I made three assumptions when I booked my ticket to Malta one grey Saturday in November. The first was that it was a single island in the Mediterranean. The second was that the only things to see were alluring beaches. And the third was that given its popularity with tourists, it might be hard to stick to my budget of £40 per day (including accommodation). I was completely wrong on every account. I am very much a proponent for giving any new place enough time before forming a verdict. However, on a slightly chilly February morning as I jumped into a bus from the airport, I could feel something in my gut telling me I was going to love Malta. I can safely say that I was right.
Malta is actually an archipelago made up of 3 main islands. The largest is called Malta (the other two inhabited ones being Gozo and Comino). Together they make up a Mediterranean land that has a history going back thousands of years. Everything you see in Malta has a backstory and rests on a tapestry of cultural influence from its rulers across different periods and geographies – from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Byzantines, Arabs, French and British.
While Valletta and certain parts of the main island can feel like they’ve fallen prey to the tentacles of urbanisation and consumerism (a surprising number of British high street establishments have taken root in the capital), I steered towards the less busy, more budget-friendly parts of the island. That combined with the fact that I visited in February (the one month where the temperatures drop below 15°C) meant my time there was incredibly peaceful.
I now have scenes forever etched in my memory: nibbling on a freshly baked pastizzi from a hole-in-the-wall bakery with pastry flakes crumbling down my t-shirt, or feeling the heat of the evening sun as I walked through Cottonera where people sat on their doorsteps drinking coffee or hearing the Arabic-lilt of Maltese floating through the streets.
A Libyan Connection
Discovering that one of Malta’s closest neighbours was Libya got me excited. It took me back to 2013 when I was working as cabin crew on a flight from Egypt to Libya. It was just before the route was shut down; hardly a surprise given what was happening in Libya. I still remember the captain briefing us pre-flight, “I am not sure if we will be allowed into Libyan airspace today – but we’re going to do our best.” That was followed by a rush of adrenaline hours later when we touched down in Tripoli airport.
Now a few hundred kilometres away in Malta, I wondered what Malta’s connection to North Africa was, apart from Arab rule centuries ago and the fact that Maltese is a Semitic language with about 30% stemming from an Arabic base. How was it that some (older) people had studied Arabic in school?
Though diplomatic relations have been turbulent following the Libyan uprising, Malta and Libya were quite close several decades ago. It was Libya who loaned Malta several million dollars to make up for rental income loss after British military bases closed in the 1960s. The closer cooperation between the nations meant Arabic briefly became compulsory in Maltese schools in the 1980s. This opened up opportunities to work in Libya’s infrastructure and oil sector. It was this warm friendship that resulted in the Maltese Arab community coming mostly from Libya. With recent events unfolding, Malta’s accession to the EU, and Italy’s proximity and cultural influence, the younger generations today are more fluent in Italian.
The Three Cities
I jumped on a bus as I arrived and got off at ‘The Three Cities’ – known locally as the Cottonera. These medieval fortified villages (Vittoriosa, Isla and Cospicua) were built by the Knights of the Order of St John. Located on parallel peninsulas overlooking the Grand Harbour, it felt like the planning gods waved a wand over this area and said “no brands, no big shops, no tourists, no large offices – just local residences.”
When I arrived at 5pm, it was almost as if I jumped straight into the rhythm of local life. People were taking laundry off the washing line, drinking coffee on their doorstep, or going for their evening walk. You would normally assume a residential area would be quite boring to walk through, let alone explore. But the Cottonera‘s bastions, churches, warehouses and auberges added an encyclopaedic effect to the neighbourhood.
