Malta traces its history back before the Egyptian pyramids. Temples of massive stone blocks dotted these islands 5,500 years ago. Over time, successive layers of civilization have transformed every inch of Malta, from terraced fields, walled cities, temples, churches, new coastal resorts.
Arriving in Valletta between Christmas and New Year’s, we walked into the city and entered a wonderland of beautifully decorated streets. Triq Ir-Repubblika, the main street and open to pedestrians, was strung with sculptural arches of lights, culminating in a lace-like dome.
Celebrations to ring in 2018 took on an extra importance as a kick-off to Valletta’s role as European Capital of Culture. Several hours worth of concerts at St. George’s Square lead up to midnight fireworks. We watched a more scattered set of fireworks from the Siege Bell War Memorial. Looking out over the water, several boats set off their horns and lit off small shows and the three cities had their own little displays. The crowd of thousands at the central square didn’t attract us and we preferred the quieter way to welcome a new year of travel.
Walking around the city during daylight, many spots closed for the holiday. So we mazed our way through the narrow streets and along the waterfront walls. A longer walk took us to Sliema on its own peninsula to the north of the city center. This area is full of newly-constructed apartments and hotels, all looking back over Valletta’s striking fortress walls and church domes.
After just a couple days, we left for a month on Gozo, returning for another short stint in the smaller town of Zabbar to line up our cheap flight date. From this home base we visited the Hypogeum, an ancient temple/tomb carved out of the rock beneath one of Valletta’s suburbs. It is Malta’s premier archaeological site. Only a handful of 10-person tours enter the man-made cave each day, dim lights revealing doorways carved to look like above-ground temples and red-ochre painted ceilings.
Wanting to visit the water one more time before leaving the island, we took in the Three Cities. Older than Valletta and heavily fortified by the Knights of the Order of St. John, the cities are famed for surviving a months-long siege by the Ottomans in 1565. The fortresses and walls have been rebuilt and restored. The Three Cities were quieter than Valletta and provided their own set of waterfront views worthy of admiration.
A new country meant new foods. We left most of our cooking for Gozo, but we couldn’t resist a few snacks upon arrival. The multiple brands of prawn-cocktail-flavored chips were a win, the Kinnie was not. A local soda brand, Kinnie is definitely an acquired taste which we did not acquire.
With warm weather even in January and an Italian feel, Malta was a great way to escape the winter chills. On a final cozier note, Malta’s wandering cat population loves attention. They seemed well-fed and content to indulge passers’-by photo whims.