Discovering the Islands of Malta
Rich in history, this small archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily consists of three islands—Malta, Comino and Gozo—whose impressive ancient past is still visible today. Exploring their incredible 7,000 years of history, you cannot fail to be captivated by the beauty of the island’s scenery and architecture, providing a wonderful canvas backdrop to the myriad blues of the Mediterranean Sea.
The main industry in Malta is tourism, and even though it suffered in the economic downturn of 2008–2009, Malta made a strong recovery and now has a flourishing economy. With its balmy subtropical climate, magnificent palaces and museums, and not forgetting its dynamic cities, this little piece of paradise will definitely make a lasting impression.
In this article, I will share Malta’s must-see attractions, along with an exploration of its wonderful islands during a summer break.
The archipelago takes its name from Malta, which is the largest island of the group, whose capital city Valletta is the centre for culture, administration and commerce. This Fortress City was built in 1566 by the Knights of St. John and is a masterpiece of the Baroque period. Completed in a relatively short period of 15 years, it pays homage to its impressive forts, bastions and cathedral. Considering the fact that mechanical tools were not in existence at the time, this astonishing feat was accomplished entirely by hand.
Awarded the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture 2018, Valletta is named after its founder, the respected Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Jean Parisot de la Valette. Covering less than a square kilometre, Valletta is a small compact city which makes it very easy to explore on foot. However, despite its small size it plays host to numerous historical sites and in 1980 was listed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its wonderful distinctive streets showcase historic buildings, baroque period architecture and beautiful gardens.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Situated close to Castille Place on the south-eastern part of the city, the Upper Barrakka Gardens provide the most impressive views the islands have to offer. These colonnaded gardens were created in 1661 and proudly sit atop the Grand Harbour. Once the private gardens of the Knights of the Langue of Italy, they were only opened to the public in 1842. Having suffered major damage during World War II, they have now been restored to their original glory. With an incredible panoramic view from the garden terrace, which includes the cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, you cannot fail to be impressed.
As you wander through the gardens you will find an interesting collection of statues, busts and plaques which commemorate significant events in Maltese history, not to mention various attractions, including:
- Saluting Battery: History is re-enacted daily as, with great pomp and ceremony, these guns resonate promptly at 12:00pm and 4:00pm. Thought to be the oldest saluting battery still in operation in the world, it commands a prominent position tucked into the historic ramparts, where it enjoys the most spectacular views of the Grand Harbour and its surrounding towns.
- The Upper Barrakka Lift: Linking the Grand Harbour to the Upper Barrakka Gardens and Valletta city centre, it re-opened in December 2012 and is located on the original site where its predecessor was dismantled. With the ability to carry 21 people, the journey takes approximately 25 seconds, making it the most efficient way to get into the city from the Valletta Waterfront.
A visit to these gardens will leave you feeling totally relaxed, and I cannot think of a more peaceful way to spend a glorious sunny day. If you are in need of a light snack or refreshing drink, then I can recommend the Upper Barrakka Kiosk which provides local sweet pastries and a wonderful ice-cream selection. The Upper Barrakka Gardens are open daily from 7:00am to 10:00pm and are freely accessible to the public.
Tip: There are a variety of restaurants close to the Gardens which serve wonderful Mediterranean cuisine, such as The Harbour Club situated at 4/5 Barriera Wharf, which is a favourite of mine.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
With its walls, ceilings and floors decorated in the high Baroque style, this is one of the most richly ornamented cathedrals I have ever seen. Dedicated to St. John the Baptist by the Knights of St. John, it was designed and built by military architect Girolamo Cassar in 1572 and was completed in 1577. Named as one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, it is an excellent example of the high Baroque architecture in Europe and showcases the grandeur of the Knights of St. John.
The vaulted ceiling and side altars depict various scenes from the life of St. John, and many of the stone wall designs are in beautiful gold leaf. Sir Walter Scott, who made a short visit to Malta in 1831, described the cathedral as the most magnificent he had ever seen. The floor of the cathedral is equally impressive with its 400 marble carved tombstones; incredibly intricate, they weave a rich tapestry throughout the church, telling the story of the buried knights from Europe’s noble families.
