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Experience Malta: Small island in the Mediterranean abounds in reasons to visit

From this spot, perched high above Valletta’s Grand Harbour, the world is all light and limestone, golden-hued, hot, humid and surrounded by the sparkling – and oh-so-inviting – cerulean Mediterranean Sea.

I’m standing just beyond two rows of terraced arches, built in 1661, in the Upper Barrakka Gardens on the upper tier of the St. Peter and St. Paul Bastion. The fortification was completed in 1570 by the Order of St. John five years after the Great Siege of Malta.

Today, it offers one of the best vantage points in the capital of this tiny island country, located 60 miles south of Sicily. From here, I have a spectacular view dominated by brilliant blue sea and ochre-colored edifices, including those of the three fortified cities – Birgu, also known as Vittoriosa, and Senglea and Cospicua – across the water.

Malta is small – just 122 square miles – and strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean. Three of the seven islands that make up the archipelago – Malta, the largest, as well as Gozo and Comino – are inhabited. And they have been visited or invaded, settled or ruled, by almost every great power in the area. All – from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Knights of St. John, French and British – have contributed to the country’s rich culture and history.

Malta, to me, is a perennially intriguing place to visit. But this year, Valletta reigns as the 2018 European Capital of Culture, and the timing to travel there perhaps couldn’t be more perfect. From prehistoric temples and relics of the knights and World War II to fireworks-filled festas, sun-washed beaches and filming locations, Malta has much to offer.

Go to a gun show

Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens provide a perfect perch to watch a cannon blast from the Saluting Battery on the lower tier of the bastion. Eight working replica cannons have been added to the battery and, at noon, one is loaded and fired in a ceremonial salute. The British dug into the rock under the gardens to build the Lascaris War Rooms, which served as their headquarters for Malta’s defense during World War II as well as the Allied Invasion of Sicily in 1943. The gardens, also home to a fountain and outdoor cafe, are linked to shops and restaurants at the Valletta waterfront below by a lift that drops 190 feet in 25 seconds. www.lascariswarrooms.com.

Experience knighthood

The Palace State Rooms and Palace Armoury at the Grand Masters’ Palace in Valletta offer a look into the workings of the Order of St. John, represented by the eight-pointed Maltese cross – a symbol seen throughout the country. In the Grand Council Chamber, frescoes depict the events of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when Ottoman Turks unsuccessfully attempted to invade the island. Armor from the siege era from both sides of the battle is on display. heritagemalta.org.

Pretend to be a noble

Casa Rocca Piccola is the 16th-century palace of a noble Maltese family in Valletta. The privately-owned palace, built in 1580, is the ancestral home of the Ninth Marquis de Piro, who lives in the palace and opened it to the public. Don’t be surprised to see him carrying a pet parrot to a perch in the garden just before the start of the first tour of the morning or his wife coming through the summer dining room, opening windows. The family archives are on display, along with silver, art work, furniture and, buried deep underground in a converted cistern, bomb shelters used during World War II. www.casaroccapiccola.com.

Carouse with Carravaggio

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a high-Baroque, Roman Catholic cathedral with rows of ornate chapels running along a wide nave and a floor of intricate, inlaid-marble tombs. The masterpiece of realism “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” completed in Malta in 1608 by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a well-known brawler with a long police record as well as a famous Italian artist, attracts crowds. www.stjohnscocathedral.com.

Take a coffee break

The ornate Caffe Cordina, established in 1837, is a great spot for a pick-me-up. The pastry case is full of decadent and decorative creations, from entire chocolate cakes to individual tarts, eclairs and servings of tiramisu. Try traditional honey rings, or qaghaq ta’ l-ghasel, and a cappuccino. Or, sip an Aperol spritz, which seem to be everywhere in Valletta this summer. There’s air-conditioning inside. But tables shaded by umbrellas in Valletta’s Victoria Square offer prime people-watching. The menu includes salads, sandwiches, smoothies, pasta and pastizzi, traditional, savory, Maltese pastries filled with mushy peas or ricotta cheese. Wash one down with a light Malta-made Cisk lager. www.caffecordina.com.

Feast at the food market

The newly refurbished Victorian-era Is-Suq tal-Belt food market – it opened in January – houses a communal dining area and food stalls serving traditional Maltese dishes as well as pizza, tapas, gelato and more. The lower-level offers a specialty grocery store with fresh pasta, baked goods, spices, meats, cheese, wine and more. issuqtalbelt.com.

Kick it with Kinnie

This bitter orange soda is basically the national beverage of Malta. The recipe for the carbonated, bittersweet, Malta-made soft drink is secret, but it’s believed to contain aromatics such as anise, licorice, vanilla, ginseng and rhubarb. Think of it as the Aperol or Campari of soft drinks. If you order it at a restaurant, be sure to ask for ice. www.kinnie.com.

Sample Stuffat tal-Fenek

Rabbit stew is the national dish of Malta. Rabbit is slow-cooked in red wine with garlic, onions, herbs and spices until it’s falling-apart tender, rich and flavorful.

