How much do you know about Malta?
'Birthplace of the delectably airy chocolate snack Maltesers?' Wrong.
'That island vibing off the coast of Italy's boot?' Nope. (It's actually part of an archipelago, and specifically closest to Sicily, the 'boot island', rather than Italy).
'The place that usually exchanges points with the UK in Eurovision, which also got battered by the Three Lions in World Cup qualifiers?' Undeniable.
These are just some of the ridiculous questions and answers spouted by my own soft, uninformed brain. This ignorance, combined with the facts that I'm in my late twenties and I feel life owes me some sun and warm weather for surviving the calendar year until mid-April, made me and my partner ideal candidates to experience all that Malta has to offer, and right these wrongs.
To stress, Malta is not a new concept to flog. People have been going to Malta since 6000BC on rafts and, after a much more recent 1,000 years of rocky European rule, Malta said goodbye to British troops leaving on HMS London in 1979 and hello to British tourists arriving at the harbour on cruise ships thereafter.
And not just the Brits. Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Japanese and American sun-seekers are all drawn to this tiny-but-plucky isle.
So what's its secret to keep guests flying here?
'Knights. Knights would've given Malta a 0-star TripAdvisor review when they first arrived – no water, food, or fortifications – but hopefully you like it more now after what they've done with the place' explains our tour guide Ian, whose job is to show me around Valletta, Malta's capital city, European City of Culture 2018, and the smallest capital city in all of Europe.
My bite-size recap of Ian's passionate historical storytelling – because it's important – is that the Knights Hospitaller were gifted the island of Malta in 1530 by Spain's King Charles V but wanted the receipts. They'd not been very good at hiding their clear preference for once-home Rhodes, since captured by The Ottoman Empire. Only when 40,000 Ottomans came knocking for Malta in 1565 and were defeated against-all-odds by 500 knights commanding 6,000 foot-soldiers did the knights think 'hang on lads, we've got something here' and built a very much defendable barrack-turned-Baroque city when they settled.
The knights' grandiosity is still embedded in Malta's DNA and as I potter down cobbled narrow streets, palace grounds and airy courtyards I feel like I'm in a film. Which could be true as Hollywood has utilised the country for filming everything from Gladiator to Game of Thrones.
Our soundtrack is the sound of cannon fire, which punctuates the day at noon and 4pm, in a nod to the guns that protected the harbour against naval assault for almost 500 years.
With no real forestry or wild greenery, it's a relatively flat slope of turquoise coast, cliffs and exotic gardens, and as the sun rests easy on my skin, I could easily be lulled into a midday siesta if there were not a million things to see and do and conquer.
A key stop for us is Valletta, Europe's first ever planned capital city and much of it isn't broken and never needed fixing. Its grid-like main streets are streamlined towards the alluring deep denim blue of the sea that peeks out from between Malta's mostly stone urbanite and modernity has kept much of the same architecture but given it renovated purpose.
Depending on who you ask, streets are referred to by Italian names, old British Empire monikers, or their newer Maltese revival titles.
By some distance, the main attraction in Valletta is St John's Co-Cathedral, home to the greatest painting by artist Caravaggio: The Beheading of St John The Baptist.
As Malta ditched its railway system entirely almost 100 years ago, so the beauty of its major cities is how inherently walkable they are. Even so, there are plenty of other creative ways to explore. As well as cars and horse-drawn carts, there's also the option to pick up the pace by water.
A €2 water taxi boat is the quickest way to reach Malta's Three Cities – Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua – and once there, we make our way around via a specially adapted golf buggy, which has a top speed of 15mph. They call this mode of sightseeing 'a Rolling Geek' and this funny-looking, low-speed vehicle is exactly what the name suggests while still being a thoroughly entertaining method of getting through the maze of Three Cities' city planning.
We also take a ferry to island-off-the-island Gozo and whiz up and down the spectacular Sanap cliffs and bays on both Segway and e-bike – both far better options than the non-existent train carriage. After all, you can't stop and speak with the locals on a train. Like Rose Cini (pictured) who has been selling salt for over 65 years near Xwejni Bay like her parents before her and her children and grandchildren after her.
Nor can you put an arm out and nibble a finger pinch of wild asparagus growing on the side of the path from a train. Or feel the wind through your hair as you clock eyes on the outline of Mount Etna in the distance, which becomes all the more real as you approach cliff edge.
The uniqueness of Malta is its power in miniature. An entire country smaller than Isle of Wight, this little island nestled in the Mediterranean Sea boasts 68 mayors.
After spending a few glorious days learning more about Malta than I could ever have imagined, I've discovered that it's the perfect escape if you don't like to pigeonhole your holiday destinations.
Offering a veritable smorgasbord of Italian, English, French, Greek and Arabic influences, the Malta experience you decide to navigate is like your own Choose Your Adventure. