aquarium at Qawra. There are also water parks, the children’s trails at many historical attractions and Popeye Village – a themed family attraction built around the set used for the 1980 Hollywood film adaptation of the famous cartoon character.

9 If you don’t want to miss an important football match, just stroll into any pub. English is understood everywhere, and the locals are as passionate about sport as we are, with matches screened on many a large pub TV much as you’d find in the UK.

10 Take the time to visit Gozo – you won’t be disappointed

Make it happen
Flights
Ryanair and EasyJet offer excellent fares, you need to book well in advance to get the best deals. British Airways and Air Malta both also run frequent flights.

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The Blue Lagoon

Hotels
The spa hotel where we stayed, Maritim Antonine Hotel & Spa, overlooks the bay of Mellieha and offers generously sized, bright airy rooms with balconies and all the facilities you could wish for. Our stay included free use of the hotel’s Jacuzzi, steam room, and heated indoor pool, complementary WiFi and parking. It also has gardens with great seating areas and a further rooftop pool – the only additional costs we found were for the specialist spa treatments.

Health
A European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will grant you to access to to emergency treatment from Malta’s state-provided healthcare during your stay, though it’s wise to take out standard holiday insurance. The charge-free number for emergencies is 112.

 

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