Ten Days in Malta

This post was last updated on January 28th, 2019

As you all know from my recent vegan travel post and my sneak peek, this year’s summer vacation was spent in Malta, a country I had planned on visiting for a few years now. Malta is the smallest country in Europe by size, but has a relatively large population, which means it is extremely densely populated. In fact, aside from small city states like Monaco, Singapore, and the Vatican, Malta comes second only to Bahrain in terms of population density.

Malta and the Maltese Language

Malta is located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, not far from Sicily and Tunisia, and it combines a lot of Italian and North African characteristics. My main interest in the country has been the Maltese language which is the only Semitic language written in Latin script. As someone who studied standard Arabic, it was incredibly intriguing to see the written language and try to figure out the meaning without having learned a single word of Maltese: “triq” is the Maltese word for “street” (“tariq” in Arabic means “road”).

The pronunciation was a lot more difficult to figure out because it’s close to the Tunisian dialect, and I never studied any of the Arabic dialects. What makes the language yet more interesting, is the fact that over the decades, the amount of Italian vocabulary has increased. If you’re interested in languages, Malta is worth a visit just for the language itself.

We rented a lovely house in the Three Cities through Airbnb. As Malta is very densely populated, it’s difficult for foreigners to understand where a city begins and where it ends. Several times, as we took the bus to different locations, we felt like a large portion of the island is just one big city, when, actually, we had passed through several towns already. The Three Cities are an example of different municipalities that are connected to each other as if they were one big city. Birgu, Bormla, and Senglea are within the same fortifications. They are so close to each other that you can easily take a walk along the waterfronts of Birgu and Senglea in about half an hour. It’s also possible to walk to nearby Kalkara which we did when Kalkara had its village feast.

These village feasts are what makes the country very unique. In the summer, in particular, every week there is a village feast somewhere in the country for which the streets and buildings are beautifully decorated, food and drink stalls set up for the evenings, and beautiful fireworks displayed at night. The first day, we were still quite confused by the loud noise, but the locals told us that those were just the fireworks for the feasts. These village “festas” are something that is clearly part of the Maltese summer.

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Our street in the Three Cities.

Maltese Architecture

Another thing that is typically Maltese, are the gorgeous, colorful balconies that define the urban (mainly baroque) architecture. While there are regular, open balconies, what sets Malta’s architecture apart are the closed wooden ones which are inspired by Moroccan and Spanish architecture. They exist in many different bright colors which usually match the color of the main door, though green seems to be the most prominent color. These fascinating and picturesque balconies make walking through the narrow streets of the Three Cities or Valletta an absolute joy. There is so much beauty to observe just by looking at the details of these balconies and the stone decorations that support them.
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Who could not fall in love with this?
The traditional Maltese door knockers, often, but not only, in the shape of fish which are even being sold as souvenirs, are another charming detail of Maltese houses. If you have your own house, these are certainly some of the more special souvenirs you could buy in Malta.
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Doors in Mdina.

Maltese Churches

Malta’s architecture is also defined by its many churches. It is said that Malta has just as many churches as the year has days. We were obviously not able to see all of these churches, but some of them absolutely stand out with their exquisite exteriors (baroque architecture is very common in Malta) and the extensively decorated interiors.

Of special meaning is the Rotunda of Mosta whose neoclassical style was inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. In World War II, it was hit by a German bomb which, thankfully, did not explode. You can still see the spot in the roof that the bomb pierced through. The Rotunda’s dome is one of the largest in the world, and visiting this church is sure to leave an impression on you.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is another stunning Maltese church with absolutely magnificent mosaics on the floor. It is world-renowned for having one of the most marvelous baroque interiors.

The most splendid Maltese church that I saw was the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Valletta. The first time we went inside it was almost empty and we got a good look at the lovely decoration. The second time we went was actually the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and we observed the rituals for a while, which even included a little orchestra and choir. The basilica is really captivating and an absolute must if you go to Malta.

Mdina, the former capital of Malta, boasts another one of these enchanting Maltese churches – St. Paul’s Cathedral. The apostle Paul plays an important role in Maltese identity, as it is believed that his ship wrecked on the island. There is a smaller church in Valletta named for this incident, but St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina is larger and really impressive.

Finally, we also saw the Franciscan church in Valletta but didn’t get a good look around as they were in the middle of a service.

There are many other churches in Malta that are probably worth looking at, but we didn’t manage, to stop at every single one of them, of course.

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St. John’s Co-Cathedral.

