MALTA is like being at home but with the heat turned up.
Valletta, the capital, has proudly kept its red post boxes, everyone speaks English, they drive on the left and best of all they use British plugs. No wonder hundreds of us have moved here and even more visit each year.
News of any of this had never reached me so it was like a welcome homecoming on a weekend city break – but with better food, weather and culture.
It might be just a tiny dot in the middle of the Mediterranean but for sightseeing and shopping it more than punches above its weight.
It has been a force in history for 7,000 years. Here you can visit the world’s oldest freestanding temples, built long before the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge.
Malta is like being at home but with the heat turned up
It’s filled with medieval palaces and 359 churches – almost one for everyday of the year. And if you’re not serious about history, the small nation is streets ahead when it comes to buying presents made from the most gifted hands.
There was stunning lace, olive oil, decent wine, creamy goats cheese, silver jewellery and colourful glassware. And nothing cost more than a handful of euros.
It has also been used as a film location hundreds of times including the blockbuster Gladiator and for the first series of Game of Thrones.
The Maltese islands come as a trio. The busy mainland Malta, sleepy Gozo where residents still leave their keys in the front door and small Comino, which has just three residents and one policeman – guess he doesn’t have to be Sherlock to figure out whodunit.
Instead of heading straight to the beaches with the holiday crowds, I made my way to Gozo first and to the centre Victoria to browse around the markets.
I ended up at Ta’ Savina, which sells traditional produce from the island including tomato pastes, artichoke pate, sea salt and flavoured oils. My bag got so heavy it stretched the handles.
Having exhausted the shops, in the afternoon I took the steep path up to the ancient Citadel. This small-fortified town was built around 4,000 years ago to protect the island from attack. I walked along its high city walls enjoying the views of pale green, grassy plains that stretched out to the coast.
On the way down the trail, always stopping to look in at the shops, I found Ta’ Rikardu’s restaurant to sample some of the goat’s cheese.
Throughout the islands, it was the same experience: the ancient beside the everyday.
One minute I was sitting on the stone steps that were laid thousands of years ago and the next I was eating freshly made cheese with warm bread and swigging a glass of red wine from their own vineyard.
Satisfied after a great day, I headed out to Patrick’s Tmun Lounge, Restaurant and Steakhouse where I quickly drained a Cosmopolitan before considering a Bloody Mary. The place was swanky, dimly lit and with an open log fire blazing on a television screen. While it had a list of options on the menu for dinner including fish cakes, and pork cheeks, I treated myself to grilled steak – well, it was a steakhouse.
Then I ordered the warm and sweet crème brûlée to finish.
With a belly full of food, I rested at the plush Ta’ Cenc Hotel & Spa. This hotel was another reason to stop for longer. It’s a five-star hideaway on the island’s highest point overlooking the cliffs. It has 83 stone-built bungalows, its own rocky beach and a 17th century palazzo. The main building has dozens of comfy sofas while my room opened out on to a swimming pool. Inside it was decked out with a feel for the grand old days. I sank into the big comfy bed and quickly slipped into a deep sleep.
In the morning I took the 15minute ferry ride over to Malta to explore the smallest capital in the EU, Valletta.
The first explorers came over from Sicily, Italy, 7,000 years ago. After about 1,000 years, they built the pre-historic temples. Then after another 2,000 years the Phoenicians arrived (Lebanon today) and people followed them from north Africa. Then plenty of cultures in between conquered the islands. Hardly a period of time exists that didn’t leave behind some relic.
Finally in 1814 Malta became part of the British Empire. It received the George Cross for its part in the Second World War, the highest award of the honours system for civilians in 1942.
What’s more the Queen even lived there on and off while the Duke of Edinburgh was stationed as a Royal Navy Officer between 1949 and 1951.
The small metropolis is packed with medieval town houses with no modern buildings taking centre stage. I queued in the warm air to get into the popular and enormous St John’s Cathedral built for the Knights of St John to see the two most famous 17th century paintings by Caravaggio.
When learning about the times gone by became too much, I honed my cafe credentials by sitting in the sunshine drinking coffee.
And for a well-earned halt, I stayed at the modern five-star Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. This was across the road from the President’s Palace and botanical gardens. Once a private residency, the hotel has maintained a smart and well-tailored decor throughout. The Caprice Lounge Bar was the most important place for me with a live singer and a heady list of cocktails to get through.
As I settled in for my last night, I realised I hadn’t stepped foot on a beach or dipped a toe in Malta’s turquoise waters.
That’ll be another trip.