Malta: My second chance with a magical island
The flight from Dublin to Malta lasted just over three hours, and my journey was enlivened by the company of Colette and Margaret - two carers with the Irish Wheelchair Association.
It was their first trip to the Maltese archipelago, but I had spent a long hot summer on the main island with some friends many years ago when I was still at school.
It was an eventful and, in some ways, a formative holiday for me, and I have many fond memories of the experience. Back then, we stayed in an old farmhouse in the small village of Mgarr on the northern side of the island, where my room had previously been home to a family of goats. This time, I was staying in The Fortina - a five-star spa hotel in Sliema.
When I last visited Malta, Sliema was a distinct town on the far side of the bay from the capital Valletta, but the two towns now form a continuous conurbation. The Fortina proved an ideal base for me to rediscover the island: it was quiet, well-appointed, and with exceptionally pleasant and helpful staff.
On my last visit, Malta had been in the middle of a serious economic depression. Businesses were closing down, emigration was running high and the future seemed bleak. The Maltese tourist industry was in its infancy, and we had to rattle around the island's twisting roads on a succession of ancient buses.
Since then, prosperity has returned to the archipelago. Last year, almost two million tourists visited Malta and Gozo, its smaller, neighbouring island. There is now a modern transport system, and Malta's towns boast smart restaurants and stylish shopping malls. The tide of emigration has also been turned back - in fact, Malta has become the most densely populated country in the whole of the European Union. It is less than one quarter the size of Co Wicklow, but has almost four times the number of residents. On my first morning, I caught the ferry that connects Sliema to Valletta. It only takes five or 10 minutes to cross Marsamxett Harbour, and costs less than €3 for a return ticket. The centre of Valletta is filled with some wonderful examples of the island's colourful, and at times turbulent history. Malta has been colonised by many different empires - Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, Spanish, Ottoman, French and British - but perhaps it is most strongly associated with the Knights of the Order of St John. Malta had been given to the Knights by the Habsburg Emperor, Charles V, in 1530, and the island was effectively ruled by the Grand Masters of the Order for the next 250 years.
The defining link with the Knights was forged in 1565 when Malta was besieged for almost five months by the forces of the Turkish Sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent.
Suleyman had sent a huge army to invade Malta, but the island was heroically defended by its small garrison. By the time the Turkish fleet limped back to Constantinople, Suleyman had lost more than 30,000 of his finest troops, and the future of Malta as a Christian country was secure. Valletta is named after the formidable Grand Master during the siege: Jean de la Valette.
This is the 450th anniversary of the Great Siege, which not only helped to determine the future identity of Malta, but was also an event of historic significance for the rest of Europe. To celebrate the occasion a terrific exhibition has been staged in the Grand Master's Palace. It includes many outstanding examples of the costumes, armour and weaponry used by both sides during the Siege.
After an absorbing couple of hours at the exhibition, I made my way to the nearby Co-Cathedral of St John, which was built in the years that immediately followed the Siege. This is one of the world's great cathedrals, but its plain exterior is more suggestive of a military installation than a church. However, the interior stands in striking contrast to the severe façade. It is decorated in the high baroque style, and is staggeringly ornate. The limestone walls are carved with intricate designs, and everything seems to have been dipped in gold. Under the marble floor are hundreds of tombs that hold the remains of the Order's Knights. The overall impact is both spectacular and somewhat overwhelming.
I decided it was time for some lunch. The Scoglitti restaurant has marvellous views, overlooking the harbour, and, like many Maltese restaurants, its cuisine has a strong Italian flavour. I chose grilled sea bream, and washed it down with a bottle of the local Cisk lager. This has been brewed in Malta for close to 100 years, and was originally intended to cater for the tastes of the British naval garrison. It is more bitter than most lagers, but complemented the mild flavour of the bream. After lunch, I headed back to the hotel and made my way to the hotel's luxurious spa.
It is divided into four separate, smaller spas, each of which provides different services. One offers Chinese medicine, others provide massages, physiotherapy, and various forms of beauty treatment. I whiled away an enjoyable afternoon moving between the jacuzzi, the pool and the sauna.
