There’s a taste of home on Malta’s islands as Tom Morton discovers.
Malta, along with its rustic little sister Gozo, is already a hugely popular destination – but the islanders are really starting to come alive to their own cultural riches.
I arrived on the on the tiny Mediterranean archipelago to sample one night of the annual international firework festival, which runs across weeks and multiple locations around the islands.
But first our little group had two days sampling other delights, from cathedrals to Neolithic temples, beekeeping to glassblowing, and eating our own weight in local produce along the way.
I was staying at St Julian’s, which boasts Malta’s only real nightlife scene, in the five-star Corinthia Hotel, a large complex with stunning views over St George’s Bay.
But no sooner had I got settled than we were off to Gozo, a 25-minute journey by car ferry across the water, described by our tour guide Vince as ‘like Malta before it was developed’.
Sure enough Gozo is big on natural beauty as well as relatively undisturbed pre-history. The island hosts the Gganija temple complex, with walls so huge it was rumoured to have been built by giants.
Archeology is still ongoing at the impressive Neolithic ruins, built out of the same crumbly beige limestone as both the medieval and modern buildings on the island – and a wealth of figures and artefacts are on display in the accompanying museum.
After a quick stop at a beautiful coastal arch known as the Blue (or Azure) Window and its nearby ‘inland sea’ encircled by cliffs, we found ourselves on the Ta’ Mena country estate, run by Jospeh Spiteri.
Mr Spiteri plied us with wine, olives, tomatoes, cheese, sausages, bread and ravioli all made on the estate, as well as making pizza-style foccacia in a traditional outdoor oven before our hungry eyes.
Pointing to the sea salt, still gathered on salt flats dating back to Roman times on the Gozo coast, he said: “With this we have something we are not making enough of – it is really high in magnesium, you can eat it all day, just a little and it’s very healthy. The Romans came here for the wine, sea salt, honey and olive oil. Maltese olive oil is the best in the world because the acidity is low as the temperature never gets above 35 degrees.”
To prove how palatable it was he drank a shot glass of the stuff in front of us before telling us Malta and Gozo had five S’s, not just the traditional three.
“We have sun, sea, sand, it’s safe and it’s small,” he said.
Local food is enjoying a renaissance of sorts on the islands.
Earlier we had been shown around Magro Food Village, which makes and sells traditional foodstuffs under the Savina brand with ingredients from all over the islands in a kind of industrial-scale version of Shropshire’s Ludlow Food Centre.
Back on Malta we were introduced to the smaller-scale operation of 77-year-old Arnold Grech, who has been beekeeping and honey-making since he was a young boy and only sells from home – though he counts the Queen as among those who have enjoyed his honey, and he regularly shows coach parties of tourists his work near the protected and idyllic seaside town of Mellieha.
Home-grown food is finding its way into the restaurants also in places like Ta Nenu The Artisan Bakery, a newly renovated eatery back in old Valletta with a menu that includes Maltese staple rabbit dishes and pizza-style ‘ftiras’.
But restaurant food is not just local and traditional – in Sliema’s Chop House, one of Malta’s best steakhouses, beautiful Angus beef from Scotland is served, and we had a taste of cutting-edge ‘molecular gastronomy’ with an olive that had been liquidised and then chemically reconstructed into a kind of fluid-filled bubble at the chic Tarragon Restaurant in St Julian’s.
Malta is famed for being a cultural crossroads between Sicily and the North African coast. Governed for hundreds of years by the multi-national Knights of Malta, an order formed during the Crusades, it was then ruled by the British from 1800 to 1964 and there is still a lot to make the Brit abroad feel at home – cars drive on the left, everyone speaks English, and even the buses sport a familiar turquoise and white paint scheme which would look at home in Shrewsbury bus station where I’d come from – as they were run by the UK’s own Arriva until the firm lost the contract to the Spanish recently.
Valletta itself is a combination of the medieval and modern, and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
The capital is full of historical treasures such as the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Knights and home to more than one Caravaggio painting, and the quirky Casa Rocca Piccola which is both a museum and the living family home of Marquis Nicholas de Piro, ninth Baron of Budach.
By the time we arrived in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk to view a night of spectacular international fireworks, it seemed like we had already packed an awful lot in.
But as pyrotechnics companies from across the globe vied for dominance of the Maltese sky, above the bobbing Luzzu fishing boats, the local displays held their own – rather like the islanders in general after centuries of being passed back and forth between invading rulers.
You get a sense they now know how unique they are and what they have – a little island with a lot to offer.
By Tom Morton
- National carrier Air Malta operates an extensive year-round scheduled service of up to 26 flights per week from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester with fares from £75 one way, inclusive of taxes and 20kgs of baggage. Air Malta also operate regional summer charter flights from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Exeter, Norwich and Glasgow.
- Rates at the Corinthia Hotel, St George’s Bay vary between €115 and €225 low season (December to February) and €190 and €330 high season (July to September).
- For more information visit www.visitmalta.com