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Golden Bay, Malta by Andrea Castelli Flickr, 2011Photo by Andrea Castelli licensed under CC

Malta is a fabulous Mediterranean destination, especially if you dislike the hassle of foreign languages as everyone speaks pretty good English, yet Malta retains all the charm of the Mediterranean.

The presence of English is the result of Malta being part of the British Empire from 1814 until 1964, but oddly enough, it was not one of the Empires conquests.

In the Napoleonic era Malta was on the horns of a dilemma - at risk of being invaded by the French and the Russians. It chose a third way, protection by the British Empire and subsequently played a vital role in defeating Rommel’s AfrikaKorps in North Africa during WWII.

It’s a tiny place, significantly smaller than the Isle of Wight, with a familiar yet foreign feel. They have the highest density of catholic priests outside the Vatican City, produce and explode more fireworks per head than anywhere else on earth and eat an unbelievable number of rabbits.

Enjoy the island's charm and soak up the atmosphere

Of course, they drive on left and some of the great British icons are still in place – old red telephone boxes, red post boxes and blue lights outside police stations.

The World Heritage listed capital of Valletta is Europe’s first planned city, laid out in a grid system of streets and alleyways. The Knights of St John built it on a peninsula as a defence against the Turks during the sixteenth century.

The Upper Barrakka Gardens provide a must-see harbour and city view and the Grand Master’s palace and armoury is a do not miss historic attraction. The plain exterior of St John cathedral hides wonderful treasures and belies a fabulous Baroque interior and a famous painting by Caravaggio.

Valletta’s real charm is its atmosphere, so it’s important to sit in an outdoor cafe and soak up the real, tangible sense of history rather than just dashing around the sites –the perfect excuse for relaxing.

But all this is just recent history; Malta’s prehistoric megalithic temples are older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids.

Discover a rich and ancient history

It’s a dream destination for historians, recent or ancient, and reads like a textbook of western civilisation, probably with more human history packed into its 122 sq miles than anywhere else in Europe.

There are 23 prehistoric sites dating back 6,000 years including the impressive megalithic temples of Taraxien and Hagar Qim but the subterranean hypogeum of Hal Saflieni is perhaps the most astonishing. It is the only known underground pre-historic temple.

Very little is known about these ancient temple builders or their mysterious parallel ‘cart tracts’ gouged into the limestone. They’ve been likened to a complex railway junction (Clapham Junction) because they criss-cross the landscape and some even disappear off the edge of the cliff - creating a limitless source of myths and legends.

Homer’s Odyssey tells of Ulysses being shipwrecked on the nearby island of Gozo where Calypso captivated him on his journey back from Troy to Ithaca in Greece. Then there are the Phoenicians from the Biblical cities of Tyre and Sidon who traded and settled Malta until ousted by the Romans.

St Paul was also shipwrecked on Malta en-route to Rome and his ingrained legacy of Christianity is still very apparent in the islands’ 360 churches. The marks of Norman and Arab conflicts are everywhere on the island, culminating with the spectacular city of Valletta built by the Knights of St John in 1566.

Malta’s history rolls on involving the Spanish Empire; Napoleon predictably turned up and of course, the British.

But it’s not history that makes Malta one of the UK’s favourite holiday destinations - it’s the glorious weather, the friendly people, the Mediterranean lifestyle and the ease for English speakers.

Escape to Gozo

If one tires of Malta’s history, shopping and nightlife, the 20-minute ferry across to Gozo is like moving to another century. It is Malta’s exclusive hideaway island, with a pastoral ambience compared to Malta’s louder tourist developments.

Everything runs at a gentler speed on Gozo. The islands capital of Rabat was renamed Victoria in 1897 to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond jubilee but it’s still the beautiful quaint town of alleyways, cafes and little shops it always was.

The imposing walled citadel sheltered people from the marauding corsairs who plagued island communities throughout the Mediterranean. Gozo has its share of prehistoric monuments such as the Ggantija temple - supposedly built by giantesses and more mysterious ‘cart ruts’.

The impressive Romanesque Basilica of Ta Pinu dominates the Gozitan skyline and has become a local shrine with a Lourdes-like status for miracle cures. Inside, the walls are decorated with artificial limbs and other relics left by grateful pilgrims.

So don’t bother with a guide book in Malta, just amble around and let it all seep in, and between extraordinary historical events you’ll be able to find a perfect pasta and a decent pint of beer.

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Further information

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 678 1174

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