Where have all our writers gone? Well, Sandra Brind has been taking a break in Malta – and taking a trip down Memory Lane as well. Here she recommends the island for the perfect late sunshine break.
This year Valletta has been celebrating being ‘European Capital of Culture 2018’, writes Sandra Brind. So it is worth an autumn break to enjoy the many exciting artworks on offer and some last minute sunshine – particularly as you can book a flight through Ryanair for about £46 return.
However, for me, going on holiday to Malta was a bit of a pilgrimage this year. My father was stationed there during the Second World War, and although he then went on to some of the biggest battles (North Africa, Monte Casino, etc) and travelled through many countries, the only one he ever wanted to go back to was Malta. The people there were so brave to resist the enemy bombardment during the war. Although they were near to starvation, they held out until the Allies could finally deliver food, drink and fuel for the planes to fight the enemy.
So it is not surprising that he felt such an affinity to this wonderful Island and its people. Sadly he never made it back to Malta, as he became too ill to travel at a time in his life when he could have afforded it, So I decided to do it for him.
There are lots of places to see on the island connected to the war, and I tried to visit them all in the hopes of finding some photos of my father or some information about his time there. I was disappointed on that score, but had a wonderful time exploring the many war museums, tunnels (where the canny Maltese used to hide during bombing raids), and even the RAF huts where the troops stayed. The tunnels are so narrow and low that I really struggled to get through them and could not imagine what it must have been like staying there in the dark listening to the bombing above.
It wasn’t all museum visits though. The island has some good beaches, beautiful clear water, fantastic restaurants and wonderful historical sights to see. With Valetta enjoying the European Capital Culture City status this year, when you arrive in the capital you find a wonderful variety of sculptures, many that are funny and quirky. I’m no art critic but I know what I like and many of them brought a huge smile to my face.
Building work is going on all over the island, possibly thanks to EU help that has improved the roads a lot in recent years. However, the great thing is that most of the new houses and buildings are not modern monstrosities, but newer versions of the typical historical Malta houses with their colourful overhanging balconies.
Valetta is a great mixture of old world charm (they still have red telephone boxes and post boxes in the main street) and environmentally friendly electric cars and buses to take you on a tour of the main sights. With the many pavement cafes and reasonably priced eateries and ice cream stalls, there is much to keep you coming back. There is even an M & S shop and café if you happen to be missing English food and supplies.
They have a great central square with fountains spurting up at intervals. The squeals of delight from the children trying (not very hard) not to get wet are a joy. Opposite the fountains you will find the Royal Palace that you can tour. On the Palace wall is the dedication from King George VI who gave the island the George Cross “to bear witness to the heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. It was to thank them for their bravery in holding off the enemy during WW2. On the same Palace wall is a quote from President Roosevelt ‘saluting the Island, its people and defenders who in the cause of freedom and justice and decency throughout the world, have rendered valorous service far above and beyond the call of duty.’
Wandering the city’s narrow alleyways, viewing the stunning architecture, strolling along wall fortifications, you will find a church on virtually every street, so there is plenty to explore. Don’t miss the cannons that are fired for the battery salute several times a day at the Upper Barracka, topped by the Liberty Bell and surrounded by beautiful gardens.
After seeing the sights of central Valetta and stopping at one of their many ice cream outlets to cool yourself down, choose virtually any Maltese restaurant for lunch or dinner to enjoy. The island has been influenced by its many historical cultures from Greece, Italy and Morocco. You will enjoy ocean-fresh seafood dishes, a hearty rabbit stew, the island’s own excellent wines and very sweet desserts.
Head down to the Grand Harbour for a boat trip around the most beautiful harbour in the Mediterranean, according to one of my naval friends. It is a strange contrast of military ships, luxury yachts and the new Chinese-owned freight and cruise terminal. Here you will find more award-winning restaurants.
The Hop On, Hop Off buses take two routes around the island, north and south and are a good way to explore, but their own buses are now comfortable and air-conditioned. Long gone are the bon-shakers that used to serve the island. Plan to spend a few hours at Mosta, the church where a German bomb fell through the dome onto the nave below during a packed Sunday service. Miraculously, the bomb did not explode, so the worshippers were obviously pious enough to live to see another day. The place where the bomb came through the dome can be pointed out to you.
Next stop is Medina. The roads are pedestrianised, but there are horse and carriages to transport you around the area. The view from the top of the fortifications is spectacular. Stop at the café on the upper walls for a panoramic view around the island while you eat lunch. On the way back, stop off at Meliah beach for a swim, afternoon tea and delicious cakes.
You must also take a day trip to Malta’s sister island of Gozo. You can do it yourself more cheaply, but ideally you need a guide to take you around the island on a bus so as not to miss the most important parts and also the colourful history. Go on market day and enjoy the colourful goods, including china salt and pepper pots shaped like their fishing boats with the ‘all seeing eye’ on the front.
Back on the mainland don’t miss the Sunday morning market at Marsaxlokk, where the locals shop for fresh fish, cheese, vegetables, clothes, toys and souvenirs at low prices.
There are many hotels and resorts to stay at. My favourite is The Hilton at St. Julien. It is fairly central so it is convenient for buses to everywhere on the island. The hotel has three restaurants, five swimming pools (one for adults only), and beautiful grounds. It is close to many bars, cafes and restaurants and next door to the local Casino and indoor shopping mall.
LULU’s is a favourite restaurant for delicious freshly-cooked food, particularly the catch of the day. It is also convenient for those keen on nightlife next door at St. George’s where there are plenty of nightclubs (some men-only clubs) and lots of bars with happy hours and massage parlours.
It is difficult to explore all the island has to offer on a short break, but this trip has given me the excuse to return to the place that my father always wanted to revisit.