Malta, between East and West

The heart of Malta swings between Sicily and North Africa. The ships connecting Spain and Sicily anchor in the port of Valletta. 2h30 from Paris, this archipelago really transports us elsewhere, somewhere in Europe with some oriental touches and details of Egyptian and Turkish life. This is the strength of Malta, these multiple influences that can be found in the architecture as in the plate, Maltese cuisine, with olive oil, anise and cardamom being very tasty. Strategic location in the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta has been occupied many times, for millennia. By the Phoenicians, great navigators, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the French, the English. She has kept on the Maghreb side a little of the Arabic language, a sense of hospitality and on the Italian side of solid Latin and Christian roots. The good company, it lives on English time, drinks tea, whiskey and plays cricket, Malta having been attached to the United Kingdom until 1964. Maltese and English are spoken there, official languages. We will see colorful boats pitching on the very clear waters, salt marshes biting on the beaches, medieval villages, lagoons, lunar landscapes, a varied relief with cliffs, beaches, hills, fields. Three islands face each other: Malta, Gozo and Comino. Malta is quickly crossed by car, hence its great advantage for families. People come here for swimming (shallow water), diving (wrecks, caves, reefs), for kayaking, horseback riding, climbing, mountain biking, walking and indulging in the bird watching. The open air promises exotic vegetation: olive trees, but also as in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, almond trees, pomegranate trees, prickly pears. As a bonus, pleasant climate in winter, dry and hot in summer. Merhba, bongu Malta! Hi hello !

Discover Malta through Valletta, its pretty city of art

Alan Parker’s Midnight Express was filmed there as well as Gladiator and Games of Throne. Valletta, Valletta, capital of the Republic of Malta, has been listed as a World Heritage Site since 1980. A real history lesson for children. European capital of culture in 2018, Valletta deserves its nickname of “city of art”, “open-air museum” for its 320 monuments listed by Unesco over a small area. It was the stronghold of the Knights of the Order of Malta. Valletta, like Jean de Valette, late 15th early 16th century, Grand Master of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. Enjoy its narrow streets, discover its 15th and 17th century architecture made up of churches, palaces, and inns for knights. City Gate, bridge-footbridge, allows entry into the city walls. Stone stairs, large squares, gilded facades, looking up we come across moucharabiehs, these wooden gates that we find in Arab countries, in Egypt, in particular. First visit, that of the Saint Jean co-cathedral built in 1573, a baroque jewel in the city center. Second cathedral after that of Mdina, it is compared to the beautiful Italian churches, perhaps because it is a Calabrian painter, Maltese by adoption, Mattia Preti, who painted the fresco decoration of the vault. We will admire the 22 carat baroque gold, the mosaic of tombstones on the ground, the lapis lazuli altar, this blue stone of Persian origin. We will see paintings signed Caravaggio including the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist placed in altarpiece. Plus eight chapels, English, Portuguese, German, French etc. On Sundays, the 9am mass is sung with an old 14th century organ. In front of the cathedral, an altar pays homage to the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was assassinated in 2017. The Palace of the Grand Masters, another curiosity, houses the Chamber of Deputies and the Maltese presidency, where arms and armor are exhibited. Without forgetting the gardens, the Upper Barrakka Gardens which overlooks the large port and the three Cities. Shaded terraces decorated with fountains surrounded by flowers, statues, cannons, arcades. Old stones and plants contribute to the flea market charm of Valletta. Spend two hours in Mdina, the ancient capital known as the “silent city” which tells about four thousand years of Malta’s history. A pleasure to hurtle down its alleys, to admire its rich houses adorned with bougainvilleas, to stroll on its ramparts, to see the Saint-Paul cathedral, another baroque jewel. Pause ? Take a seat at Fontanella Tea Garden, for its pastries including Malta chocolate cake. You will have to venture outside the ramparts and take a water taxi to reach the Three Cities, Vittoriosa, Sengla, Cospicua. A journey through time on the open sea.

