An hour’s delay leaving Budapest Airport serves to heighten the anticipation felt before heading to a country you have never visited. Finally we are aloft, and two hours flying time south-southwest takes us over the Croatian coast near Split, practically over the Mount Vesuvius crater and then atop Sicily to…
Valletta, the fortified capital of Malta founded in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John, welcomes us with unbroken blue sky and pleasant June sunshine several degrees warmer than Budapest, a reminder that the tiny Mediterranean country is actually further south than much of the North African coastline.
Just the pill for the frazzled
The drive in from the airport through moderate traffic reveals seemingly relaxed drivers, patches of palm trees, pink and white oleanders in the central carriageways, neatly grassed roundabouts with red flowers, and buildings in Arabic style with flat roofs and flush-to-the-street frontages and overhanging verandahs, built from creamy limestone slabs quarried locally.
Our destination is the coastal five-star Westin Dragonara Resort in St Julians. Checking in, we add a welcoming sound to these first impressive impressions of Malta – the sparkling blue Med breaking on the rocks. It is the first thing you hear when waking in the morning and the last thing before sleeping at night, and it sounds just right.
Sizing it up
The sea, or a view from a hill, are never far away as we explore the two main islands: the more-populated Malta, just 27 kilometres long and 14 wide, and quieter, more rural Gozo, a 25-minute ferry ride away, even smaller at 14.5 by 7.2 kilometres. The only other real island, little Comino, has three inhabitants (someone else said four), though there is a four-star hotel, to which the staff travel daily by boat.
Malta is 11th smallest of the world’s 195 countries (these are slightly variable numbers due to some contentious countries). But at 316 square kilometres (Leichenstein 160 sqm, Monaco two sqm), it isn’t that tiny and there’s plenty to see. Malta is a country punching well above its weight: its population of just over 400,000 is at least tripled by tourists each year.
We bus the hilly countryside, semi-dry now, with few trees and a patchwork of small fields separated by rows and rows of walls painstakingly built of piled rocks without mortar. There’s quite a lot of cactus, sometimes grapevines, fruit and olives. Small lizards dart about.
The many towns and villages are dominated by their church or cathedral, usually with distinctive twin towers and a dome, in this devoutly Catholic land. At Zebbug we are lucky to see the focal point of the religious year, a parish festa with streets decorated by banners, statues of saints on display, fireworks, music and a holy procession through streets lined by much of the population out to enjoy the food and drink stalls.
Highlights are Victoria/Rabat, which is the quaint capital of Gozo with an imposing citadel, and medieval, walled Mdina. In June the towns and megalithic temples (older than the Pyramids! Than Stonehenge!) aren’t shimmering in the sun yet but it looks like it’ll steam in high summer.
Finding a bay to cool off in won’t be hard because Malta boasts many coastal attractions for swimmers and divers, among them Comino’s crystal-clear Blue Lagoon and Dwejra’s triple attractions: the Azure Window, which is a rock arch over the sea, the monolithic Fungus Rock and the Inland Sea, a secluded bay surrounded by sheer cliffs and connected to the Med by a tunnel through the rock.
The gem is on the final day. Valletta (main photo) is a Unesco World Heritage site, giving a feeling of time preserved. Population 7,000, the city is small, charming and walkable, with its famous deep and historical Grand Harbour bounded on the other side by the Three Cities with their narrow streets.
And more in this peaceful, low-crime, year-round destination. Did we mention the Caravaggios? Anticipation fulfilled.
Malta Tourism Authority: www.visitmalta.com/en/
Westin Dragonara Resort: www.westindragonaramalta.com
Air Malta: www.airmalta.com