Where to go now: Malta

Making his tentative return to exploring the world, Cassam Looch explains why he picked out Malta as the perfect first trip out of lockdown.

As a travel and entertainment writer, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world. I’ve explored the ancient pyramids of Egypt, sampled exotic dishes in the Far East and toured more global movie locations than I care to remember. When the world essentially entered a period of lockdown, I hoped that my way of life would return sooner rather than later.

There’s no denying that the way we travel, or even the way we think about travel, has forever changed. Casual jaunts for long weekends in Europe are not so casual now, and hastily booked adventures to long-haul destinations, found late at night via drunken online searches, are destined to be replaced by carefully thought out exercises in planning and scheduling. All holidays, for as far as we can see ahead, will require some element of news fact-checking, government approval lists and acknowledgement of the very real chance that our best laid plans may be thrown into disarray with no forewarning.

Coronavirus, and its monumental impact on every aspect of our lives, is an ongoing concern. The initial shock of quarantine and self-isolation is beginning to wear off, although the threat hasn’t gone anywhere. In early July the first signs that the UK was emerging from the crisis were reported on as airlines and travel operators began offering deals to countries that were deemed “safe” to travel to. This process of getting the much-maligned industry back on its feet was hastened by the announcement of “air bridges” and “travel corridors” – which are basically the same thing – meaning that trips to certain countries would not require a period of self-isolation on your return to the UK.

After months in London, it was time to book that holiday that I had been planning for a while, and after a bit of research it was Malta that ticked all the right boxes.

 

Why visit Malta now?

Malta as a destination cannot be described as a ​hidden secret or ​undiscovered gem. ​It’s been a popular escape for many European holiday makers for decades, and historically the Island’s reputation as being a gateway between Europe, Africa and Asia has made it just as popular as a destination for invading armies of all descriptions.

The Island is one of the smallest countries in the world, but also one of the most densely populated. The latter piece of information has signalled a high susceptibility to the Covid-19 virus, but the pandemic has thankfully not caused much ​direct​ impact on Malta. It has, however, drastically changed how the economy of the country operates and as such makes for a fascinating first port of call for post-lockdown travel.

There are incredible beaches, crystal clear waters and vast caves to explore if you’re after some rest and relaxation. Culturally, the various civilizations that have called Malta home have left a manmade mark here too. Beautiful churches, baroque skylines and arabic-sounding cities and street names are to be found everywhere. There are two smaller islands in the north of the country (that are still a part of Malta) that are easily accessible by boat or ferry, and are popular with visitors. Of these, Gozo – the largest of the two – is the best known, but Comino has merits of its own. For a short holiday (I was there for 4 days), squeezing in everything is a tough ask, so it was a tour of the mainland and a day trip to Comino that I scheduled in for myself.

After a three hour flight on the national carrier Air Malta, which at the time of writing had just resumed a limited number of flights to and from the UK and other European countries, I landed in the centre of the Island at the international airport and ordered a taxi from the most popular ride hailing app in Malta, headed to my first stop… which would also serve as base camp for this trip.

 

Within the walls of Valletta

Like most visitors to Malta, my main point of interest was the capital Valletta. There are some resorts in the north of the country that offer a more typical beach holiday experience, but the UNESCO World Heritage site that has stood as the centre of power in Malta for hundreds of years is the place to head to if you want to see what makes Malta such an outstanding destination.

The city walls stand proud, encircling large swathes of Valletta and the fortifications are remarkably tall in certain places. Early visitors would affectionately refer to Valletta as Superbissima ​- Latin for ‘Proudest’. You get a sense of how (and why) these sandstone walls are so imposing the further you venture into the heart of the city. The steep inclines and declines on the outer limits are impossible to ignore. You’ll certainly hit your daily step count targets if you aren’t constantly ordering a Bolt to get you around!

I was staying in a rented apartment overlooking Hastings Gardens close to the harbour. Like many of the properties you can find here, the small but perfectly formed property came complete with the pleasant addition of an outdoor space, appropriately known as a Matlese balcony, and the very necessary addition of air conditioning. It was 35​°C​ in the shade, and that’s just the average temperature in the summer months. While searching for reasonably-priced apartments, some of the cheaper ones didn’t have air-con listed, only electric fans, and I highly recommend paying the difference for a property that will be cool enough at night for you to be able to sleep in comfort.