Housing one of Europe’s most famous works of art by the Italian artist Michelangelo Caravaggio in 1608, ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist’ is the largest altarpiece the artist would ever paint. This masterpiece elicits an ethereal beauty as it takes its rightful place in the sacristy where, despite its size, the clever use of shadows and light enhance the intimacy of the drama. Interestingly, it is the only painting to bear the artist’s signature, which he made in his own blood. There is some dispute as to the reason; however, it has been claimed that he did it as a confession to a crime. Adjoining the cathedral is the museum, which contains several art objects including the 29 Flemish priceless tapestries. Designed by Peter Paul Rubens, an important Flemish artist of the Baroque period, the tapestries are the only complete collection in the world.
Located on St. John’s Street (visitor’s entrance from Republic Street)
- Opening Hours: Monday-Friday (9:30am-4:30pm); Saturday (9:30am-12:30pm)
- Entrance Fee: €10 (adults); Children up to 12 years: Free
The Three Cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua
Across the harbour are Malta’s three fortified cities. They are definitely worth a visit and are easily accessible from the harbour or via the large glass elevator located in the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Stepping out of the elevator, you simply cross the road to reach the Three Cities Ferry which will transport you. A great way to enjoy the sights, the crossing takes approximately 15 minutes at a very reasonable €1.50 each way.
Providing a more authentic look at ordinary Maltese life, these intriguing cities are still not widely promoted and, as a result, I feel are somewhat undervalued. However, they were originally maritime settlements playing a very important role in Malta’s commerce and cultural development, and not surprisingly today’s inhabitants are rightly proud of their rich heritage and long history as they welcome the many visitors to their communities.
With its labyrinth of narrow winding streets, there is a definite medieval feel to this beautiful city. The oldest of the three cities owes its layout to St. John’s Order of the Knights, who arrived on the island in 1530, where its wonderful architecture remains intact today.
Situated in the most intriguing and ancient part of the city centre is The Inquisitor’s Palace, one of the few surviving Inquisitor’s Palaces of its kind. It was the official residence of Mgr Pietro Dusina, who in 1574 became the first general inquisitor of the Maltese Islands, and is the only one of its kind open to the public in the world. With its incredible reconstruction giving you a glimpse into the personal and working lives of the people who lived there, not forgetting its National Museum of Ethnography housing various displays on Malta’s religious traditions, this wonderful icon will leave you spellbound.
Commanding some of the best views across to Valletta, Senglea may not be as upmarket as Vittoriosa but personally, I feel it has more charm. During Malta’s two great sieges, Senglea was razed to the ground; however, due to its resilient nature, it has risen from the ashes for a third time.
Even though it is the smallest of The Three Cities, its locality makes it one of the jewels of the Maltese Islands. Being just one square kilometre in area, the city is easy to walk around; you will find that the streets of the city still follow the Knight’s original grid pattern. Throughout these winding streets, you cannot fail to be impressed by its architecture, busy promenade and marina, not to mention the stunning views from the small garden at the end of the city known as the ‘Gardjola Garden’.
Also known as Bormia, this is the largest of the three cities and is located on the east side in Grand Harbour. Doubly fortified with Senglea on the west and Vittoriosa on the east, most of its shoreline is taken up by dry docks, which is Malta’s largest industrial enterprise. Today it benefits from major investment, injecting revitalisation into the city; in particular, a new Marina development.
One of its most famous buildings is the Collegiate Church of the Immaculate Conception. Dating back to 1584, it is not only rich in treasure but is an exquisite work of art. Famous for its statue of the Immaculate Conception, which is sculpted in wood by the Carmelite nun Sr. Maria De Domenicis, this beautiful building is a must-see. Whether exploring its maritime past, shopping in the many local markets or even enjoying a round of golf at The Royal Malta Golf Club, a visit to this city will definitely be an enjoyable experience.
Situated between Malta and Gozo, this tranquil island with its unspoiled beauty is a particular favourite of mine. The smallest island of the group, its name originates from the flowering plant cumin which grows on the island. Today, due to its pristine condition, the entire island has been classified as a wildlife sanctuary, making it the perfect location for walkers and photographers alike.
This tiny island of just 3.5 square kilometres, with a resident population of approximately four people, is a real paradise where you can escape and relax. Boasting three popular beaches, it is home to a number of attractions.
