Malta HeaderFlying Flag of Malta

Malta - Andrew and Jacqui - 2003

Map showing position of Malta and Gozo  Map of Malta with flag


Malta culturally is a mix of Europe and North Africa. Its strategic position in the heart of the Mediterranean has given it a long and interesting history, not least winning the George Cross from the British for the defence of the island during World War II.

The island's links with Britain have long made it a popular holiday destination for the British.

The capital is Valletta and is packed with historic buildings. Not to be missed is a trip to the smaller island of Gozo which sits to the north west of Malta island itself.


Malta - Andrew and Jacqui - 2003

Our trip to Malta did not start well. On arrival in Bugibba, a flyblown English-only type resort which we ended up in by booking a cheap trip, we were immediately accosted by a time share tout. He managed to catch us and take us to his office (on the promise of free bottles of wine) where we then spent a couple of hours trying to avoid being sold a timeshare in Malta – and thank God we stuck by our guns, I can’t think of anything worse than coming back to this island repeatedly – one visit sees pretty much everything! We did manage to escape eventually, promising to return the next day to discuss matters further. We never did, naturally, and avoided the area of the man’s office like the plague for the rest of the week.

Things improved a little the next day when we encountered our first example of the notorious Maltese Bus.

The buses on Malta are something to behold. Doors are more or less unknown, on some flooring is optional in places, seats are wooden and occasionally fixed firmly to the floor. The drivers are, to a man, insane, pitiless maniacs behind a wheel. To ride the buses on Malta is to take you life in your hands. Needless to say, it is an essential part of any visit!

Typical Maltese bus

Our bus took us to Valletta, the Maltese capital city.

Valletta is the highlight of any visit to Malta. Although not on the scale of Venice, Barcelona or even Naples, it is one of the great Mediterranean cities. Occupied since prehistory, much of what remains today dates to the medieval and Renaissance periods.

Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Valletta

Typical Valletta Houses

The buses drop you by the fountain immediately outside the city walls. Valletta is surrounded by fortifications and Malta is well known for its defence during World War II (when the whole island was granted the George Cross for Bravery).

Jacqui eating Maltesers (ho ho) by Valletta's walls

Fountains and Churches in Valletta

To enter the city you must pass across a bridge over a deep dry moat before going through the City Gate. Immediately inside you are presented with a vista dominated by Our Lady of Victories on one side and Republic Street slowly descending away from you through the centre of the city. Republic Street, inevitably, leads to Republic Square and here with equal inevitability stand horse and carriages awaiting tourists.

Church of Our Lady of Victories, Valletta, Malta

Horses waiting for customers, Valletta

Andrew and Jacqui by Grand Harbour, Valletta

We decided that a carriage ride would be quite fun, so boarded the one who bartered the best deal. We had agreed with him that we could jump on and off of the carriage at a few points and so we began to bump around the old streets of Valletta. Just as our bottoms were becoming numb from clattering over cobblestones, we pulled up near the Lower Barracca Gardens from where there is a great view across the Grand Harbour.

Grand Harbour, Valletta

Looking across Grand Harbour to Fort St. Angelo

Andrew overlooking Grand Harbour, Valletta

The Bell, Grand Harbour, Valletta

Just beyond is the Great Siege Bell Monument and it was here that our driver picked us up again and we began to trundle around to the end of the peninsula by Fort St. Elmo which was also as it happened where our carriage ride finished. Disappointingly the Fort was not open on our day in Valletta, so we walked instead around the northern edge of the fortifications – past the French, English and German Curtains (as they are called) a series of walls that surround the seaward side of the city.

The Other Side of Valletta

Looking towards Fort St. Elmo, Valletta

Typical Valletta street

Walls of Fort St. Elmo, Valletta

Beyond that we passed back through the town and found ourselves high up on the St. John’s Bastion which overlooks the City Gate. Surprisingly, we had walked around the whole of the old City in very little time.

City Walls, Valletta

More of Valletta' defences

A view giving an idea of the size of the city walls of Valletta

Descending once again we sought out St. John’s Co-Cathedral – from the outside a rather drab looking structure, but once inside every inch of available surface is covered in decoration. The most striking thing being the floor which his made up of a series of mosaic tableaux.

St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta

Interior of St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta

Floor of St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta

An attempted toilet stop gave us the information that there was no water to be had in Valletta today – it was all used up(!). So there was to be no food here. Thirst was cured by the application of coca-cola, but hunger was still there. We bought some provisions and with a small prayer boarded the bus back to Bugibba. We were staying self-catering so that night I cooked dinner.

It is said that there are enough churches on Malta to allow you to visit a different one on every day of the year (this is actually a fact!). The following day we were booked on a guided tour on which we see a few of them.