On my first night, I dined in the Sicilia restaurant on the waterfront in Sliema. Once again, there was a strong Italian influence evident in the menu, but I decided to opt for a local Maltese dish of fried rabbit. I also chose a white wine that came from a family vineyard on the nearby island of Gozo. It was called 'Ulysses' after the Greek warrior who, according to Homer, was held prisoner on Gozo by the goddess Calypso. The wine was a blend of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay - pale lemon in colour, with a sharp and refreshing acidity.
I was up early the next morning for a vigorous body massage in the hotel spa, which set me up for the day. When it was finished, I joined a bus tour of the southern part of the island, organised on a 'hop-on, hop-off' basis. As we drove through a series of Maltese towns and villages, I was struck by the number and the architectural quality of the churches we passed. Many are built in the same baroque style as the Co-Cathedral in Valletta, and their domes and steeples dominate the island landscape.
I hopped off the bus in the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk, about 12 miles south east of Valletta. The bay was filled with brightly coloured fishing boats called luzzu, with painted eyes on their prows to protect the fishermen from danger. Along the bay front there was a line of fish restaurants, each one seeming more enticing than the next. Eventually I chose to lunch in La Nostra Padrona. The menu included swordfish and tuna, but I decided to try some fresh lampuki - a popular fish in Malta, which is also known as dorado. It was beautifully cooked, with a smoky but delicate flavour.
I didn't arrive back in Sliema until early evening, and walked along the seafront towards St Julian's Bay. Just beyond the bay is Paceville - a lively district filled with clubs, bars and restaurants. This is the principal hub of nightlife on the island, and has become known throughout Europe as a party destination - somewhat similar to our own Temple Bar district, though not as downmarket. Paceville attracts tourists and locals alike. However, at this time of year the action had begun to wind down, so I didn't linger.
Instead, I chose to eat my last meal in one of the Fortina's restaurants. There are six of them inside the hotel, offering a range of international cuisines. However, I chose to eat in The Terrace: a bar and restaurant located outside the Fortina, which hangs dramatically over the bay and where the food was delicious. For my starter, I chose baked scallops and fresh prawns served with a special remoulade - full of flavour. For the main course, I had linguine with fresh lobster and a hazelnut sauce - again excellent.
Returning to Malta after a long absence was interesting - rather like being reunited with an old friend after many years apart. The island has certainly changed greatly since my last visit, and I missed the old ramshackle buses, but on the whole I think the changes have been for the good. There is much about Malta that will appeal to Irish visitors. The weather is still sunny and hot late in the season, almost everyone on the island can speak fluent English and there are excellent recreational facilities, with first-rate restaurants, and prices that are not extortionate. Finally, and above all, there are the Maltese people, whose warm and indomitable spirit even Suleyman the Magnificent could not subdue.
For more information on the Maltese islands and things to do there, see www.visitmalta.com. Ryanair flies five times per week direct from Dublin to Malta International Airport in the summer and three times per week in the winter. See www.ryanair.com for best available offers. For more on the Fortina Spa resort, see www.fortinasparesort.com.
A royal link
Malta became a Republic in 1974. For most of the previous 200 years, it had been a British colony. There are still many signs of the British presence and Queen Elizabeth is extremely popular. Before she became Queen, she lived in Malta with Prince Philip, who was then serving with the Mediterranean fleet. This is the only foreign country where she has ever lived and apparently she regards her years on the island as the happiest time of her life.
Maltese is a Semitic language - like Hebrew and Arabic - but with many loan words borrowed from English and Italian. However, unlike the other Semitic languages, it is written in the Roman script. Maltese is the first official language, but Malta is a multilingual country. Italian is widely understood and English is also an official language, with more than 90pc of the Maltese population speaking it fluently.
Shades of blue
On the southern tip of the island, there are a number of sea caverns and every morning they present a remarkable visual phenomenon. The sunlight on the water reflects the phosphorescent colours of the underwater flora. This results in a dazzling display of numerous shades of blue. The Grotto is a popular destination for scuba divers, and there are also a number of restaurants that offer stunning views - as well as food.
Sunday Indo Living