Once Upon A Weekend In Malta
An awe-inspiring weekend in the place sometimes referred to as the “Mediterranean’s Best Kept Secret”…
Malta is a European island just south of Sicily and east of Tunisia. The Maltese islands have been ruled by several imperial powers, the most recent being Great Britain. Malta gained its independence in 1974 and joined the European Union in 2004. The official languages are both Maltese and English.
Malta played a significant role in World War II, as the Allied Powers used it as a base between mainland Europe and Africa. The islands were heavily bombed by the Axis Powers – at the end of the war, Malta held the title for the most bombed nation in the entire world. During the war, two bombs dropped on a church in central Malta. Strangely and miraculously, the bombs did not go off, and everyone in the church was saved. It is now called the Miracle Church of Mosta. Many believe there is something special and unexplainable about these islands.
After experiencing a wave of cold weather in mainland Europe this past spring, a group of friends and I were craving some much needed sunshine and beach time. Several of us had never heard of Malta, but after seeing gorgeous pictures and reading some travel reviews, we booked our flights and headed to the airport a few days later. We had no idea what we were about to stumble upon, both rational and unexplainable.
Our flight arrived in the afternoon. We got our rental car and headed to our hotel in St. Paul’s Bay. Because of its modern design and beautiful location right on the ocean, St. Paul’s Bay is fairly touristy and the site of many hotels. My friends and I spent the afternoon wandering around the neighborhood and exploring the various shops and restaurants in the area.
Around dinner time we attended GrooveFest Malta, an electronic/techno music festival held at Cafe del Mar, a 20-30 minute walk from our hotel in St. Paul’s Bay. We snagged chairs at the infinity pool and listened to music as the sun set over the Mediterranean.
My absolute favorite part of our weekend was a day excursion to two islands just off the coast of the mainland of Malta, Comino and Gozo. These two islands are considered part of Malta, and arguably are home to some of the most incredible natural wonders of the Mediterranean.
• First Stop: Comino is an extremely small island between Malta and Gozo (it has only four permanent residents). The highlight of visiting Comino is the stunning Blue Lagoon. The water is crystal clear and the most vibrant blue. The Blue Lagoon is perfect for laying in the sun, swimming, and snorkeling. The pictures speak for themselves, but also don’t do it justice!
• Second Stop: Gozo is the smaller, more rural version of Malta. We first arrived in Victoria, the largest city in Gozo. After eating some traditional Maltese food, we wandered around the town, climbed to the Citadel, and explored a few churches.
Next, we headed to the Azure Window, a 92 feet tall limestone arch formed by the collapse of two sea caves. For all you Game of Thrones fans, a scene from the show was actually filmed at this site. In the year 2012, a huge chunk of the arch fell into the ocean, and since then, scientists have concluded that within the next few years, the Azure Window will disintegrate completely. I am very thankful that I didn’t know this when I was climbing on top of the arch…
After checking out of our hotel, we visited the Blue Grotto of Malta, a sea cave similar to the Blue Grotto in Capri, Italy. Inside the grotto, the water looks almost fluorescent blue. It is a truly fascinating phenomenon. The Blue Grotto is only accessible by small boat, and the nearby fishing village where you can rent these boat services has several restaurants and shops.
We stopped through Marsaxlokk, another fishing town on the southern part of the island. The harbor is filled with colorful boats and great views of the city. We were luckily there on a Sunday, when a busy market runs along the boardwalk of the town, full of all types of vendors and artisans.
Before heading to the airport, we arrived in Valletta, the capital of Malta. City wise, Valletta was my favorite – though it seemed somewhat haunted and empty, other parts of the city were charming and full of people. Valletta is also a World Heritage Site. Though much of the city was bombed during World War II, the architecture is pristine and there is a definite sense of city pride. Even someone who is only stopping through for the afternoon, such as myself, can tell this right away – the people are friendly, both national and soccer team flags hang in the streets, and the city just feels festive.
• If you can rent a car, I would highly recommend it. Malta is fairly small (only 122 square miles of land), but parts of it are rural and best explored by car. Sites such as the Blue Grotto are much easier to reach when you have a car. Be warned though, Malta drives on the opposite side of the road than the majority of countries (same side as the United Kingdom, Australia, etc.), which can be tricky to adjust to.
• I believe the best ways to see Comino and Gozo are through a tour company. I usually try to avoid booking through tour companies because it can feel touristy, but it is the easiest and smartest way to see the islands as a visitor. Day tours are cost-efficient and well run. If you get seasick easily, make sure to bring some preventative medicine – the seas between the islands are extremely choppy.
• Go out of your way to try the local food. Malta has great seafood and tapa-style dishes. We did not interact with many locals during our stay on the island, so the food was how I best grasped a little bit of Maltese culture.
• Wear sunscreen! Malta is much closer to the equator than some other tourist destinations, and the sun is extremely strong. Island winds will often disguise how hot it is – better safe than sorry!
In my case, it was a last minute decision to visit Malta. I was unsure of what we would see and do, but I was so thankful for the things I witnessed that weekend. If you’re ever in need of an island getaway, let yourself be the judge of whether Malta is truly the “Mediterranean’s Best Kept Secret”.