Malta & Gozo

The Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and the much smaller and relatively undeveloped Comino) lie in the Mediterranean Sea to the south-east of Italy and Sicily.

They are strong on history; surrounded by several differing countries and cultures they have been invaded, occupied and governed by (amongst others) the Romans, Arabs, Spanish, French and British and all have left their mark.
We visited for a week one February, hoping for a little winter sunshine and warm weather. We were only partly lucky: several mild days with blue seas and skies were interspersed with rain and strong, chilly winds.

Our overall impressions of Malta were mixed, like the weather. Valletta, the principal city, has a number of interesting areas, especially the magnificent views down over the harbour areas from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Much of the town, though, is mucky and run down, badly in need of rejuvenation and with many empty shops and premises.

St. John’s Cathedral, off the main shopping thoroughfare of Republic Street, is large and well decorated with paintings and other works of art, but nevertheless seemed a little dark and sombre. An accompanying museum houses a display of garments and uniforms associated with the church, dating back several hundred years.

Malta is small – only around 45kms long by 20kms wide – and Gozo even smaller and this makes getting around the islands relatively easy. There is an unusual and very effective bus system – unusual in that the buses are almost entirely former coaches from the UK, some dating back to the 1960s or before. Carefully renovated and maintained, all painted in the same style (yellow on Malta and grey on Gozo) they offer a relatively cheap and colourful way to get about.

Alternatively, there is car hire – because the islands are small three days in a hire car allows you to see a lot of them. Take care if driving, though - road surfaces can be very poor, there are few direction signs and the locals have yet to hear of signals.
For several miles around Valletta the surroundings are urban and, like the city itself, in need of some care and attention. Once away and into the countryside, though, we thought it got much better. The landscape is a little barren and rocky in places but has a degree of appeal and charm.

We enjoyed the tourist areas around St. Julian’s Bay and Paceville along the north-east, and the views and walks of the rugged coastline of the south-west in places like Dingli Cliffs and the Blue Grotto.

Marsaxlokk is a small fishing town on the south-eastern corner of the island – a good place to walk beside the sea, eat in a harbour-side restaurant, and watch colourful fishing boats of all sizes. On Sundays there’s a chance of a street market selling things ranging from the usual tourist trinkets through to live octopus.

Mdina was once the main town of the island until displaced many years ago by Valletta. Now maintained (to a large extent) as an attraction for visitors, it is one way to see the old Malta and understand the ways in which the island has been influenced over the centuries by other cultures.

We spent one day visiting the neighbouring island of Gozo - there are day trips by coach, or with a hire car you can catch the ferry from Cirkewwa. We thought Gozo more appealing in many ways than Malta itself. There is an unusual coastal formation at the Azure Window at the western end of the island, and a scenic drive along the coast roads of the north. We should have liked more time to be able to reach some of the isolated bays and beaches.

Food throughout our visit to the islands was excellent, with a wide choice of different types on offer.
St John's Cathedral
Unusual buses at the Valletta bus station
The Azure Window, on Gozo
Valletta from Sliema
The harbour at Marsaxlokk
Old doorway in Valletta
Part of the view from Upper Barrakka Gardens