By far the largest and most popular island historic Malta merits a minimum of four nights. Sun worshippers should know that the sandiest beaches in the nation are located on the northern coast.. The Maltese archipelago consists of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. Malta, the largest island, is 237 sq. kms in area; Gozo is 68 sq. kms and Comino, 2 sq. kms.
The population numbers circa 370,000. Of these, 28,000 live in Gozo. Comino is only inhabited by a few farmers. Because of their strategic position, Malta and Gozo have been inhabited for the past 7,000 years. The two islands have a long and varied prehistoric period: Neolithic, Copper and Bronze age civilisations lasted more than 4,000 years; one can still admire vestiges of those remote times in form of impressive stone temples, a unique hypogeum and remains of skilful handicrafts.
The first known people to settle in Malta were the Phoenicians, who reached these shores on their trading ventures in the 9th century BC. They were succeeded by their Punic kinsmen, the Carthaginians, who were eventually conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. The Romans governed these islands until the division of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD.
Arabs from North Africa occupied the Islands from the 9th to the 13th century and when the last Arab rulers were driven out in the year 1249, they left behind them notable imprints of their culture on the language of the Maltese people. After the Norman overlords, Swabian and Angevin dynasties ruled for brief periods and at the beginning of the 14th century, the Islands fell under Aragonese domination. In 1530, the King of Spain, Emperor Charles V, granted the Islands on fief to the international Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem.
The Knights administered the Islands for 268 years until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte drove them from these shores and occupied the country in the name of the French Republic. Following a brief occupation the French were forced to surrender after two years of a land and sea blockade by combined British and Maltese forces, and in 1800, Malta became a part of the British Empire.
In 1964, Malta attained its Independence. It remained as a realm of Queen Elizabeth II represented by a Governor General until ten years later. In 1974, it was declared a Republic within the Commonwealth with a President as head of state. Until the 1960s, the Maltese economy depended mostly on the British services and the Naval Dockyard. After independence, industry and tourism advanced at a fast pace, and at present Malta and Gozo have established a good industrial base and flourishing tourist enterprises.
The people speak their own tongue – Maltese, a language of Semitic origin. Through the ages, many foreign words, particularly Italian, became part of the language, and Maltese is the only Semitic language written in Latin characters. English is one of two official languages and is widely spoken in Malta and Gozo. The official religion is that of the Roman Catholic Church, and the majority are regular church-goers. There are no other denominations of substantial size among the Maltese, but churches of other denominations are also to be found, for religious needs.
Back when Gozo was called Ogygia the Greek hero Ulysses spent seven years on the island. Today we think four or five nights is just about right on the Isle of Calypso. Reached by car ferry from Valletta or Cirkewwa on Malta Gozo has rugged sandy beaches and rolling hills. The largest city is Victoria (locally called Rabat). Visit the Gozo Museum (historical displays) the Gozo Crafts Centre (good selection of local handicrafts) and northeast of town the Citadel/Gran Castello. The citadel worth a visit primarily for its unparalleled views consists of a restored Norman house cathedral and bastions. Other island attractions include Gozo Heritage a series of life-size dioramas depicting the island’s past; pretty Xlendi Bay (on the western coast); and Ramla Bay the reputed Calypso Cave (near red-sand Ramla Bay). The Inland Sea reached by a tunnel is wonderful for swimming—it’s warmer than the open sea. Near Xaghra are a number of places to see: two Ggantija Temples (1 000 years older than the Pyramids) and the Alabaster Caves (stalactite and stalagmite caves).
Malta’s capital city called the City of Knights dates from the 16th century. Valletta (pop. 109 000) was one of Europe’s first planned cities with building codes a grid street pattern and garbage and sewage systems. Located on a peninsula Valletta boasts two excellent harbors: Marsamxett Harbour and the Grand Harbour. The fairly compact city can easily be seen in one day although we suggest staying two nights. We like to start by visiting the Upper Barrakka Gardens for a great overview and then follow up by getting a closer view from the harbors (take the inexpensive two-hour cruise).
Valletta seems to host a museum in every block of the capital. Some of our favorites are the national museums of fine arts (in an 18th-century palace) and archaeology and the museum adjoining the elaborately decorated St. John’s Co-Cathedral (the church’s marble floors are unforgettable). To better understand the martial history of Valletta visit the 16th-century Grand Masters Palace and Armory and the National War Museum. Go on to the Lascaris War Rooms which were bomb-proof headquarters for the British air force during World War II. When you tire of museums spend time visiting shops strolling the city’s ramparts or perusing the Malta Government Crafts Centre (where local handicrafts are on display and sale).
Just outside town near Floriana is the fascinating Argotti Botanic Gardens—a good cacti collection. Across the Grand Harbour is the Cottonera the generic name for three “suburbs” of Valletta. The three cities Vittoriosa/Birgu Senglea Isle and Cospicua are notable for their medieval homes churches palaces and fortifications. Be sure to visit the Church of St. Lawrence the Maritime Museum Ft. St. Angelo (key defensive point during the Great Siege of Malta) and the Inquisitor’s Palace (tour its courtrooms and—to see some medieval graffiti—its dungeons).
The Knights of Malta were segregated by place of origin and assigned to neighborhoods called langues. A number of their auberges (the buildings in which they once lived) can still be seen. These structures are concentrated in an area known as the Collachio.
For anyone who finds Gozo’s tranquil paradise still a little too hectic, there is nearby Comino, an island only 2 sq. km in area, with one hotel. The island is a haven for anyone interested in water sports with ample room for everyone, whether a professional scuba diver looking for excitement in the depths or a child learning to use a snorkel in safety. Of spectacular beauty is the Blue Lagoon with its turquoise waters surrounded by a sun drenched coastline.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.