Malta is an extraordinary country with many hidden treasures! Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese Archipelago is its own world – south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, east of the Strait of Gibraltar, and north of Alexandria Egypt! The three main islands are Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They’re all rich in culture and nature with art galleries, water sports, historical museums, ancient forts, Neolithic archaeological sites, Baroque architecture, museums, ancient forts, forests, lighthouses, windmills, beaches, and more.
Wednesday I took a ferry to Valletta. The weather was warm, hazy, and windy with piercing sun. After a long, trip my photography skills are waning and processing photos with slow local WiFi is painful. To help communicate Malta’s beauty, I’ve used some media shots in this post.
Getting to Malta was complicated. Weather permitting, there are daily ferries from Pozzallo Sicily to Valletta and back. The huge catamaran has gambling – slot machines – shops, food, and is clean and comfortable. I booked my ticket online – the date changed several times due to heavy wind and stormy spring seas.
It’s can be clear when boarding the ferry and 30 minutes into the 1.5-hour trip to Malta you run into sometimes violent Mediterranean squalls. Many passengers got sea-sick and no matter how sure-footed you were, walking around the boat was difficult – bumping off walls and seats. The captain asked passengers to remain seated.
A few days before departure, I received notification that the return trip was departing Valletta two hours later. That was fine with me and would allow more time to explore. I asked if the Pozzallo departure was also changed and the reply was it would leave as scheduled – ha…
I gave myself time to walk to the ferry – about 30 minutes along the coast. I could see the ferry approaching as I got near the port and quickened my pace thinking I might miss it – ha, ha, ha. The ferry departed almost two hours late!
The security check was quick in the packed boarding area. Upon arrival, trucks and autos exit the ferry first – before passengers are allowed to disembark. This doesn’t make sense, but there must be logic behind it? The tedious process made everyone antsy and seemed to take forever.
I ran into familiar faces from Pozzallo and chatted with passengers. Easter is a major Italian holiday followed by Independence Day on April 25, when many families visit. Malta’s ferry was more chaotic than those for other archipelagos and isolated islands I’ve experienced – Azores, Seychelles, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Greek and Turkish Islands.
History and Geography
The History of the Maltese Islands dates back 7,000 years to 5200 B.C., when Stone Age farmers settled along the shores. Normans, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Phoenicians, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Castilians invaded the archipelago.
Malta gained independence in 1964, changed from a Commonwealth to a Republic in 1974, and joined the European Union in 2004. It’s the smallest country in the EU by area and population, but the most densely populated. The Maltese archipelago has seven Mediterranean islands – only three are inhabited.
Malta is the largest island in the archipelago. The capital is Valletta with Birkirkara the most populated city. Malta has a series of small towns forming one Larger Urban Zone (LUZ) with a total population of around 450,000. Maltese is the national language, but the two official languages are Maltese and English.
Locals appear to think of their towns almost as separate countries. During the day I got disorientated when my offline maps didn’t work and no one could help me find the ferry departure point in Valletta. I had strayed into another town where they disavowed all knowledge of Valletta.
It’s easy to see why the Maltese Archipelago is an important Mediterranean maritime hub. It has three large natural harbors – Marsamxett, Marsaxlokk, and Grand. The fourth harbor – Ċirkewwa – is manmade.
Locals often assume you’re a cruise ship passenger – there were several massive ships in Grand Harbor… After circling the waterfront a few times, I finally found the right departure point. The stress of finding the ferry location on time was unnecessary, since there was another significant departure delay.
Accommodation, Transportation, and Tours
Malta accommodation is expensive. I wanted to stay there but opted for day trips from Pozzallo – before realizing the hassle of getting back and forth via ferry. I planned to book a tour in advance, but am glad I didn’t. With the delay in ferry departure it would have been impossible to join a tour group on time.
I did research to find points of interest and guide myself. It was overwhelming. It’s impossible to explore Malta in one day – you need more time to see and understand even basic cultural and historic attractions. Captivated by Malta’s beauty and mystery, I plan a return visit and less rushed extended stay.
