A trip to Malta - Ideas by Frank Corles
MALTA is many things to many British people and it’s not difficult to understand why the island never loses its magical appeal says FRANK CORLESS.
Excellent hotels and apartments in bustling resorts cater for every budget – and every age group in Malta.
You can sit back and relax, build sand castles on a beach, take a leisurely walk on lovely promenades, watch enviously as millionaires steer their expensive yachts into classy marinas, or plunge into entertainment and activities ranging from water sports to all-night partying.
One thing is for sure, you will never get bored. And you can pretty well bank on getting a healthy looking tan. Thanks to an offer being made at one hotel, you can also return home with newly whitened teeth.
But there are other delights that stand out to help make Malta – and its little sister islands of Gozo and Comino – an extra-special destination.
Top of the list is the anxious-to-please local hospitality, which is as warm as the weather. It was typified in the moment I struggled up a hill, perspiring in the mid-day heat. “Are you OK, my friend?” asked a man who happened to open his gate just as I came into view.
“Would you like a glass of water?”
“No, thank you,” I lied. “I think I’ll make it.”
Looking back, I noticed he had hung around just in case I gasped out an SOS.
Most Maltese speak English, they drive on the left, and streets are dotted with red painted phone and post boxes. You couldn’t feel more at home.
Equally wonderful is the archipelago’s amazing culture and a history that stretches back 7,000 years.
In total, the three island measures 122 square miles, smaller than the Isle of Wight. Yet, it has a huge density of historical sites, forts, palaces, cathedrals, and churches (a total of 375).
There are temples at Mnajdra and Hagar Qim that even pre-date the building of the Pyramids and Stonehenge.
Phoenicians, Romans Arabs, Normans, French and the British have all left their mark. And their legacy is a treasure chest of delights.
My favourite was Valletta, the walled capital. A Word Heritage site, the city was built by the formidable Knights of St John after the islanders fought off the Turks in 1565. At busy times, the narrow streets and squares echo to a special ‘buzz’ as locals and visitors swarm into restaurants, bars, cafes and shops.
A good place to soak up the atmosphere – and to relax and read your guide book – is the famous Cafe Cordina where a statue of Queen Victoria stares down upon customers enjoying a meal, or a drink, under rows of sun umbrellas. Service was quick and came with an inevitable smile.
It’s only a short walk from there to the 16th century St John’s Co-Cathedral. Don’t be fooled by the modest exterior. Inside, it is a total contrast. Never have I seen huge numbers of visitors fall so silent, so quickly, amid ornate decorations, mosaics of coloured marble, historic tapestries, and – best of all – Caravaggio’s priceless painting of the Beheading of St John. It sounds gruesome, but it’s spellbinding.
The nearby Upper Barraka Gardens, a small 18th century park, is world famous for incredible views across Valletta’s spectacular Grand Harbour, so deep that it can accommodate any of the world’s biggest cruise liners.
Away from the city, that frisky wind, and a choppy sea, ruled out a boat trip into the Blue Grotto, near Zurrieq. Business was so quiet that a boatman found time to relax by spread-eagling himself across his craft.
Missing out on a sail gave me more time to enjoy lunch, and my first taste of delicious Maltese white wine, both savoured at Southport restaurant in Marsaxlokk, a delightful fishing village where the colourful Sunday fish market was in full swing.
Next day, a 25-minute ferry ride took me to Gozo to tour the Ggantija temples, the oldest free standing structures in the world, dating back to around 3,600BC.
A totally different experience, but equally stunning, was provided by a visit to the Azure Window, a 66ft high arch carved out of the rocks by the pounding of the waves, and the nearby Inland Sea, a secluded lagoon.
Don’t leave Gozo without enjoying the red, sandy beach at Ramla Bay where, according to Greek legend, the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner as a ‘love slave’ for seven years. Poor dear!
You’ve probably guessed I’m a ‘foodie’. And, yes, I enjoy the odd glass of wine, too. Both came together brilliantly at Zeffiro restaurant in beautiful Xlendi Bay.
The wind blew up again (it wasn’t my day), to deprive me a visit to sparsely inhabited Comino, but views of it from the Gozo ferry made it easy to see why its beautiful bays attract thousands of visitors every year.
In recent years, Malta has emerged as a top location for films such as Hollywood blockbusters Troy, Gladiator, and the Count of Monte Cristo. If you fancy the possibility of ‘stargazing’ the place to stay is the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta where I was lucky enough to spend four memorable nights.
People who have crossed its threshold include Gerard Depardieu, Joaquin Phoenix, Derek Jacobi, and the late Oliver Reed, as well as statesmen, and ambassadors and royalty including the Queen and Prince Philip.
Built by a wealthy English couple in 1939, the Phoenicia’s official opening was delayed by the war until 1947. Since then, it has never looked back. Three words spring to mind to describe only part of its appeal - elegant, stylish, and timeless.
The gardens alone – extending to over seven acres - are amazing. A pathway fringed by trees, shrubs and flowers, leads to a swimming pool in the shadow of Valletta’s awesome fortress walls.
Sitting there, enjoying a morning coffee, gave me the comforting feeling of being cocooned from the hustle and bustle of crowds thronging the city’s main bus terminal, and the City Gate, only yards away.
Celebrities apart, the hotel is equally at home to holidaymakers from around the world, many of whom return year after year to enjoy its ambience and top drawer service.
Don’t just take my word. One English couple, Michael and Mary Hirst, first visited in 1959 and have been back more than 150 times!
For all its delights, however, the hotel is only a part of an epic production in which the real ‘stars’ are Malta and its smaller islands.
I couldn’t leave for home without seeing Mdina, known as the ‘Silent City’, famed for its baroque architecture and medieval walls. Despite the numbers of tourists, it seemed easy to escape to quiet streets and shaded courtyards.
It was a memorable finale that left me with just enough time for another terrific lunch, and a couple more glasses of Maltese wine. By then, it had definitely grown on me!