Located right in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Maltese Islands are some of the richest in the region – promising diverse culture, a dynamic history, welcoming people and eclectic attractions.
With an area of just 316 square kilometers, the Maltese Archipelago is one of the smallest in the world. Yet it is also one of the densest, with approximately 437 000 residents. Only the three largest islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – are inhabited. The Islands are enviably located in the passageway between Africa and Europe, 93 km south of Sicily and 288 km north of Libya.
Malta is the largest of the three islands and the cultural, commercial and administrative centre. Gozo is the second largest island and more rural; it is known for its more abundant countryside and open spaces. Comino, while largely uninhabited, is a popular destination for day-trippers and hikers.
Visitors to the Islands are often attracted to the archetypal, Mediterranean climate, which is typified by hot summers and mild winters. But there is a lot more to keep them busy, including expansive beaches, a thriving nightlife and 7000 years of intriguing history.
Gozo is known to provide a tranquil haven for a tempo and scene change. The charm of Malta’s sister Island is immediately apparent; it’s greener, more rural and smaller, with life’s rhythms dictated by the seasons, fishing and agriculture.
Steeped in myth, Gozo is thought to be the legendary Calypso’s isle of Homer’s Odyssey – a peaceful, mystical backwater. Baroque churches and old stone farmhouses dot the countryside. Gozo’s rugged landscape and spectacular coastline await exploration with some of the Mediterranean’s best dive sites.
The island also comes complete with historical sites, forts and amazing panoramas, as well as one of the archipelago’s best-preserved prehistoric temples, Ggantija.
Gozo also possesses a nightlife and cultural calendar all of its own, with some great dining out.
Situated between Malta and Gozo, the smaller island of Comino is a paradise for snorkelers, divers, windsurfers and ramblers. Only 3.5 square kilometres, Comino is car-free and apart from one hotel virtually uninhabited.
The island’s main attraction is the Blue Lagoon. In summer, this sheltered inlet of shimmering aquamarine water over white sand is very popular with day-trippers. Comino is also worth a visit in winter, and is ideal for walkers and photographers. With no urban areas or cars on the island, one can easily smell the scent of wild thyme and other herbs.
Valletta 2018: European Capital of Culture
Valletta was declared European Capital of Culture (ECoC) on 12 October 2012. Valletta is hosting the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018 with a partner Dutch city, Leeuwarden. The ECoC includes all the Maltese Islands, with an aim to spread its impact throughout the whole Maltese territory.
As per ECoC regulations set by the EU, the Cultural Programme is to promote a European dimension and encourage citizen participation. Valletta 2018 will enable the participation of the citizens of Malta and Europe and will form an integral and sustainable part of the long-term social, economic and cultural development of Malta. The Cultural Programme is built around four themes: Generations, Routes, Cities and Islands. For more information visit: www.valletta2018.org
Did you know?
1. Malta has two official languages: Maltese, which is a combination of Arabic, Italian and English influences, and English. Both are spoken widely and taught in schools, so you can leave your phrasebook at home without fear of not being able to communicate.
2. The capital of Malta is Valletta, a fortified and walled city perched on the edge of a peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea. Comprised of shady, winding streets, and imposing bastions with incredible views, it is one of the most picturesque capital cities in the world. It is also one of the smallest capital cities in Europe at only 0.8 square kilometers.
3. Malta has one of the best climates in the world and enjoys over 3000 hours of sunshine every year, which makes it perfect for a holiday during any month.
4. Malta is home to 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Valletta, Megalithic Temples of Malta, and the Half Saflieni Hypogeum) and it has another seven locations on the tentative list including the Grand Harbour, Mdina, and Cittadella.
5. Hagar Qim is a fantastic example of some of the best-preserved free-standing structures and temples in the world. They date back an impressive 5000 years!
Food and Drink
Maltese cuisine is the result of a long relationship between the Islanders and the many civilisations who occupied the Maltese Islands over the centuries. This marriage of tastes has given Malta an eclectic mix of Mediterranean cooking.
Traditional Maltese food is rustic and based on the seasons. Look out for Lampuki Pie (fish pie), Rabbit Stew, Bragioli (beef olives), Kapunata, (Maltese version of ratatouille), Widow’s Soup, and fish is in abundance such as dolphin fish, bass, stone fish, grouper, and dentex. On most food shop counters, you’ll see Bigilla, a thick pate of broad beans with garlic. The snacks that must be tried are “Hobz biz-Zejt“ (round of bread dipped in olive oil, rubbed with ripe tomatoes and filled with a mix of tuna, onion, garlic, tomatoes and capers) and Pastizzi (flaky pastry parcel filled with ricotta or mushy peas).
Favourite dessert delicacies are Kannoli (tube of crispy, fried pastry filled with ricotta), Sicilian-style, semi-freddo desserts (mix of sponge, ice-cream, candied fruits and cream) and “Helwa tat-Tork” (sweet sugary mixture of crushed and whole almonds).
Wines & Beers: Malta may not be renowned like its larger Mediterranean neighbours for wine production, but Maltese vintages are more than holding their own at international competitions, winning several accolades in France, Italy and further afield. International grape varieties grown on the Islands include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Carignan, Chenin Blanc and Moscato. The indigenous varieties are Gellewza and Ghirghentina, which are producing some excellent wines of distinct body and flavour.
Maltese people have been consuming alcohol for centuries, but it was only in the 1920s that Maltese companies started to mass-produce beers. A local family run business started with a simple yet popular Pale Ale – but in the decades since, Malta’s beer-brewers have stepped up, with locals and foreigners alike, creating unique beers that win prizes regularly.
The history of the Maltese Islands reads like ’who’s who’ of military and economic powers holding sway over the Mediterranean through the ages. Going back thousands of years, beyond recorded history, one finds the arrival of early civilizations who came to these islands and settled here in prehistoric times. Successive waves of conquerors took possession of these small but strategically important territories over the centuries, only to pass them on to the next set of ’owners’.
This timeline starts at around 5200 B.C., when the first waves of stoneage farmers came to these shores, and tracks the main milestones and transitions in Malta’s eventful history, right down to the present.
Facts and Figures:
Population: 437 000
Prime Minister: Joseph Muscat