The Mediterranean Sea

Given that Malta is such a small island, you are always close to the sea. I already mentioned that it’s easy to take a lovely stroll along the waterfronts of Birgu and Senglea. We also took a dgħajsa (water taxi) from the Three Cities to Valletta once, but, as much as I love the water, I do get scared on boats (on all transportation, if I’m completely honest – hey, we all have our issues), so while it was a delightful view, I didn’t feel the need to repeat it. We also took the ferry another time, which is actually cheaper and includes the ticket to the elevator to the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. Whether you’re on a boat or just taking a walk, though, the waterfront atmosphere is wonderful. Apparently, the Maltese enjoy spending time here as much as travelers might, and so there are benches all over for you to simply enjoy the view or watch the locals as they eat, laugh, and chat with each other.
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No, we were not in Venice, this is a dgħajsa, a traditional water taxi, that took us from the Three Cities to the capital Valletta.
Beaches in Malta are not at the level that would suffice for a beach vacation unless you stay in a resort that caters to this specific need. There are some decent beaches, such as around Mellieha in the north, and, especially, on the island of Gozo (Ghawdex). Ramla Bay in Gozo is truly sensational with its reddish sand and wasn’t even very busy when we went. The problem is that it will take you a while to get there if you’re not staying in Gozo itself and don’t have a scooter, but more on the public transport in Malta later on.

For the most spectacular sunset, you must go to the Dingli Cliffs on the west coast of the main island. Despite the fact that the sunsets here are utterly gorgeous, it’s not actually busy here with tourists during those hours.

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Dingli Cliffs.

Maltese Cities and Villages

I already mentioned St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, but the city itself is quite glorious. It is heavily influenced by Arab city planning and features the narrow alleys you can also see in the south of Spain or North Africa. Even though it was very warm when we were there, the way the city was built provides enough circulation of air to provide a cooling effect. The city is fortified in its entirety, and from the fortifications you have a striking view over most of the island. When we entered the gates, a tourist bus had just arrived as well so for a while it was completely filled with tourists, but after a while the bus left again so we had time to enjoy the Silent City as it is also known and take pictures that are not ruined by masses of tourists.

Valletta, is quite different from Mdina. It seems less closed off despite the fact that you can also find fortifications here. However, in contrast to Mdina, it lies right at the sea and features more Italian and French influences. Despite its small size, it is very interesting and has a lot to offer. In fact, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so you will really not run out of things to see and do if you invest the time to see the many churches, as well as the Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens. Simply walking through the city, is absolute bliss though because Valletta, in particular, showcases the cute Maltese balconies I wrote of earlier. The city is strongly influenced by the Knights Hospitaller, and, if you go see the Malta Experience movie next to Fort St. Elmo you can get a ticket that includes a visit to the infirmary, which was the most modern in all of Europe at the time it was founded by the Order of St. John.

The old fishing village of Marsaxlokk is famous for its tiny little harbor. Here, you can see some of the traditional Maltese boats decorated with the eye of Osiris. These are the luzzi, the traditional fishing boats, not to be confused with  the dgħajjes, the water taxis.

A trip to Malta wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Popeye Village, the set of the 1980 movie with Robin Williams. It is now somewhat of a tiny theme park with a restaurant and even an area to go swimming, but, for the most, part it looks the way it did for the movie. If you go after 5pm you’ll even get a discount, and the two hours you will have until they close are absolutely sufficient for the small park.

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The luzzi of Marsaxlokk.

Maltese Public Transport

Finally, for something a little less on the positive side: I had read and heard conflicting information about the buses in Malta. Some said they are excellent and even the best way to get around the country, others said that they are completely unreliable. Here’s what I will say on the matter:

There is public transport to everywhere you might want to go, and you will not have to walk far to/from the bus stop either. This is a great advantage, especially for the local population. No matter where you live you will have a bus stop within mere minutes walking distance. However, this means that every line has tons of stops and never takes the direct route to a destination. Several bus trips had us wondering why we were going around somewhat of a circle, only to realize that this was done to cover as much of the area as possible.

The next issue is that most of the time you will need to change buses in Valletta. Unless you’re staying in Valletta, this means that you will lose time going to Valletta only to go back in the direction you came from on a different bus.

Finally, the buses are often not on time. We have waited for more than 20 minutes on more than one occasion, and once we even waited for a bus for 30 minutes, only for it to arrive with the driver simply leaving without saying anything.

Considering all this, I would highly recommend arranging your own means of transportation if possible. Keep in mind though that as densely populated as Malta is it also has a lot of cars, so your best option if you wish to be fast and flexible would be renting a scooter.

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There’s just something about these balconies.
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One of the many beautiful alleys of Mdina, the former capital of Malta.
Have you ever been to Malta? Are you planning to go there? Let me know in the comments below.

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