#Info: You can take a ferry across the harbour from Three Cities to Valletta for €1.50
Mdina: The Silent City
The ancient walled town of Mdina has a history going back four millennia. Serving as the country’s capital centuries ago, the fortified town feels like a time capsule as you walk through the medieval and baroque architecture and its quaint alleyways, squares and gates. Owing to its past habitation by the country’s nobility, most residences are still linked with the wealthier demographic. However, there did seem a tinge of artificiality. As I stood absorbing the panoramic views from the city walls, I couldn’t help but think it felt like walking through a movie set. Maybe it was the quiet streets (Mdina has strict restrictions on vehicles), or the fact that every item is made to blend into the surroundings (traffic signs are embellished with wrought iron detail). Either way, it strangely lacked the bustle and background noise of daily life.
Rabat and the Catacombs
Rabat – a town just across the road from Mdina – felt much more natural. You could feel the buzz of daily life as many more locals went about their business. Feeling peckish, I headed into Crystal Palace, a little hole-in-the-wall eatery, well known for their pastizzi fresh from the oven that’s best accompanied with their rich tea (made with condensed milk). The bill? €0.80 (that’s not a typo). Pastizzi – a savoury Maltese pastry commonly filled with either mushy peas or ricotta – is a popular snack across the island. And it was being eaten by everyone here, who mainly seemed to consist of retirees having a chat.
Rabat is perhaps known by many because of St Paul’s Catacombs – a late Roman underground burial site. First a quarry in Phoenician times, the site was later abandoned and then converted into a large cemetery (4th century BC – 2nd century AD). Over the subsequent centuries, the small tombs gradually evolved into large catacombs. With thousands of square metres of underground catacombs, it changed the way people viewed burial at the time. There was a shift from needing to be commemorated as an individual towards wanting to be seen as part of a larger group. By the 8th century with the arrival of new rulers (and different burial practices), the site fell into disrepair.
It definitely is an eerie experience to descend several metres into a large underground hall, with a maze of tunnels in different directions that you can follow semi-crouched to various tombs.
#Info: Entry to St Paul’s Catacombs costs €6
Valletta: Malta’s Capital
The parts of my travels I’ve appreciated the most have been moments outside the capital – Malta was no different. My interaction with the fortress city of Valletta was deliberately minimal, though I frequently passed through to change buses as I explored the island. Founded by Grandmaster Jean de Valette with funding from the Vatican to prevent further Ottoman attacks, Valletta like any capital, has two sides. The consumerist brand-filled streets (where the likes of Matalan and red letter boxes could fool you into thinking you were in a British town) contrast sharply with a dense concentration of honey-coloured 16th century baroque buildings. Except all of this is on a rocky peninsula that rises imposingly from two deep harbours.
If I was to pick three of my favourite moments in the capital, they’d be:
- Exploring St John’s Co-Cathedral that drips with opulence (from marble, to gilt-edges to Caravaggio). This was the religious home of the Knights of St John who ruled this island in the 16th century
- Climbing up to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Sunset is the best time to stroll through the manicured lawns and take in views across the capital and harbour.
- The iconic covered wooden balconies (l-gallarija Maltija) that seemed to be painted every bright shade of the colour palette. With different stories as to how its popularity arose, one theory says it started with the Grandmaster’s Palace where the covered wooden balcony (influenced by the covered balconies in the Arab world – mashrabiya) allowed the ruler to inconspicuously observe his subjects.
A South Asian Immigrant Influx
I’m always intrigued by pockets of South Asian communities around the world, being half-Sri Lankan, half-Indian. Why did they choose to settle there? What are they like? So when I noticed several South Asians in Malta in construction, driving buses, working in restaurants – one of the last countries I would have expected to find them – my curiosity was piqued. Had there always been a South Asian community? Or has it been a recent influx?
Some digging revealed authorities were making it easier to hire non-EU citizens to help Malta keep pace with economic growth. The government changed the system in 2018 to allow people to find jobs via temporary work permits. And several thousand South Asian migrants are trying to benefit from this change. The influx has resulted in a doubling of foreign residents on the island between 2013 and 2017, creating simmering tensions locally and other problems for the government. A media controversy shed light on a scheme of agents in Nepal and India luring people to jobs in Malta where dubious employment conditions are potentially not in line with that mandated by law.
