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DESTINATION MALTA

Megaliths, medieval dungeons and Calypso's cave - Malta isn't just old, it's positively mythic. The narrow cobblestone streets of its towns are crowded with Norman cathedrals and baroque palaces. The countryside's littered with the oldest known human structures in the world. Malta's very good at selling its romantic past of Copper Age temple builders and crusading celibate knights, and it's used this image to crank up a formidable tourism industry. Not that the islands are overrun with highrise resorts - yet. In the face of modernisation, the archipelago's staunchly Roman Catholic culture has helped the Maltese maintain a tight-knit community and keep a lid on runaway development.

The upshot of this is that travellers can enjoy a refreshing balance of convenience and unvarnished local charm, and can get comfort for considerably less than many comparable Mediterranean destinations. Despite their relaxed disposition, the Maltese spend much of the year throwing confetti while carrying statues of their patron saints through the streets and drinking toasts to the Knights of St John. The religious festival season is six months long - ending just in time for the holidays. If you overdose on nougat and wine, you can slip off to the tiny neighbouring islands of Gozo or Comino for some serious peace and quiet.

Map of Malta (10K)

Facts at a Glance
Environment
History
Economy
Culture
Events
Facts for the Traveller
Money & Costs
When to Go
Attractions
Off the Beaten Track
Activities
Getting There & Away
Getting Around
Recommended Reading
Lonely Planet Guides
On-line Info


Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of Malta
Area: 320 sq km (124 sq mi)
Population: 376,000
Capital city: Valletta (pop: 92000)
People: Arab, Sicilian, Norman, Spanish
Language: Maltese and English
Religion: Roman Catholic (98%)
Government: Constitutional parliamentary monarchy
President: Ugo Mifsud Bonnici
Prime Minister: Eddie Fenech Adami


Environment

The Maltese archipelago consists of three islands lying in the middle of the Mediterranean, 93km (57mi) south of Sicily and 350km (217mi) north of Libya. Malta, the largest, is shaped like a bottle of port, and is indented by many bays and harbours. Aside from a few low ridges and outcrops, Malta is pretty flat and composed mainly of limestone.

Gozo is greener and hillier than Malta, and its coast has high rugged cliffs. The islands' soil is generally thin and rocky, yielding very little flora. The main exception is Buskett Gardens, a lush valley of trees and orange groves protected by the imposing Dingli Cliffs on the southwestern coast of Malta.

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


History

Malta's odd position - near major Mediterranean shipping routes yet out of the way - has resulted in long stretches of isolation punctuated with often violent episodes of foreign intrusion. The island's oldest legacy is the megalithic temples that date from as far back as 3800 BC. The Phoenicians colonised the islands around 800 BC and stayed for about 600 years. The Romans made Malta part of their empire in 208 BC.

Apart from Ulysses's stay on Gozo (known as Calypso's Isle), the most famous visitor to the island was the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD. Tradition has it that he converted the islanders to Christianity, although Biblical and scientific scholars now suggest he may have been wrecked on Kefallinía in Greece. Several hundred years of peaceful isolation followed, until Arabs from North Africa arrived in 870. The Arabs exerted a powerful influence on the Maltese, introducing citrus fruits and cotton and warping the language. Norman invaders from Sicily displaced the Arabs in 1090, and for the next 400 years Malta remained under Sicilian sway.

In 1530 the Emperor of Spain gave the islands to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, in exchange for a rent of two Maltese falcons a year. The Knights, formed during the Crusades, were a dumping ground for those younger members of the European aristocracy who didn't stand to inherit property. They fortified the islands - just in time for an invasion of 30,000 Turks in 1565. The Turks laid siege to Malta for three months, but 700 knights and 8000 Maltese managed to hold them off. The knights were hailed as the saviours of Europe. For their pains they were awarded a newly designed and fortified city, Valletta.

