It was on the beautiful island of Malta that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, as a newly married couple, lived some of their happiest and certainly most carefree years. The then young Princess Elizabeth enjoying her role simply as the wife of a young Royal Navy officer stationed here.
For 150 years the islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino, which make up the Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean, with the magnificent natural harbour at Valetta on Malta, were a key strategic hub of the British Empire and hence defended at all cost.
So without interference from other Mediterranean nations, the native Maltese people have maintained their own distinct culture, language, cuisine, and traditions on these rugged ancient isles.
Independence came in 1964 and soon Malta’s warm sunny climate became a popular destination for UK tourists, it’s location in the southern Mediterranean offering an attractive English speaking alternative to southern Italy, Tunisia, and Greece, and just a four hour flight away.
Temples, St Paul and Knights
On Gozo, the Ggantija Temples are to be found, built around 3,600BC, they are the oldest free-standing structure in the world, similar in many ways to Stonehenge, but a thousand years older.
Legend has it that one of the first travellers to explore Malta was Christ’s disciple St Paul, who, on his way to Rome, was shipwrecked here in 60 AD, later the Romans themselves settled here as did the Phoenicians and Byzantines.
In 1530 the Knights of the Order of St John the Baptist took over Malta and remained until 1798 when they were driven out by Napoleon before in turn becoming British after the Battle of Waterloo.
At the 16th century centre of the splendid UNESCO rated Maltese capital, Valletta, is a baroque masterpiece, St John’s Co-Cathedral, a legacy from the times of the Knights of the Order of St John, built during the reign of Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere in 1573, and boasting within fabulous works of art by Caravaggio and tapestries by Rubens.
From here long narrow streets lined with interesting old buildings run downhill to the harbour, one of these of special note is Casa Rocca Piccola, Valletta’s lived in house museum where the De Piro family have resided since 1850, and who today welcome visitors to take a look around a home largely unchanged since the 19th century.
Nearby is a great place to first experience Maltese cuisine at Ta Nenu – the artisan baker in St Dominic Street. Here try Ftiras, traditional Maltese pizzas, or one of the specialty dishes enhanced by fine Maltese olive oil, honey, and wines, such as Fenek, a rabbit stew.
The best views of Valletta’s spectacular Grand Harbour, perhaps the finest in the Mediterranean, are to be had from the Upper Barrakka Gardens high up on the St Peter and St Paul Bastions.
Mdina – Game of Thrones Link to NI
Once a settlement of Imperial Rome, Mdina became Malta’s first capital under the rule of the Knights of the Order of St John and is also known las “the Silent City”.
It is another fabulous Maltese UNESCO rated treasure – a small perfectly preserved walled medieval place where many historic movies are made, as the setting is perfect and shooting can start right away. This includes The Game of Thrones series which is partly filmed here as it is in Northern Ireland.
Blue Grotto Caves – Marsaxlokk Fishing Village
The southern Maltese coastline is mostly made up of high rugged cliffs meeting a clear blue Mediterranean Sea making the diving here rated world class by enthusiasts.
However millions of years of erosion have created some narrow creeks just large enough for small boats and some quite majestic caves. One such creek is at Wied iz Zurrieq, from where it is possible to take a highly recommended boat ride into the Blue Grotto, a huge sea cave flooded with blue phosphorescent light reflected off the sea water.
A few miles to the east situated on a large natural harbour is Marsaxlokk fishing village, famous for fresh seafood served in the many restaurants situated where the fisherman’s catches are landed, and home each year to the international Marsaxlokk Firework Festival.
By Bus to Gozo – Calypso’s Isle in Homer’s Odyssey
Malta boasts an excellent low cost bus service, making travel to all the attractions on the two main islands easy, the comparatively tiny island of Como is home now only to a hotel.
Busses decant passengers at Cirkewwa for the 25 minute ferry crossing to Gozo, passing Como on the way. On board food and the very good local beer was being served to me and a couple from Belfast I met who were very much enjoying their first Maltese experience.
Gozo, the name means “Joy”, is wilder, quieter, greener, than Malta, the rhythms of life dictated by the seasons, fishing and farming.
People have probably been living here longer than most places, the before mentioned fascinating Neolithic Ggantija Temples a mere 7,000 years old are to be found on Gozo – which is even mentioned in Greek Mythology – referred to as Calypso’s Isle in Homer’s Odyssey. The Calypso Cave is to be found above a fine sandy beach at Ramla Bay.
At Dwejra is possibly Gozo’s most impressive view, that of the Azure Window a 20 meter high natural arch connecting The Inland Sea, a secluded bathing pool at the foot of steep cliffs.
Recommended on Gozo for good home produced and traditional food, wine, liqueurs, and olive oils is Ta’Mena Estate run by one of the island’s characters, the food and drink enthusiast, Mr Joseph Spiteri.
Best Organic Honey on Malta – Organic home produce honey from the man who knows his bees personally – Mr Arnold J. Grech.
Best Guide – Encyclopedic knowledge of Mr Vince DeBono.
Tarragon in St Paul’s Bay for fabulous sea food including whole Ombrina (big enough for ten) baked in oven then flambéed and filleted at your table which beautiful sea views.
Rogantino’s at the end of a country lane near Mdina situated in a 16th century hunting lodge – great soups and stews.
Recommended Hotel – I very much enjoyed my stay at the five-star Corinthia St George Hotel in St Julians, with panoramic views over St George’s Bay.