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Summer knights in Malta

This archipelago is far from its stereotype as a destination for over 60s with some of Europe’s best diving sites, fortified cities, and incredible food.

Summer knights in Malta

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■ The weekend: A Mediterranean island escape

■ Requirements: Couples looking for something other than a short-haul fly and flop on the beach

■ Fits the bill: A four-night stay in Malta, where adventure and history are as readily available as sun, sea and sand

■ Budget: £600 per person

They call it the Silent City. Yet to my ears, Mdina — the fortified one-time capital of Malta — is anything but. Traversing the bridge over its vast moat and passing through the imposing portico that forms the main entrance to this magnificent medieval city, we’re greeted by bird song: the glorious trill of swifts reverberating around the citadel’s sun-dappled palazzos and passageways.

The silent label is a fair one, though. I like the fact cars are forbidden here and that a population of fewer than 300 remains — the descendants of the Knights of Malta and other nobles that made this hilltop stronghold their home in the 16th century. Aside from the swifts, the gentle chatter of the odd tourist, and the languorous clip-clop horses towing the traditional Maltese karozzin carriages, it is indeed a tranquil place. I can’t help noting the contrast with Paceville — the hub of Malta’s nightlife we’d strolled to the previous night, jostling our way through streets peppered with clubs and wild young things.

Over an al fresco lunch at Trattoria AD 1530 — the more casual of the two restaurants belonging to Mdina’s only hotel, the Relais & Châteaux-listed Xara Palace — our guide, Darrell, tells us a little of the city’s history.

We’re dining opposite the famous Vilhena Palace, built in the 18th century and now home to the National Museum of Natural History. A short walk away is the architectural jewel in Mdina’s crown: St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by the celebrated Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà after the 1693 earthquake destroyed a Norman church occupying the spot.

Having sated our appetites on generous portions of pasta with sautéed pancetta, mushrooms and fennel-seed velouté — one of many tasty, Italian-influenced dishes we enjoy over the weekend — we amble to the far reaches of the city walls to witness the view.

From this position on the Maltese plateau, we’re treated to the most fabulous vista: a patchwork of ochre-coloured fields tumbling down to St Paul’s Bay and the ocean beyond.

In truth, it’s this that has drawn me to Malta. I knew the islands have long been favoured by retirement-age Brits enchanted by the year-round temperate climate, the fact English is so widely spoken, and the vast choice of seaside resorts. But I’d also heard there are a wealth of experiences available to those, like me, who are slightly too old for nightclubs yet far too young for tea dances and bowling greens.

I’d read about the hiking, cycling and rock climbing in rural Malta. By far the biggest lure for me, however, is the islands’ reputation as one of the best scuba-diving destinations in Europe. And looking out over the glistening Mediterranean waters as I am now, I want nothing more than to be beneath the waves.

An few hours later, my wish is granted as we head for the Cresta Dive Centre — a friendly operation in St Julian’s on the east coast of the island — where we don wetsuits and set off on a speedboat for a gentle, 40-minute dive around and through the Sliema Caves.

Admittedly, this isn’t Malta’s best diving site; Gozo’s Blue Hole, the scuttled Libyan oil tanker, Um El Faroud, and the Cirkewwa Voluntary Marine Reserve all vie for that title. Yet the caves at Sliema don’t disappoint. Located just five minutes by boat from the dive centre, the outstanding underwater visibility allows us to observe every detail of these beautiful submerged caverns — from the spots of green-blue soft coral and orange sponge adorning their walls to the rainbow wrasse, bream and damselfish darting between their rocky outcrops.

As I swim through the network of tunnels, I’m already planning my next visit to Malta: one that will have more of an aquatic nature. After all, these islands offer some of the most diverse waters in the Mediterranean, where caves and wrecks can be found in equal abundance, not to mention the warmest waters; temperatures here average 24C in the summer months, dropping to just 16C in the mild Maltese winter.

After an evening back above sea-level, sipping cocktails as the sun sets over the rooftop infinity pool at the Palace Hotel, we’re ready to spend the next day exploring more of the largest island in the Maltese archipelago. Having visited Mdina already, we’re keen to see some of Malta’s other UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Hagar Qim megalithic temples first, and then the city of Valletta. But before we complete the unhurried drive from east coast to west to visit the first of these sites, we make a detour to the iconic Blue Grotto.

It soon becomes clear why this is one of the most popular tourist sites on the island. Dominated by a giant stone archway, the grotto is a network of sea-worn caverns whose waters reflect the sunlight to produce myriad shades of blue against the white sand beneath.

I’m impressed by the natural phenomenon, but more awestruck still when — 10 minutes down the road — we find Hagar Qim: one of the oldest free-standing man-made structures in the world.

Shrouded by a tent designed to prevent any further weathering of the 5,500-year-old structure, we spend a leisurely hour exploring the temple’s antechambers, reading the descriptions of how it was most likely constructed, and wondering how its various altars, statuary and elliptical holes were sculpted with only the most primitive of tools.

The question is still on my mind as we later eat lunch at one of the restaurants on the quaint, historic waterfront. It remains, even, as we clamber into one of Malta’s brightly coloured gondola-style dghajsas (water taxis) over to Valletta. Only once Walter, our driver, starts regaling us with nostalgic tales of his life as a Maltese gondolier and drunken sailors do we stop marvelling at the craftsmanship at Hagar Qim.

Across the water, we board a ­­­pre-booked seaplane and are treated to a panoramic spectacle as we ascend over Vittoriosa and its fortified sister cities of Cospicua and Senglea, climbing above the towns, vineyards and arable fields of Malta, across the azure waters of the Mediterranean, over the tiny, barely inhabited island of Comino, and along the sharp, white cliffs of Gozo.

