WHY Malta? It's the first question people ask when I tell them I took a vacation in the tiny nation located in the middle of the Mediterranean between Italy and North Africa. The query is probably prompted by the fact Malta is not as well known or visited as other Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece. That's despite the fact it also offers sun-drenched beaches, delicious food, stunning scenery, the full gamut of human history and a warm welcome from the locals.
What is different - and much appreciated - is English is a second language for all the locals I met and driving is on the left-hand side of the road. This is a legacy of Malta being a British colony from 1813 until independence in 1964. Strategically located astride sea trading routes, Malta was also occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Arabs, Normans and Knights of St John, to name a few. It is this melting pot of cultures which adds to the attraction of the island's architecture, history and culture. Like my friends, I'd already visited various Greek islands, trekked a bit of coastal Spain and relaxed on the Italian Riviera, so I was looking for something different. Malta fitted the bill. As a bit of a history buff, I was aware of the heroic role the Maltese played in defying the Nazis during World War II. In 1942 the "island fortress" was awarded the highest British civilian award for gallantry, the George Cross. It was my geography that let me down because when researching where to stay I discovered the nation is made up of an archipelago of Malta, the smaller and more rural Gozo and tiny but popular daytrip destination of Comino, with its stunning blue lagoon.
It was the lesser-known Gozo we travelled to after an hour's drive from the international airport near the capital Valetta and a twenty minute ferry ride from Cirkewwa port to Mgarr Harbour. Gozo has long been associated with the island home of the nymph Calypso in Homer's odyssey and it avoids some of the tourist hype associated with its larger neighbour. It was the tourist shoulder season in mid-October but the weather was beautiful; sunny mid-20Cs for most of our week-long stay and a nice change from the cold and grey of northern Europe. The pace of life was perfect for winding down - to the extent we soon dubbed Gozo "go slow" island.
We organized shared accommodation for our party of six adults and two children at a fully renovated villa in Go Slow Gozo in the village of Xaghra (which is pronounced 'shargra'). The self-contained five-bedroom villa had stunning views over the valley and down to the coast and Mediterranean. Although the population of Xaghra is estimated at 5000 and it is the largest village on the island, the settlement never seemed crowded and the church square was only busy during the morning market. The square had several restaurants that were modestly priced and served lovely seafood, casseroles and pizzas. Maltese cuisine is a wonderful fusion between Italian and North African flavours, with fresh seafood a specialty. After a couple of days lazing around the villa we took the hire car for a drive. Given the size of the island, the local attractions can be easily covered in a day if you are in a rush. They included the capital Rabat, with its citadel battlements - partly built by the Knights of St John between 1599 and 1603 - offering fantastic views of the island. Scenic Ramla Bay is claimed to be the island's best beach and has rusty red sand but Dwejra Bay is spectacular. The forces of nature have forged remarkable scenery including the The Azure Window (collapsed in March 2017), the Inland Sea and Fungus Rock among the sheer cliffs and a rocky coastline. Its underwater caves are very popular with divers. The fascinating Ggantija Temples date back to 3000BC and are said to be the oldest freestanding structures in the world. The most impressive structure is the church of St John the Baptist in the village of Xewkija. The dome is an amazing 75m high, with a diameter of 27m, and a circumference of 85m - bigger than St Paul's in London. We were lucky enough to be in the belfry when the bells were struck to signal 5pm - although my better half disagrees we were 'lucky'.
As Malta is a quick trip away on the car-carrying ferry we also made the time to visit the World War II museum and Splash and Fun water park.
Author : Dan Nankervis