Saturday, 4 February 2017

MALTA: What Is Malta?

Malta's landscape contrasts rocky stretches of coast that end in dizzying limestone cliffs with sheltered bays that hide gin-clear water and red-gold beaches. The islands' many marinas jostle with boats, and you can take to the water in sky-blue traditional craft, stately yachts or speedboats. Snorkellers and divers have much to explore underwater as well, a world of caves, crags and wrecks.

Malta is staunchly Roman Catholic but is also home to a beguiling mix of cultures that has stewed together over generations. Traditional Maltese food mixes Sicilian and Middle Eastern flavours, while making use of local ingredients such as rabbit and honey. The Maltese people are warm and welcoming: if you ask for directions, it's likely a local will walk with you to help you find the way. Plenty of 21st-century sophistication can be found, but there are also pockets where you feel you’ve gone back in time, especially on Gozo, where mammoth churches tower over quiet villages.

Malta's geographical location in the centre of the Mediterranean made it an alluring and much-fought-over prize, and the islands are full of majestic above- and below-ground defences. The capital, Valletta, built by the Knights of St John, is a harmonious grid, Mdina and Victoria are fortress-like hilltop towns, and watchtowers dot the coast. Even Malta’s fishing boats resonate with the past, their prows painted with eyes, just like the boats of their Phoenician predecessors.

Malta and Gozo’s astounding prehistoric sites were constructed by sophisticated-seeming temple builders, who also left miniature figurines and mammoth sculptures of ‘fat ladies’, which have survived millennia and are housed in Malta's fascinating museums. Out in the open, gigantic temples and towers from many different eras stand proud, continuing their endless watch over the sea. But the most extraordinary site of all lies underground: Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5000-year-old necropolis carved from the living rock.

Malta is packed with interest, yet is laid-back and easy. There are boat trips, beautiful towns, periwinkle sea, friendly people and soul-feeding views, and you can go from swimming in glinting sea to a clifftop prehistoric site, to a harbourside restaurant, all in the space of a few hours. Combine sightseeing and beaches on Malta with a relaxing stay on Gozo, with its hillocks, small villages and carved-out coast, and you have the perfect holiday.

Gozo
Gozo is known to provide a tranquil haven for a tempo and scene change. The charm of Malta's sister Island is immediately apparent; it's greener, more rural and smaller, with life's rhythms dictated by the seasons, fishing and agriculture.

Steeped in myth, Gozo is thought to be the legendary Calypso's isle of Homer's Odyssey - a peaceful, mystical backwater. Baroque churches and old stone farmhouses dot the countryside. Gozo's rugged landscape and spectacular coastline await exploration with some of the Mediterranean's best dive sites.

The island also comes complete with historical sites, forts and amazing panoramas, as well as one of the archipelago's best-preserved prehistoric temples, Ġgantija.

Gozo also possesses a nightlife and cultural calendar all of its own, with some great dining out.

Comino
Situated between Malta and Gozo, the smaller island of Comino is a paradise for snorkelers, divers, windsurfers and ramblers.

Only 3.5 square kilometers, Comino is car-free and apart from one hotel, is virtually uninhabited.

The island's main attraction is the Blue Lagoon. In summer, this sheltered inlet of shimmering aquamarine water over white sand is very popular with day-trippers. Other beaches on the island include Santa Marija Bay and San Niklaw Bay.

Comino is also worth a visit in winter, and is ideal for walkers and photographers. With no urban areas or cars on the island, one can easily smell the scent of wild thyme and other herbs.

Comino was inhabited in the Roman period, but did not have much significance until the Knights arrived. It then had a dual role: hunting grounds and a staging post in the defence of the Maltese Islands against the Ottoman Turks.

The island had proved a useful base for pirates operating in the central Mediterranean and, though stark and barren today, it was home to wild boar and hares when the Knights arrived in 1530. The Grandmasters went to great lengths to ensure that their game on Comino was protected: anyone found breaking the embargo on hunting could expect to serve three years rowing on a galley.

After WWII, Comino remained a backwater until its fortunes revived with tourism in the mid-1960s.

Where to Stay

Comino has one resort hotel, which is ideal for those looking for a tranquil getaway