The Blue Lagoon
Contrasting beautifully with the rugged coastline, this amazing bay is filled with rich marine life in an ocean of crystal clear, blue-green waters. With its cavernous caves, it is a haven for all those who enjoy water sports. Easy to get to by boat, which is approximately 15 minutes from Mgarr Harbour, it is one of the best beaches in Malta and is a popular shoot location for filmmakers who used it to shoot various scenes from The Count of Monte Cristo.
I would suggest an early morning or late afternoon trip as its popularity makes it extremely busy during the summer, and due to its location, there is very little shade on the bay itself. However, deck chairs and sun umbrellas are available for hire, along with various snack bars providing food and drink.
The Santa Marija Tower
Forming part of the early system of towers set up to facilitate the defence of the island by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt in 1618, it later became a key location of the system of towers built along the coast. Dominating the south-western coast of the island, its guns once guarded both the North and South Comino Channels.
Accessible from the Blue Lagoon, the tower is well preserved, although you cannot enter inside. If you walk around it, however, you can enjoy an amazing 360-degree view of the islands of Malta and Gozo.
Santa Marija Caves
Located on the north side of Comino and a favourite with divers or climbers, the caves offer plenty of routes to follow. Not for the faint hearted, the cliff face is only accessible through the caves. Even though it's a little challenging, when you do reach the cliff face, a jump into the beautiful clear water is a great way to cool off after all that effort.
Showcasing their own particular beauty, the 10 caves are a combination of swim troughs, underwater tunnels and incredible views from their entrance.
The second largest island, Gozo, is named in Maltese for ‘belonging to the giants’, and according to legend, the structures of Gozo were thought to be built by mythical beings.
Covering an area of 26 square miles and with a population of 37,000, this mystical island enjoys a much quieter pace of life where its rhythms are dictated by the seasons. The coastline has an abundance of scenic pathways where you can meander at your own pace or take an invigorating hike.
With a ferry service from Cirkewwa taking approximately 30 minutes, the standard return fare is €4.65 for an adult and €1.15 for children aged 3–12 years. I would suggest the most efficient way to get around the island is by bus, using the newly established bus system which makes it easy.
If you do decide to drive, beware of the island’s many hairpin turns and difficult one-lane roads which are a little challenging to say the least. With some of the best beaches for swimmers and divers, wonderful traditional fare and welcoming people, Gozo is simply entrancing. It boasts a number of interesting attractions including:
This historical capital city is the geographical and commercial heart of Gozo, where its development is largely influenced by the Knights of St. John. Previously known as Rabat, a name the locals still use, it was renamed in 1887 in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
Well worth a visit, there is a real buzz to this ancient city, where you can stroll around its many shops and perhaps indulge in the local tradition of buying pastizzi, a traditional savoury pastry, and enjoying them in the plaza called ‘It-Tokk’, where you can rub shoulders with the friendly locals.
The Cathedral, Cittadella
There are a number of churches and cathedrals on the island; however, with its elegant interior and beautiful mosaic floor, a visit here is highly recommended. The present church now stands on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Juno, referred to in Cicero’s writings, and was constructed between 1697 and 1711. Designed by Lorenzo Gafa at the end of the 17th century, its famous ceiling showcases an amazing trompe l’oeil painting depicting a false interior of a dome.
With dive spots suitable for all levels, Gozo offers some of the best diving in the Mediterranean. Famous for its underwater visibility, balmy temperatures and stunning marine life, there are an incredible number of dives accessible from the shore or by boat.
A favourite of mine is The Blue Hole, which is situated at Dwejra on the west coast; a bit of a trek to get to but definitely worth the trouble as the site is well maintained with toilet and shower facilities, along with a variety of snack bars. The entrance is protected from the waves, making it fairly easy to access; the view underneath is simply stunning. It is hardly surprising that Jacque Cousteau once described it as the best dive site in Europe.
With its rich historic culture, beautiful islands and welcoming people, Malta is a veritable feast for the eyes. Whether exploring its many cities and historical sites, relaxing in the wonderful Upper Barrakka Gardens, or diving into its pristine waters, this interesting and diverse archipelago will both delight and captivate.
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© 2019 Lorna Lamon