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Malta – A Tiny Island Nation

March 29th, 2023

Malta, officially the Republic of Malta, is an island country in the Mediterranean Sea. It consists of an archipelago of three main islands (only two of which are inhabited), lying 80 km / 50 mi south of Sicily, Italy and 333 km / 207 mi north of Libya.  The official languages are Maltese and English, and 66% of the current Maltese population is at least conversational in the Italian.

Malta has been inhabited since approximately 5900 BC.  Its location in the centre of the Mediterranean has historically given it great strategic importance as a naval base, with a succession of powers having contested and ruled the islands, including the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, amongst others. 

With a population of about 516,000 over an area of 316 km2 (122 sq mi), Malta is the worlds’ tenth smallest country by area and fourth most densely populated sovereign country. Its capital is Valletta, which is the smallest national capital in the EU by area and population.

Malta became a British Colony in 1813, serving as a way station for ships and the headquarters for the British Mediterranean Fleet. It was besieged by the Axis powers during WWII and was an important Allied base for operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean.  The British parliament passed the Malta Independence Act in 1964, giving Malta independence from the United Kingdom as the State of Malta, with Elizabeth II as its queen. The country became a republic in 1974. It joined the EU in 2004; it became part of the Eurozone monetary union in 2008.

Malta has had Christians since the time of Early Christianity, though was predominantly Muslim while under Arab rule, at which time Christians were tolerated. Muslim rule ended with the Norman Invasion of Malta by Roger I in 1091. The economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and the country promotes itself as a Mediterranean tourist destination with its warmer climate compared to the rest of Europe, numerous recreational areas, and architectural and historical monuments, including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The origin of the name Malta is uncertain, and the modern-day variation is derived from the Maltese language.  The most common etymology is that the word Malta is derived from the Greek word for “honey possibly” for Malta’s unique production of honey with an endemic subspecies of bees that live on the island. Another conjecture suggests that the word Malta comes from the Phoenician word Maleth, “a haven”, or ‘port’ in reference to Malta’s many bays and coves.

The Maltese Flag is red and white; the red tone symbolizes sacrifices made by the Maltese people for defending their faith, while the white tone stands for peace, love, light and optimism, and the George Cross represents bravery (King George VI of England awarded Malta the George Cross for its bravery during the Axis Siege in the Second World War).

Diesel price:   €1.21 a litre about $5.50 USD a gallon

Unleaded gasoline: €1.34 about $5 USD a gallon  (while we don’t usually post the gas price, our rental car in Malta was not diesel like Minou – as in all of Europe that we’ve explored so far, diesel is always less expensive than gasoline). For an island nation, remarkably cheaper than mainland Europe!

Currency: The Euro – currently $1.09 USD and $1.47 CDN

EU plate Letter:   M

Beer: Ciska

We flew with Ryan Air to Malta; pretty cheaply (less than $140 for us both return) but you are only allowed one “personal” item on board so one of us paid the extra euros to get “priority” which mean you could board “first” and also get one free carry on suitcase.  You board the plane outside, up the stairs and they open both the front and rear doors to speed up boarding. There are no refreshments on board unless you purchase them but our flight was only 28 minutes so no need.

As we approached Malta by plane, the island looked very green, neat, has no mountains and and lots of cliffs along the shores.  Since we are still in the EU, no immigration was necessary.

Doug had arranged a rental car with JS Hire and they sent someone to meet us outside the rental car parking.  The fellow walked us into the parking garage and Doug finished the necessary paperwork  on a tablet and the car arrived; a Peugeot 108 Top – this was not a convertible but had a soft top that rolled back.

Although we booked the car rental, we did not book anything else, like hotels.  We had decided to “wing it” like we did when we visited Iceland two years ago and just use to find places once we figured out where and when we wanted to stop.  This gives us so much more freedom and as it’s not the busy season here in Malta, we didn’t feel we’d have any trouble doing this.

We left the airport driving on the left side of the road (British influence that has never been changed – there are lots of places to get fish and chips as well!) and made our way to the further point from this side of Malta: the island of Gozo with a couple of stops enroute.

Malta is known for is megalithic ancient temples and there are seven such sites.  We stopped at the Skorba Temples first which is a very small site that dates from 3600-2500BC.  It has not been restored and is surrounded by a fence.  There was no attendant on site so we couldn’t get in but most of the site was visible through the chain link fence.

