To travel is to live ∼ Hans Christian Andersen
Fortified cities, picturesque coastlines, pretty harbours in an azure Mediterranean surrounding thronged by fishing and leisure boats alike, Malta is regal and stunning. There’s more to this tiny island-archipelago than just picturesque locales in movies like Gladiator, Troy, Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt’s film ‘By the Sea’ or the legendary series of Game of Thrones. The country checks all the plausible boxes for an exotic travel destination – delicious food, gorgeous landscapes, archaeological relicts, architectural marvels and of course, the allure of history. Malta is the world’s tenth smallest country and boasts of three UNESCO impressive World Heritage Sites: Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, the fortified city of Valletta (the smallest national capital in the European Union) and seven megalithic temples. The latter are some of the oldest free-standing structures in the world. Malta’s strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean and the government’s earnest developmental policies are already managing to attract a lot of foreign investment too, especially in the real estate and manufacturing sectors.
A seven-hour long flight by Emirates Airline that included a small one-hour stopover in Larnaca in Cyprus, brought me to this tiny Mediterranean island. With an area covering around 300 square metres and a population less than 500,000, the size is in sheer contrast to its mighty legacy. The island basked in more than 7,000 years of history, abundant sunshine, dollops of warm sea breeze and vitamin sea all around. I fell in love with traditional Maltese houses which had delicately filigreed wooden verandas known as ‘gallerias’, hanging out of buildings carved out of yellow limestone. This imparted a unique elegance to the landscape, and I was happy to see (and relieve to learn) that the traditional style was being replicated even in the newer houses that were being built. Everywhere, urbanisation seemed rapid and checks and balances prevailed to ensure that the modern real estate developments were in sync with the heritage of the traditional architecture. History and tradition seemed to merge seamlessly into the present. The ubiquitous red telephone booths and pillar mail boxes were reminiscent of the country’s colonial past – Malta became independent as a Commonwealth realm known as the State of Malta in 1964, and it became a republic in 1974. The confluence of myriad cultures and civilisations reflected themselves in the architecture, food and culture.
We stayed in Sliema, one of the busiest commercial and social hubs in the island of Malta, also a popular area for both tourists and local residents. Originally a fishing village, Sliema today has developed into an exciting urban space with luxury hotels, modern apartment blocks, popular restaurants, pubs and cafes, boutique shops etc. The daintiness of the seaside is still maintained by picturesque cafes and restaurants located along the coastline that extended towards Ta’ Xbiex and Gżira in the South and towards St. Julian’s in the North. The latter area buzzes during the night time as we realised on one of our visits to a local pub. During our trip, we visited offices of various ministries, tourism authorities, trade commissions and it was quite apparent that Malta was doing all the right things to promote the country that deserved attention because of its history, heritage and natural beauty. It was wonderful to see the Maltese people basking in their heritage, whether it was the majestic Arlogg Tal-Lira, the traditional Maltese wall clock gilded in gold (in the picture above) that adorned every wall of prominence in a home, office or a hotel, or in their unique language – Malti, the only Semitic language written in Latin characters.
Do hop into a horse-carriage for a ride along the Sliema promenade - 'the front', just like I did with a companion. We basked in the spotlight with the traffic queueing up in the behind. Savour the slow-trotting ride. Trust me, no one will ever honk or urge you to move faster - the Maltese people are known for their politeness!
