Malta is much more than a beach
Malta is known as a beach destination, but has much more to offer. This includes lovely bays, temples older than the pyramids of Egypt and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. My mission is to find the best sights, on both Malta and the neighbouring island of Gozo. Read on for some surprising tips and attractions.
Corno van den Berg
A trip to southern Europe’s Malta can be very confusing. It is actually made up of three islands Malta, Gozo and the small but popular island, Comino. All these islands together form the country of Malta and can be easily visited. You can easily visit them. Look back into the past, and a medieval world opens up for you.
Valletta is the capital of Malta and the city in which your flight will land. The city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980. Proclaimed as a World Heritage Site due to the architecture and the richness of the past. This includes the famous knighthood of Malta, which is located here.
I step into St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta as soon as it opens. This is to avoid the hordes of tourists. The world-famous 16th-century cathedral in the capital of Malta is an example of the richness of the Baroque. This includes the famous painting The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
A man works on the marble floor in between all the tourists. He sees me, nods and continues with his work. The cushion for his knees offers some comfort. I ask him, “What exactly are you doing?” Jesmond Barolo smiles and begins to explain. “First I remove the grit from a broken piece of tile work with a sharp knife.”
“Then I cut a piece of paper exactly to size so that it fits. After which I replicate exactly that piece of marble. It also has to be 7mm thick,” he explains. “Then it fits exactly. The priority is to keep the original as good as possible. And to keep everything even.” This is fiddly work or rather monk work. But, there’s no other place he’d rather be.
He explains how he works. “First I spend days walking through the church. On a paper I indicate the work that must be done.” Jesmond shows the drawing with all the pieces that still need to be done. I see many boxes with crosses. He smiles.
“I’ve been working here for 33 years and for the rest of my life,” he says with a laugh, but also full of conviction. He continues, “The biggest challenge is figuring out the exact colour. I am proud of my work, as everything around me are masterpieces.” He has profound admiration for his work.
When asked if he doesn’t mind working alone, he replies: “A lot of tourists ask about my work. Which is nice, but this is a dying profession. I am looking for students who want to learn the trade. They must love art, real art. But young people are no longer interested in this profession … ”
Malta’s cuisine is very diverse. I want to try rabbit, and the various seafood meals. Maltese cuisine is sophisticated, even for Italians who come here on vacation, so I hear. A young woman looks at me from the kitchen. Her eyes ask me how I like the well-filled Maltese fish soup. It is Carla Preca, one of Charles Preca’s five daughters.
Charles was the chef who put the famous King’s Own Band Club restaurant on the map. He passed away in 2018 and now Carla runs the restaurant. Although she does it her own way. “I was not trained as a cook, but I learned everything from my father and sisters but I also follow my own style.”
Two of her sisters, Ramona and Roberta, are famous on TV and run several restaurants in Malta. Carla, “But I don’t need to be on TV, I prefer to be in the kitchen.”
It’s time to wander the streets of Valletta. Malta was once conquered by the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Vandals, an East Germanic tribe. But also by the Ottomans, French and English. Which has resulted in a colourful mix of architecture. This can be seen by the hundreds of wooden balconies that are richly decorated.
Everything happens on the street because of the nice weather. I see a lot of people having a chat, couples having a nice dinner together or simply enjoying each other as they stroll through the streets hand-in-hand.
Comino and the Blue Lagoon
The boat trip to the Blue Lagoon is the most popular excursion in all of Malta and Gozo. The Blue Lagoon is located on Comino exactly in between the other two islands. This shallow bay is perfect for swimming, relaxing and exploring. As there is more to Comino than just the Blue Lagoon.
On Comino I also see several natural arches; small and big. These are only very impressive from the sea, but I have my boat with the captain. He steers the boat to many other bays with wonderful names like Crystal Bay and Emerald Bay. Yes, the colours do match.
Blue Grotto (Malta)
The Blue Grotto, or Blue Cave, is known from social media. With the early morning sunlight, the water is very light blue and even seems to give light. It is a wonderful phenomenon, especially in the morning.
There are actually several caves where this natural spectacle can be seen in the sea. The sun shines here everyday. Fortunately it does that quite often in Malta. But check the weather before you go on this excursion.
The most famous cave can be seen from the road. Although it is more of a natural arch. It is better to explore this by boat from the harbour of Wied iz-Żurrieq in the village of Żurrieq.
On a boat trip you’ll see why it is called the Blue Grotto. You have much more time with a kayak. It’s best to go around lunch time, but make sure the sun is still shining fully into the cave. After lunch the light is less therefore the phenomenon is less visible.
Look closely at the rocks upon entry and then look backwards to the sun. You’ll see the water is mesmerizingly blue. The best photos can be taken underwater or exactly on the water surface. The Blue Cave is located on the south side of Malta.
Xwejni Salt Pans (Gozo)
The Xwejni Salt Pans on Gozo are famous. Here, salt is extracted from the sea in a simple but effective way. Where people still work and you can buy the freshly extracted salt.
For fifty years, Emmanuel Cini has been extracting salt along the coast near the town of Marsalforn. The 76-year-old man is a bit stiff. He walks with a bit of difficulty from his shop to the salt pans. Seeing the smile on his sun-weathered face is delightful. He carries the buckets with a wooden beam resting on his neck. “I still use it. Like it was used a lot in the past,” he explains.
Emmanuel speaks English, but a little under his breath and he doesn’t finish the words. I really have to listen hard to hear what he is saying. His passion for salt is clearly visible. He shows me the salt pans where he works from June to the end of August. The salt pans are close to the sea, which makes sense.
