Itinerary: Valletta – Blue Grotto – Hagar Qim – Mdina – Gozo – Marsaxlokk
The tiny country of Malta is located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, south of the Italian island of Sicily. It consists of three islands: the main island called Malta, the smaller Gozo and the even smaller Comino. The country is a three-hour flight from the Netherlands and has approximately 435,000 inhabitants.
The history of Malta goes way back in time. The island has known a highly developed culture since prehistoric times. The oldest of the major prehistoric complexes in Malta (often referred to as temples, although it is not clear whether they were actually temples) date from the period 3600-2500 BCE. That is a thousand years older than the pyramids in Egypt!
Malta has always been an important stop in the trade between the peoples around the Mediterranean Sea and because of its strategic position the islands have been conquered several times in the course of the centuries: first by the Romans, then by the Arabs and then by the Normans.
In the sixteenth century, Malta came under the rule of the Knighthood of Saint John, in the hope that they could could be of assistence in coping with the rising Ottoman empire. In 1565 the Ottomans try to conquer Malta, but in the Great Battle of Malta the Ottomans are defeated by the soldiers of the knighthood. The Great Battle of Malta is still commemorated every year on the national day, September 8.
Despite keeping off the Ottomans, the powerplay between the European superpowers meant Malta would be conquered several times. In 1798, the islands were conquered by Emperor Napoleon’s France. Two years later, the country came under British rul and from 1814 Malta was the crown colony of Great Britain.
After the Second World War Malta got a form of self-government, but it took until 1964 before it became an independent country. Initially, Malta remained part of the British Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth as head of state, but that too came to an end when Malta became a republic in 1974. The country has been a member of the European Union since 2004.
This history and all those different cultures (Romans, Arabs, Normans, the knighthood, the French and the British) have all left their mark on the culture of today’s Malta.
At the time of the Great Battle of Malta, Mdina was the capital of Malta. After the defeat of the Ottomans, the Knighthood of Saint John built a new capital on the Sceberras Peninsula, on the north side of Malta, where until then only a fortress stood. The city was named after Jean de la Vallette, the leader of the knighthood during the Great Battle.
Valletta is the smallest capital of the European Union. The old town, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is only one kilometer by six hundred meters and is the oldest city in the world where the streets are laid out in a so-called ‘grid pattern’. The fact that the Sceberras Peninsula was rocky before Valletta was built on it, is clearly visible: some streets rise and descend steeply, some have steps to make the climb a bit easier. The narrow, straight streets are surrounded by high, wide defensive walls.
It is sunny and warm (35 degrees) when I explore Valletta. One of the first things I notice is that the street signs are bilingual: Maltese and English. And all the buildings in the old town are built with the same yellowish/sand colored stone. Except for a few places, such as the new city gate and the modern parliament building behind it, the old town is a collection of beautiful historic architecture.
Such as the Grand Master’s Palace located on the large Pjazza San Gorg. This was once the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knighthood of Saint John. After Malta’s independence, it was the seat of parliament until it moved to the modern parliament building in 2015. The Grand Master’s Palace is still the official residence of the President of Malta.
The palace has a long, green, closed balcony (‘gallarija’). This inspired Maltese to cover their balconies as well, with the result that you see this unique Maltese style of closed wooden balconies all over the old town. Next to the Grand Master’s Palace is the National Library with a beautiful colonnade in front.
Most of the streets in the old town are quite narrow, preventing the sun from reaching the ground. Which is nice, given the climate in Malta. One of the most photogenic streets is Strait Street. This was once the ‘red light district’ of Valletta. At the end of the peninsula is Fort St. Elmo. This fort was built in 1552 and was intended to guard the entrance to the Grand Harbour. It now houses a war museum. A little further on is the Siege Bell Memorial, a memorial to the Maltese soldiers who fell in World War II.
On the east side of the peninsula are the Lower Barrakka Garden and, a little further on, the Upper Barrakka Garden. These green oases in a city which otherwise has very little greenery, were created at the end of the sixteenth century as a garden for members of the knighthood. Both gardens are situated on top of the fortifications and offer fantastic views over Valletta, the Grand Harbor and Vittoriosa and Senglea on the other side of the water.
Also at the Upper Barrakka Garden is the Saluting Battery, a row of cannons aimed at the water. These were not intended to shoot at ships in the Grand Harbour, but to greet them. A shot is still fired every day with some ceremony and many tourists.
Down at the foot of the fortress wall, near the ferry terminal, are traditional wooden boats (‘dghajsa’). One of the boatsmen takes me to the other side of the Grand Harbor, which takes just a few minutes. Like Valletta, Vittoriosa is built on a narrow peninsula. Until the Great Battle, the town was called Birgu (many people still call it that) and the place where the Grand Masters of the Knighthood of Saint John had settled down.
Vittoriosa consists of photogenic narrow streets with old houses with wooden balconies. In the sixteenth century, the Inquisitor’s Palace was a court, tribunal and prison. The Armory was, obviously, the armory of the Order of Knights. And amid these ancient buildings is the humble Misrah ir-Rebha Square, where the Victory Monument commemorates the Maltese victory in the Great Battle.
At the tip of the peninsula stands Fort St. Angelo. This fortress was the headquarters of the Order of the Knights during the Great Battle. In the twentieth century it served as the headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet in Malta. Just like on Fort St. Elmo, Fort St. Angelo also flies the flag of the Knighthood of Saint John (red with a white cross), in addition to the flag of Malta (a red area and a white area with a cross). A sharp contrast to all that historical heritage is the fleet of super luxury yachts in the port of Vittoriosa.