The first halt in our five-day itinerary was a visit to the historic Mdina, the old capital of Malta. Also referred to as the ‘silent city’ because of the stony silence echoing through its quiet narrow alleys, the history of Mdina can be traced back to more than 4000 years. This is a car-free city and the only way to explore Mdina is on foot. The baroque styled imposing Mdina Gate right at the entrance of the walled city, gives a clear indication to the architectural beauty that lay inside. Designed by Charles Francois de Mondion and built in 1724, the Mdina Gate is also known as the Vilhena Gate, named after Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. Inside the city, the impressive buildings with courtyards, arched hallways and formidable main doors with intricately carved doorknobs and knockers (il-ħabbata), are still inhabited by Malta’s noble families. These houses reflect a fine mix of medieval and baroque architecture and the city’s medieval name – ‘Citta’ Notabile’ or the noble city reflects that legacy. A visit to the 17th century St Paul’s Cathedral is a must, which is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Malta. Apart from an ornate gilded vault inside, the arched ceiling inside the cathedral have paintings depicting St Paul’s shipwreck. The latter is an important event in Malta’s history and the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived here after being shipwrecked off the Maltese coasts in 60 A.D. We strolled along the quaint alleys and the strong evening sun casted long shadows on the stony façade until we reached the Bastion Square. As we stood at the edge of Mdina’s ramparts and bastion walls, far beyond the golden countryside, lay the famous Mosta Dome and the Mediterranean Sea. Considered a place of miracles, when the church was almost destroyed when a 200 kg bomb fell through the dome without exploding during a German air raid in the Second World War. All the 300 people attending morning mass were left unharmed!
If you like mystery and adventure, you will love strolling the silent city of Mdina by night when the streets are lit up by lamps. St Paul's cathedral, other landmark buildings and popular squares are lit up too. Most of the visitor attractions like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Dungeons, or the Natural History Museum can however be visited only during the day time.
We hopped in and out of the capital city of Valletta a few times during our stay in Malta, in the capacity of both a tourist and a visiting delegate to the various ministries. Recognised as a UNESCO World heritage Site, Valletta is indeed beautiful and filled with large squares, outdoor cafes, elegant arcades, fountains, Baroque styled palaces and manicured gardens. There are statues of important people or monuments commemorating events of historical importance adorn the middle of each square. The St John’s square adjoining the St John’s Co-Cathedral, occupies the heart of Valletta and is one of the largest squares with people from all spheres of life converging at the square’s alfresco cafes. One of my most euphoric experiences in Malta was to see the largest canvas of my favourite artist of all times – Michelangelo Caravaggio’s inside the St John’s Co-Cathedral. Built between 1572 and 1577, the co-cathedral is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and commissioned by the Grand Master Jean de la Cassière. While the exterior of the co-cathedral reflects Mannerist style of architecture, the ornate Baroque styled interior has walls intricately carved in-situ out of Maltese limestone. The vaulted ceilings and side altars have scenes depicting the life of John the Baptist. The marble floor houses the tombs of about 400 knights and officers of the Order. The oratory has one of the greatest masterpieces of Caravaggio – The beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the largest of Caravaggio’s work (370cmx520cm) and the only one to be signed by the artist. There’s another painting by Caravaggio in the oratory – Saint Jerome Writing, rumoured to be the first painting by the artist when he landed in Malta. I am a huge fan of the two famous Michelangelos – Buonarroti and Caravaggio, and one of my inspirational highlights of Malta was witnessing such an impressive work of art painted by the latter in his signature chiaroscuro style that uses strong contrasts between light and dark.
Apart from government offices and museums, the squares and the lanes are dotted by quaint bistros, souvenir shops, antique shops, retro cafes, jewellery shops selling traditional Maltese silverware, home grown fashion boutiques showcasing homegrown and international brands and many others. The coast and the harbour peeps occasionally through traditional houses and filigreed verandas, narrow lanes traversing both uphill and downhill. Valletta exudes both pride and charm and amidst all of this, the Grand Harbour stands out like a stellar showstopper, specially from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Built on the highest point of Valletta, the arches of the ramparts and fortifications here form regal frames for portraits and selfies with the backdrop of the busy harbour lined with ocean liners, cruise ships and traditional sails. Not only does this give a vantage viewpoint of the harbour, it also overlooks the Saluting Battery. At noon and 4pm sharp, one of the restored guns is fired every day as a salute to the artillery heritage of the knights. With a history of 500 years, this is one of the oldest saluting battery still in operation anywhere in the world! Apart from Upper Barrakka Gardens, there are countless photo opportunities elsewhere in Valletta (and throughout Malta which is picturesque!). Only here, our backdrops not only reflected old world charm but also gravitas – for example, the Grandmaster’s Palace and the Aubertge de Castille that currently houses the respective offices of the President of Malta and the Prime Minister of Malta, or other historic landmarks. Whether its admiring the beautiful facades of traditional buildings, curio shops, nudging through the slow serpentine traffic of cars and scooters in the historic Republic Street or inhaling in the spectacular Valletta Waterfront with its vibrant outdoor eateries and magnificent views – savouring Valletta leisurely is perhaps the best thing to do to!
