Enjoying a 3-day getaway to Malta

By Fred Steinberg
This article appears on page 18 of the September 2020 issue.
A view of Valletta’s harbor from Sliema, just a 10-minute ferry ride from the capital.

Off the beaten track, the path where you can more easily mingle with the locals, is the road my wife, Maria, and I prefer to take when we travel. We try to find the “not quite yet discovered” places, which has inspired visits to Myanmar in 2005, Dubai in 2010 (Aug. ’11, pg. 48), Laos in 2013 (June ’14, pg. 44) and Cuba in 2014 (Aug. ’14, pg. 28). In 2019, we decided to add Malta to our list, taking advantage of its proximity to our planned late-May travel destination, Sicily (Nov. ’19, pg. 6).

Making plans

Map of Malta

My curiosity about the three tiny islands that are home to Malta’s citizens, situated just 50 miles south of Sicily, was first piqued when reading about the Knights of Malta, a religious fraternity that dates back to the 13th century, while preparing a paper for a college comparative-religion course. I put Malta on what was to become a fast-growing bucket list of places to visit, but it was not until I began planning our 2019 trip to Sicily that I acted, having spotted an attractive price to fly to Malta on Norwegian (800/357-4159, www.norwegian.com). (It would only require a 40-minute flight on Air Malta to get to Catania for our Sicily visit.)

It’s difficult to think of another country with a more diverse history than Malta. The islands were ruled over the centuries by various invaders, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans and Arabs, each of whom left their unique marks on the country. It did not receive its independence (from Great Britain) until 1964, after over 150 years of British rule.

With just three full days to tour, Maria and I decided to spend our time on the main island, Malta, choosing to stay in Valletta, the country’s Baroque UNESCO World Heritage Site capital. Using Expedia (www.expedia.com), we found what turned out to be the near-perfect boutique hotel Palazzo Valletta Suites, housed in a 17th-century palazzo and managed by Frank Dimech, whose family has owned the palazzo, adorned with antique furniture, statues, art and over 1,000 books, since 1620. Our lovely, large room came with full breakfast for $195 per night.

City-center sights

We spent our first day visiting the key attractions — either on or near the central Republic Street — of this very walkable city. Our first stop, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, features one of the finest collections of Baroque art in the world.

The building was constructed in the 16th century, and its interior was finished a hundred years later. The walls and ceilings feature elaborately carved motifs of Baroque ornamentation, and the floors are inlaid with tombstones of some of the Knights of Malta, many with ornamentation depicting the knights’ acts of chivalry. The altar art piece in the cathedral’s Oratory, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” by the renowned artist Michelangelo Merisi (aka Caravaggio), is visited by art lovers worldwide.

As library lovers, Maria and I next visited Valletta’s National Library, founded by a group of the Knights of Malta in the 18th century to house the collections of deceased knights.

We have always found librarians happy to talk with, and make suggestions to, visitors, and Louis, a reference librarian we met, was no different. He made a number of suggestions, including recommending a visit to the National Museum of Archaeology, a lovely small museum housed in a stylish Baroque building dating back to 1571. Divided into Neolithic, Phoenician and Bronze Age sections, the museum houses over 1,000 Maltese artifacts from the 4th century BC onward.

When you enter the main gate to Mdina, Malta’s ancient walled city, you have the feeling of stepping back in time.

After a quick lunch, we made a short visit to the Church of St. James, a World Heritage Site, originally built in the 17th century. Its dramatic exterior facade includes Baroque pillars and niches and features a giant window above the entrance through which you can see a Maltese coat of arms held by two angels. Its uniquely oval interior features a number of historical paintings, including one depicting Our Lady of Sorrows that was copied from the original in Madrid and taken to Malta in 1646 by a local cleric.

Views of Valletta

We spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Grandmaster’s Palace, which occupies an entire city block of the city center. The palace was built and expanded over some 200 years, starting in the 16th century. It began as the residence of the Grand Master of the Order of St. John, the order that ruled Malta for more than 200 years. It now serves as the Office of the President of Malta.

The Baroque building features intricate frescoed ceilings and two elaborate entrances. Adjacent is a courtyard clock tower that is a popular meeting point.

