Exploring Malta: Fireworks, Football, and A Fortified City

Malta Mellieha Bay Festa

Malta was our chosen destination for a relaxing family holiday this year, despite our doubts about what the tiny country could offer; what is there to do in Malta? What is their culture? What do they eat and celebrate? We certainly didn’t expect to find flamboyant festivals, some of the oldest monuments in the world, and clear-water lagoons…

After being dropped off in our hotel resort in Mellieha Bay, we were left questioning why the country is such a popular tourist destination, with three times more tourists than residents. There were no souvenir shops, no dainty village streets, no animation or colour on this expanse of ‘rock’. Perhaps we had picked somewhere a little too far on the chilled side.

But after 7 days in the archipelago in the Mediterranean, we soon found out Malta is far from boring- in fact it is a loud, interesting, and strangely beautiful place.

Coincidentally, as my father is Scottish, our stay coincided with the Scotland vs Malta World Cup Qualifier Russia 2018, which was a fab way to kick off our week (especially as we won 5-1!). The festivities continued through the week as we were soon made aware of festa week, which, in short, involves an incredible amount of firework displays, brass bands, and gaudy street lights and décor. A few nights we encountered fireworks for hours that lit the skies and calm waters in the bay, which honestly put London’s NYE display to shame.

Fireworks Mellieha Bay Malta Festa
Firework over Mellieha Bay
Mellieha Bay Victoria Day Our Lady
The statue being carried through Mellieha

This led up to the public holiday ‘Victoria Day’ on September 8th, our last evening. Each village puts on a huge ‘festa’ to celebrate the feast day of its patron saint. In Mellieha, this involved thousands of Maltese people gathering in the Parish Square to watch the Statue of Our Lady being carried on the shoulders of men through the streets, passing choirs, bands, bars, and stalls selling Maltese sweets, to enter the church (which was decorated much like a Christmas tree). For us, it was a strange affair to watch a statue being given 4 hours of celebrations, but the Malta’s vibrancy really showed through these festivities.

The capital

The capital is a must-see. Built for the Knights after the Great Siege of 1565, Valletta is a

Valletta
Shopping in Valletta

city bursting with history. So much so, that UNESCO deem it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world, and therefore a World Heritage Site since 1980. There is plenty to explore amongst the buildings built since the 16th, the shops flanking the cobbled grid of streets, or the harbours found a short walk down the city stairs. The fortified city, planned by the Knights of Saint John, still holds 320 monuments, despite significant damage during World War 2.

We had time to visit just one- Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. As we stepped in our eyes were presented with a dazzlingly beautiful interior, so intricately designed and a rich golden visual. It is said to be one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, and the best I had ever seen. Design originated from architect Girolamon Cassar, and it built in the 16th century by the Order of St John. In the 17th century, it was redesigned mainly by Baroque artist Mattja Prett, whose art depicting episodes of St John’s life decorate the entire nave. We walked across the ornate marble floor, with 400 Knights buried beneath, to observe each of the nine chapels. Other treasures included beautiful floor to ceiling tapestries, and Caravaggio’s painting showing The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in 1608.

St John's co-cathedral Valletta
St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta

After enjoying an incredible Italian meal washed down with wine, (we didn’t quite fancy Matlese stewed rabbit), we took a stroll round The Lower Barakka Gardens. A small, perfectly kept spot, overlooking the Grand Harbour. We took a ferry home from the docks, as the last of the sun shone down on the picturesque Valletta.

Valletta sunset
Valletta at sunset. Photo: Fran Chalmers

MORE: A BREAK IN BEAUTIFUL BARCELONA

Gozo

We took a tour around Gozo highlights, as the second largest island in Malta. It’s more rural with expanse of dry, deserted land. In the centre is the capital, Victoria, originally ‘Rabat’ but re-named after Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, with the Citadel at the heart of activity. I browsed some of the tiny shops and couldn’t refuse buying their typical prickly pear jam.

Incredibly, Malta and Gozo contain temples over a thousand years older than the Egyptian pyramids. The Megalithic Temples of Malta includes five temples, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we visited the Ġgantija Temples. The temple complex found in the village of Xaghra in Gozo is over five and a half millennia years old, meaning they were constructed at a time where no metal tools or wheels existed in Malta. It is amazing to think that not only were these five apses built by the natives of Malta, but that they have remained for so long.

Across the west coast, known as Dwejra, we observed spectacular geological features such as the Azure Window. A 100m natural formed arch, it has featured in films such as Clash of the Titans, and Game of Thrones. Many other rock formations and the perfect blue waters make the landscape popular with divers and walkers.

The Azure Window, Gozo
The Azure Window, Gozo

Gozo lacks sandy beaches other than one, Rambla Bay. Here we found Calypso’s Cave, which you may recognise from Homer’s Odyssey. The nymph Calypso is said to have seduced Odysseus, and held him captive for many years. You can reach the cave by climbing a steep path from the beachfront, but unfortunately the cave isn’t possible to enter, although it seems to be full of rubbish. At least there was a photo opportunity overlooking the vast sea from the lookout point.

Comino and The Blue Lagoon

The main attraction to Comino is the Blue Lagoon, a channel of crystal clear turquoise waters between Comino and Cominotto. I knew I wanted to visit before we got to Malta, and it wasn’t difficult to find a boat to take us- there is an advertisement board every 15m in Malta. With so many boats ferrying hordes of day trippers per day, the rocks surrounding the water were packed out with people. There was so little space people were standing on top of each other rather than sunbathing. A beautiful must see place, but not your fantasy paradise island. We just stayed for a few hours to enjoy a beer, snorkeling, and some underwater pictures, before being shown the famous caves on the way back.

Snorkeling in the Blue Lagoon Malta
Snorkeling in the Blue Lagoon
Comino caves Malta
Comino caves

There is a little more to Malta than meets the eye. I came back home with the same view of Malta as when I went- I was very dubious as to what it could offer after hearing mixed reviews. I can understand why it is a huge tourist destination, it offers families a great relaxing holiday in places like Mellieha Bay. Despite finding the culture either a little strange or too like England, venture from the hotel and there will be plenty of Maltese history and activities around the island, all reachable within 2 hours.  You just have to look for it!

Sunset from our balcony at Mellieha Bay
Sunset from our balcony at Mellieha Bay

Some basic facts about Malta:

  • It is one of the world’s smallest countries.
  • There are 450, 0000 inhabiting 316 km2 (122 sq mi).
  • It is made of many islands, the main three being Matla, Gozo, and Comino.
  • Pretty much everyone’s first language is English, and then Maltese.
  • Malta gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964.
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