Travel: 13 essential things to do in Malta

The harbour at Valletta, Malta
The harbour at Valletta, Malta
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EVERYTHING is within easy reach on spectacular Malta, writes Alwyn James

As the Mediterranean waves goodbye to sultry summer, Malta comes into its own as the most fascinating of its many islands, the weather wonderful for walking, whether through streets and around buildings or along country lanes and seaside promenades.

The world famous Azure Window on Gozo Island

The world famous Azure Window on Gozo Island

And as Malta is, give or take a couple of square miles, the same size as Edinburgh, it should be obvious that there is nothing out of reach for holiday-makers wanting to get the most out of days on the island. That could be a week or fortnight or much longer for the lucky ones who go for one of the long-stays, as my wife Jean and I did on two occasions to celebrate the onset of winter and retirement.

Here is a baker’s dozen of boxes you must tick before you come back home.

1. Amble around a capital city

For one afternoon, forget the individual key places in Valletta – and there are many. They can come later. There aren’t many capital cities you can walk around in a couple of hours and where the buses and cars stop outside the city boundaries. So try a stroll with no immediate target. Just get the feel of this unique capital. And from the highest point, the Upper Barrakka Gardens you will get the finest view of the Grand Harbour.

2. Get an instant injection of history

At the far end of Valletta, go to see the audio-visual display, The Malta Experience. Get from prehistory to the Second World War via St Paul and the Great Siege in a comfortable hour and emerge wiser and enthralled. And as you come out of the presentation, take a look at the huge hall. A few centuries back, this was the Infirmería where the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem tended their patients, feeding them from hygienic silver dishes. At the time it was the longest room in Europe.

3. See if Sir Walter was right

Now that you have a feel for Valletta and Malta, you can get to grips with the individual gems. Religion and war loom large in the island’s heritage. The capital’s Co-Cathedral of St John is a good starting point. Sir Walter Scott, weak and not far from the end of his life, declared it the most striking interior he had ever seen. In particular admire the two dramatic masterpieces by Caravaggio, painted during his brief stay on the island. Escaping from pursuers in Italy, the bad-boy artist could never stay out of trouble for long. He was soon in jail in Valletta. Time for yet another escape act.

4. The Palace of the Grand Masters

The Knights Hospitaller bestrode religion and war and, for the martial side, check out the Palace of their Grand Masters. Armour and weaponry, of course, but marvel also at the astonishing tapestries. For some reason, these are the images which stayed longest in my mind.

5. See how the other half lived – and lives

To get a feel for life among the aristocracy of Malta, call in at the 16th-century Casa Rocca Piccola, the only private mansion still miraculously in use. It is open to the public and well worth a visit, as you’ve seen the religious and the military and only need the private to complete the picture. In the impressive rooms, look out for the little things. I remember an elaborate walker for toddlers.

6. Stage and stadium

The Manoel Theatre, among the oldest in Europe, is still in play, looking to my eyes as if someone had asked for a mini version of Milan’s La Scala. There are tours in the morning, letting you tread the ancient boards, but try and see a play in the evening. We enjoyed a very slick production of an American comedy, Gun Shy. Also, look out for any sport that’s going on. International competitions mean that there could be any of Europe’s sporting stars over on a visit. For local sport, our tip – the trotting races at the Marsa track. Worth a flutter.

7. Get religion

Malta does religion like no other Med nation. Find out what religious event is on the go. There is bound to be one, as the island has more religious days than anywhere else. Look around for the celebrations. If you are lucky to be there over Christmas the Maltese Crib – presepju – is everywhere, in forms varying from epic to clever miniature.

8. The bombers are on their way

You’ve watched the activity on screen – a huge table supporting a map of the battles zones. Stern faces gaze at the configurations, acolytes move around, poking tokens from A to B and back again, like earnest croupiers.

You can see the real thing at the War Rooms of Malta where military defences were plotted and activated during the darkest days of the Second World War.

9. If you can’t get to Rome or Istanbul, try Mostar

Time to get out and about on the island. Centrally placed and on many of the bus routes, Mostar is a must. Nowhere is the Maltese fetish for outdoing the neighbours as far as churches go, experienced better than in this town. At one time, the Rotunda of Mostar was trumped in Europe only by St Peter’s and Hagia Sophia, no mean feat for such a small community.

It would seem impossible for Mostar to have within the Church an even more impressive exhibit, but it has. Marvel at the dome, yes, but step into one of the side rooms and see a replica of the enormous 500kg bomb that dropped through it one afternoon in 1942 in the middle of a service and miraculously did not explode. Three hundred people came to pray and got a miracle.

10. Walk around ancient streets of Mdina

The old capital of Malta demands a visit, but if possible try and get there before or after the midday and afternoon throngs. The evening is a very special time.

11. Take a boat

You must take a trip by sea. The ferry to Gozo is a priority – the smaller island has much to offer. But don’t miss the little water bus between Valletta and Sliema or the tours of Valletta Harbour to feel the real impact of the Mediterrenean stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller.

12. Popeye Village

Designed for the 1980 Disney film Popeye starring Robin Williams, the quirky village is well worth a visit. You don’t need to have children as an excuse. Malta is a great location for film makers. So look out in the local newspapers for anything going on. Jean and I missed out on auditions for the crowds in Gladiator – we had to be back in Edinburgh before they even started. Otherwise, we might well have got a slot shouting abuse at Russell Crowe and been paid for it.

13. The Kappillan of Malta

Don’t come home without buying, starting and maybe even finishing The Kappillan of Malta. This novel by Nicholas Monserrat of The Cruel Sea fame is a fascinating combination of the island’s history and a riveting personal journey of a religious community leader during the Second World War.

• Alwyn James’ crime romp The Malta Job is published by Ringwood Publications, £9.99, and £3.99 as ane-book. Ithas been selected as one of six Scottish books featured byReadings Groups, readinggroups.org/news/homegrowntalent