Another thing to note before going any further is that face masks are compulsory in most shops. The excellent bus network, which makes for a great budget option if you don’t mind slightly longer journey times from point to point, also require masks, but then again so do the taxis. If you can, book restaurants in advance and pick ones with outdoor spaces. On my first night I struck gold with Rampila, a delightful outpost which sits on one of the city’s fortifications and overlooks the walls from an outdoor terrace. It is within easy walking distance of the main gardens that overlook the Valletta, and these green spaces are also the best place to get to if you want to take in the breathtaking views on offer.

Elsewhere the city feels like a modern European destination in the mold of Prague or Budapest. There were a number of tourists, and tourist trap pubs and bars for that matter, but one suspects that everything has been toned down due to the lack of visitors this year as the impact of coronavirus is still being felt. Every taxi driver, shop assistant or waiter you speak to will mention how good it is to see people back in the city. As nice as it would have been to experience Valletta devoid of any crowds at all, it was clearly a big economic drain on the residents and local businesses.

As a result of this, and perhaps a silver lining for all of us, prices across the board seem reasonable. Meals don’t cost more than your average city prices and if you get a self-catering apartment you can save a few more euros (and get a cracking view from the balcony) by doing some cheap grocery shopping and cooking some of the local produce. .

Maltese cuisine is heavily-influenced by southern Italy, not that surprising given the proximity of Sicily and previous Italian rulers of the country. Expect plenty of pasta, seafood and meat on the menu. Most people understand English perfectly well, and there is a large expat population in Malta, mainly based around the north west region of the country.

 

A Cultural Guide to Malta

You can choose which sort of holiday you want when visiting Malta. Unlike some of the Greek and Spanish islands that are popular with sunseekers, you can opt for a lounge on a beach or do something more cultural. There are a number of relics that date back thousands of years, hinting at life in the past.

The Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni is a Neolithic subterranean structure dating to the Saflieni phase (3300 – 3000 BC) in Maltese prehistory. It was discovered by accident in the early part of the 20th century, and has since been one of the most important sites of archaeological importance in Europe, if not the world.

To maintain the integrity of the ancient site, visitor numbers are very restricted and you are unlikely to get in without booking in advance. This is especially true with social-distancing measures in place. My first museum/historical visit of this post-quarantine new world order was an eye-opening one. Face masks, hand sanitisers, tour guides with visors and small groups make for a bizarre atmosphere, but you also suspect that everyone making the extra effort is genuinely interested and interested in being here. There’s also a less frenzied environment with people generally taking their time to take in the sites and sights.

The stone structures found in the Hypogeum pre-date the giant monoliths at Stonehenge, and reveal a lot about the way the domestic society functioned at the time. Many mysteries surround the disappearance of the people of the era, as the subsequent arrival of the Phoenicians saw a change in a number of aspects of Maltese life. The history of Malta is fascinating, seeing the island play a critical role in monumental shifts in global power before adopting a neutral position in recent times. The Ottoman Empire once ruled and the Knights of St John are featured prominently around the Island, even lending their symbol of an eight-pointed cross to the national flag.

About 30 minutes away by car lies Mdina, the former capital of Malta. The city outwardly appears to be heavily-influenced by Italian architecture around the Tuscany region. The lack of cars with the city walls makes it feel particularly reminiscent of Siena, with narrow streets and a limited number of residents. Mdina is widely known as ​The Silent City​.

A very short walk away, Mdina turns into Rabat, another small area that has even more medieval treasures to uncover. Malta was under constant attack during WWII, and the residents were forced to build underground bunkers. This is evident in Rabat where a series of shelters are to be found under a church. The vast network of tunnels also lead into St Paul’s Grotto and catacombs, which take on an eerie feel when visiting. A tour of all of these historical points of interest is highly recommended.

 

The Blue Lagoons of the Island

If you’re after a more traditional holiday, the intense blues of the mediterranean is impossible to ignore. The Blue Grotto (​Taħt il-Ħnejja​) are a collection of caves on the south east of the Island. Due to the combination of the seawater, caves, sunlight and fauna, the colours have a brilliant quality that is reflected across the rocky surfaces that protrude from the sea.

A 30 minute boat trip only costs 8 Euros and will take you onto the water and into the many caves. Snorkelling and scuba-diving are also an option for the more adventurous traveller.

If you know where to look, you can also find secluded areas here to do a spot of swimming. Locals head here whenever they can, but even first-time visitors will be able to find somewhere to enjoy a refreshing dip in the clean waters of the Blue Grotto. You can probably find a place to swim along any of the shores of Malta, although not all areas have beaches so you will find some people diving into the sea from great heights. This isn’t recommended unless you know the area and can see official lifeguards operating closeby.