The Palace State Rooms and Armoury are open to the public. The large Armoury contains an arms collection among the most valuable in Europe, which includes suits of armor; cannons; firearms; swords; the personal armor of some of the Grand Masters, and Ottoman weapons captured during the Great Siege (scenes from which are depicted in a series of paintings that line the walls of the Throne Room).

Following our visit, we dined at La Sfoglia (www.lasfogliarestaurant.com), an Italian fish restaurant on Merchant Street. Our meal started with a large mixed vegetable platter followed by entrées of prawns over pasta ($90 for two with wine). We passed on the local favorites of rabbit stew and bigilla (mashed tic beans, which are similar to fava beans).

We then took an evening stroll through the nearby Upper Barrakka Gardens, which feature Romanesque-style arches and a lovely view of Valletta’s harbor.

On the way to our hotel, we had one of those wonderful incidents that only happen with independent travel. As we were passing a well-lit small hotel with a lovely entrance and lobby, we stopped for a look. A gentleman came out and asked if we would like to come in and look around. We entered, and Edwin, the night manager, showed us around the art-filled lobby and the basement catacombs and took us to the top of this boutique hotel, 66 Saint Paul’s, whose roof terrace provides “the best” view of the Grand Harbour.

He then poured us after-dinner drinks in the wood-paneled bar, and we chatted about Malta for some 20 minutes.

Along the shore

Malta’s Blue Grotto is a very popular tourist spot below a high cliff overlooking the sea.

On our second morning in Malta, Maria and I headed to the Blue Grotto, one of the most popular tourist spots in the country. The approach to the grotto is via a winding road that leads to a high cliff overlooking the sea on the south side of the island. The sea side of the cliff is dotted with limestone caves.

Visitors can enter aboard a small boat that passes through a series of caves before reaching a 25-foot-tall cave that arches above a deep pool. Especially in the afternoon, the sunlight beautifully reflects the phosphorescent oranges, purples and greens of the submerged flora.

We lunched above the grotto on the terrace of the Alka Restaurant, enjoying a beautiful view of the Mediterranean coast.

We spent the afternoon walking along the lovely Grand Harbour. A 10-minute ferry ride took us to the Sliema side, where we had a delightful 4-mile walk through parks, gardens, beaches, boatyards and shops and kiosks of every kind.

Back in Valletta, we had dinner at a small, cozy Italian restaurant, Papannis, on Strait Street, a local favorite that serves excellent pasta. Our dinner of salad, mahi mahi over linguini and wine cost $85.

Our final morning took us to the ancient walled hilltop city of Mdina, which served as Malta’s capital through the Middle Ages. Mdina, another popular area for visitors, includes St. Paul’s Catacombs and Palazzo Falson, a 15th-century townhouse that is now a museum of art and antiques.

In order to fully appreciate the area, we hired Audrey Marie Bartolo (audreymarie@onvol.net), a wonderful local guide, for a half-day tour ($85 including transportation). We started our tour with the Catacombs, entering between two giant columns into an intricate, more-than-2,000-square-meter complex of interconnected cemeteries, tombs and passages built some 24 centuries ago.

Street dining in Valletta featured restaurants with tables set up on wide staircases serving pizza, cheese platters and wine.

Passing through Mdina’s main gate felt like going back in time. We were surrounded by ancient ramparts as we wandered through a world of pedestrian-only streets and alleys lined with well-preserved sandstone buildings, all dominated by the impressive Baroque Cathedral of St. Paul. This beautifully decorated sanctuary features a dramatic dome, giant marble columns and intricate, detailed wall and ceiling paintings.

A last look

The Malta Tourism Authority provides detailed information of nine walks on the island of Malta, ranging from easy to difficult. On our final afternoon, we relaxed by following the “easy” 5-mile Girginti Walk, traveling from the green space of Buskett to the village of Siggiewi, passing two palaces, farms, churches and a number of small religious statues.

We had our farewell dinner at San Paolo Naufrago (11 Trig Santa Lucija), an informal wine-and-food bar set up on a multitiered side street and featuring local wines, cheese and pizza. Shared cheese and chicken platters with wine cost just $45, and, along with Motown-style music, it made for a fun farewell evening.

We were delighted we had finally made it to Malta and look forward to hopefully returning to experience the islands of Gozo and Comino.