With fame and power came corruption, and the knights turned to piracy. By the time Napoleon arrived in 1798, they were too enfeebled to put up a fight. It was the British who aided the Maltese in their fight against the French and, by 1814, Malta was a British colony. Britain turned Malta into a major naval base, making it an inviting target for the Axis during WWII. After a long blockade and five months of non-stop bombing raids, Malta was devastated.

Soon after the war, Malta began moving away from Britain and toward independence, achieving complete autonomy in 1964. By 1979, however, the government was signing agreements with Libya, the Soviet Union and North Korea, much to the chagrin of Britain and its allies. This flirtation with Communism ended with the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1987, which began leading Malta toward membership in the European Union. Trade and light industry have always been mainstays of Malta's economy, but tourism has been gaining in importance in recent decades.


Economic Profile

GDP: US$4.4 billion
GDP per head: US$12,000
Annual growth: 5%
Inflation: 5%
Major industries: Tourism, electronics, ship repair, construction
Major trading partners: Italy, Germany, UK


Culture

Mediterranean culture is dominant in Malta, but nearly 150 years of British rule left their mark. English is the co-official language (with Maltese), and bangers and mash aren't too hard to find. The Catholic Church is the custodian of national traditions, and its churches are the biggest landmarks in most towns and villages. The Maltese spend half the year celebrating their local patron saints, filling the streets with confetti and destroying their teeth with nougat and candy-floss. Although its influence is waning, Catholicism is a real force in most people's daily lives. Divorce and abortion are illegal, although younger generations have been trying to liberalise the law.

Many linguists trace the origin of Maltese to the Phoenician occupation of the islands. Maltese, a Semitic language, has survived the influence of Romance languages for hundreds of years, though it bears traces of Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, French and English. Among the country's best-known writers are Francis Ebejer and Joseph Attard. Ironically, Malta is probably best known to the world through a book that isn't about Malta, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, the title of which refers to a statuette of mysterious origin.

Malta is noted for its fine crafts - particularly its handmade lace, handwoven fabrics, blown glass and silver filigree. Folk traditions in music are very strong, and Malta holds a folksong competition every year.

The strongest influence on Maltese cuisine is Sicilian, though the popularity of grilled chops, bangers and mash and roast and three veg reveal a strong British strain. Local specialties include pastizzi (savoury cheese pastries), timpana (a macaroni, cheese and egg pie), and fenech (rabbit), which is usually fried or baked in a casserole or pie.


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; over the next 6 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.


Facts for the Traveller

Visas: Visas are not required for holiday visits of up to three months by Australians, Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders or North Americans.
Health risks: None
Time: GMT/UTC plus 1 hour
Electricity: 250V, 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric (see conversion table)


Money & Costs

Currency: Malta lira (Lm)
Exchange rate: US$1 = Lm0.40

Relative costs:

  • Budget meal: US$5-10
  • Moderate restaurant: US$10-25
  • Top-end restaurant: US$25 and upwards

  • Budget lodging: US$5-15
  • Moderate lodging: US$15-40
  • Top-end lodging: US$40 and upwards
By European standards, Malta is very good value. You can travel in comfort and style for US$75-100 per day, though even US$25-30 a day will get you pleasant hostel accommodation, a simple restaurant meal, a decent street-side snack and enough cold drinks to keep you going.

Banks are the best place to change money; they almost always offer a significantly better rate than hotels or restaurants. Restaurants and taxis expect a 10% tip. All major credit cards are widely accepted. Bargaining for handicrafts at stalls or markets is essential, but most shops have fixed prices. There's a 15% value-added tax on all consumer items.


When to Go

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


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 northeastern 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 southwestern 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 northeastern tip of the city, features guides dressed as knights and re-stagings of historic battles.


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' - the 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 Dürer woodcuts. The nearby suburb of Rabat (which translates roughly as 'suburb') has an interesting Museum of Roman Antiquities that offers exhibits on the island's 1000 years under Roman rule.


