Malta is located in the southern Mediterranean, South of Sicily – the ball under the foot of Italy. It’s a very small place, with roughly 300km² of land – that’s approximately 27 km by 14km, and a population of around 400,000 inhabitants. Home to the Maltese people, the descendants of Sicilians mixed with Arab, Turkish, and Phoenician influence, Malta boasts a wealth of cultural history, laying claim to the oldest known temples on Earth.
Modern day Malta is increasingly conscious of its visitors needs, and the island has been undergoing a transformation in recent years, with membership into the European Union sparking off a wave of redevelopment and an overhaul of transport and infrastructure. Having said that, it’s still an island where a limousine might easily be followed by a horse and cart, and the traditional ways are never that far from sight. In the town of St Julians, for instance, a town known as the entertainment centre of Malta, Spinola Bay is still the location for traditional Maltese fishing boats with their brightly painted colours and the Phoenician eye acting as a reminder of the many other cultures who have at some point traded with or tried to colonise this little Mediterranean island. The ‘Silent City’ of Mdina is perhaps the best preserved example of Arab influences, as well as the influence the Knights of Malta have had throughout the island. This charming little city is a must-see for any visitor – protected by as a World Heritage site, and virtually unchanged for hundreds of years.
If shopping’s more your thing, the town of Sliema is a great place for a bit of shopping and good old fashioned cafe culture, with a range of international fashion outlets making their homes here, and serving this bustling little area’s many visitors. The new addition of ‘The Point’ shopping centre in the Tigne Point area of Sliema is another sign of how certain areas see exclusivity and high end services as a new part of Malta’s character. This is most visible in the towns of Sliema, St Julians, and the regeneration of The Valletta, Birgu and other waterfronts, where tradition has been well-maintained and the whole areas have become a beautiful tribute to traditional Maltese design, with huge sandstone bricks forming the solid, yet warm cafe, restaurant and marina fronts.
Geographically, the island’s North and South have slightly different characters – the underlying Maltese identity is obvious in both areas, but tourism seems to centre mainly in the North, whereas the south retains a mainly Maltese population year round. You’re also more likely to hear English spoken in the North than in the southern towns, although most Maltese people are bi-lingual or even tri-lingual speaking Maltese, English and Italian. The island’s official languages are Maltese and English – part of the island’s legacy of British occupation, but also a way to facilitate trade on an island which has been trading longer than most – it’s geographical location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea long establishing it as a gateway between Europe and North Africa. With its neighbouring island of Gozo reported to be the fabled island of ‘Calypso’, it’s not hard to see how long people from far-off lands have prized the Maltese archipelago. This history of foreign contact has been far from peaceful though, with Malta’s location also making it the site of many ferocious battles and great sieges throughout history. From the Phoenicians to the Ottomans, to the Axis forces in the second World War, Malta has time and again been subject to attack, and the great fortifications in Valletta are a must-see for anyone interested in the island’s wartime history, built by the Knights of Malta after the Great siege of 1565, they withstood the bombing of WW2, and still guard the entrance to Valletta’s Grand Harbour.
Hotels in Malta are abundant and there’s a wide range to choose from. With St Julians hosting the greatest number of luxury five-stars it’s carved itself a niche as the island’s entertainment centre, although there are fine hotels throughout the island. If it’s something more affordable you’re after, St Julians also offers 4, 3 and lower star hotels, as does neighbouring Sliema – in the North, the towns of Bugibba, Qawra, and Mellieha also have a range of hotels to choose from, as all are popular destination with the island’s many visitors. Accommodation in the island’s capital, Valletta is slightly more limited as the whole city is classed as a World Heritage site, so planning permission for large new developments has been much harder to come by in the city. There’s a fair amount of self catering on the island, and bed and breakfasts are also available although perhaps less plentiful than in other countries.
With public transport being overhauled completely in the summer of 2011, Malta’s buses are in a time transition, and the classic Maltese bus is undergoing a radical transformation and modernisation. Getting around is never too difficult, as Malta’s such a small island, but routes to towns in the far North such as Mellieha, Bugibba, Qawra and St Paul’s Bay, are less frequent than services through Sliema, St Julians and Valletta, where the island’s main bus terminus is located. Hiring a car is relatively easy – but be aware that you drive on the left in Malta – the same side as the U.K, so visitors from the States or several other European countries will have to adjust. Taxis are plentiful, but checking with a couple of taxi firms before choosing might be advisable, as prices can vary from driver to driver – it’s not always decided by a meter.
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