Quick question, where is Malta? Take a guess.
A small island in the middle of Mediterranean Sea far removed from the typical travel destinations of Indians is Malta. Malta has had a violent history, with wars and struggles between Christianity & Islam for the medieval ages and bombings and sieges during the Second World War. It finally came into it’s own in 1964 and is today a beautiful place to freeze time. Hence it comes as a surprise that Malta is amongst the top 7 cruise destinations in the world. Once we read that on a website, we made up our minds that we have to be there.
We descended into Malta from Bangalore, through a very long stopover in Dubai and a short refueling at Tunis. As the plane taxied into the runway and we looked outside, disappointment was written well over our face. It perhaps is the smallest airport I have seen and some of my colleagues even remarked whether Mysore would have made a better destination.
As the chartered bus took its first turn from the airport, Malta started unraveling itself at every corner. Yellow limestone everywhere, be it the huge fortified walls, or houses or apartments or churches or mosques or the dykes. Everything was made out of the limestone that has been carved out of the island.
We could see huge plains with Hadrian wall styled stone boundaries, the hill cities of Mdina and Rabat, the fortified capital city of Valetta and clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
We raced to the hill city of Mdina in the evening to catch the sunset. Established by the victorious Turks in the ping-pong battle for control of Malta, Mdina today is a UNESCO heritage site with 250 odd folks living their life around the main square outside the Church. Mdina provides amazing sunset views of Malta from its fortified walls but the evenings can become quite chilly for Indian bones.
After breakfast the next day, we went to see the famous Blue Grotto. Riding over a bit of choppy Mediterranean Sea, we reached the famous limestone caves where reflected sunlight provides amazing shades of blue and aquamarine to the water. Hanging limestone stalactites give away to curious shaped cave walls and crystal clear sea bottoms at 15-20 feet of cool blue water. What a bliss Blue Grotto was. It is a must do destination in Malta.
Malta still has the entire movie set of the 1980 musical movie Popeye completely preserved at its Anchor Bay. This was our next destination that afternoon. The set, must be atleast 40 odd houses, restaurants, games are beautifully created along a small bay which has crystal clear blue water and various shades of blue corals on the sea bed. Kids have the time of their life and parents go busy clicking pictures and buying souvenirs. I never knew Popeye could be so popular!
The evening was spent in walking around the ups and downs of Valetta town, which is like any other European medieval town except the fact that it is pure yellow limestone and it is Catholic. A little bit of rain makes the roads dark, colorful and musky. Walking is so pleasing and many a corners are picture postcard clicks. We had dinner at the Gun Salute Battery where precisely at 7:30pm in the evening, the 8 canons were fired into the Sea for the dining guests. These guns, which are perched atop a fortified hill used to fire into incoming pirate ships to the bay…and later Turks and Crusaders and German boats. Now they only make fanciful roaring sounds with dummy charges.
To end it all, we had an evening cruise along the harbor and a little bit into the open sea, where incoming Cruise ships (they were to dock at the harbor of Valetta) forced us to come back and dock ourselves. Somehow, belly dancing girls at the top deck of the boat felt a bit out of place in Malta. I am sure my Indian cousins have a different opinion.
Malta is fun. It is small, manageable, not so expensive, has a great nightlife and is very safe. Add to it the island of Gozo and you have a self-contained country that can support any lifestyle. Having been handed over by the British, we felt lot more at ease – driving left side of the road, abundance of English speaking folks, well planned construction and ample space to sit, think, play and plan. It is well connected to the main lands of Africa as well as Europe (no Visa for EU folks and not surprisingly, top 10 visiting countries into Malta are all European, save Libya). From the Sea, it is part of all famous Cruise circuits plying in the Mediterranean.
May- July is when a small Malta of 450,000 folks stretches itself to accommodate as many a million tourists and the places crawls with people. Any other time, it is a place of pure bliss and Baroque architecture, a place where time can stop for you….if you just turn your mobile phone upside down.
Go ahead and enjoy it, till it lasts…