The first, and the most famous, is the Dome Church in Mosta. Mosta is a nothing town aside from its huge church. Incredibly the Dome Church was built by the villagers of Mosta genuinely with their own hands over the space of about 27 years in the early 1800s. Bearing in mind it has the third largest unsupported dome in the world this is a remarkable feat. The church is said to be big enough to accommodate a thousand worshippers, in a town with a smaller population that is some achievement. In one of the small antechambers in the church stands the shell of the bomb which nearly destroyed all of this work in World War II.

Mosta Dome Church, Malta

Inside the Dome I fell foul, for the first time, of the Maltese reverence for their churches. I took a picture and was roundly told that I was a blaspheming philistine and if I so much as raised my camera again I’d be out on my ear. Thus chastised we left the church and got back on the tour bus.

Interior of the Dome of the Mosta Dome Church, Malta

Our next port of call was the Malta Glass Factory near Mdina. Maltese glass is well known for its quality and robustness, so it was nice to visit. However, the tour was only marginal – the demonstration only extended to one man heating up some glass and then you were packed off to the shop to browse and spend money. We spent a little but were not particularly impressed with this paucity of tour.

Jacqui at the Mdina Glass Factory

Our next stop, as the weather began to change for the worse, was a small cliffside chapel. Then it was on to Rabat – one of several towns whose name gives away Malta’s North African history. Once in Rabat the heavens opened and the water shortage in Valletta was abruptly cured.

Chapel on the cliffs of the south coast

The main thing to see in Rabat is the Church of St. Paul. This is St. Paul the Apostle who is said to have landed on Malta in 60 AD as a result of a shipwreck. He was on his way to Rome and only stayed around 30 days, but the seeds of Christianity were sown and have certainly blossomed here! Oddly enough, St. Luke, who recorded St. Paul’s visit to Malta, is scarcely mentioned on the island for some reason.

Underneath St. Paul’s church is the miniscule little cave where he is said to have lived during his stay. Although it seems very likely that St. Paul did visit Malta there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for his living in this particular place.

Walking in the rain in Rabat, Malta

St. Paul's Church, Rabat, Malta

We were already running late by the time the tour arrived at Mdina, the old capital of Malta. By now the weather conditions had deteriorated considerably and in the end we merely popped outside to a café to wait for the bus to return us home. We knew we were renting a car the next day and could easily return to Mdina.

In retrospect it wasn’t really worth doing a guided tour on Malta. As long as you have a car nowhere on the island is very far from anywhere else. So if you don’t mind playing avoid the potholes, we would recommend driving to tours.

The next day the sun was back – or at least the heavy rain was gone – so we drove our little car to Mdina.

View of Mdina

The Gateway into Mdina, Malta

Mdina is an ancient place, contained entirely within ancient city walls it was the capital of Malta until it was moved to Valletta by the Knights Hospitalliers. Entrance is through the main city gate (dodging any passing carriages)

Coming through!!

Once inside the walls you enter an area of tiny twisting alleyways which – together with the name of the place – certainly give away its origins. This couldn’t be much more like a North African/Arab casbah if it tried!

Outside Mdina Cathedral

One major difference, this being Malta after all, is inevitably a church – or in this case Cathedral – slap bang in the centre of it all. Mdina Cathedral is another of Malta’s more memorable churches and well worth a look around.

Inside Mdina Cathedral

Twisting Mdina alleyway (1)

Twisting Mdina alleyway (2)

Mostly, though, Mdina is a place to wander around, browse in little shops and generally mooch. Its small size means you never really get lost and occasionally you will emerge to find places of interest or long views out across the central plain of the island. Mdina sits almost dead centre in Malta.

Andrew on the ramparts at Mdina, Malta

As you leave Mdina it is worth looking back and seeing it from afar. Then you really get a feeling for its fortified nature and commanding position. It was probably the most rewarding town to visit in Malta and we were glad that we hadn’t rushed around it in the rain on the tour.

Long view of Mdina

Another long view of Mdina

After a brief stop at the fortified Wignacourt Tower in St. Paul’s Bay we headed to the far south of the island – to the little fishing town of Marsaxlokk.

Wignacourt Tower, St. Paul's Bay, Malta

Marsaxlokk is one of the most picturesque towns on the island with a wide sweep of bay from the church at one side to the site of the first Malta airport at the far end.

Marsaxlokk Harbour, Malta

Luzzu boats in the harbour at Marsaxlokk

Marsaxlokk Church, Malta

Luzzu boats in Marsaxlokk, Malta

Central to this is the fishing harbour where you get to see the best concentration of the luzzu fishing boats which have come to be the symbol of Malta. Painted brightly in yellow, blue and red with eyes painted onto the prows, these vessels bob and dance colourfully in the harbour against the blue sea and sky and certainly make for a lovely scene.

Andrew with Luzzu boat, Marsaxlokk, Malta

Add to this the little row of excellent fish restaurants along the waterside and you have the recipe for an excellent afternoons outing.

