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Weekender: Malta

Amid its ancient ruins and grand architecture, this tiny archipelago nurtures a few surprises, such as a flourishing wine industry

Weekender: Malta
Peppered Gozitan cheese. Credit: Cheg Weizhong

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Work up an appetite

Stretch your legs with a morning stroll around The Three Cities — the fortified towns of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, situated just across the harbour from the capital, Valletta. Birgu is quiet yet enchanting, with narrow, cobbled streets lined with yellowed townhouses. Washing lines hang between colourful balconies, and elderly ladies peer down from dusty, wooden-shuttered windows. Make your way to il-Gardjola, Senglea’s ancient observation tower, to get a real feel for the area: soak up the views of the Grand Harbour, dotted with yachts, and Valletta’s jagged skyline.

On the grapevine

Head to the cool, cavernous cellars of Marsovin winery in Marsa to learn about Maltese wine production. Winemakers here once had to make do with pressing imported vines from Italy, but today, of the dozens of grape varieties used, two are indigenous: gellewza (red) and ghirghentina (white). Malta’s small-scale vino production means only tiny quantities of the stuff is exported, and what is exported is expensive — enthusiasts wanting to cross Maltese wines off their list are best off heading to the source itself.

Perfect pairings

Plates piled high
Head to Cent’Anni in the village of Gharghur for dishes of fresh pasta, braised rabbit and king prawn, accompanied by a fine Maltese wine. 

Fine dining
Try the five-course menu plus wine pairing at the InterContinental’s Waterbiscuit Restaurant. The dishes are mouthwatering: think cauliflower frittatini alongside pan-seared red mullet and prawn, followed by pumpkin and honey cake with pear sauce and date chutney. 

On-the-go snack
Tuck into a pastizz, Malta’s beloved street food — traditionally filled with ricotta or peas — and wash it down with a locally brewed Cisk beer.

Ghajn Tuffieha Bay. Credit: Alamy

Ghajn Tuffieha Bay. Credit: Alamy

Old-school charm

Mdina is a picturesque walled city, with Baroque architecture, winding lanes, ornate streetlamps and honeyed stone walls glowing pink in the evening light. At Bastion Square, look over sprawling fields and vineyards towards Valletta and the deep velvety blue of the Mediterranean. As the sun begins to set, stop in for a glass of wine at the charming Vinum Wine Bar & Bistro. vinumwinebar.com

Backstreet bars

Strait Street was once the centre of Valetta’s nightlife when the Royal Navy was stationed here, with more than 150 pubs frequented by British sailors on a nightly basis. The area is now returning to its former glory, with a smattering of attractive pubs and smart wine bars. Pay a visit to Loop Bar, still decked out in authentic 1950s deco, or check out the vaulted Trabuxu Wine Bar around the corner.

Go to Gozo

Malta’s greener sister island is where the Maltese take their summer breaks. To get a taste for Gozitan life, join a tour of the vineyards, olive groves and orange trees of Ta’Mena Winery in the Marsalforn Valley, a 27-hectare estate run by Joe Spiteri and his siblings. The man himself greets us with a selection of bottles and, beneath the shade of a vast gazebo, I sip wine — a fruity rosé of Merlot, Grenache and Tempranillo grapes in my left hand; a dry white of Vermentino grapes in my right hand — and eye up platters of traditional food: wild capers in vinegar, peppered cheese, and sweet sundried tomato paste, all made from produce grown on the estate. Adventurous souls should sample the prickly pear liqueur.

Top 3

Riviera Martinique, Ghajn Tuffieha Bay
A casual beachside diner with a sea view. 

Intercontinental Malta Club Lounge, St Julian’s
This elegant 15th-floor terrace towers above the nightlife district. malta.

Café del Mar, St Paul’s Bay
Dance the night away at this outdoor lounge with infinity pool and special guest DJs.

Essentials

Intercontinental Highline suites start from €250 (£212) a night depending on season, including breakfast, VAT and club lounge facilities. Return flights from Gatwick to Malta with British Airways from £98. 

visitmalta.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)