The ocean hits the rocks at high tide. The water is collected in handmade bins. These are cut into the rocks. The sun allows the water to dry, leaving the precious salt behind. That’s how the salt has been extracted here for 350 years. Emmanuel shows me the salt. Yes, I’ll buy some. I definitely want to taste it.
Dwejra Bay (Gozo)
Dwejra Bay is one of the most beautiful bays in Gozo, actually in all of Malta. Even though you find numerous bays on the other islands. Dwejra Bay is special because of its almost enclosed location, the clear water and the surrounding rocks and hills. A perfect place to relax and swim.
You can explore the bay by boat, kayak or jet ski. Make sure you have time, because this is a tranquil place where you have peace and quiet. At the far end is a small cave, while at the entrance you can see a free-standing rock with the wonderful name Mushroom Rock. The name comes from a General who discovered a special mushroom that grew here. Which was really a plant.
On one side of the bay is a mountain which is perfect for hiking. I went up the mountain next door with a mountain bike to have a nice view. It was steeper than expected, but very rewarding. I got the best view in all of Malta, which I appreciated.
Blue Hole (Gozo)
The Blue Hole is located near Dwejra Bay. This is the place where the Azure Window was until March 2017; this was a natural arch of rocks in the sea. A storm caused the iconic rock to disappear into the sea, but the Blue Hole was preserved. This is a 10 meter wide cave and it lies partly underwater. With a passage to the open sea at a depth of 8 meters.
It is a perfect place to swim, snorkel or dive. The coral reef is full of fish and offers a fabulous view due to the sunlight pouring in. The water is nice and warm. The path to it is not easy; as the rocks are quite sharp. This often makes it remarkably quiet at the Blue Hole. It is also a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
I have been wanting to visit the medieval city of Mdina in Malta for somef time. The city is completely walled and is located in the heart of Malta.
When I walk through the gate, the guide tells me that it is the former capital of Malta. Partly for this reason, the city has a rich past, with the great empire coming during the Middle Ages. Mdina has an unprecedented number of Baroque buildings.
Archaeologists say people lived here from as early as 4000 BC. It was also the capital of Malta for the Romans. The most famous building is St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the square. The church is built in Baroque style. It is nice to wander through the narrow streets with high gates.
I pause at a red telephone booth, a relic from the time when England had influence here. Funny enough, it’s still working. A horse and carriage passes by. Otherwise it is quiet.
This is a perfect spot for photos. I explore the city in the late afternoon. The heat of the sun is gone. The long rays of sunlight hits on the streets.
The Temples of Malta (Malta and Gozo)
Malta and Gozo have unique temples. Which are older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. These wondrous structures only found here. Seven temples in Malta and Gozo are now on the list of World Heritage by UNESCO.
The temples were built between 3600 and 2500 BC, by people we know very little about. Ggantija is the most famous temple complex, which has two temples together. The other temples are Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Ta ‘Ħaġrat, Skorba and Tarxien. I visit them all and am amazed and also very impressed.
Various female figures have been found in the ground around the temples. These were often made from animal bones. Which leads many scientists to think that the temples somehow have to do with the fertility of women. The function of the temples have not been conclusively proven.
In addition, archaeologists know surprisingly little about the creators of these unprecedented old buildings. They also have little evidence of how the temple complexes were made. As an example, the wheel had not yet been invented, while many thousands of kilos of heavy stones have been transported here. Also how are they placed on top of each other? In the museums at the various temple complexes you will get answers to some questions, but not all. Which makes it extra special.
The cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua (Malta)
Near the capital Valletta there are three old royal cities; Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. These cities merge completely and are perfect to discover with a kind of golf cart; the Rolling Geeks. It sounds silly, but it’s a lot of fun.
Rolling Geeks, the name is strange and funny. It’s a golf cart that you drive through the quiet streets. You see the route on a GPS and receive extra information in all kinds of languages from a tiny speaker. Although, Dutch is actually a Belgian with an Antwerp accent. This makes sense, because this is a special initiative by Kris Rycken, a Belgian who has moved here.
I can steer, but one of the owners will take me to show around. Well, that is fine by me. We drive through the Three Cities. These medieval cities have since merged with each other and are located directly opposite Valletta. Only the harbour is in between. My tour guide leisurely steers the cart across the roads and highlights many places. I want to stop everywhere.
Wied Il-Mielaħ (Gozo)
Wied Il-Mielaħ, I had never heard of it. But when I see it, I understand why they see this as the new symbol of Gozo (and even Malta). The symbol was once another natural arch; the famous Azure Window. But it collapsed in 2017 during a severe storm.
Wied Il-Mielaħ in Gozo is also a natural arch, or a hole in the rocks. The sea flows through here. You can find this arch in the west of the island, although it is not easy to find. But everyone in the area knows this attraction and is happy to help you on your way. Just like the Azure Window, it will also collapse due to erosion in time. Until then, the gap keeps getting bigger.
This increasingly popular natural arch in the sea is quite difficult to reach. But that also makes the experience more interesting. It is a bit less beautiful than the Azure Window, because the arch is fairly close to the coast and you do not really get a good view of the hole. But it is impressive.
Sleeping at a Farm House
Gozo is very quiet. I want to stay somewhere in the tranquillity of Gozo. Several former farms have been converted into holiday homes. Mine even has a swimming pool.
It is in the middle of a vineyard, and I also see some olive trees. The wine tastes fresh and the olive oil is soft and tasty. The Maltese produce just enough for their own population and tourists. So it is wonderful to taste and to relax for a while. A perfect ending to my trip.