Malta, A Gem In The Mediterranean

Travelling to any part of the world is always an exciting adventure, but when I had the opportunity to visit the Mediterranean island of Malta I was thrilled and excited. September is a great time to go, as many of the tourists have returned to their homelands.

To do Malta right you need to spend at least four days. The island is small, but has much to offer. It is made up of two islands: Malta and the smaller Gozo. Travel between the islands is a thirty-five minute ferry ride and the cost is very reasonable.

Keep in mind that Malta was under British rule and driving on the left side is the norm. Most of us can handle the change, but I found the traffic circles a definite challenge. I did a little digging and found Avis to be the best bang for your buck when it comes to rental cars and remember, book in advance.

A bit of history on this gem in the Mediterranean; Malta has archeological sites, which date back 6,000 years, one of the oldest in the world. The standing stones at Ħaġar qim were placed there a thousand years before Stonehenge. The people of that era mysteriously disappeared, and although there is no definitive proof, educated minds believe a lengthy drought caused them to either leave, or perish.

In the sixteenth century, the knights of St. John, en route to the crusades to administer medical care for the sick and wounded, ended up on Malta and realized its importance as a trade route (the island is located halfway between Istanbul and Gibraltar, and halfway between Italy and Tunisia). They stayed for several hundred years and built hospitals, and schools, etc. and were largely responsible for the infrastructure which exists today.

The location of this tiny spec of land, between North Africa and Italy, made it a strategic and sought after locale during WWII. The Nazi movement began to bomb Malta, a country which had three, biplanes, left over from previous decades. They were aptly named Faith, Hope and Charity and did their best against the mighty Wehrmacht of the German military machine.

The island was bombarded heavily and casualties were in the thousands. Not even Great Britain itself came under comparable attacks. Malta was never defeated and the Maltese stayed vigilant. Finally, aided by Britain, the island was saved and attacks against Germany and Italy were launched from its shores.

Modern Malta has been totally rebuilt in a style similar to that of days gone by. The island is made up mostly of limestone and construction has always been of the ageless yellow-white stone.

There is much to see, but if you are staying overnight I would recommend the town of St. Julian's, with its modern resort style hotels, mega shopping area and wild nightlife. Staying off the beaten path (Radisson Blue or Corinth Hotels) will give you easy access to the ocean and fine pools, yet offer quiet havens in the midst of all the excitement. A short, 5 minute walk will take you to the centre of town.

All of the cities in Malta are joined to each other and were it not for small sign posts you would think the island is one big town. The capital of Valletta is a must-see. A walled city, protected by a moat (which has never been filled) is an array of winding streets with quaint shops, old churches and scenic views. A photographer’s dream. The best photos are taken after 4 when many of the cruise passengers return to their ships.

If you are into archeology be sure to visit Hypogeum, a labyrinth of underground chambers, which served as a burial place. An audio guide will take you through the underground passageways with descriptive narration. If you have claustrophobic tendencies you may want to pass on this, but otherwise it is worth the hour or so visit.

Another fantastic excursion is to the blue Grotto. A small boat will take you along the rugged shoreline and weave in and out of several arches and caves, all of which are spectacular. Get there by 9:30 to avoid the tour buses.

A thirty minute drive from St. Julian’s will take you to the ferry to Gozo and you cannot visit Malta without a day trip to this quiet, quaint and picturesque island. Much smaller than (what locals call the mainland) Malta, the main city of Victoria is in the island's centre and all roads seem to lead to it.

The Azure Window and caves are an assortment of rugged outcrops along the Mediterranean, where the water has eroded the shore. A great place for divers and photographers, the scenic views change with every step you take. Boat tours are also available, but you can see as much on foot and, depending on the tourists, you could wait quite a while for the next dingy to take you out. I would suggest you visit the caves first, again to avoid the droves of tourists.

You will also find a man with a falcon who, for a few Euros, will let the bird sit on your arm and pose for a photo. Although this particular falcon is not native to Malta and has a different name, once he rested on my arm I knew he was a falcon and I was in Malta so for all intents and purposes it was a Maltese falcon.

The weather in the summer months is downright hot. September was a humid 35 degrees and the reflected sun from the limestone makes sunscreen and a hat a necessity. The island is quite religious and bathing suits can only be worn on the beach or by pools. Topless sunbathing is not permitted, unless you're a guy, but casual summer clothes are acceptable everywhere.

I can go on for several pages about this amazing place, but would suggest you check it out as a travel destination. Getting there can be tricky. A cruise will give you a glimpse, but once there you will want to return for a longer stay. By air I flew to Venice (Air Canada now flies direct, several times a week) and Ryan air has a 40 Euro, 2 hour flight. Combine your visit with Tunisia or Sicily or anywhere in Europe for that matter (Malta is part of the EU) and spend some fantastic time in this gem in the Mediterranean.

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