Sprinkled in the middle of the Mediterranean some 80 kilometres south of Sicily, the archipelagic state of Malta is one of the smallest nations in the world. Throughout history, the country's strategic location has seen it coveted by major powers, from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, the French to the British, and many a civilization in between. Malta, Comino, and Gozo are the only islands inhabited out of six, and between them, the Republic of Malta offers modern visitors countless opportunities to delve back into the history of mankind, enjoy the rolling, bucolic countryside, and take in the epic seascape of the Mediterranean Sea.
Interesting Facts about Malta:
- When forced out of Rhodes by the Turks, Roman Emperor Charles V gave the Knights of Malta (a.k.a. Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem) a choice to relocate to Tripoli or Malta. Without their arrival in 1530, the fortressed city of Valletta might not ever have been built.
- Over 90% of Maltese are Roman Catholics, and there are over 350 churches on the Maltese islands.
- Malta's national canine is not the Maltese dog -- the national dog honor goes to the Pharaoh Hound dog.
- Malta's Fort Ricasoli was the film set location for Gladiator, Troy, Julius Ceasar, Helen of Troy, and HBO's A Game of Thrones, and the Château d'If in The Count of Cristo was filmed at Comino's St. Mary's Tower.
- The Maltese flag features the George Cross, awarded by King George VI to the country in 1942 for her people's bravery in WWII, the only flag in the world to bear a decoration bestowed from a foreign nation.
Despite its small land mass of just over 310 sq km, the country has bragging rights to three UNESCO world heritage sites, one of which recognizes seven prehistoric Megalithic temples dating back to approximately 3,000 B.C. Densely scattered around the islands, the numerous temples, fortresses, cathedrals, and palaces left behind by ancient powers all have an intriguing story to tell.
The must-visit capital Valletta was constructed during the rule of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and boasts over 300 historical monuments in shades of Baroque and Neo-classical within its fortified walls, including the magnificently ornate Anglican St. Paul's Pro-Cathedral, Roman Catholic St. Paul's Co-Cathedral, Manoel Theater, and the Grandmaster's Palace, formerly the residence of the city founder's nephew and now housing the House of Representatives as well as the Office of the President.
Over on Gozo, the oldest free-standing structures of the Megalithic temples (Guinness World Record holders), are at Ggantija, its structures dating back circa 3,600 B.C., predating the Great Pyramid of Giza, whose construction started over a millennium later in 2584. The Citadel, also in Gozo, was fortified in the Bronze Ages, even before the Phoenicians arrived, and houses an atmospheric 17th century cathedral, while bastions and air shelters provide a peek into Gozo's tumultuous past.
Beneath the Surface
There's more than meets the eye to Malta, with more fascinations tucked away underground and even covered by the sea over the ages. In 1999, divers discovered an underwater Stone Age temple off the shores of Slieme, Malta. With its unique construction comprising single large pieces of stone, archeologists postulated that it must have been built when the sea level was much lower, dating the avenues and arches back to the last ice age over 12,000 years ago.
The Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni is a subterranean labyrinth comprising interconnected chambers spread over three levels, and though later used as a necropolis, is considered the only ancient subterranean temple in the world. Visitors should note there is a cap of 80 visitors a day to the Hypogeum, so book early. St. Paul's Catacombs -- half of the St. Paul's and St. Agatha's complex located just outside Mdina -- offer another eery fascination in what lies beneath, with two of the 24 catacombs open to the public. The extensive underground maze of cemeteries are the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity on the islands, and feature various burial types as well as representing religions including the Pagan, Christian, and Jewish belief systems.
The Mediterranean unsurprisingly plays a big part in boosting Malta's charm. Be it cave, reef, or wreck diving, there are plenty of underwater playgrounds off the three main limestone islands. The relatively cold waters, though perfect for coral, are not as teeming with fish as other warmer tropical dive sties around the world. With so many powers having fought over these islands in the past, however, wartime wrecks are not uncommon, including the British destroyer HMS Maori, which sank the German "unsinkable" battleship Bismark during WWII. To enjoy the sea from drier land, the cliffs at Dingli, Malta, offer epic coastal vistas from up to 220 meters above sea level, the highest in the country. Much of Gozo is uneventful -- in the best possible sense of the phrase -- offering wanderers and ramblers a chance to temporarily escape civilization, with Ta'Dgiebi, the Gordan Lighthouse, and San Blas Valley among the most favoured walks through the countryside. A number of quiet beaches and coves on Gozo provide inspiring resting spots to rest the soles and the soul, including snorkeller-friendly Hondoq ir-Rummien, red-sanded Ramla il-Hamra, and Dwejra, the latter home to some of the most stunning coastal topography in the country.
Villa Holidays in Malta
Malta proves that the size of a country is not proportional to its attractions. With all the sights and experience in close proximity, villa guests are able to enjoy a luxury home base from which to explore the country's myriad historical and natural wonders.
Travel & Transport
Malta International Airport, commonly referred to as Luqa or Valletta Airport, it located just outside the capital Valletta on Malta island. Air Malta and Ryanair operate the most flights, mainly regional, to and from Malta, including routes to international travel hubs such as London's Heathrow and Gatwick, as well as Germany's Munich and Hamburg airports. There are regular ferry services between the main three islands, and visitors can also arrive via water from Italy (Pozzallo and Sicily's Catania).
Malta Top 5 Travel Tips [Bucket List]
1. The Little Sister
Head over to Comino to sail, swim, or sunbathe at the Blue Lagoon with clear waters that sparkle, you guessed it, a lovely shade of blue! The secret's out of the bag, though, so its best to go in the early morning, and when the tourist hoards land, pack a picnic and head off hiking around the island.
2. Mystical Dreams
Live like the gods on Gozo, the picturesque island accepted as Ogygia, where Calypso held Odysseus captive in Homer's Odyssey. Visit the red sands on Ramla il-Hamra beach, the spot where Calypso's Cave is reported to be located.
3. Through the Window
Along Gozo's western coast, a trio of natural wonders, included the much photographed Azure Window, framed by cliff outcroppings which "open" up to the cerulean seas yonder. While you're there, it would be silly to miss swimming in the Inland Sea (actually a lake connected via a tunnel to the sea).
4. Tight Squeeze
There are dive sites a plenty all around Malta, including through wrecks, over reefs, or into caves. If tight spaces are your thing, try the Blue Hole and The Chimney just off the shores of Dwejra's Azure Window or Lantern Point off Comino, the latter with a 16 metre-deep chimney drop.
5. Oldy Worldy
There's no denying Malta's heritage trump card. With historical forts and temples whispering ancient tales of old it's hard to avoid the sense of antiquity, and easy access means everyone should schedule at least a visit Malta's Mdina and Valletta, as well as The Citadel on Gozo.