Stroll through the “Silent City”

The quiet, narrow, cobbled streets of Mdina, the island’s old capital, offer medieval and baroque architecture. “Game of Thrones” fans might recognize the main gate as a filming location in season one. The ditch around the walled city, made into a public garden five years ago, is home to the Malta International Food Festival, held mid-July. Indulge in a decadent slice of cake at Fontanella Tea Garden, which is located atop the bastion and offers sweeping views of the island. www.maltainternationalfoodfestival.com and fontanellateagarden.com.

Explore ancient temples

Malta is home to a number of prehistoric temples, dating from the neolithic period (5,000 to 4,100 B.C.) to the Bronze Age (2,500 to 700 B.C.). Qrendi, along the southern coast, offers two compounds that date to the island’s Ggantijia phase (3,600 to 3,200 B.C.), older than both Stonehenge in Britain and the pyramids in Egypt. Hagar Qim sits on a hilltop overlooking the sea and islet and bird sanctuary of Filfla. Mnajdra lies in a hollow about 550 yards away. Hamrija Tower, built in 1659 by the Order of St. John, is part of the same archeological park. heritagemalta.org.

See a sea cave

The Blue Grotto on Malta’s south coast is a must-stop. Busloads of tourists come to the cliff-top viewpoint to see the massive arch and cave system. It’s best to go early in the morning, especially in summer. Boat tours are also available. www.visitmalta.com/en/info/bluegrotto.

Soak up some sun

Malta has many beaches and swimming holes. Ghadira Bay, not far from the Gozo ferry terminal on the northeast coast, offers the biggest sandy beach in Malta. It’s also one of the most popular and tends to be busy, especially on summer weekends. It’s good for families with small children because the water remains shallow for quite a distance. Golden Bay, near a large five-star hotel on the northwest coast, is a top spot for sunbathing tourists. Just south is the less crowded and less touristy Gnejna Bay, the go-to beach for villagers of nearby Mgarr. Boathouses, built into limestone, line the southwest side. They’re used to store fishing and boating equipment as well as double as makeshift beach cabanas. Keep an eye out for jellyfish, particularly mauve stingers. www.visitmalta.com/en/beaches-and-bays.

Photograph fishing boats

The bay at Marsaxlokk is filled with brightly colored Maltese fishing boats. Painted blue, yellow, red and green, these open wooden boats feature a pair of eyes painted or engraved on the bow of the boat. They look stunning in photos. After picture-taking, walk around the cafe-lined harbor where the Turkish fleet anchored during the Great Siege of Malta. Be sure to also check out the open-air market, which sells everything from that day’s catch and traditional Maltese lace and nougat to fruits, veggies, sunglasses, flip flops and tchotchkes. Note: the waterfront becomes super busy on Sundays when buses bring tourists to the market. www.maltauncovered.com/culture/maltese-boats-luzzu/.

Have fun with fireworks

Malta loves its fireworks. It hosts the annual Malta International Fireworks Festival. And villages throughout the country put on fireworks shows during their annual village festa, or feast. These celebrations honor the patron saints of local parishes. Malta is profoundly Catholic. According to the Book of Acts, St. Paul shipwrecked here around A.D. 60, working miracles and converting the island’s inhabitants. Today, approximately 98 percent of Malta’s growing population, an estimated 432,200 people, adheres to Catholicism. Festas feature processions with priests and statues of patron saints, live music, food vendors, banners and other decorations, confetti and, of course, fireworks. During summer, there are festivals every weekend. Entire towns, often dressed in their Sunday best, seem to turn out. www.maltainfoguide.com/malta-village-feasts.html.

Go to Gozo

Take a short ferry ride to the nearby island of Gozo, which stretches just 26 square miles and was home to Azure Window, a dramatic, natural, flat-topped arch that collapsed into the sea last year. The site – rugged, with spectacular sea views and ancient sand dollars embedded in the limestone – remains a visitor attraction. It was the filming location for Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen’s wedding in season one of “Game of Thrones.” Rock at the base of the cliff forms a natural pool, known as the Blue Hole, popular with swimmers and divers. Nearby, outside the village of Gharb, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu displays letters, paintings, photos, baby clothes, seat belts, even casts and crutches, from pilgrims grateful for answered prayers such as surviving illnesses or accidents or giving birth to a healthy baby. Stunning mosaics representing the stations of the cross were completed last year in the parvis. The recently restored Cittadella – with its old prison, gunpowder magazine, grain silos, battery, World War II bomb shelters and more – is not to be missed. A brief video in the visitor’s center details the history of the fortress, where – until 1637 – all people of Gozo were required to spend the night for their own safety. Valletta’s namesake, Jean Parisot de La Valette, a knight of the Order of St. John and 49th Grand Master of Malta, was one of the citadel’s most famous prisoners. www.visitgozo.com and www.tapinu.org.


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