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MALTA

INTRODUCTION

In Malta , you’ll explore 7000 years of history yet live passionately in the present. You’ll span the millennia with an astonishing array of things to discover. And wherever you go, the Islands ‘ scenery and architecture provide a spectacular backdrop. The colours are striking. Honey- coloured stone against the deepest of Mediterranean blues.

The Maltese Islands have been described as one big open-air museum. What makes them unique is that so much of their past is visible today. Delve into the Islands ‘ mysterious prehistory, retrace the footsteps of St Paul or see where the Knights of St John defended Christendom.

But Malta is no regular museum. Here life is lived to the full, so make time for some living history and action. Visit locations where Oscar-winning blockbusters were filmed or go off the beaten track into ancient villages. Marvel at the fireworks and revelry of the summertime festas and enjoy a packed calendar of events all year round.

Money & Costs

Currency: Maltese Lira

Meals

Budget: US$5-10
Mid-range: US$10-25
High: US$25+

Lodging

Budget: US$2-18
Mid-range: US$18-40
High: US$40+

CLIMATE

Malta has an excellent climate, reaching up to 30�C (86�F) in midsummer (July to August) and when the hot sirocco winds blow in from Africa . The lowest average daily high temperature, about 15�C (59�F), occurs during January. Rainfall is heaviest from November to February, though it’s low year-round

When to Go

The best time to visit Malta is the lull from February to June, between the rainy season (such as it is) and the hot Mediterranean summer. This is also when room rates drop by as much as 40% from their late June to August high. September and October are also good months to visit.

Events

The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck , on 10 February, commemorates the mishap that brought the apostle to Malta in 60 AD. During the third week of February, pretty floats and creepy masks mark Carnival , when dancing competitions and other festivities take place in the capital and Floriana . This predominantly Roman Catholic country gets into Holy Week in a big way. During the Good Friday pageant, Christ’s passion and crucifixion are depicted by statues born aloft through the streets of Valletta and a dozen other towns. You can also see Last Supper Table Displays in the capital and in the outlying villages, including one in Zebbug made entirely of pasta.

The Feast of St Publius in Floriana kicks off the festa (feast) season on the first Sunday after Easter; over the next six months every village honours its patron saint. Satisfy your fried rabbit habit during Mnarja – the Feast of Sts Peter & Paul – held on 28 and 29 June. The festivities include traditional Maltese folk singing, horse racing and lots of crispy bunny. During the Christmas season, streets all over the islands are festooned with lights, statues of Baby Jesus look out from the windows of homes and shops, and bands march through Valletta every evening. On Christmas Eve (24 December), boys parade through towns and villages with statues of the infant Saviour , and a child tells the story of Christ’s birth during Midnight Mass.

Attractions

Valletta

If you’ve ever wondered what sort of prize you’d get for saving Europe , look no further than Valletta . Named after the knight who masterminded Malta ‘s successful stand against the Turkish siege of 1565, Valletta became the city of the Knights of the Order of St John and the seat of Malta ‘s government. While travelling through the Mediterranean , Sir Walter Scott described Valletta as ‘the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’. Today it’s a beautifully preserved 16th-century walled city, small enough to cover in a few hours without sweating too much in the Mediterranean sun. In fact, the streets were carefully laid out to channel cool breezes in from the harbour .

Valletta is a rough rectangle at the tip of a peninsula on Malta ‘s northeast coast, just a few hundred metres across in either direction and surrounded by water on its northern, eastern and southern sides. From the City Gate at the southwest edge of Valletta , you can walk to the centre of town through a series of squares surrounded by palaces and cathedrals. One of the grandest is the Auberge de Castille , once the palace of the Spanish and Portuguese langue (a division of the Order of St John ). It’s now the office of the prime minister and not open to the public.

Among Valletta ‘s many fine gardens are the Upper Barrakka Gardens , originally the private gardens of the Italian Knights of St John, where you can get a magnificent view of Grand Harbour and the Cottonera . St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum presents an austere facade, but the interior is a baroque masterpiece, with a patchwork of marble tombstones set in the floor commemorating the knights of old. The museum houses a collection of outstanding Flemish tapestries and two paintings by the Italian master Caravaggio.

The city’s other major museum, the Palace of the Grand Masters, is also the seat of the president and parliament. It’s loaded with tapestries, frescoes and friezes commemorating the Great Siege. Fort St Elmo, at the northeast tip of the city, features guides dressed as knights and re- stagings of historic battles.