Blue Grotto, Hagar Qim and Mdina
On my third day in Malta I walk to the bus station, where I take the bus to Wied iz-Zurrieq. The route does not exactly follow the shortest route, but runs through a number of small villages. Kudos to the way the Maltese bus drivers direct the buses down those narrow streets!
Along the way I get a good picture of what Malta looks like outside the capital. It’s kind of a mix of Sicily and North Africa. In Valletta I had the feeling of walking in Palermo or another ancient Italian city, but riding in the southern part of Malta, I feel I could be in Morocco rather than Europe.
After half an hour I arrive in Wied iz-Zurrieq, a small hamlet on the south side of Malta. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the Order of Knights built eighteen watchtowers along the entire coast of Malta and Gozo. These watchtowers had to ensure that hostile Ottomans were identified in time. They are still there today, including here at Wied iz-Zurrieq.
I buy a ticket for a boat trip to the caves along the south coast of the island. With a small boat and four other tourists we sail into the gently waving Mediterranean Sea. It’s always nice to be out on the water and see the coast from the other side. We sail along high cliffs to the most famous of the caves: the Blue Grotto. This cave, located behind a beautiful natural rock arch, is so named because of the blue reflection of the sunlight in the crystal clear water.
After the boat trip (and a coffee stop) I walk from Wied iz-Zurrieq to the largest prehistoric ruins of Malta: the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. It is a two kilometer walk and sweltering hot, more than 35 degrees. The complexes of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are built on a high cliff overlooking the sea. A kind of large white tent roof protects the ruins from further erosion. The temples have been built with huge stones, the largest of which weigh up to twenty tons. They are verry old, built between 3600 and 2500 BCE, but unfortunately little remains of them.
From Hagar Qim I take the bus to Mdina, the former capital of Malta. Mdina is a walled city (medina actually means ‘walled city’) located where an ancient citadel used to be, 1000 years before our era. From the ninth century the Arabs built high defensive walls and dug a (dry) moat. Stepping into Mdina is stepping back in time. The almost deserted streets are extremely photogenic, almost deserted and even more beautiful than those in busier Valletta.
Day four of my visit to Malta (the temperature has now risen to 38 degrees…) I spend on the neighboring island of Gozo, Ghawdex in Maltese. At a quarter to nine the fast ferry leaves for Gozo and in 45 minutes we sail from Valletta to the port of Mgarr. From there I take the bus to the ‘capital’ of Gozo: Victoria, also known as Rabat. Rabat has less than seven thousand inhabitants, so it’s actually more like a village.
The heart of Victoria is Pjazza Indipendenza or it-Tokk (‘the meeting place’), a modest terraced square with the striking circular facade of a 1733 building that once housed the city council. To the south of Pjazza Indipendenza lies Il Borgo, a neighborhood with old narrow streets and the atmospheric Pjazza San Gorg.
On the north side of Pjazza Indipendenza you will find Il Kastell, the walled citadel on a hill, which dates largely from the fifteenth century. Here too old, deserted streets are surrounded by the high defensive walls and bastions, all in the same yellowish/sand colored stone. From the walls you have a panoramic view of Gozo.
From Victoria I take the bus to Zebbug, on the north side of Gozo, and walk towards the coast from there. At Xwieni Bay, a small bay with a pebble beach and clear water, are the ancient Salt Pans. Here, salt has been extracted from seawater since the time of the Roman Empire. Seawater runs into shallow basins, evaporates and the salt is left behind. It is a photogenic place, with the Mediterranean Sea in the background.
After sitting by the bay for a while, I walk to nearby Marsalforn, once a fishing village, now mainly a cluster of holiday resorts. From there I take the bus to Xaghra, a sleepy village that feels almost deserted. Here I visit the Ggantija Temples. This prehistoric complex (or what is left of it, which, to be honest, is not much) was built between 3600 and 3000 BCE. Here too, meters high walls made of huge stones, up to four meters high and weighing more than fifty tons each.
In Xaghra I also check out the Ta’Kola windmill from 1725. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Knights of Saint John built these kind of mills all over Gozo, intended for the production of flour. There are only a few left.
The sun is high in the sky again and the temperature is already above thirty degrees when I am having breakfast on the roof terrace of my hotel in Valletta on Friday morning. After breakfast I take the bus to Marsaxlokk, an old fishing village in the southeast of Malta. The natural harbor here is where the Ottomans began their invasion during the Great Battle of Malta and where Napoleon came ashore to conquer Malta. More recently, in 1989, the famous summit meeting between US President Bush Sr. and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took place here.
Not much reminds of all those historic events. Marsaxlokk is a fishing village as you imagine it: A quay with old houses along a bay where colorful fishing boats bob in the water. It’s a bit of a shame that the horizon is being ruined by a power station and a container port.
After strolling down the waterfront and having coffee, I walk over to St. Peter’s Pool. This is a popular swimming spot, just over two kilometers from Marsaxlokk. It is a hot walk, but, at the highest point, including a beautiful view over the Il-Hofra z-Zghira bay. The St. Peters Pool, a little further on, is a beautiful small bay between almost flat rocks, with clear azure water. I spend some time relaxing, take a cooling dip in the water and then I walk back to Marsaxlokk to catch the bus back to Valletta.
On my last day in Malta, I visit the MUZA museum in Valletta and relax with a book in the shade of the trees in the Upper Barrakka Garden. Early on Sunday morning it’s time to go back to the Netherlands, after a sweltering, but very nice week in historically and culturally very interesting Malta!