This week’s guest post takes us all the way to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. Sharing insider tips is American expat and blogger Juniper Winfield of Capers and Olives. Enjoy Juniper’s slice of Malta!
A MALTESE JOURNEY
My family and I moved to the island of Malta almost two years ago. Prior to the move, I had been visiting with my husband, who hails from here, for the last eight years. For those not familiar with Malta, it is a small country located just south of Sicily and north of Tunisia. There are four small islands that make up Malta: Malta is the largest island, shaped like a fish; Gozo is the second largest; Comino, located next to a blue lagoon, is quite small; and Filfla, a protected nature reserve, is tiny and uninhabited.
The official language is Maltese, a Semitic language with some Italian, French and English mixed in. Most people understand English and Italian so you don’t need to know Maltese to get by. Malta is a country still very steeped in traditions but, having joined the EU in 2004, it is changing very quickly. I’m not so sure how long the local markets, fresh peppered goat cheese and daily bread (delivered nearly hourly, still warm, to one’s door) will last.
Within Maltese culture you can find a mixture of Italian influences (largely from its historically strong ties with Sicily) as well as British (Malta was a British colony for over 200 years). There are subtle North African undertones as well, for example in traditional foods like ful (broad beans), deep-fried date pastries and tagine-style roasts.
We moved to Malta in summer, the season of feasts. Each village in Malta and Gozo has a patron saint with its own unique weeklong feast, most falling somewhere between June and September. These feasts come complete with competing band club marches (fans are colour-coded to match their band clubs), firework displays, special songs, poems and tears of emotion and pride. The larger-than-life statues of these saints make their annual pilgrimages around the small windy streets of each village, held atop the shoulders of six to eight especially chosen men clad in white. While enjoying the festive atmosphere and fireworks, don’t miss some of the traditional nougat sweets.
For such a small island, Malta can offer a great deal to do within close proximity. You can spend the morning in the south of the island at the bustling Sunday fish market in Marsaxlokk. At lunchtime, try the Maltese traditional dish, rabbit stew accompanied with some local red wine, in the small hillside town of Imgarr. Two recommended restaurants are Ta l’Ingliz and Tac-Canti. Afterwards stroll along the Gneina Bay before heading up to Mdina (thirty minutes drive away), a silent fortified city which dates back to the Arabs and before that the Romans. I recommend a pizza on the terrace of Xara Palace, or coffee and cakes atop the Fontanella, from where you can enjoy a view of most of the island. You may also like to spend a day swimming at Golden Bay or Apples Eye in the north of the island. Both beaches are enclosed and contain short hiking paths up along the rocky cliffs.
Avoid the tourist scramble and British-influenced areas of Bugibba and Sliema (nice for its seaside promenades but little else). Try to stay near Valletta, where all buses come and go through; you can think of it as the octopus head and the bus routes all of its tendrils. Valletta offers a genuine taste of Maltese life: nice piazzas, good cafes, tucked-away wine bars, great fish restaurants and pizzerias… You may even find tango dancing near the Cathedral or live Friday night jazz near the Bridge Bar facing the Grand Harbour.
I recommend getting an ice cream from Cafe Cordina and strolling around the quiet streets. Another must is having a traditional Maltese ftira (a type of bread) from the Museum Cafe. If you want the authentic experience, get one with tuna and one with Maltese sausage. But be prepared, the Maltese sausage is eaten raw; don’t worry though, it is cured. Then sit and eat your ftiras in the calm tranquility of the lower or upper Barakka Gardens overlooking the harbour and the three cities. Stop for a latte or espresso at Cafe Premier near the old library. Be sure to have a imqaret, fried date pastry outside the Valletta city gates. Follow your nose and you will find it; these are the best on the island.
Do try and visit the ‘three cities’, an area that refers to the three fortified cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Sengle. These are situated just across the harbour from Valletta to the south. Vittoriosa or Birgu, as it called in Maltese, is especially nice to stroll through, a pleasant breezy place to go in the evenings. Stop for a meal at Lupanara, a hidden-away cave restaurant, or sit outside at Two and Half Lemons and enjoy the view of the harbour filled with the colourful Maltese fishing boats, as well as some fancy yachts and perhaps a celebrity or two. There are also nice wine bars to be found in Vittoriosa, such as Del Borgo.
Since Malta is the most densely populated country in Europe, large parts of the country feel very urban. So taking the opportunity to visit the old castle grounds of Buskett with its orange groves and twisted old olive trees can be calming. Another welcomed respite is a tour of St. Antons Gardens. Also recommended is the ferry ride from Malta to Gozo, which takes less than an hour. This will feel like a real break from the hubbub of crowded streets and an experience that reveals a more traditional style of Mediterranean life. You may want to spend the weekend relaxing at one of the many old converted farmhouses, catching up on reading next to a peaceful pool. Ask any Gozitan and they will be proud to tell you that they are not Maltese but from Gozo. There is a great deal of local pride and culture to be found on Malta’s small sister island.
If you do venture out to Gozo, try and see Calypso’s Cave as described in The Odyssey, walk along the red-sand beach of Ramla and make sure to go to the town of Nadur. In Nadur, ask a local to show you the location of a small bakery called Maxokk where they have the best Gozitan ftira, absolutely not to be missed if you visit Gozo. Be sure to try the sausage and local goat cheese variation. I suggest eating it outside on a bench or on the ferry back, sitting in the sun with a local beer. If you are traveling by car, go to the small bay of Mgarr Ix-xini where you will find a tiny restaurant/shack with the best fresh fish, grilled before you and reliably delicious. Book as soon as you arrive and take a swim while you wait.
In both Malta and Gozo, there are plenty of things to see and do that I have not covered here. Since you’ll find those written up in any guidebook, the above are my personal favorites. Don’t miss these when in Malta.