Next was “Popeye Village”.  The town of “Sweet Haven” was created here back in 1980 for the filming of the movie “Popeye”.  It has grown into a sort of amusement park and is considered a major attraction.  Across the harbour there are good viewpoints and this is where we took this photos:

Not that we were interested in entering, but the park is currently closed due to storm damage sustained last month expected to opened again mid-April.

To reach the island of Gozo, you must take a ferry which passes by the third island of the country which is a huge scuba diving area and parkland.

The lighter coloured water is the Blue Lagoon
Cliffs along the uninhabited island in between

You do not pay to get on the ferry in this direction but they get you on the way back.  It was a gloriously sunny day with some wind and the high today was 18 C / 67 F.

Our first stop on the Island of Gozo was the Church of Saint John commonly known as the Rotunda of Xewkija, whose construction began in 1951.  The old church became too small so it was felt a new, larger one was needed and it was carefully dismantled and the best sculptures were saved and rebuilt in an adjacent building under the church belfry. The new church was built on the same site from local limestone supporting a dome weighing 45,000 tons.  The dome’s internal diameter is 27 metres (89′). The dome is 75 metres (246′) high. The circumference is 85 metres (279′).

Before going into the church, as we were hungry, we stopped at a little café and had some lunch where we enjoyed some yummy pasta.

Then it was on to the Ggantija Temples, a much better preserved megalithic temples site.  Here when purchasing our tickets, we learned of the “multisite pass” that granted access to many of the country’s heritage sites that was good for 30 days.  For €76 for us both (the over 60 rate) we were set.

This site is the earliest of the megalithic temples on Malta and they are older than the pyramids of Egypt.  They are considered to be the world’s second oldest manmade religious structures after Gobekli Tepe in Turkey (if you recall we did visit those last year).  The temples are elements of a ceremonial site in a fertility rite.  Researchers uncovered many statues, big and small, are associated with such rites. 

The temples here face the southeast (the equinox sunrise) and include two finished temples and one incomplete.  They are in the typical clover leaf design of the times.  It is believed that small spherical stones that were found at these sites were used like ball bearings to move the enormous stone blocks used in building the temples. 

Legend has it that a giantess who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, bore a child from a common man.  With the child hanging from her shoulder, she built these temples and they were used as places of worship.   

Here at Ggantija, you first wander through its museum to learn about the site and see some of the artifacts that were uncovered during the excavation.

Then you wander through the site on a raised boardwalk exploring the various rooms and walls.

Almost directly across from this is the heritage site of Ta’ Kola Windmill.

This is one of the few surviving windmills in the country dating back to the Knights’ Period and its origins goes back to 1725.  It was original constructed poorly and was reconstructed in 1780.  The name comes from the last miller on the site,  Guzeppi Crech, also known as Zeppu ta’ Kola (meaning Joseph, son of Nikola).  The miller  would blow on a triton shell when the mill was open for operation due to favourable winds.   He lived with his family inside the windmill on two floors. 

Malta is also famous for the enclosed balconies on its buildings and it did not disappoint.  As you drive through the towns, you can see these in many different colours.

You can, of course, find many souvenirs of these balconies:

By now we had decided we’d spend the night in the largest city on Gozo tonight:  Victoria.  Fran found a place online for €70 with a private bath, Wi-Fi and free parking and we booked it.

We had one more place we wanted to check out before calling it a day:  The Blue Hole of Malta.  We found free parking near it and walked over.

This is a shot from our friend Google but we couldn’t find the spot to get that shot:

It was low tide so we could actually walk right up to it and did so.

We really wanted to see if from above, and eventually found the trail to get up there.  As it was low tide, we did not get to experience the full “blue” effect but could see as water rushed in where it got its name.

Across the parking area was a small inland body of water with a large cave in the cliffs.  Although we did not partake, you can take a boat trip across to explore said cave.

Enroute to the Blue Hole and then back to Victoria, we passed by and through an aqueduct:

In the city we saw this road side gas station:

Upon arriving in Victoria, we found the nearby parking lot the caretaker told us about and made our way to the Splendid Guest House.  Doug talked to Saul about the parking as we saw it was only 90 minute parking from 7am to 1pm and would we have an issue in the morning?; he told us no, they don’t give out tickets here.

The guesthouse is in one of the towns many limestone buildings (without an enclosed balcony) and we were curious to see what it looked like inside.  It had a very modern kitchen and our room was very nice with its own white wrought iron balcony and a modern bathroom up on the third floor.