Another popular spot is the Blue Lagoon on the Island of Comino. This is a small outcrop, lying between the main island and Gozo, which is well served by tour boats and small ferries. The waters here are arguably even more enticing than those of the Blue Grotto, and as such it is a popular area for large numbers of tourists. There is more of a party island vibe here, so if you want to avoid crowds make sure you arrive early and leave before midday. There is one hotel, a series of isolated bungalows and even a police station on Comino, which was once home to lush vegetation, even getting its name from the smell of Cumin which dominated the air many years ago.

There’s not much else to see or do on Comino, it is home to only 3 permanent residents after all, but there are quieter beaches on the opposite side of the island. It’s a 20 minutes walk across shrubland to get to Santa Marija Bay, which has a far more secluded beach to enjoy. The water might not be as tempting as it is in the Blue Lagoon, but it is thankfully bereft of partygoers too.

 

Malta’s Proud Film Heritage

Camino, like the rest of Malta, has found itself starring on the big screen in a number of movies. Before I left the small island for an afternoon tour of Valletta, I checked out St Mary’s Tower, a sandstone structure that I remember seeing in ​The Count of Monte Cristo​ (2002), which was the first film I ever reviewed in my early days as a writer. Malta is now a popular movie location that often stands in for settings in other countries.

Back in the capital, a climb up to Upper Barrakka Gardens is a must to get your bearings and to take in the best views of the city. This is a popular spot at sunset and also during the twice daily firing of ceremonial canons at midday and 4pm. Once you look out over Valletta, it might strike you as being oddly familiar. The jumble of architectural influences from around the world is striking, and adds to the cinematic quality of the view that faces you.

Fort Ricasoli, the imposing structure right on the edge of Malta, was used as a location in Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004) and Assassin’s Creed (2015). Game of Thrones was shot in various locations around the country, with the famous rock structure known as the Azure Window being the most prominent backdrop from the first season of the hit show. Sadly the natural rock formation has subsequently fallen into the sea, no doubt weakened by film tourists ignoring signs to avoid standing on the structure.

There is, however, one film set that isn’t just still standing but one that actively invites visitors on a daily basis.

 

The Real Popeye Village

Not many people know of the live-action Popeye movie that was released in 1980. The film was directed by Robert Altman and starred Robin Williams, in one of his first big screen roles, as the titular pipe-smoking sailor with a taste for spinach. Olive Oyl was portrayed by Shelley Duval, escaping the clutches of Stanley Kubrick’s intense filmmaking style from The Shining (1980) to star in this nightmarish musical. That’s right, some genius at Paramount Studios decided to turn a comic strip character into an all-singing, all-dancing protagonist.

The film failed to gain the box office returns the studio hoped for (although it isn’t the flop that popular opinion might have you believe), and the problems began even before the shoot had completed. Running out of time and money, the cast and crew rushed through the final few scenes they had to shoot and abandoned the set where it stood. The village at the heart of the film still stands today, more than 40 years later, as one of the most bizarre cinematic relics in the world. Everyone in Malta knows about Popeye Village, even if hardly anyone has seen the film!

Highlighting just how chaotic the production of the movie actually was, the set was built for real on location on the north west of Malta and was far bigger than was actually required for the project. It’s this oversight that might explain why you can still visit the location, it would have been impossible to dismantle something of this scale in the limited time the filmmakers had. The set stood derelict for years before someone realised that people were stumbling across the village and taking pictures of it. Today you can visit Popeye Village and take a tour of the set, with the large lagoon that sits in front of the buildings acting as a water park attraction.

Popeye Village is a unique throwback to filmmaking techniques of the past. Not only are most films today not shot on real locations, but any sets that are built would almost always be dismantled as soon as production wraps. I had to double-take when I arrived here, with the taxi driver handily pointing out that I would want to see the view of the village first before getting any closer, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s an unbelievably colourful collection of quirky buildings, whose angular designs look like they wouldn’t last five minutes in a stiff breeze. And yet here they are, more than four decades later, standing out against the rocks of the coastline and serving as a permanent reminder of how movie locations often outlive the movies they feature in.

From here, and following a final night in Valletta, I began my return home. Malta is the perfect getaway for anyone looking for a safe, clean and sunny holiday. It’s well-situated, and relatively cheap to get to. Accommodation styles and prices can vary, but with a little research you can find something to fit any budget.

Cassam Looch