A cultural guide to Malta
‘Isn’t it just yet another Mediterranean island?’ sighs the disillusioned tourist who’s studied too many holiday guides in alphabetical order. They’ve already read about Menorca, Mallorca, Milos, Montecristo… the list stretches on. ‘I know the drill,’ they moan. ‘You’re going to tell me about the cloudless skies, crystal clear waters and golden beaches.’ Their eyes roll.
True, Malta might seem a bit predictable to the untrained eye. Yes, it does fit the postcard stereotype, but this island is different. For a start, it doesn’t belong to anybody which is pretty rare in the Mediterranean waters. Just 50 miles from Sicily, it’s not part of Italy, Spain or Tunisia. It’s stayed independent, taking the best of its neighbours cultures and tangling them together to create a beautiful mess – a chaotic identity.
The food here tastes like Italy. The religion echoes Spain. In Maltese, some words come from Italian, some from Arabic, some from English. Many places have two names, each in a different language. This is Malta’s allure; its variety. Rent a car in Malta to cut through the rich tapestry of culture and get a taste for every variety and nuance.
Its eclectic culture is a result of its history, the ground here has been trampled by endless different groups: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. Valletta, Malta’s capital city, is an opportunity for intense sightseeing. UNESCO declared it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
There are five city gates sat at the edges of Valletta. The fifth city gate – aka Bieb il-Belt – is perhaps the most famous, built between 2011 and 2014 – designed by famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, of the Shard in London fame. Part-bridge, part-public square, get a view of the surrounding fortifications as you cross into the city.
As you descend into the soft-yellow Valletta where the roads are a patchwork of cobblestones, spot landmarks tied to every aspect of religious, military, civil and artistic life. See 16th century buildings, including the Grand Master’s palace, or the work of 18th Century architects in the form of the Church of the Shipwreck of St Paul.
Keeping to the colour theme, Fort Elmo stands looking majestically out to sea. Named after the patron saint of mariners, it was built to guard the Peninsula’s harbours. Now it contains the National War Museum. Look down while you wander around – beneath its outside courtyard is another dimension; a world of underground granaries.
In the south of the island, visit the Mnajdra and Hagar Qim temples. They are the oldest free-standing structures in the Mediterranean, predating Egypt’s pyramids by over a thousand years. A visit to the Mnajdra site unveils its interconnected oval chambers. It’s rumoured Hagar Qim has a solar significance; during sunrise on the winter solstices, the light shines directly onto the altar to the right of the inside doorway.
History buffs will have their breath taken away by the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Malta’s subterranean necropolis. It’s been suggested that the site dates back to around 3600 BC and approximately 7,000 bodies have been interred in the silent chambers and passageways of this underground lair. Book your visit well in advance. The amount of carbon dioxide tourists exhaled seriously damaged the limestone so now, after restoration, visitor numbers are strictly limited.
Malta is a staunchly catholic country. Aside from Vatican City, this was the last European country to introduce divorce in 2011. Not only is religion part of Malta’s culture, it’s part of its landscape. Churches are scattered across Malta’s three-island archipelago. Catholicism’s reputation for decadent design is reflected in Valletta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral where the building’s interior is almost entirely gold. There are marble tombstone floors, gilded columns and painted vaulted ceilings.
Ta’ Pinu Basilica is another breath-takingly beautiful church. Set surrounded by lush Maltese countryside; it rises out of a valley in Gozo and looks out to sea. The Rotunda of Santa Marija Assunta is another Roman Catholic church and it is also the third largest unsupported dome. In 1942, a German bomb pierced the ceiling of the dome and fell amongst the congregation. As if by some miracle, it did not explore – not a single person in the congregation was hurt, elevating the church to legendary status.
For an evening of culture and to hear Malta’s musicians make the most of the balmy night-time weather sit on the candlelit steps outside Valletta’s Bridge Bar. Here, tourists and locals gather together on Fridays to hear jazz musicians play live.