Tile Painting in the village of Zeitun
It was complete luck that I found a tile painting class with Clive on Saturday morning. Better yet, it was in his studio in Zeitun – a 30 minute walk from where I was staying. I’m quite a nightmare of a student given my eagerness to ask questions (I’m sure many can attest to this). I’m also hopeless at the fine arts. But Clive’s calm demeanour, relaxed approach and cozy music-filled studio made it a therapeutic way to spend a Saturday morning.
After introducing us to tile painting – a craft that was not just unique to Portugal and Morocco but Malta as well – we set about making our own tiles (with Plaster of Paris instead of ceramic, to save on time). “It’s not that difficult. Draw the pattern you want to create – which is traditionally geometric and symmetric. Then trace the pattern on the tile, paint it and varnish to finish,” Clive told us. It seemed much less complicated than I imagined.
Clive also introduced me to the popular Maltese soft drink – Kinnie. It’s apparently a classic in the Mediterranean – orange and bittersweet with aromatic herbs. Given I love trying the local favourite, I knew what my next purchase was going to be.
#Info: Clive’s tile painting lessons were £15 via Airbnb Experiences, 9:30-11:30am, on Saturdays
The highest point on the Maltese Islands: Dingli Cliffs
Chasing my love for heights, where better to go than the highest point on the island? So on my final evening, I took a bus to the Dingli Cliffs on the south-western coast. Being there at sunset gave a whole new meaning to the words ‘golden hour’. I kept rubbing my eyes and double-checking the photos I took to make sure I wasn’t dreaming things up. Reminding me a lot of sunset in the Tunisian island of Djerba, for a good hour it felt like I had put on a golden-orange filter on my glasses.
Nom, nom, gulp, gulp
As you might expect, traditional Maltese food is influenced by the various people who’ve ruled these islands – flavours of Sicily, Britain and France. I don’t eat meat apart from chicken, but rabbit stew and slowly braised beef (Bragioli) are local favourites. I did try the mild Ġbejna (sheep cheese) though, in an omelette. The golden-coloured Ċisk (pronounced Chisk) is the most popular local beer and is great value – often €1.80 for 25cl in a restaurant.
- Pasta in Valletta (mains €10-15) – try Pastaus who do a mean squid ink pasta with calamari
- Great value seafood in Marsaskala – try the 2 course set menu (€13.90) at the Stuffed Olive Restaurant
- A chat with the most kind-hearted restaurant owner I’ve come across (and a delicious Ġbejna omelette at breakfast) – try the Tiny Restaurant by Marsaskala’s sea front. Vince will be ready to greet you with open arms. He was the role model for kindness and generosity. Despite only meeting him twice while having breakfast, I already knew his morning routine involved having milk ready for the neighbourhood cat, water bottles ready for the street cleaners and helping offer temporary work to migrants who’ve recently moved to Malta and are trying to find their feet
- Pastizzi – pop into any neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall bakery. Most of them are usually hot and fresh, and cost €0.40. If in Rabat, try Crystal Palace where you can throw in a rich condensed-milk tea for just another €0.40.
- Buses are awesome. For €1.50 (in winter) you can transfer as much as you like for 2 hours. Alternatively you can get a Tallinja Pass which equates to 12 rides for €15 (lasted me for 4.5 days of action-packed travelling) or an unlimited €21 pass valid for 1 week. These bus passes also work on Gozo Island and can be bought at the ticket office when you land at the airport.
- Download an app called Moovit. It’s great for bus timetables and routes (essentially a better form of Google Maps – more up-to-date public transport data). Be warned though: Maltese buses don’t always run on time!
- For a small island, Malta can have a surprising amount of traffic near the capital at rush hour. Beware of taking buses at this time – they’re often packed.
While I sadly didn’t have time to visit Gnejna Bay and the beaches in south-western Malta or sample the fresh fish in the village of Marsaxlokk, I somehow know I’ll be back again.
I visited Malta in February 2020