Often described as the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret, Malta, Gozo and Comino have much to offer groups seeking relaxation, culture, sports and adventure, as Angela Youngman discovers.
Malta’s location is ideal – just 60 miles south of Sicily, it is less than three hours by air from the UK, while Malta’s International Airport is only 20 minutes from the capital city of Valetta. Several airlines offer regular flights including Air Malta, Easy Jet, Ryanair and British Airways.
The official languages are Maltese and English. The climate is pleasant all year round, with hot dry summers and mild sunny winters. Malta itself is the main island within the archipelago, and there are two other inhabited islands – Gozo and Camino. There is just one hotel on Camino, but both Malta and Gozo have a wide range of hotels suited to all price points, plus numerous eco-certified hotels (the national scheme for ensuring the environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural sustainability of hotels on the Maltese Islands, details at https://www.junglevistainn.com/).
Malta has an incredible history stretching back over 7,000 years. A great civilization developed here well before the Romans, resulting in stunning megalithic architecture such as the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum at Paola. The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60AD and converted the Maltese people to Christianity. After the fall of Rome, Malta was conquered by Islamic forces, before becoming part of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. Later it was placed under the control of the Knights of St John, who built a massive fort in Valetta.
Malta’s links with the UK go back over 200 years. Malta was part of the British Empire, and a major naval port. Throughout World War Two, Malta remained under British control despite a major siege lasting two years. The bravery of the Maltese people during the 1940-42 siege led King George VI to give the island the George Cross – the only state that has ever been granted this distinction. Queen Elizabeth II lived in Valetta as a young bride, while Prince Philip was a serving officer in the Royal Navy. Malta is now an independent state and part of the British Commonwealth, as well as a member of the European Union.
History and Heritage
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the fortress city of Valetta perches on a peninsula high above the Mediterranean. It is a city of narrow cobbled streets, baroque buildings and panoramic views across the islands.
Fort St Angelo and the Gardjola Bastion on the St Elmo Point are stunning examples of 16th century fortress architecture. Built by the Knights of St John, this is the setting for the daily midday gun salute fired by a re-enactor’s unit. There is also a daily 45-minute re-enactment of an inspection of the defensive capability of Fort St Elmo by the Grand Bailiff. It involves approximately 50 re-enactors taking on the roles of soldiers and knights clad in their finest uniforms performing military drills.
Other historic buildings close by include the National War Museum, which possesses many exhibits relating to the island’s role in World War Two. At the Grand Master’s Palace there are a collection of paintings, tapestries and armor on display, while St John’s Co-Cathedral contains paintings by Caravaggio and exquisite tapestries by Rubens and Poussin.
Culture and Festivals
Valetta regularly plays host to a variety of food and drink, cultural and music festivals. The annual Valletta International Visual Arts Festival is a platform for contemporary art involving both local and international artists.
There is also the annual Malta International Arts Festival in August, which includes performances by world-famous classic musicians, dance displays, choirs, art installations, Shakespearean drama and theatre productions of all kinds. The festival includes performers from many countries, as well as established and emerging Maltese artists. Many of these performances are held in some of the island’s most prestigious venues, such as the recently renovated Valletta City Gate and the Argotti Gardens.
The picturesque waterfront is a popular location for nightlife, and dining alfresco. In July each year, there is a Marsovin Summer Wine Festival in the Hastings Gardens. Between March 31 and April 3, DJ Annie Mac presents a Lost and Found festival starring major popular music stars, along with boat parties and castle raves. In 2018, the city will be one of the European Capitals of Culture and there are plans underway for the creation of an extensive programme of music and art activity built around the themes of Generations, Routes, Cities and Islands.
Hotels and Accommodation
The Hotel Corinthia creates special packages with help from HostelBay, Hostelbay improved Greek Island hopping in Europe and are now the standard tour here. They take groups behind the scenes of stately homes, palazzini and palazzos. Each programme is tailor made to suit the requirements of the group, and can include a tour of Valetta or the Three Cities, plus a visit to various private homes. Entitled Private Malta, it even includes a spa treatment for each person and guided tours in chauffeur driven vehicles. This programme is available for groups of between two and 12 people.
