Knight Life

Sitting squarely in the centre of the Med, Malta boasts a classic island mix of golden beaches and azure waters. But that’s not all. Its prehistoric sites, crusader-built capital and churches embellished with the work of famous artists, really set it apart from the rest. Cox & Kings takes a look at the island’s highlights.

Valetta

Valetta

Fort St Ange

Fort St Ange

Hagar Qim

Hagar Qim

St Julians

St Julians

Harbour of Gozo

Harbour of Gozo

The Azure Window

The Azure Window

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

HISTORIC HIGHLIGHTS

From ancient marvels to medieval citadels and baroque treasures, Malta has more than its fair share of historic sites. The island’s capital, Valletta, crowned by the fortress of St Elmo, was founded in the 16th century by the Knights of St John on a headland flanked by two natural harbours. Credited by Unesco as a world heritage site, the city is a living museum with more than 320 historic monuments packed into a tiny peninsula. It’s the perfect base for a trip that evokes an era of crusader knights and castles. Gaze on the panoramic views from the lofty Hastings garden or the Upper Barrakka gardens shaded by tall trees. Along the city’s main arteries, modern shops hide behind a beautifully-preserved facade and cafes spill out into gorgeous squares that have remained largely unchanged since the 18th century.

Alongside Valletta, the island’s former capital, Mdina, is just as fascinating to explore. This medieval walled citadel, known as ‘the silent city’, is a rabbit warren of narrow stone lanes that cry out to be explored on foot. If you are heading to Mdina, stay at the stunning Xara Palace hotel, once a 17th-century palace. To journey even further into the past, visitors can explore Malta’s astonishing megalithic temples, built more than 6,000 years ago. Scattered across the Maltese archipelago, these mysterious monuments have been described as the oldest freestanding monuments in the world, and are another of Malta’s UNESCO-listed sites.

CULTURAL TREASURES

For an island half the size of London, Malta has a surprising number of world-class archaeological and cultural sites, as well as a thriving arts scene.

Art enthusiasts should visit the magnificent St John’s co-cathedral in Valletta to view its ornate interiors and impressive horde of artworks, originally gifted to the Knights of St John. At the cathedral’s dark heart is an enormous Caravaggio painting – The Beheading of St John – a sinister portrayal of execution that’s the only one of the artist’s renowned works to bear his signature. The nearby Rotunda of Mosta, with a domed roof to rival that of London’s St Paul’s, is also a worthwhile stop on a sightseeing tour of the island. An unexploded bomb dropped on the church during the fierce Luftwaffe air raids of the second world war is still on display inside.

Another important sight is Turner’s take on Valletta’s grand Harbour at the National Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a 16th-century building that exudes faded rococo glamour. The city also hosts the Malta arts festival in the summer, offering a world-class programme of music, dance and theatre performed against the beautiful baroque backdrop of Valletta’s churches, buildings and squares. Among the city’s extraordinary venues are the Sacra Infermia – the former hospital of the Knights of St John dating back to 1574 with a grand hall longer than three Olympic-sized swimming pools – and the Manoel Theatre, which was built in 1732 and is one of the oldest restored theatres in Europe. In fact, so vibrant is Valletta’s culture and heritage that it has been named European city of culture for 2018.

CULINARY DELIGHTS

Maltese food fuses influences from all over the Mediterranean including north Africa, Italy and the Middle East. The result is a distinctive cuisine that is both healthy and tasty. Rabbit is Malta’s unofficial national dish: fried, stewed or served with spaghetti. Visitors with adventurous taste buds can try a range of quirky local titbits like snail aioli, otherwise savoury pastries filled with ricotta or peas and ‘widow’s soup’ – a peasant inspired dish made with egg and seasonal vegetables – are delicious. Though British puddings and Italian gelato are easy to come by, sweet-toothed visitors should try delicious local desserts like treacle honey rings and eastern-inspired nut butter-based halva.

Foodies and gourmands alike will appreciate the high-end restaurants in Valletta and St Julian’s, serving fresh local and seasonal produce, including stuffed calamari cooked in white wine, and a rich red wine dish of quail filled with prunes. Valletta’s magnificent tree-lined waterfront area, with its gently illuminated buildings and restaurant terraces, is the perfect place to spend an evening sampling the local Sicilian-inspired cuisine and sipping wine made from Maltese grapes. You might even catch one of the open-air concerts often hosted down by the harbour.

Equally, St Julian’s has a range of fine dining options with stylish harbour-side terraces. Traditional specialties are on the menu at many of the town’s restaurants and eateries so it’s a great place to experience the authentic taste of Malta.

COASTAL TREATS

Malta’s clear waters, golden beaches, blue skies and craggy shoreline pitted with caves and coves make it a striking setting for a coastal break. Visitors will find most of Malta’s best beaches in the north of the island, including the appropriately-named golden Bay, a wide swathe of shimmering sand. For those who enjoy swimming and lulling in idyllic, sand-fringed coves, there are local boat trips from Malta to the Blue Lagoon on the tiny neighbouring island of Comino, famous locally for its shallow, calm, azure waters.

The beauty of Malta’s coastline was not lost on famed marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, who considered Malta to have the best offshore waters in the Mediterranean. Taking a boat tour of the coast is a highlight of any trip to Malta, and the Blue grotto, in particular, is well worth a visit just for its sheer natural beauty and the astonishing phosphorescent quality of its waters. Part of a fascinating system of sea caves and caverns carved out of the towering cliffs on Malta’s south-west coast, the Blue grotto can be reached by boat from Wiediz-Zurrieq harbour, but it’s best to visit in the morning to experience the place in its most magical light.

Cox & Kings has a wide range of private tours and short breaks to Malta available online here…

This article first appeared on www.theculturalvoyager.com

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