Witnessing tradition is always a novelty, so don't miss the chance to witness the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at The Palace Valletta! It is held every last Friday of the month at St George's Square in Valletta. The parade commences at 1030 hrs, with the AFM Band marching down Republic Street onto St George's Square Valletta. Here, the new guard marches out from the Main Guard in order to replace the old guard which marches out from The Palace Valletta. Following the exchange of ‘duties' the AFM Band conducts a marching display in the same square.
Eating in Malta
Fontanella Tea Garden, Mdina
This popular family-run cafe is situated at the end of the walls of the bastions and boasts of a spectacular view that overlooks the beautiful island of Malta. Although the tea room serves food and snacks, our guide Yvette shared that Fontanella is famous for its home-made cakes. Interestingly, the chocolate cake and strawberry meringue are really special and have remained unchanged for the last 41 years!
1, Bastion Street, Mdina
+356 2145 4264 / +356 2145 0208; Open 10:00am until midnight daily
Caffe Cordina, Valletta
Founded in 1837, Caffe Cordina run by the Cordina family started off as a small outlet in the double-fortified harbour city Cospicua (known as Bormla in Maltese). The cafe was relocated to Valletta in 1944 and today has acquired an iconic status in Valletta. It’s a much recognisable brand with its own product lines of Maltese delicacies – gourmet products, sweets, cakes and cookies, still made in the traditional way and available at selected outlets across Malta and Gozo. One of the must-do things in Valletta is an alfresco dining at the popular cafe located in a historical premise in Piazza Regina. As we walked into the cafe to place my order, I was awestruck by the beautiful decor with gilded walls and arched ceiling. The ceiling is embellished with paintings by the renowned Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali and there are many other beautiful paintings specifically commissioned by the Cordina family. There are seatings inside the cafe as well as outside in the prominent square and we chose to sit outside. The menu was extensive and offered a variety of snacks, savouries and desserts, a breakfast menu and also traditional Maltese food like braised rabbit, Bragioli and others. The halt here was a mini filler for us, so we stuck to Maltese Pastizzi, the traditional savoury pastry. The fillings for the pastries varied from ricotta cheese, mushy peas or a minced beef filling. Our guide Yvette suggested the Rum Baba, a rum-soaked light cake filled with custard cream and fresh fruit. The soaring heat of the midday sun gave us a valid excuse too for ordering a Chilled Coffee with ice cream as an accompanying coolant!
244 Republic Street, Valletta
+356 2065 0400; Open 8:00am until 7:00pm Mondays to Saturdays and until 4:00pm on Sunday
Our first lunch in Malta was in MUŻA, a very special restaurant. MUŻA Restaurant is housed in the historic 16th century building Auberge D’Italie, which was the seat of the Italian knights of the Order of St John. MUŻA is new National Museum of Art in Malta and is Heritage Malta’s flagship project to carry forward the legacy of Valletta’s selection as the European City of Culture for 2018. The restaurant has three main areas, each having a rich history of their own. The Bar-Cafe area is located within what once was the Auberge’s Kitchen; the Donato Room which is the main dining area and where lower ranking officials of the Order of St. John responsible for the day to day running of kitchen and services would have lived during the times of the Order of St John; and the open space of a Mediterranean Courtyard, a public space with a 17th century arched well at the centre of the courtyard. As the word MUŻA suggests, ‘inspiration’ in Maltese, every dish in the restaurant is inspired by an artwork on display in the galleries. The menu also emphasises on fresh, home grown and seasonal produce. We sat in the elegantly decorated Donato Room, the metal-work chandelier casting a delicate floral pattern onto the burnt sienna walls. I ordered ‘The Stone Mason’s Sack’, inspired by the artwork The Stone Masons by Pietro Paula Caruana. It was a linguine dish with spicy Maltese sausage, sun-dried tomatoes and homemade sauce. The dishes ordered by my companions – for example, ‘Olga’s Fish’ was a poached fresh fish with lemongrass court bullion and tomato salsa, inspired by Edward Caruana Dingli’s Olga Galea Naudi; Abstract by Willie Apap that represented dynamic and powerful circular forms very aptly described the ‘Taco Hard Shells’; a salad dish with traditional Maltese cheese Ġbejna or cheeselet, duck, preserved celery, salted tomatoes, fresh herbs was represented by the Giorgio Preca’s Maltese Folk Characters. The mains came with a selection of sides – sautéd vegetables, salads, french fries or roasted potatoes. The presentation, look and feel of the dishes were inspired by the textures, shapes, colours, elements and stories of the artwork that represented the dish. It was here that we got introduced to Aperol Spritz, the popular local cult drink made with bitter orange, and Kinnie, the Maltese bittersweet carbonated soft drink brewed from bitter oranges and wormwood extracts.