Gozo

Gozo has a distinct character all its own. The countryside is prettier than that of its larger neighbour , the pace is slower and there are far fewer tourists. The island has its share of medieval architecture and prehistoric temples, making it a great place to escape the tourism mill while experiencing the best of what Malta has to offer. The commercial centre of the island, Victoria , has a sleepy 17th-century feel. The view from atop the Citadel, or ‘ Gran Costello’, takes in the entire island. The Norman House, on the Citadel’s grounds, houses an interesting folk museum.

You can retrace the footsteps of Ulysses at Calypso’s Cave, in the cliffs overlooking Ramla Bay on the northeastern coast. Other spelunking opportunities include the underground Alabaster Caves in the tiny town of Xaghra , a couple of kilometres southwest of Ramla Bay . The Ggantija temple complex, also near Xaghra , is the most spectacular in Malta.

Hagar Qim

Step back into the Copper Age at these prehistoric temples. Dating from as early as 3800 BC, Hagar Qim and the other Neolithic temples on Malta are the oldest known human structures in the world. This megalithic temple complex is adorned with carved animals and idols, sacrificial altars and oracular chambers, all executed with nothing more than flint and obsidian tools. Giant limestone slabs form a series of ovals laid out in a pattern that some archaeologists have compared to Mother Goddess figurines found on the site. The view of the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Filfla is one of the best in Malta . Hagar Qim and its neighbour , the Mnajdra temple, are near the village of Qrendi , about 15km (9mi) southwest of Valletta.

Mdina

This 3000-year-old city, once the political centre of Malta , is filled with Norman and baroque buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Perched on a rocky outcrop about 15km (9mi) west of Valletta , the so-called Citta Notabile ( Noble City ) has a commanding view of the island. Its nickname derives from the many aristocratic Maltese families who still live in town. The best-preserved medieval building is the Norman-style Palazzo Falzon , built in 1495. Mdina has a beautiful main piazza, where you’ll find the 11th-century Roman Catholic Sicula -Norman Cathedral, one of the few buildings to survive an earthquake in 1693. The cathedral museum houses a collection of Durer woodcuts. The nearby suburb of Rabat (which translates roughly as ‘suburb’) has the interesting Museum of Roman Antiquities , which offers exhibits on the island’s 1000 years under Roman rule.

Activities

With 30m (98ft) of visibility, warm water and dramatic undersea vistas, Malta has great diving . Gozo has the best spots, including the waters off the northeast coast near Marsalforn . St George’s Bay , on the southeast coast, is another good place for a plunge. Comino also has good dive spots, including a 40m (120ft) drop-off at Ras I- Irieqa on the southwest tip of the island.

Despite its rocky coastline, Malta has some good beaches . Gnejna and Golden Bays , on the northwest coast, and St George’s Bay have warm, calm waters and good sandy strands. Ramla Bay has Gozo’s best beach.

All the islands in the archipelago are excellent for walking . Gozo and Comino are small enough to be covered by foot in a day or less, and nothing is really very far from anything else on Malta

Dining

There’s a fairly wide variety of international food in major hotels and better restaurants, but English and Italian cuisine are the most common. Steak and seafood are prepared as in other Mediterranean countries, with a strong Italian/Greek influence. Try fenek (rabbit), lampuki (tasty fish served in a number of ways), bragioli (beef simmered in red wine and stuffed with boiled eggs and bacon), timpana (pasta, eggs, meat and cheese stuffed in a flaky pastry) and delicious pastizzi (flaky pastry stuffed with cheese or anchovies). For dessert try mqaret (fried pastry filled with dates), figolli (a traditional Easter cake filled with almond paste) and qubbajt (almond nougat). Seasonal fruit includes oranges, strawberries, mulberries, tangerines, prickly pears, peaches, melons, grapes and figs. The Maltese generally eat a British, rather than a Continental, breakfast. While not of world-class quality, the locally made wines and beers are at least inexpensive.

Shopping

Shops are usually open between 0900 and 1900 hrs. However, in commercial areas frequented by tourists, most shops remain open until approximately 10.00 pm. Shops are not open on Sundays and Public Holidays. There are open-air markets, one day a week, in most towns and villages. The largest is the Valletta market on Sunday mornings. Major Credit Cards, Travellers Cheques and Eurocheques are accepted at most leading shops and restaurants.

Shop for beautiful lace, ceramics, silver and gold filigree, woodwork, Malta weaving, dolls, soft toys, brass and copper metalwork, tiles and handblown glass. Try to visit Valletta ‘s open market if you’re in town on a Sunday (but get there early). Handicraft-lovers should stop in the Malta Government Crafts Centre at St. John’s Square in Valletta and the Gozo Crafts Centre in Rabat . There is some duty-free shopping at the airport.

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