Leaving Marsaxlokk we made the slight error of not going back the way we had come in, but leaving by the coast road which passed the old airport and some rather rough looking barrack buildings. We then found ourselves in a bizarre hinterland of semi-abandoned houses and rusted detritus – it felt more than ever like we were in some forsaken part of North Africa, the only life was the large dogs chasing after our car barking furiously. It was a relief when the car bumped out of this unpleasant area and out into the open countryside once again. It was quite a shock to see such squalor in Malta, especially so close to one of the islands nicest places.

Detail of Luzzu boat

A brief stop at Mgarr Church – which also felt like it was in the middle of an abandoned town but at least wasn’t full of stray dogs – and it was back to the modern, neon version of civilisation that was Bugibba.

Mgarr Church, Malta

The day had been our best in Malta – both Mdina and Marsaxlokk were very nice – but the contrasting squalid areas and the dusty, potholed roads stopped us ever quite coming to love Malta.

Bugibba - where we were staying

Prehistoric Tombs

1. The Tarxien Temples

Jacqui with ancient woman's feet, Tarxien Temples, Malta

The next day we had set aside to visit some of the ancient sites of Malta. Our first stop was on the outskirts of Valletta in an unlovely and forgotten suburb. When building work was started here the workers uncovered some ancient remains. These are known as the Tarxien Temples. They are said to date to around 3250 BC, making them amongst the oldest places of worship anywhere in Europe. One of the most famous finds here are the massive sculpture of female legs – the top half has never been found – which are the subject of many an amusing picture and postcard.

The Tarxien Temples, Malta

2. Hagar Qim

The Temples at Hagar Qim, Malta

Across the island from here is the best preserved of the ancient sites on Malta – Hagar Qim. This is a more elaborate series of temples dating to 3600 BC and is considered amongst the most ancient religious sites on Earth. The complex of temples is close to circular and within it are a series of chambers which are also circular.

Interior at Hagar Qim, Malta

There is a good deal to discover at Hagar Qim and its sheer age gives it a feeling of mystery and a great atmosphere.

Andrew at Hagar Qim, Malta

3. Mnajdra

Mnajdra Temples, Malta

Just 500 metres away, a short walk towards the sea, is the Mnajdra Temples. A relative stripling compared to Hagar Qim – a mere 3000 years BC – this complex is more open than its predecessor and, perhaps as a consequence, has suffered a little more from its exposed position.

Detail of Mnajdra Temples, Malta

The combination of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra as good as next to each other gives Malta one of the largest collections of pre-2500 BC structures in the world and was one of the biggest surprises of Malta which was not a place we were particularly expecting to see some of Europe’s most precious ancient monuments.

Mnajdra, Malta

A short distance away, and our last stop of our last full day, is one of the planet’s many famous Blue Grottos. It seems every island worth its salt has a “blue grotto” somewhere. Malta, having been in the tourism business for some time, makes a big thing of its version.

So you drive down to the little quayside and get in a tiny boat (I went on my own as Jacqui didn’t fancy it). The boat then chugs around the coast to a small sea cave which, due to the white sand and the odd way that the light tends to hit the water, appears to be filled with brilliant cobalt blue sea.

Andrew departing for the Blue Grotto, Malta

Approaching the Blue Grotto

The Blue Grotto, plus boat - Malta

It was quite atmospheric, but the feeling was somewhat diluted by the fact that I was on one of about six boats bobbing around in the cave, so it didn’t feel much like intrepid exploring. It was worth the trip, but if we hadn’t already been close by for the ancient temples I’m not sure it would have been worth seeking out the southern side of the island just to visit.

Blue blue water!

Leaving the Blue Grotto behind

The next day was our last in Malta. In the morning we had time to head to Mellieha, on the narrow bit of land near the western end of the island and as close as we got to Gozo.

Roman Beehives, Malta

Mellieha has the remains of some old Roman beehives which we briefly looked in at before driving up to the plateau high above the town on which the rather fine church stands. This morning was very hot indeed, the hottest day we’d had, and we spent a little while soaking in the rays by the church before heading off to our final destination.

Mellieha Church, Malta

Andrew in Mellieha, Malta

This is the closest thing Malta has to an actual castle – rather than a fortification – the Red Fort. Properly known as Fort St. Agatha it was built as a defence against the Ottomans around 1648. As such it is a very late example of a high tower type fortification, by this time most others were low angle bastions of the type that surround Valletta.

The Red Fort, near Mellieha, Malta

Andrew and Jacqui at The Red Fort, Malta

The Red Fort has a commanding position, high above the northern end of Malta, and as such would have been strategically well placed to observe shipping passing along between Malta and Sicily. In the hot sunshine of this day it positively glowed red, against the deep blue sky and with the profusion of bushes around it gave me a great photograph in bold colours.

Three Bold Colours - Red Fort, Malta

Detail of Red Fort and Blue Sky - Malta

From here we drove straight to the airport where we left our car and off we went. We managed to not to get to Gozo, but otherwise we did Malta fair justice. It’s not a place we’d particularly hurry back to, nothing was especially wrong with it, but at the same time I can’t see it repaying repeated visits with anything new.

Back to Western Europe

Back to Western Europe

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