Life Travel

Thursday 2 October 2014

Magical Malta

From turquoise seas and sandy beaches to neolithic temples and fine dining, this little island is the gift that keeps on giving.

Laura Kelly-Walsh

Published 25/05/2014 | 02:30

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The Grand Harbour in Malta
The Azure Window
The walled city of Mdina is an architectural marvel of medieval and baroque buildings

Sitting on the edge of a 'dghajsa' (plank-like gondola) bashing off million-euro shiny yachts in the teal waters of the Mediterranean sea, our tour guide, Daryll said: "Maybe we should leave the boat journey for today."

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But, being the landlubber I am, I was adamant to get out into those blustery waters – whether I plunged overboard or not. Eventually, after a mix of laughter and trepidation, we abandoned our boat trip around the Grand Harbour – the Gods simply weren't on our side that day. But that's not to say that you should if you visit this enchanting island.

I'm in a charming country – south of Sicily, east of Tunisia and north of Libya – if you haven't guessed by now, it's Malta. And even though it's only February, the sun is gleaming against the pale limestone buildings that are so ubiquitous here; the air is warm (about 22 degrees) and the sky blue.

Soaked in history, lined with sandy beaches and teeming with delectable restaurants, there really is something for everyone in Malta.

As one of the most conquered countries in the world, the British, Turkish and French influences are omnipresent. Our first port of call is Mdina, Malta's first capital city during the time of the Knights of Malta.

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It is dubbed 'The Silent City' and traces its origins back more than 4,000 years. I'm surrounded by majestic medieval and baroque buildings lining winding narrow streets that open up onto vast squares. This walled-in town's enchanting houses are occupied by just over 300 of the Maltese elite. You know what they say: location, location, location.

Already hungry, we headed for our first taste of Malta, and one not to be missed: The Fontanella Tea Garden. Positioned on the bastions overlooking this stunning island, you can take in the jaw-dropping views while you indulge in one of the many sumptuous cakes on the menu.

Revved up on sugar, it was time to head to our hotel. We stayed in the Corinthia San Gorg Hotel (corinthia.com), which is conveniently situated in the bustling area of St Julian's. The views aren't so bad here either. I was bowled over by the mesmerising sight of the sparkling Mediterranean crashing against the jagged, palm tree-lined coastline when I opened my balcony door.

The rooms are comfortable and breakfast is a plentiful continental spread. There's also a plethora of restaurants to eat in within a 10-minute walk of St Julian's – Sciacca, a Sicilian fish bistro, is a must for fish lovers.

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Another restaurant not to miss is Tarragon, the owner of which trained in Dublin's Chapter One. I plumped for the salt-baked seabass, which melted in my mouth, and with an array of homemade desserts on offer, well, it was rude not to choose one.

The next morning we were up early to visit the farmers' market in Ta'Qali. I was surrounded by multicoloured stalls offering fresh, Maltese produce in every colour of the rainbow. Busy market sellers smile and shout in Maltese to the locals, who rush to buy locally produced wine, fruits, vegetables, Bigilla (traditional dish made of mashed beans), gbejniet (sheep's milk cheese), honey, bread, fish and meat products. Ta'Qali is a true taste of Maltese culture.

You can't go to Malta and not ramble around the golden-coloured city of Valletta. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the opulent St John's Co-Cathedral, which holds the only painting signed by Caravaggio, 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist'.

After all that walking we enjoyed a cappuccino in the sun in the nearby St John's Square and marvelled at the view of the Grand Harbour and Three Cities from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which was laid down in the late 16th Century as a place of relaxation and contemplation for the Knights.

If you're in the area, make sure to visit Nenu The Artisan Baker and sink your teeth into a ftira – a Maltese speciality akin to a pizza, but much, much tastier. As a favourite haunt of the locals, Nenu offers some of the best ftira on the island, all baked in original stone ovens. The restaurant is a museum too, showcasing Maltese baking tradition.

Day three called for more history. A 25-minute ferry ride (€4.65 return) over the sparkling sea brings you to Gozo. A mere third of the size of Malta, this small green island is so charming, it's little surprise Gozo means 'joy'. The island is a patchwork of flourishing farms, and blonde coloured houses. But don't be fooled by the silence, there's still more than enough to see.

According to archaeologists, The Ggantija Temples in Gozo are the oldest freestanding structures in the world. These two neolithic temples date back 5,500 years ago – older than the pyramids of Egypt. Constructed at a time when no metal tools were available to the Maltese and the wheel had not yet been invented, the building of these temples must have been quite the conquest.

The Azure Window is a natural arch in the coastline standing 20 metres high. 'Game of Thrones' fans might recognise it as many scenes were filmed here. The turquoise sea bashes up against the jagged cliffs, forming a secluded bathing pool. Whether it's swimming, boating or scuba diving you're into, you can't get much better than this for a location.

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Our Gozo adventure concluded with a visit to the Ta'Mena Estate winery (the first agro-tourism complex in Malta). We tasted the locally produced wine, fresh tomato paste and extra virgin olive oil after getting up close and personal with peacocks, pigs and prickly pears.

Though we only spent a few days on the island, the rich diversity made it feel like so much longer. Malta is a gift that keeps on giving, a land of legacy where magic unfolds around every corner.

All information on the Maltese Islands and things to do is available at visitmalta.com

IN THE KNOW

Malta is small and easy to get around by public buses (€2.80 for the day or €12 for a weekly pass). You can pick up a timetable at the bus terminuses all around the island. The less adventurous can purchase a Hop On Hop Off bus ticket from Malta Sightseeing (€17).

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