Treasure island

26 Feb 2009 by Sara Turner

Malta’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean has defined its people, its history and its character, finds Tom Otley.

Driving towards the coast from Malta’s International airport, my first impressions are of a multilingual nation with an ancient history and proud identity. English road-signs stand side-by-side with Maltese billboards, and from the car radio bursts verbiage that to Western ears sounds like Arabic smattered with Italian and English. Evidence of the past is everywhere, from baroque churches, arches and fountains to the giant bastions surrounding the ancient capital city of Valletta, which draws ever closer.

Malta’s history, language, identity and the character of its people are all a result of its geographical position. It is a small island – no more than 316 sq km – lying almost exactly in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, between Italy and North Africa. Not surprisingly, it has been fought over, most recently in the Second World War (for a brilliant account, read James Holland’s recent book, Fortress Malta).

The island has been the setting for two watershed events – both sieges, and both of the highest brutality. The first was the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the 70-year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent invaded, backed by 30,000 Ottoman troops. The island was being protected by barely 600 knights and a few thousand mercenaries.

Under the orders of Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller Jean Parisot de la Valette (also aged 70), these brave men fought to defend Malta – specifically the areas where the three cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua now stand. The battle was spectacularly bloody, with severed heads being catapulted back and forth, the harbour running red with blood, and the eventual victory of the knights only achieved after the utter destruction of the island’s fortifications. It’s a story that has been retold many times over the years, most recently by authors Tim Willocks in The Religion (2006) and James Jackson in Blood Rock (2007).

Reconstruction began immediately, with the new capital of Valletta being built and reinforced in such a way as to be able to withstand any similar siege in the future. Almost 400 years later, these efforts were put to the test when a second prolonged attack took place during the Second World War. After enduring the heaviest bombardment of any nation by German and Italian forces, the entire island of Malta, a British colony, was awarded the George Cross for valour on April 15, 1942, in recognition of the bravery of its inhabitants.

More than 60 years on, there’s no escaping this history, and whether you are in Malta on business or pleasure, Valletta still stands behind defences that make Gibraltar’s seem like an afterthought. The views from the Upper Barrakka gardens with its Saluting Battery of 21 canons are breathtaking, as are those from the other side of the Grand harbour in Senglea’s Gnien Il-Gardjola.

Many UK visitors come for leisure purposes, lured by the history, the temperate climate, the short flight, the three-pronged plugs and English-speaking locals. In some ways, Malta is slightly mis-marketed as a beach destination, since it has no sandy beaches. However, the fabulously scenic destinations of Valletta, Mdina, Rabat and the “Three Cities” on the other side of the Grand Harbour make it ideal for a city break, albeit one where a week would be more appropriate than a weekend.

The island currently suffers from a lack of airline capacity, with Air Malta, British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair being the main scheduled options from the UK. The tourist board says it is looking for new carriers from the under-served Midlands, the north of England, Edinburgh and Bristol.

Malta’s main competitors for tourism are Cyprus, Morocco and Croatia, and it’s not a cheap destination, particularly with the strength of the euro against sterling, so those who go there are looking for something special.

For business travellers, Malta is used as a stepping stone to Libya and by investors such as Dubai Holding, from the UAE, seeking a European bridgehead. Dubai Holding, which has Internet City in Dubai, is planning a similar development in Malta as labour costs here are about half of those in much of Western Europe, and Malta’s polyglot population makes it an attractive location for call centres. The island has also attracted gaming – internet betting exchange Betfair has a large office here – and pharmaceuticals, as well as aircraft servicing in the form of Lufthansa Technik Malta.

Still, whether you are on business or a holiday, the island has its challenges. Getting around during the day is possible using the old-fashioned buses, but if you were staying in Valletta and wanted to try one of the excellent restaurants in Vittoriosa, by the new marina, your choices would either be to rent a car and drive, or get a taxi. Bear in mind that a ten-minute journey in a cab would cost you more than e40. Renting a car is inexpensive, although traffic is heavy in Valletta and parking can be a problem at times.

Many visitors spend part or all of their trip on the neighbouring island of Gozo, which has a pace of life that makes it an ideal retirement location for Brits and Maltese alike. There are a couple of ways to get there: by taxi (about €30 from Valletta) and then seaplane (€42 single with Harbour Air Malta); or by bus (47 cents) and then ferry (€4.65 return from Cirkewwa with Gozo Channel).

Taking the bus at least once is a must, especially if you’ve added a few days on to a business trip and want to unwind. They are wonderfully rickety, and I particularly enjoyed the driver who negotiated the winding turns of the island’s roads while texting on his mobile phone. After that, the ferry from Cirkewwa, which passes Comino, the third island in the group, on its way to Gozo, was almost an anticlimax in its efficiency.

Gozo has a few beaches, including the pleasant Ramla Bay, a hilly terrain good for walks, and several high-quality, relatively inexpensive restaurants. You don’t have to be here long to relax, not least because there isn’t much to do. You can stroll through the few towns in a matter of minutes, and the main tourist attraction is the impressive 6,000-year-old megalithic Ggantija temple in Xaghra. In the shoulder seasons, evening comes on quickly, the birds chatter, and you can still dine out well into November.

For our final night we returned to the mainland of Malta and strolled around Valletta’s deserted streets, speculating on why so many of the fabulous 400-year-old buildings are empty. Perhaps it is a combination of the huge expense of renovating them, complicated family ownership and, most novel, the rumours that many are haunted. We ate at Spezzo in Valletta’s main square, where the simple cuisine – zuppa di pesce (fish soup) to start and pollo al barolo (chicken in red wine sauce) for the main – couldn’t detract from the excellence of the cooking. After such a tumultuous history, Malta’s quiet charm can be very seductive.

For a review of Grand Hotel Excelsior in Valletta, Malta, click here.

For a review of Kempinski San Lawrenz in Gozo, click here.

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