We got settled and went for a stroll to check out the Cittadella before it closed at five. It is also known as the Castello (castle) and the site has been occupied since the Bronze Age. The citadel is believed to have been the acropolis of the Roman city, Gaulos, back in 1500 BC.  The current fortifications date back to 1622.

There is a spot where Bronze Age siloes were uncovered:

It offered lovely views of the countryside around the city:

It is, like so much in Malta, built of limestone and in the steps you can see fossils:

We then made our way to the main square where we had a beer before deciding we’d just get some take out for dinner.  We stopped at a fast food type place and got hot wraps, fries and beer to take back to our guest house.   Today was a mostly sunny day, a touch warmer than yesterday with windy periods in the afternoon.

No tunnels today.

Our second day on Malta did not start well; we got to the car at 8:38 am and found a ticket on the windshield – so much for “no tickets around here”.  We immediately reached out to the Guest House to let them know and told them we were not happy because we’d been told parking here was fine.  Between Saul (the caretaker) and Marco (the owner), we were told they would reimburse us the €23 via PayPal but it could take a couple of days.  (Fran paid that ticket online that night so as not to get dinged with penalties.)

We left Victoria and made our way directly to the ferry to leave the island.  Here we paid the €19 return fare and were back on the main island of Malta.  We learned yesterday that Friday, is a national holiday called “Freedom Day” celebrating the departure of the last of the British presence in the country.  We weren’t sure if everything would be open that day as we’d been told a lot will be closed, so we headed to the heritage site of Tarxien knowing that today, Thursday, it would be open and we would ask about the other sites so that we’d know if we had to fit them all in today or not.  Turns out they will all be open so we were in no rush.

While driving yesterday, we noticed we saw no buildings over 5 stories tall but as we passed near the capital city of Valletta enroute to Tarxien, we saw many modern, taller buildings.

This temple site is covered in order to protect the stones and was quite impressive.

These temples date back to 3150 BC.  Here are there are three separate but attached temples and its reconstruction began in 1956. There was some intricate stonework discovered here in spiral and other patterns.  It is believed animal sacrifice may have taken place here in the ceremonial rituals. 

Since we did not have to rush to visit the other heritage sites,  and we were in the suburb called Paola near the capital, we opted to head into the city hoping today would be less crowded than tomorrow, the holiday.  There are strict rules about who can actually drive into some of the cities in Malta (as we were told by the car rental agent) so we knew we had to park before entering the city proper and we found the large parking areas and got parked.

We found the city gates at the Commonwealth Bridge (pedestrian) and began exploring.

Just before the gates beside the bus terminal we came across the  huge Triton Fountain:

We strolled down the main pedestrian drag, Republic Street which was lined with Maltese flags in preparation for Freedom Day and it was much busier than we’d like.

We passed by the Royal Opera House with its many old columns:

Our first stop of interest was the National Museum of Archaeology to check out a couple of Neolithic statues and stonework that had been found at various temples.  The entrance way ceiling was quite impressive so we think it may have been a palace back in the day:

(Much further inside we saw this empty room being restored that also seemed palatial:

We came across various stone work pieces from various megalithic temples around the country:

The various temple sites:

And then had to hunt down the “Sleeping “Lady”:

The Sleeping Lady is an exquisite creation made from clay of a woman in a natural sleeping position.  The couch/bed she is lying on appears to be sagging under her weight and the entire work is quite meticulous in its carving.  It is thought this could be an eloquent representation of eternal sleep/death.

The second statue we wanted to find is the nicknamed “the Venus of Malta”, which although headless was made with a high level of achievement. Also made of clay, it too is quite detailed:

We were getting hungry too so we found a café outside the St John Co-Cathedral and enjoyed a view of the building and the square while sharing a pizza with beer and wine.  (This is one of those churches that charge an entry fee so we did not go inside.)  It was built by the Order of St. John between 1573 and 1578 and in the 17th century, its interior was redecorated in the Baroque style.

A co-cathedral is a cathedral church which shares the function of being a bishop’s seat, or cathedra, with another cathedral, often in another city.   In this case, it is a co-cathedral with the cathedral in Mdina.

We checked a couple of alleyways:

We saw the national library with a statue of Queen Victoria out front:

The library has a wonderful set of arches out front:

St. George Square:

More balconies;

We made a short visit to the Inquisitor’s Palace which was quite informative about the over 200 years of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Malta.

