My first visit to Malta... After a night in Valletta, which is a blessing for those in favor of the hot weather, we wandered over to the fortified old town of Birgu, also known as Città Vittoriosa. Birgu is situated along a skinny peninsula just to the south of Valletta proper. The Order of Saint John used Birgu, which was strategically vital from a naval perspective, as its base in Malta from 1530 to 1571, and built an enormous fort, the Fort Saint Angelo, at its tip. Since the island no longer needs military defense or activity, the fort is now a popular landmark frequented by tourists.
There we explored winding alleys lined with golden limestone buildings, their doorways overflowing with flowers. The early morning sun, filtering through the alleyways, made the buildings glow. Charming Birgu has in the ensuing years become a bit of a magnet. Rossella Frigerio, the owner of Locanda La Gelsomina, a lovely boutique hotel and shop opened in Birgu in 2015, calls the town “…a truly charming hamlet, as it preserves an authentic, local vibe. Here, there is a strong sense of community amongst the local inhabitants, and local customs and traditions are still very much alive.” She continues, “Over the past few years, Malta has evolved into a vibrant, international community that has attracted expatriates from Europe and beyond. This has translated into creative and cultural events - such as jazz nights under the stars and independent films being screened in local band clubs - that have both opened up the local community's perspective and made this little rock a happening place.”
Back to my first visit to Malta, after a delicious coffee and a quick visit to Saint Lawrence’s Church, a fisherman approached us by the port. Did we want him to ferry us across the bay for two euros? We did, and soon the walls of the old town of Valletta seemed to envelop us.
Valletta, the capital of the country, is a pint-sized place – just two square kilometers – with a population of under 7,000. The narrow streets of the city are
UNESCO-protected, and they are teeming with historical significance. The limestone baroque palaces are particularly engaging. One star building is the Auberge de Castille, a high baroque masterpiece that currently houses the office of the prime minister.
Just as you’ve begun to fear that Malta is stuck in the past you stumble across Italian star architect Renzo Piano’s Parliament House, a zero-emission building inaugurated in 2015. Malta’s new parliament is part of a larger project, a reconstruction of Valletta’s City Gate, the historical entrance to the town, as well as an open-air theater on the old Royal Opera House site. The building is modern and exciting, and its reliance on limestone ties it organically to the city’s architectural heritage.
This gentle pairing of baroque beauties and contemporary modernism is terribly attractive, but it was on my first visit to Gozo, smaller and far less densely populated than Malta, that the country got under my skin. From the port of Ċirkewwa on Malta to Mġarr on Gozo it is just a 20-minute journey running just €4.65. From the moment I neared it on the ferry, Gozo was already casting spells.
The villages on Gozo are tiny, but the churches – cathedrals really – are enormous. Towns of a few thousand have capacious churches that dominate their urban landscapes. The countryside boasts ancient temples, or dolmen. In the village of Qala in the far east of Gozo there is a prehistoric dolmen called Ġebla l-Wieqfa, but the real prehistoric prize on Gozo is Ġgantija Temple in Xagħra. The two temples at Ġgantija predate the pyramids of Egypt, and date to between 3200 BC and 3600 BC. Admission is €9 for adults and completely worth it.
A Bit of Coastline
For a beach run, little beats Xlendi, a slip of a beach surrounded with high cliff sides. Swimming and snorkeling are divine here. Restaurants spill out right up to the waterline – try the family-run Ta Karolina – abutting the bay. Magical. There’s also a gelateria with exceptional ice cream.
Victoria, also known as Rabat, is the capital and biggest city on the island. Its main selling point is its Citadel, which in its current form dates to 1622. In the shadows of the Citadel is Ta’ Rikardu, where you can eat beautiful local food. Order the farmer’s platter – the house-made goat cheese and tomatoes are particularly good – and a plate of ravioli.
But I’ve saved the best for last. On the Ta’ Cenc plateau, the sunset walks are absolutely fantastic, the sun slowly retreating across the Mediterranean. The rock plateau is dotted with megalithic dolmen and the air is full of birdsong. 145-meter high cliffs border the edges of the plateau.
My stay in Malta coincided with one of the country’s 60 village festas. The Maltese festa (a traditional religious festival featuring processions, music, and fireworks) was a spectacular experience. The festa season lasts until September. You'll want to revisit after seeing one!