Haga Qim

Step back into the Copper Age at these prehistoric temples. Dating from as early as 3800 BC, Haga 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. Haga Qim and its neighbour, the Mnajdra temple, are near the village of Qrendi, about 15km (9mi) southwest of Valletta.


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.


Off the Beaten Track

Cottonera

Malta's 'Three Cities' - Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua - form the Cottonera. The name comes from the 17th century fortifications that protect the area, which has been a shipbuilding centre since the Middle Ages. The Cottonera is just outside of the tourist mainstream on Malta, offering a glimpse into the island's daily working life. The Maritime Museum has exhibits on Malta's naval history. Those with a taste for the macabre can visit the misnamed Folk Museum, housed in the Inquisitor's Palace in Vittoriosa. The museum has displays of Inquisitors' instruments, and you can take a peek at the Hall of Judgement and the dungeon. A few kilometres to the southwest is the Hypogeum, located in the suburb of Paola. The Hypogeum consists of a 4400 year old underground network of caves, tunnels and rooms, all carved out of rock with flint tools.


Inland Sea

This stretch of the western coast of Gozo has one of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean. The Inland Sea is a secluded pool of clear water and pebbly sand, sheltered by sheer cliffs. Centred around Dwejra Point, the area's outstanding feature is the Azure Window, a giant rock arch in the cliff.


Comino

Comino is the smallest island in the Maltese archipelago, and the sleepiest. There are no cars on the island, and only one hotel. Besides a few travellers, the only inhabitants are a handful of farmers. About the only thing to do here is scramble over the rocks along the shore and swim or snorkel in the many sheltered bays.


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 northeastern coast near Marsalforn. St George's Bay, on the southeastern 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 southwestern tip of the island.

Despite its rocky coastline, Malta has some good beaches. Gnejna and Golden Bays, on the northwestern 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.


Getting There & Away

Mainland Europe has the best access to Malta. Air Malta has flights between the main island and a host of other European cities. It also has flights between Malta and Cairo, Dubai, Damascus and Tunis. Other carriers with service to Malta include Alitalia, KLM, Lufthansa, Swissair and Tunisavia.

During summer, ferry service is available between Malta and Sicily and Genoa, Italy. The run between Malta and Catania (on Sicily) takes about three hours. All passengers departing by sea must pay a US$10 departure tax, plus a 15% government levy. The Malta International Airport is located about 5km (3mi) southwest of Villetta. Buses, taxis and rental cars are available.


Getting Around

The public bus service on Malta and Gozo is a good way to get around. Buses on Malta serve the major tourist areas and on Gozo go practically everywhere.

Though Valletta and the Cottonera are easily explored on foot, renting a car is a good option if you want to get to the farther reaches of the island, especially as taxis are expensive. Major and local agencies are located on the main island. You can also rent motorcycles and bicycles on Malta. Driving is on the left.

Regular ferry service links Cirkewwa on Malta and Mgarr on Gozo, taking about 20 minutes each way. There's also irregular ferry service between each island and Comino. Check locally for schedules.


Recommended Reading

  • Christopher Marlowe's Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta is a blank-verse play, first published in 1633, about Christian exploitation of Jews on Malta and the tragic end of one Jew's protest.
  • For the historical background to Marlowe's tale, see The Jews of Malta in the Late Middle Ages, by Godfrey Wettinger.
  • The Knights of Malta, by HJA Sire, is a recent scholarly account of the 900 year history of the nights of St John up to the present day.
  • The story of the Knight's quarter of a millennium slide from the saviours of Europe to Napoleon's pushovers is told in Alison Hoppen's The Fortification of Malta by the Order of St. John, 1530-1798.
  • Ernie Bradford tells the story of Malta during WWII in Siege Malta, 1940-43.
  • The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat is the story of a priest's experiences during WWII and other dramatic episodes. Monsarrat was a longtime resident of Gozo.
  • The Battle of Malta is a memoir of WWII by the Maltese novelist Joseph Attard.

Lonely Planet Guides

On-line Info

  • Take the subWWWay to Malta


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