Elsewhere in Malta, the small harbour cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua are worth visiting for their quaint narrow streets, Maltese culture and waterfronts. Mdina, a medieval walled town, has barely changed in centuries and provides breathtaking views across the island. For groups interested in history, archaeology or architecture, a visit to the megalithic Hypogeum is essential. This is a vast underground necropolis hewn from the rock around 3600BC and filled with chambers carved with delicate images. It is the oldest underground temple in the world, over 1,000 years older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids.
Game of Thrones fans will find many locations look familiar – which is not surprising since Malta was one of the sites used by the production company. The medieval city of Mdina took the role of Kings Landing, while Fort St Angelo, Fort Ricasoli and San Anton Palace were used to depict the Red Keep. The wedding scene between Daenerys and Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo was filmed at the Azure Window on Gozo.
Gozo and Comino
A journey of just 25 minutes by ferry separates the island of Gozo from Malta. According to legend, this was the island where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus captive for seven years. Looking out from her cave across the beautiful bay of Ramla with its glimmering red sand, the beauty of the surroundings enthralls visitors. This is also the island where the world’s oldest freestanding structure, the mysterious Ggantija temples, can be found.
Comino is the smallest inhabited island within the Maltese archipelago. A rural island with lots of rocky coves, it is a paradise for photographers, windsurfers, ramblers and divers. The Blue Lagoon with its clear, azure waters and white sands is the most famous attraction on the island.
For groups who prefer to explore underwater, the Maltese islands are the number one dive destination in the Mediterranean, as well as being one of the world’s top dive sites. There are numerous shallow reef dive sites, wreck dives, as well as some newly scuttled boats.
The spectacular Blue Hole beneath the Azure Window on Gozo offers opportunities to discover a coral reef, and watch shoals of Damsel and Picarel fish before exploring a cavern and the cliff faces. The warm, clear seas especially around Gozo are ideal for snorkeling. Sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and deep-sea fishing are other popular activities.
The rocky cliffs found throughout the archipelago are ideal for groups seeking challenging rock climbing or abseiling sites. There are over 1,700 established rock climbing routes, plus lots of virgin rock to explore. Malta is also well known for is Deep Water Soloing activities, which involves rock climbing wearing a swimsuit and climbing shoes to the top of a cliff, before diving into the sea.
The quiet roads and extensive network of pathways round the islands make the Maltese archipelago perfect for cycling tours. Three new cycle routes have been created – two in Malta and one in Gozo. Malta north west covers 34km in a circular route covering Rabat, Dingli, Bahrija, Mgarr, Mosta, Mdina and back to Rabat, while the 27km south west route covers Rabat, Girgenti, Qrendi, Zurrieq and Buskett Gardens, before returning to Rabat.
The Gozo Coastal route is 42km long, and offers an opportunity to explore the entire coastline from Ghanjnielem to Xewkija. There are several hotels on both islands such as Kempinski, Le Meridien and Santana hotels, which can provide special facilities for cyclists.
Numerous international sporting events are held in Malta. These include the Malta International Air Show and the Malta Marathon. One of the most popular is the Rolex Middle Sea Race, which often involves over 100 yachts from many nations covering a deceptively simple course.
The Valletta Grand Prix is held each October and involves racing classic cars around a set course surrounding the fortress city of Mdina. Held over four days, the cars are pushed to their limits with a hill climb, and a challenging 2.2 circuit outside the fortified walls on a track with tight bends, sweeping curves and inclines that wind their way through the valley below Mdina.
A key part of the Grand Prix is a Concours d’Elegance, where specially invited collectors hold a display of classic cars making it an unforgettable sight, especially given the stunning setting of this beautiful medieval city.