Timeline of this terrible period
chapel inside

A lovely archway between the palace and the library:

We were trying to visit the State Rooms of the palace but after circumnavigating the building, could not find an entrance.  Upon return to what we though was the front, a guard was closing the large doors and told us it was closed in readiness for the holiday.  Too bad.

Upon arriving at the north end of Valletta, we came across St. Elmo’s Fort which also seemed to be closed but we took a walk across the street front and got these photos:

It’s now mid-afternoon and we are getting a bit tired of walking but wanted to take the ferry across the harbour to check out another fort and maybe three neighbourhoods.   Enroute to the fast ferry dock, we saw the WWII Siege Bell Tower:

The ferry cost is €3 return and it takes maybe five minutes to get across to the other side.

We took a walk out to Fort Saint Angelo and after perusing its map, decided we only wanted to see the Medieval Gate and Tower; we asked which direction to head to see them and the guards weren’t sure and we never found them.

reproduction of a paint of St Angelo (Michael the Archangel)

as viewed from the ferry on the way back

Fran’s knees were really bugging her by now as was Doug’s toe and he had some pain in his ankle so we were ready to call it.  We’d found a guest house for tonight and booked it earlier in the nearby suburb of Pieta.

We “dragged” ourselves back to the ferry and made only one other stop before returning to the car.   This was the Upper Barracca Gardens.  These are the at the city’s highest point and there is a lift to get you up there very close to the ferry dock.  For €1 you can buy a round trip ticket.

It was not all that impressive and there really wasn’t much in the way of “gardens” but there were some pretty good views across the harbour.

never did figure out why this was in the gardens
view below the gardens

It took about ten minutes to get back to our Peugeot and it was less than 3km to the Giorgio Guest House.  This was pretty modern inside too and our room was quite large with a queen bed and a settee that turned into a twin for a child.

We passed through three tunnels in our drive today.

Our last full day in Malta, started with us heading back towards Gozo in order to see the sights between there and where we stayed last night.  We drove to the city of Mosto to see its impressive Rotunda Church.  

It was built between 1833 and the 1860s in the neoclassical on the site of an earlier Renaissance church which had been built in around 1614.

The design of the present church is based on the Pantheon in Rome, has the third largest unsupported dome in the world and is Malta’s largest and most famous church. The church narrowly avoided destruction during WW II when on 9 April 1942 a 110 pound German aerial bomb pierced the dome and fell into the church during Mass, but failed to explode. This event was interpreted by the Maltese as a miracle. 

Being a rotunda, the church has a circular plan with walls about 9.1 m (30 ft) thick supporting a dome with an internal diameter of 37.2 m (122 ft).  At one time, the dome was the third largest in the world.

We had parked a couple of blocks away and walked back to it.

There were a lot of people exiting the church so we thought maybe a mass just ended (although it was Friday but it was a holiday).  When the crowd thinned we went inside to see the interior of not only the church but the impressive dome:

If  you look closely at the photo where it’s brightest left of centre, you can make it out there are five “flowers” that are not painted and that was where a bomb dropped into the church in WW II but didn’t explode.  Upon exiting the church we saw the ticket office but seems we managed to get away without paying!

We moved on to the medieval town of Mdina (not a typo).  You cannot drive into the fortification so we parked outside and wandered the narrow streets stopping at the Bastion for views.

We left the car in the lot and walked through the Greek Gate and a short tunnel to reach the City of Rabat.

Here we came to see a couple more heritage sites.  First was the Domus Roman (a residence not a villa) to see the mosaic floors and statuary.  It is the only remaining ruin of a Roman townhouse in the former city of Melite.  It was discovered in 1881 and a museum was built over it.   Archaeologists excavated and found the floors and evidence of Islamic burial sites as well.  It is considered the richest house ever to be built in Malta.

Islamic burial evidence

There were some incredible intact glass artifacts found as well as a bone baby rattle and several partial statues.

The mosaics are very well preserved and mostly intact.

Moving on to see St. Paul’s catacombs we saw many more beautifully coloured balconies:

There are nearly 50 catacombs located here and 23 are open to the public.  We’ve seem catacombs before so we opted to only wander through the larges one, #1.

Before returning to the car we found a small restaurant to stop and have breakfast – for some reason, we were hungry early today!

When we walked back to the parking lot, we were grateful we’d come early as there were no empty spots and people were asking where we were parked in order to grab out spot.  Before actually getting to our spot, we walked up onto the Mdina fortress walls for some views:

While the day started out sunny and again slightly warmer than the day before but it got a bit cloudy as we approached the coast to visit the Dingli Cliffs.  We parked about one kilometre away and walked in the rest of the way as the road kept getting narrower and narrower and with a rental, we did not want to get any scrapes.