Auberge D’Italie, Valletta, Malta
+356 79790900; Open 10:00am – 9:30pm Sundays to Thursdays and until 10:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays
Own Band Club Bar & Restaurant
This bar and restaurant situated on the ground floor in the historical premises of a 1874 building belonging to the King’s Own Band Club. The band was originally founded in 1874 and immediately found a lot of patrons and established established itself as one of the leading band clubs in Malta. In 1901, it became known as the King’s Own Band Club after receiving the Royal consent. The ambience inside is both warm and lively with blue and white table settings and framed photographs of momentous events lining up the staircase. The kitchen is helmed by the award-winning female chef and restauranteur Roberta Preca (of Palazzo Preca fame) and the menu offers both Mediterranean and traditional Maltese cuisine and the ‘specials’ changed every fortnight. We started off with fresh snails served with a squeeze of lemon and local calamari seasoned and grilled and served on a bed of salad. We ordered a few signature dishes off the extensive menu, but the showstoppers were definitely the Lobster Sizzler and Sea Bass Al Sale, a whole sea bass encrusted in sea salt and set on fire by the table-side!
+356 21230281; 274 Republic Street, Valletta
Open 8:00am – 11:00pm daily with live music on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays.
We ushered in the spectacularly lit up skyline of Valletta across the harbour at dusk, as we sat at a long table in the wall-to-wall glass windowed terrace of The Chophouse. Situated on the picturesque peninsula Tigné Point, this was renowned to be Malta’s leading meat restaurant. Apart from boasting of being the island’s largest charcoal grill, selected cuts of Aberdeen Angus and Scottona beef from Italy were dry aged in-house. The temperature controlled wine cave in the restaurant stocked an impressive selection of over 350 wines from all over the world. The charm of travelling is to seek local flavours and so we sipped on Maltese red wine from the local brand Merlqot. Made from a blend of sustainably farmed Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, it was vinified in a wine estate at Ta’ Qali, Malta’s agricultural heartland. We were treated to a platter of signature assortments that had been curated specially for us. We started off with the aubergine dish that has its origin in Sicily – Parmigiana di Melanzane, with a rich taste of sweet tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and parmesan cream. A zucchini carpaccio with sheep’s cheese on toasted homemade bread and a pasta in aubergine purée, parmesan cheese and coffee salt followed soon. A Chateaubriand platter served with a classic Béarnaise sauce gave us a fine taste of the quality of the meat that The Chophouse so boasted of. A pan-fried Gurbell (brown meagre) platter with garlic aioli, fennel and radish introduced us to delicate flavours of one of the most popular local fish available locally. The dessert consisted of an assorted platter of the traditional Imqaret and Maltese Lemon Cake with drizzles of home made lemon curd, and served with icecream. While Imqarets were Maltese sweets made with pastry and a filling of dates, I was told that the moist Maltese Lemon cake was a Christmas speciality.