The village of Marsaxlokk and the cliffs of Dingli

A fishing village in the south of the island, Marsaxlokk (« marsa-chlock » means « the bay of sirocco ») where it is good to stroll on the quay and have lunch in the small square. A typical Maltese architecture with its low houses, its « luzzi », traditional fishing boats adorned with the eye of Isis to protect against bad luck. They have something, they say, of the Phoenician merchant ships of antiquity. Here settled the Ottoman army to lead the great siege of Malta in 1565. It is one of the last places where we will see old-fashioned net fishing. The first image of Marsaxlokk is this large port in the shade of palm trees and this multitude of colorful boats pitching on the clear blue sea. On the quay, on Sunday morning, the fishermen sell the catch of the day and share the stalls with the sellers of trinkets and other souvenirs. Have lunch at Ta ‘Victor, on the church square. On the plate, all the Sicilian and North African variety of Malta: beans with cumin, rabbit (fenek) in stew or pie, cheese puffs, toast dipped in tomato sauce, Chorba soup with fish. For dessert, candied fruit cake, makrouds, cinnamon ice cream. Like the English, we serve roast beef on Sundays. For a similar decor on a smaller scale, go to Saint Julians in the evening, to the north. A trendy seaside town with its row of restaurant-terraces on the small port. Build up your strength the next day to mountain biking with your teenagers to the cliffs of Dingli, near Malta. The walk to get there is pleasant, along roads lined with olive trees. It will take more energy and dexterity to cycle down stony trails, but the ride is worth it. We no longer know if we are in Malta or in Etretat or in Corsica. From the trails, beautiful view of the coast, the sea, and the island of Filfa inhabited by lizards and birds. You can put the bikes down to walk to the Hagar Quim temple, older than the pyramids of Egypt, erected on the cliff and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This temple was dedicated to the fertility divinities.

On the way to Popeye Village and the island of Gozo

Toddlers and primary school children will be happy like royalty at Popeye Village in Anchor Bay on the road from the pier to Gozo. Built in 1979 for the filming of the musical Popeye with Robin Williams. The sets of the film have given rise to a museum-park where we meet Popeye, Olive, Brutus and Gontran in the small houses, where we can watch film sequences and take a boat trip. What to fall back in advance in the company of the tattooed hero and fond of spinach. Then head to the pier to take a ferry to Gozo, the curious sister island of Malta, a must see. A natural arch called « Azure Window, » the island has limestone cliffs and bays like Ramla and its orange sands or pebble beaches with clear water. Sports enthusiasts will be delighted to discover diving or snorkeling areas and fine sandy beaches. Others will take a tuk tuk to tour Gozo and visit churches, shop for fruits and vegetables from the back of the truck, and see unique natural landscapes. The citadel of the capital, Victoria-Rabat, resembles that of Mdina. Place Saint-George, we’ll have a local breakfast, coffee and chicken or cheese turnovers before going to visit the Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption cathedral, whose sanctuary was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. Unless old stones are preferred gold and jewelry , in this case rush to Meylak Jewelers, an Ali Baba cave where you will be spoiled for choice in earrings or Maltese cross at a low price. At noon, have lunch at « Ta Rikardu » which offers homemade fresh or canned local goat cheese, served with tomatoes, onions, black olives, plates to die for. Riccardo will have shown you beforehand the stages of the preparation of preserves in his workshop behind the cathedral. En route by tuk tuk to Gharb, see the Neoclassical Baroque Ta ‘Pinu National Shrine. The Virgin is venerated there, this church paying homage to her miracles noted on the site. Touching ex votos with offerings, photos and messages. Spend the rest of the afternoon at the edge of the salt flats in the north of the island, for their lunar physiognomy. A chessboard of salt marshes. Pools filled with sea water that sparkle in the sun and adjoin beaches with sky blue waters. It is said that here Ulysses was held prisoner by the nymph Calypso. Nothing less.

Photo credit © Malta Tourist Board

Practical notebook:

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  • Air Malta flights, Paris-Valletta 2h40 flight. From 100 to 300 € for a direct return flight.
  • Taxi boat to see the 3 cities. Valetta Ferry Services, € 5, 60 for two round trips.
  • To sleep there:

Stay there:

  • Boutique hotel Saint-John, double room € 131 with breakfast, family room € 210.

To eat there:

  • Small break in a centuries-old cafeteria, like in Lisbon. Café Cordina, has been around since 1837, 244 rue de la République, place de Malte, Valletta.
  • Ta ‘Victor traditional restaurant overlooking the harbor, Misrah Madonna Ta’ Pompei, Marsaxlokk.

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