Just Back From... Malta

HF Holidays has been organizing walking holidays on Malta for more than 40 years, using the knowledge gleaned to pinpoint the best places to visit on this island speck in the Mediterranean. By exploring the island during spring and autumn when the temperatures peak at a comfortable high and the conditions for walking are best, we can get under the skin of the island and immerse you in the history and culture of this fascinating island. Below, HF Board Member and retired Walk Leader Brian Tilley shares just how much variety there is in such a small island.

The three islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino that make up the Maltese archipelago are always reinventing themselves. The tiny archipelago, set at the crossroads of several ancient trade routes between North Africa and Europe, has been inhabited since 5,000 BC. Its pivotal location means that it has been fought over frequently. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St John, French and British have all had their turn in charge. In essence, though, Malta is a Mediterranean destination with a hefty dose of North African influence and its own indelible character. The beach brigade still come for the sun and sand but there’s much more to Malta and walkers in the know are discovering the country’s rugged coastline, history, culture and food.

HF bases holidays on the island at the hotel Solana, in the traditional village of Mellieha. Set in the northwest of the island away from the hustle and bustle, it’s a wonderfully located place to stay; from the rooftop pool and panoramic sun terrace you can survey the island and its smaller sisters close by. Well-equipped and welcoming, it’s also a great place to enjoy sociable evenings. Meals at the restaurant showcased traditional Maltese food, which mixes Sicilian and Middle Eastern flavours, while making use of local ingredients such as rabbit and honey, while live music after provided the perfect accompaniment.
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From here, we headed out to explore the local area and get a feel for the country. After a day discovering Mellieha Bay and nearby Armier. we descended on Valletta. Europe's smallest capital is the former seat of the Knights of St John and one of the Continent’s hidden gems. The city came to prominence under the Knights, who were also responsible for the repository of architecture and art here. Malta's collection of art includes a couple of exceptional paintings by Caravaggio, who fled to Valletta after fatally stabbing a man in Rome; ordained as a Knight, he painted for the church in the hope of a pardon. The canvases are kept in St John's Co-Cathedral, which drips with gold and whose marble floor is a mass of tombstones; some display heraldic patterns, others depict in sumptuous detail the lives of the knights buried beneath. On one, a grinning skeleton holds a book in his bony hand.

Away from the chiaroscuro melodrama of the cathedral, our guide led us to historic corners and through sun-bleached streets where sights slowly revealed themselves. A memorable view over Marsamxett Harbour and Malta's historic forts and bastions broke from Upper Barrakka Gardens while a cruise across the harbour was a cracking way to watch fishermen and the traditional gondola-style dghajsa, paddled by a standing oarsman using two sculls, nose among the iconic luzzu fishing boats, painted in vibrant shades of red, yellow, green and dark blue, with the Phoenician eye ever present on the prow to ward off ill-luck.

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Beyond the capital, we explored Malta’s dusky landscapes, perfumed by wild thyme and studded with caper bushes and fennel plants, the country’s signature spices. Walking slowly and looking closely we discovered fascinating detail. On the west coast, trails climbed the Dingli Cliffs, which sheered into the sea, to reach the highest point on the island. Here, a local guide brought ancient cave dwellings to life and pointed out distinctive prehistoric cart ruts. Close by were 4th Century catacombs, while inland the ancient hilltop fortified town of Mdina boasted Baroque architecture and treeless, labyrinthine alleyways that echoed with the whisperings of the past. In the evening the honey-coloured limestone buildings, baked by the sun, glowed warmly, as if lit from within. An evening excursion here on a clear night is a magical way to explore by moonlight.

 

A final trail linked two traditional Maltese fishing villages on the southeastern corner of the island. Beginning in the pretty village of Marsaxlokk, a resolute slice of real Maltese life, we wound our way  through low-rise waterfront buildings, past the brightly coloured fishing fleet and its weather-worn crews, along the coast, taking in wind and wave sculpted rock formations to arrive at Marsascala, gathered around the head of a long, narrow bay. Pausing here, we drank in the views of the bustling, boat-filled harbor and soaked up the local feel, with the chance to take a dip in the waters of the Mediterranean.

Having now explored the four cardinal points of the island, we came away convinced there’s glorious variety packed into this small archipelago. With its otherworldly landscapes, architectural elegance and layers of undisturbed history, there’s much more to Malta than meets the eye.