+356 2060 3355; Open 7:00pm-11:00pm Mondays to Saturdays and 12:00pm-3:00pm and 7:00pm – 11:00pm on Sundays
Tigne Point, Censu Xerri, Sliema
Ta’ Kris Restaurant and Maltese Bistro
The concierge at our hotel suggested Ta’ Kris when I was searching for a restaurant that served home style Maltese food. What a brilliant find this was! Situated in one of the oldest and largest bakeries in Sliema, my companion and I arrived to the restaurant on a horse carriage. The restaurant was busy and had an innate charm. Old coloured Maltese tiles, shaded walls and dark Maltese furniture added a lot of warmth. The old features of the bakery had been retained and we were greeted with a all-ladies staff. We were two of us and decided at the very onset that we’ll dive into the main course and stick to the signature dishes. Thus arrived at our table, Dad’s Famous Bragioli, a traditional Maltese dish with slices of beef stuffed with forced meat and slow cooked in red wine, herbs and tomato sauce. The Veal Escalopes came with tender and succulent slices of veal sandwiched with ham and cheese and was served with a creamy sage and wine sauce. We also ordered the traditional Ravjul Malti where the homemade raviolis were filled with rich ricotta, parsley and dipped in a thick and tangy tomato sauce. Although the staff appeared extremely busy initially and it took a bit of time for us to garner some attention, once we were ‘enlisted’, the experience at Ta’ Kris was definitely one of my culinary highlights of the trip.
+356 2133 7367; Open 12:30pm until 11:00pm daily
80 Fawwara Ln, Sliema, Malta
Hole in the Wall
“We’re a small village bar, it’s very difficult for us to accept reservations. Come & squeeze in!” That’s the inviting tagline from the oldest bar in Sliema – literally a hole in the wall established in 1922. Originally used as stables and later sold as a pub, The Hole in the Wall pub initially had no seating arrangement and offered only take-away wine from huge vats. “I’ll see you down The Hole” that’s what the pilots and cabin staff of British Airways who stayed over-night between flights in the nearby Imperial Hotel and most frequented the pub would always say… and that’s how the story of this little pub began. It still seemed to be the same – a small space with practically no seating. With craft beers, gins, cocktails, toasties, selected desserts and some live music on offer, stumbling upon this ninety (plus) year old local neighbourhood hangout was quite a delightful discovery!
+356 99834378; Open 10:30am until 1:00am from Mondays to Fridays and from 5:00pm until 1:00am on Saturdays and Sundays
Don’t leave the island without a ‘gentle’ shopping spree
Door knockers and doorknobs to start with… yes, I wish I could bring home one of those ornately designed mermaids or dolphins that could claim a place on our main door in our Dubai home! Or what about Arlogg tal-Lira, the traditional Maltese wall clock? The next on my list is the delicate filigreed silver jewellery. Although originating in ancient Greece and Rome, this type of jewellery is considered a specialty in Malta are still handmade by artisans. Shops are aplenty and prices negotiable, although I ended up buying from an exclusive boutique shop in Valletta. The most popular designs are the silver-laced earrings, bracelets or neckpieces, and of course, the eight-pointed Maltese cross. Traditional Maltese glassware is also a Maltese speciality. Blow glass shaped by hand into pieces of decoration or forms of utility is a traditional technique that takes a lot of pride in the island. Most popular and credible among all is Mdina Glass, the first glass company in Malta which was formed in 1968. I also found a large variety of pastry moulds, trays, cake tins in glass showcases across Valletta. The shapes and designs were very interesting. These were from Pace Pittsform Products, a Maltese brand established in 1940 which specialised in mass production of pastry tins and bakery ware from mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium. Regarding edible purchases, do hop onto my next post on Gozo where we visited an incredible artisanal food-store!
I would love to hear that I have inspired you all to travel to Malta, one of the most beautiful island countries that I have been to so far… and do stay tuned for the next posts where I unravel this Mediterranean gem a bit more!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: It was my honour to be a guest of the Embassy of the Republic of Malta in the United Arab Emirates. For more info on Malta, visit www.visitmalta.com. While we were hosted at the various restaurants, the meals at Caffe Cordina, Ta’ Kris and Hole in the Wall were self paid. There aren’t any affiliated links in this post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. Do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
Interesting Reads: Maltese clock for their homes(Times of Malta) MALTA: The Limestone Experience