Later, having returned to Valletta, we climb the steep steps fashioned by the Order of St John of Jerusalem — the Knights Hospitaller — in the mid-6th century after the great siege of Malta by the Ottoman Turks in 1565.

I quickly realise people don’t just come here to explore the highly ornate St John’s Co-Cathedral or to glimpse its most famous artwork, Caravaggio’s haunting masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Nor do they come simply to visit the palatial Grandmaster’s Palace that doubles as the office of the Maltese President and House of Representatives.

As well as these, Valletta draws sightseers with the views presented by its lofty position atop Mount Sceberras, surrounded on three of four sides by the sea. They come to observe its beautiful baroque architecture, embellished with Arabian influences such as wooden oriel window boxes; to discover its 32 churches; and to wander through its streets, safe in the knowledge that — as the world’s first city designed on a grid system — they can easily find their way back.

But there’s more to Malta than antiquity alone — more even than the scuba diving that had enthralled me the previous day. For me, a big part of the Maltese experience is witnessing the way
of life of its inhabitants.

Taking the passenger ferry to Gozo the next morning, we catch a glimpse as we watch local teenagers excitedly planning which of the sister island’s beaches they should visit this sun-drenched Sunday morning. The journey, we learn, is almost a ritual among Malta’s young who, every summer weekend morning, besiege the ferry in a bid to snare the best sunbathing spots.

Later, we gain a different snapshot as we dine at Ta’ Rikardu, a restaurant within the walls of the now-deserted Citadel — originally fortified by the Phoenicians during the Bronze Age.

Here, we while away a couple of hours while the chef-proprietor serves us a simple platter of rustic bread, ruby-coloured sundried tomatoes, capers, onions and goat’s cheese he’d made earlier that week, followed by giant ravioli that we watch him prepare with the tenderness a mother affords her new-born baby.

We cannot resist when he offers to show us his workshop and talks animatedly about his vineyards and olive groves — the produce of which he proudly presents for us to sample.

Having hired a jeep for the day, we spend the rest of our time on Gozo uncovering its best coastal spots — not simply the bathing sites where the waters are clearest or the beaches favoured by the teenagers we’d seen earlier that day, but other phenomena too: the historic salt pans, the inland sea and, best of all, the precariously balanced rock formation that goes by the
name of the Azure Window.

Beneath this, I spot the tell-tale bubbles of divers ascending from their journey through the famous Blue Hole. I’m jealous, momentarily, until I remember just how short the journey time is from England to Malta. Springtime would be beautiful here, I tell myself — both above and beneath the waves.

The perfect day

■ 10am: Visit the Blue Grotto, best accessed by boat in the morning, when sunlight reaches deep inside the caverns to throw kaleidoscopic hues of colour across the sea-water contained within.

■ 11.30am: Explore the nearby megalithic Hagar Qim temples, which predate Stonehenge by 1,000 years.

■ 12.30am: Lunch on the picturesque Vittoriosa Waterfront.

■ 2pm: Take a traditional Maltese dghajsa to Valletta Sea Terminal, and board a seaplane for a stunning aerial tour of the islands.

■ 5pm: Having visited St John’s Co-Cathedral and the Grand Master’s Palace, stroll through Malta’s UNESCO-protected capital to appreciate its baroque finery.

■ 7pm: Watch the sun set over the Three Cities from Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens

Malta Traditions: Plan your trip during the summer months to experience one of 80 feast days, weekends when towns and villages celebrate their own Catholic patron saints with processions and festivities that include firework displays.

Must try: Thanks to its climate, Malta produces some good quality wines. Those using indigenous Gellewza and Ghirgentina grapes include Marsovin’s Primus and Emmanuel Delicata’s Medina Girgentina Chardonnay DOK.

ESSENTIALS Malta

Getting there

Air Malta operates year-round flights from several UK airports, including Heathrow and Manchester, and charter flights from additional airports over summer. No-frills carriers include EasyJet, BMIbaby and Ryanair. www.airmalta.com  www.easyjet.com  www.flybmi.com  www.ryanair.com
Average flight time: 3h.

Getting around

Modern, air-conditioned vehicles serve all major towns on Malta and Gozo.
For those wanting to cover greater distances, car hire may be best.
Shorter journeys can be made by taxi, dghajsa (water taxi) or karozzin (horse-drawn carriage).

When to go

Malta is a year-round destination, although high temperatures and humidity make August less appealing.

Need to know

Currency: Euro. £1 = €1.14.
International dial code: 00 356.
Time difference: GMT +2.

Places mentioned

Palace Hotel. www.thepalacemalta.com
Trattoria AD1 530. www.xarapalace.com.mt
Cresta Dive Centre. www.crestadivecentre.com
Maltese Water Taxis. www.maltesewatertaxis.com
Harbourair Malta. www.harbourairmalta.com
St John’s Co-Cathedral. www.stjohnscocathedral.com
Ta’ Rikardu. T: 00 356 2155 5953.
Gozo jeep tour courtesy of Xlendi Tourist Services. www.xlendi.com

More info

www.visitmalta.com
Lonely Planet Country Guide: Malta and Gozo. RRP: £10.99.

How to do it

A DIY trip including Air Malta return flights (from £98), staying at the five-star Palace Hotel, Sliema (from £109 per room, per night), mainland car hire (from £20 a day), ferry to Gozo (£4 return), Gozo jeep rental (£70), and funds for extra excursions, activities and a private tour guide.

 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)