Known as Europe’s “culture capital,” Malta is one of the most beautiful places in the world! A new art gallery – Muża – opened in 2018. The name stands for Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti. In Maltese it means “muse or inspiration”. Renovated 15th-century Auberge d’Italie combines the art collection of Malta’s former National Museum of Fine Arts and recent Muża acquisitions.
Automobiles and motorcycles run the perimeter of the island. In central Valletta old town, you can walk, take a horse-drawn carriage, or ride a small motorized vehicle for children and those less mobile. Exploring the island on foot is by far the best.
Valletta has several main squares:
- Republic Square – known for cafés
- St. George’s Square – home of the Grandmaster
- St. John’s Square – home of St. Johns Cathedral
- Triton Square – near Valletta City Gate
- Freedom Square – reminiscent of the 1970s Communist period
- Castille Square – overlooking Grand Harbour and Auberge de Castille
- Independence Square – terraces and traditional Maltese houses
Malta has an extensive local bus system. Knowing I had limited time, I waited in line to learn about buses and buy a pass. The lines were long and included migrant refugees – mostly from Africa. I waited behind a young man who was very calm and patient. When he got to the front of the line, he was told that he had to provide a paper copy of his travel permit. After obtaining the copy, he had to come back and wait all over again. I felt sorry for him, but he handled the situation gracefully.
A concierge at the Phoenician Hotel recommended touring the island on foot and pointed out the most accessible attractions in Central Valletta. Every street was fascinating! Many look down on the harbor, and like in San Francisco, sea and Bay vistas from the hills are breathtaking. I stopped for lunch at an outdoor café and then continued to St. Johns Co-Cathedral.
St. Johns Co-Cathedral
St. Johns Co-Cathedral is a “shrine and sacred place of worship” and “gem of Baroque art and architecture”. It was the church of the Knights of St. John who ruled Malta for over 250 years from 1530 to 1798. The Grand Masters and knights donated art and made contributions to embellish the church”.
Archaeological areas include burial sites, temples, and catacombs:
- Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum – prehistoric burial site from 4000 – 2500 BC
- Ghar Dalam – oldest site with animal bones, fossils, human remains
- Ħagar Qim – megalithic temple complex with prehistoric chambers
- Ġgantija Temples – older than the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge
- Mnajdra – temple built in coralline limestone
- Domvs Romana – remains of a wealthy Roman household
- St. Paul’s Catacombs – passageways and burial chambers
- Xaghra Stone Circle – subterranean burial ground 4000 – 2500 BC
- Tarxien Temples – discovered by local farmers in 1913
- Misrah Ghar Il-Kbir Cart Ruts – web of ancient tracks gouged in rock
National Museum of Archaeology
Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology is an introduction to the pre- and early history of the Maltese Islands. Upon entry a “figure of the Sleeping Lady flashes before you on a limestone screen”. The Sleeping Lady is 5,000 years old!
Her famous image from the Neolithic Period “honors one of the first cultures to leave a mark on Malta”. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum Temple, a “sanctuary and necropolis,” is one of the best-preserved examples of Maltese temple building culture. Archaeologists have documented the remains of over 7,000 individuals.
Grand Master’s Palace and Armoury
The armory has the “world’s largest collections of knightly arms and armor”. Façade improvements were the efforts of Grand Master Pinto de Fonseca.
Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
The Roman Catholic Parish Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a neo-gothic church in Balluta Bay, the town of St Julian’s Malta. The church is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site including Valletta. It’s a small but special church.
Built in 1580 and damaged during WWII, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was rebuilt in the 1950s in Pisan Romanesque style. The church has spectacular mosaics representing Carmel’s story.
The marble altar is magnificent as is the bell tower “surmounted by a bronze statue of the Madonna”. The central chapel dates back to the eleventh century and has a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. I took a break and enjoyed sitting inside admiring the art and dome.
I thoroughly enjoyed my limited time in Malta but hope to return and explore other islands, archaeological sites, and natural wonders like the blue grotto. “Malta” comes from a Greek word meaning “honey” – it’s an appropriate name.