On a map of the world, you might overlook them entirely. The three islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino form hardly a fleck in the Mediterranean Sea, but man has known about them since neolithic times. Over the course of five thousand years, their spring green acres and ochre cliffs have harbored settlers from far and wide.
It is said that Saint Paul shipwrecked on Malta in his journey from Jerusalem to Rome. He introduced Christianity to the archipelago eight hundred years before the arrival of the Arabs, who in turn left their own legacy in the form of the Maltese language. As an outpost of Sicily, the islands ceded to the ebb and flow of larger powers until they were bequeathed by the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to the Knights Hospitaler of Saint John.
The Knights transformed Malta, adorning it with fortifications, watchtowers, and handsomely embellished churches rivaling those of mainland Europe. They also conferred upon the islands their most enduring symbol, the Maltese cross, whose eight points represent the regions from where the knights hailed: Aragon, Auvergne, Bavaria, the British Isles, Castile, Italy, Portugal, and Provence. Today, the country is as international as it ever was, in no small part due to its recent history as a colony of the British Crown.
Resting regally between two gaping harbors, capital Valletta is a vision of an otherworldly glory. Within its sprawling web of bulwarks, narrow alleys, and baroque basilicas are some truly special gems. Caravaggio’s masterpieces can be counted among them, and so can the unique blend of flavors and ingredients which make up Malta’s culinary heritage.
By the gates of the city, street vendors sell scrumptiously crisp pastizzi for as little as forty cents apiece; traditionally stuffed with mushy peas or soft ricotta, other savory fillings like chicken and wild mushrooms can also be found. In the bakeries, deep-fried imqaret, a souvenir of the Maghreb, are a common sight; bite into one to release the sweet and exotic mélange of dates, aniseed, and citrus. Rabbits, which gambol wild on all three islands, are a centerpiece of the local cuisine; every Maltese kitchen will no doubt have its own rendition of the classic stuffat tal-fenek, spiced and stewed to perfection. And from the bounteous ocean, fresh fruits of the sea make their way onto dining tables in exquisite varieties: mahi-mahi pie, aljotta, and octopus stew. Valletta is bursting with tantalizing tastes.
If the Maltese capital is nothing short of splendrous, then the Maltese countryside is every bit its equal. An easy bus ride along the jagged coastline quickly reveals why this tiny nation has earned the moniker “mini-Hollywood of the Mediterranean”. Fabled blue waters, unspoiled landscapes, and architecture evoking bygone eras make Malta an eclectic location—an ideal stand-in for a fantasy realm, a tropical paradise, or ancient Rome. On the northwestern shore, not far from the harbor where ferries depart for Gozo and Comino, the wooden set of Popeye Village is a zany memento of the film industry’s love affair with the region.
For more authentic terrains, one only needs to press a few kilometers to the south, where a trio of bays lie in wait. By the first, swaying beachgrass draw long lines next to the strand’s edge. Aptly named Golden Bay, the sands here are some of the finest in all of Malta, and the beach has become a beloved bathing and snorkeling spot during the hot summers. In the distance, above the great coralline shelves crawling out from sea, a small 17th-century tower stonily surveys the horizon. The headland guards a national pearl: beyond it lies what is considered by many to be Malta’s most beautiful beach: Għajn Tuffieħa.
Translated from Maltese, it means “eye of the apple”. And in this għajn, life moves with a zen-like calm. The cliffs have given way to a sloping, emerald hillside. The waves seem to break in slow motion, rolling into pleats of nuptial whitewater over the soft curve of the bay. Even the surfers seem at peace, patiently waiting on their boards for the rising swell. Up on dry land, explorers and lovers make their way toward the plateau of Il-Qarraba, where the rocky descent down to Qarraba Bay begins.
Winter in Malta is mild yet moody, and nowhere is this more evident than on the ridge of the Qarraba. Light and wind dance a passionate paso doble above the rugged topography. In warmer months during times of low tide, a secluded stretch of fine shingle opens up from the shallows to welcome visitors. Owing to its discreet location, the tiny pop-up is one of Malta’s few gay beaches. And even though nude bathing illegal in the country, anyone who choses to do so here should remain relatively unbothered.
There is no wrong way or time to experience Malta: its trove of natural and cultural treasures is vast and varied, from medieval cities to luminous sea caverns. Floating in the azure, midway between Alpine glaciers and the dunes of the Sahara, this paradise between worlds is sure to awaken every sense.