Alex Jenkins heads to the Mediterranean to visit an island which has it all.
All good things come in small packages and Malta is definitely a point in case.
Breathtakingly beautiful, this little island offers scrumptious food, fascinating history and architecture, and a touch of drama thanks to it being used for many film sets.
In fact, fans of Games of Thrones may want to make Malta the next place they visit.
The first season’s southern scenes were filmed in this Maltese and English speaking country, with the city of Mdina – Malta’s first capital city during the time of the Knights of Malta – used for scenes in King’s Landing.
Filming also took place at Fort Manoel (representing the Sept of Baelor), at the Azure Window on the island of Gozo (the Dothraki wedding site), and at San Anton Palace, Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo and St. Dominic monastery (all used for scenes in the Red Keep).
However, it is not just the American fantasy that has been filmed on the island, with Troy, Gladiator, and Popeye all using majestic Malta as their backdrop.
Our guide for our short trip was the exuberant and knowledgeable Audrey Bartolo, an extra used in Game of Thrones.
As she filled us in on Malta’s background, we made our way to the stunning Blue Grotto – and what an introduction to the country this was.
Situated on the outskirts of the quaint villages of Qrendi and Zurrieq, just below the sheer cliffs that are typical of the southern side of the Maltese islands, it is one of several caves worldwide that is flooded with a brilliant blue and emerald light.
To appreciate this grotto a boat trip is a must. Costing just €8, the 20 minute boat journey gave us a chance to see the beautiful blue water and colourful coral up close. It was truly magical.
After this we set off to the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk. With boats pulled up in the bay and a market during the day, this is a hub of activity and well worth a visit.
For history enthusiasts you are in for a treat as Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples will be full of interest.
This temple, tucked away in a hollow in the cliffs, is probably the most atmospheric of all Malta’s temples.
Hailing from the late Neolithic age, also known as temple period, it boasts fertility stones, spaces for slaughter and overlooks the isle of Filfla. Entry ranges from €9 for adults to €4.50 for children aged 6-11.
Malta may not have thousands of miles of sandy beaches, but if you travel to the Maltese island of Gozo, also known as the Island of Calypso, you can enjoy the delights of the sandy beach Rambla.
Gozo is a great day trip and easy to get to via the Gozo Channel Ferry, which cost just €4.65 return and takes between 30-45 minutes.
Rich in agriculture, the terraced fields are breathtaking and life on this sleepy island is much more relaxed and easy-going, with just 30,000 people living in its 14 villages. It is an atmosphere I hope it retains in years to come.
Here we visited the Ggantija Temples, the oldest freestanding structures in the world, which has a carefully laid out museum and an interactive room to help educate and entertain children.
After this we set off to the Gran Castello, the old capital of Gozo, which was the centre of activity since Neolithic times.
Here we took in the views from the impressive citadel, wandering around its battlements, before stopping at Dwejra to see the Azure Window – an impressive natural arch standing some 20 meters high.
Back on the main island of Malta we decided to explore the capital Valletta. Packed full of great shops, a key sight is St. John’s Co-Cathedral (entry €6).
This impressive church was built between 1573 and 1577 during the reign of Gran Master Jean de la Cassiere and is baroque and decadent in style.
Next up was a tour around the beautiful Casa Rocca Piccola, a small palazzo built in 1850, which offers a window into Maltese domestic culture of yesteryear and belongs to the noble De Piro family.
When in Valletta a boat to The Three Cities – Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa – is a must. Our boat crossing consisted of a journey in a dghajsa, a typical Maltese gondola shaped boat, rowed by the Maltese/ Mancunian Walter Ahar. The trip costs €36 for a boat of six people plus VAT.
If you are a foodie then Malta will make you feel like you are in heaven.
One restaurant in particular I can recommend is the Tarragon Restaurant, in St Paul’s Bay – one of three restaurants owned by award-winning chef Marvin Gauci.
It is extremely popular and you must book ahead – we went on a Tuesday night and it was packed – but the food is sensational.
My starter of rabbit ravioli confit tossed in caramelised onion and balsamic vinegar was one of the best dishes I have ever eaten, and I was just as blown away by the lamb and sweet potato stuffed pasta that came with a syrupy balsamic sauce.
To finish a perfect meal, I quickly polished off the apple and orange zest crumble tossed in cinnamon powder topped with vanilla ice cream. Delicious!
Another great food experience was lunch at Nenu -The Artisan Bakery, in the capital city of Valletta.
This Maltese bakery specialises in typical hot Maltese ftiras (similar to pizza). The one I chose was topped with sundried tomatoes, black olives, grated peppered Maltese goats’ cheese, onions and Maltese sausage (€10.50).
A word of warning, although delicious they are very large and it is worth sharing one between two.
If you are more of an afternoon tea fan then a visit to Palazzo Parisio should be at the top of your list.
This magnificent palace, with its beautiful surrounding gardens, rates as Malta’s most opulent aristocratic home and the cake is sublime.
During our stay we resided at The Corinthia San Gorg Hotel, set in the lively area of St Julians.
Situated at the water’s edge, the five star Corinthia Hotel boasts stunning, panoramic views over the sparkling Mediterranean.
Breakfast was extensive and could be eaten downstairs in the restaurant, or, if you had an executive room, in the private lounge on the fifth floor.
The hotel is also a wonderful place to relax and feel rejuvenated thanks to its spa. I enjoyed an Indian head massage, which not only helped me recharge my batteries but was good value at €39.
Malta is very easy to navigate, with plenty of hop on and hop off buses throughout all the islands.
For me the islands may be small in size but they make up for this in what they have to offer.
If you are looking for a holiday that has it all, then majestic Malta must be on your wish list.
British Airways operates a new daily service to Malta. Fares one-way start from £70 and return from £140, including taxes and charges. Hand baggage only fares are also available from £54 one-way or £108 return, including taxes and charges.
To book visit www.ba.com or call 0844 4930787.
British Airways offers seven nights at the Corinthia St. George’s Bay from £739 per person for travel in June and July, including flights from Gatwick and accommodation only.
For reservations visit ba.com or call 0844 493 0758.
For more information about the hotel, visit www.corinthiahotels.com
For more information about Malta, visit ViewingMalta.com
May 27, 2014 Travel and Lifestyle