Making Memories in Malta

Making Memories in Malta

The archipelago of tiny islands in the Mediterranean Sea has been at the crossroads of civilisation and is replete with monuments old and new

By A Sreenivasa Reddy

Published: Fri 30 Aug 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 30 Aug 2019, 2:00 AM

Once a sleepy getaway known only to discerning travellers, Malta's three islands - Malta, Gozo and Camino - are now bustling with tourists whose numbers, officials say, reached 2.6 million last year.

We arrived at the international airport on a sultry, hot June day, and boarded a tourist coach. As we drove to the hotel, we got a good glimpse of the streets and harbours of Malta. The AX Palace hotel, where we stayed, is located in Sliema, a resort town just across the shores of Valletta, the UNESCO-listed heritage town and the seat of government.

In the evening, I took a walk on the seafront promenade of Sliema which offered refreshing views of waves lashing the rocky beach. Restaurants located on the edge of the beach added to the din with noisy music and boisterous tourists. As night settled in, the hotel manager took us on a tour of the property and its various offerings. Its rooftop hangout, where we were treated to a multi-course dinner, is a standout feature that offered enchanting views of the three sides of the sea, including the skyline of Valletta.

The next day, we were all set for a trip to the walled city of Valletta, said to be the smallest capital in Europe with a total area not exceeding one sq km. We stopped at the St. John's Co-Cathedral, by far the most important attraction in Malta and a must-visit for any tourist. The famed church was built by the Knights of St. John who ruled the country for nearly three centuries. It is said to be the golden period when most of what we know today in Malta was built.

The Co-Cathedral is an architectural marvel and its interiors are decorated in Baroque style with gold plated artworks. It is a feast for the eyes and, of course, for shutterbugs. The most famous church in Malta also houses two equally famous works of art by Italian painter Caravaggio. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and the Saint Jerome Writing capture mesmerised tourists with their beauty and history.

Our lunch at Muza, a restaurant located in an art museum in Valletta, offered some Instagrammable dishes, and some time to unwind. And no trip to Malta is complete without stopping by the Barrakka Gardens where the famous Saluting Battery cannons are fired every day at 4pm and 6pm. It also offers some kaleidoscopic views of the Grand Harbour where umpteen ships, cruises and yachts are anchored. The evening ended with a dinner at The Chophouse that overlooks the waters at the edge of the Sliema peninsula.

After getting well-acquainted with Sliema, it was time to discover the neighbouring island of Gozo, a 30-minute ferry ride away. The ferry, resembling a cruise liner, offered us good views of the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the third Island of Camino, which is said to be mostly uninhabited.

We hopped onto a mini-bus for a tour of the Gozo which, our guide told us, is only 14km in length and 7km in width. Besides wandering through the streets of Victoria, the capital city of Gozo, a drive up to the enchanting caves called grottos is a must. This is where the once-famed Azure Window stood before its collapse due to natural causes in 2017. When the famous rock-formation fell, our guide said, the Maltese people felt the same way the French did when the Notre Dame cathedral was on fire in Paris recently.

Unable to admire the beauty of the Azure Window, we decided to drive to its lesser-known cousin, the
Wied il-Mielah Window. The natural arch, made of limestone, is a window into blue waters and is a definite photo-op. The name of the arch sounds like Arabic as the Maltese language itself was made of many Arabic words and is the only Semitic language in Europe.

The next stop was Citadel, a fort built on a hill overlooking the city of Victoria. This fort has a past dating back to the early history of modern times. For a lay tourist, the details are difficult to grasp. But Citadel now houses several museums detailing various aspects of its history.

A brief stopover at a roadside shop gave us a glimpse of the various merchandise sold there, including fruits, vegetables and beverages. Cheese made of goat milk is said to be a speciality. Then came a stop at Qbajjar Restaurant that specialises in Mediterranean and Maltese cuisine. For the main course, I battled a rabbit with knives and forks. The desserts and starters were par excellence. Apparently, Gozo restaurants offer more authentic local cuisine than mainland Maltese eateries which are 'corrupted' by modern influences.

A brief stopover at Calypso Cave offered us a view of Ramla Bay, the most-sought-after beach on Gozo. The cave is said to have been mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey. The last item on our Gozo itinerary was the Ggantija temples, pre-historic sites dating back to 5,500 BC. Apparently, people who formed this oldest civilisation on the island bore no similarities to the people who later came to inhabit it.

With a heart and head filled with memories, we headed back to mainland Malta on the same ferry.
The next day, we were back again on Valletta's streets, walking through the length and breadth of the small town. But for a brief chat with Tourism Minister Dr Konrad Mizzi, we are mostly left to ourselves. The minister talked of inviting bids for ideas on how to commemorate the Azure Window. He also said a plan for an underground tunnel to Gozo is under consideration.

That evening, we decided to get a taste of Malta's night life. The St. Julian area hosts many discotheques and restaurants and comes to life late in the evenings. The quality of entertainment is no less inferior to other hotspots in the world.
Steeped in heritage, and dotted with structures that date as far back as the early 7,000BC, Malta is a history buff's paradise. It is no wonder it is called an open-air museum.

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