Enroute we saw there were weird formations and caves in the rock walls above us and lots and lots of birds who appeared to be living in the walls:

Just before arriving at the lookout, we saw on our maps that there were Bronze Age grain silos nearby so we walked a bit further up to see them too:

Our “aches and pains” were still bothering us today but we continued on.  After returning to the car we drove onto two heritage temple sites.

The first was Hagar Qim which had a small museum and a 4D movie about the building of the temples.

These structures are dated to 3600-3200 BC and were discovered in 1647 and excavated in 1839 to 1854.  Its name means “standing/worshipping stones”.  Due to the type of limestone used in the building of the temples, the elements did a lot of damage so when they were restored in 2009, a cover was put over the site. 

the film title as shot with my phone just to see how it would turn out

Once you leave the theatre you reach the covered site which was well restored and impressive:

About 600 m down a path from Haga Qim, we saw the Mnajdra temples also under cover but very close to the sea and also excavated during the same time frame as Hagar Qim.  Sadly this site was vandalized in 2001 by people with crowbars toppling or breaking about 60 megaliths.  This was called the worst act of vandalism ever committed in the country. At first it was thought the damage was irreparable but with new techniques, much restoration was done and the temples reopened to the public one year later.  The protective cover was also put in place in 2009. 

There were some temples with walls nicely finished and very simple and genuine looking.

This site is fairly close to the coast:

Just a tad further down the highway, we stopped at the Blue Grotto Lookout.  As it was early afternoon, the lighting was not perfect but we still enjoyed the lookout views:

During our drives, we saw many of these animal crossing signs warning of hedgehogs!

Our second last stop today was to check out one of the beaches in Malta.  There are a few on Gozo and several at the other end of Malta but were not on our route and the weather wasn’t warm enough to consider sitting on a beach – also, there’s a constant breeze, being a small island. Pretty Bay Beach was quite “pretty”.  It kinda reminded us of English Bay in Vancouver due to the proximity of a cargo port.

Our final place to check out today was the fishing village of Marsaxlokk which was said to be a quite a tourist attraction.  We found parking outside the village and walked the boardwalk which was overly covered with eateries and although there were plenty of colourful boats, to us it was not a must.

That morning we’d book a guest house near the airport and by now were quite tired again so we made our way towards Casa Montegri stopping first at a Lidl grocery store for food.  The self-check in, got in easy and chilled for the afternoon, going to bed early due to an early flight tomorrow back to Minou in Catania.

Today was a tunnel-less day.

We got up at 4am on Saturday, the 1st and after returning the car to the car rental lot, dropping off the keys in the lock box, we walked into the terminal and were through security by 4:38.  Our flight began boarding at 5:15 and we were back at Minou by 7:30 AM taking the local city bus from the airport.

Total mileage in our rental car in Malta: 148 km / 91 mi and the car got 16 km per litre which is about 40 mpg!

Fun Facts about Malta:

  1. One of The world’s smallest countries.
  2. There are 365 churches in Malta – one for each day of the year!
  3. Malta’s capital Valletta, was the first ever planned city in Europe. During the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the city was sketched out, in 1565.
  4. There are 3 times more tourists than there are residents on the Maltese islands.
  5. Malta is one of those countries in the world where people drive on the left side of the road – one of the legacies of former British rule.
  6. Once Controlled by The Knights of St. John.
  7. Also known as the Knights Templars, the famous elite warriors were given control of the islands in 1530 by Charles V of Spain. They are best known for successfully defending the island against the Ottomans.
  8. Malta is a popular filming location for big budget productions – including blockbusters like Gladiator and World War Z, and the hit TV series Game Of Thrones.
  9. Just 121 square miles, 316 km². Main island Malta stretches roughly 17 miles or 27 km across and the total shoreline of Malta, Gozo and Comino tallies up to a little over 168 miles or 271 km.
  10. The Maltese islands are home to some of the Oldest Man-made Structures in the world, with some thought to be dating back 3,600 BC, some 5,000 years ago. Its megalithic temples are older than the Pyramids of Egypt, The Great Wall of China, and even Stonehenge in England.

We certainly enjoyed our time here but in the end felt an extra day would have been better.  It is quite lovely, with plenty of history but not as many beaches and resorts as we expected.  We would have to say it’s not a “must country” to see unless  you are a world history buff.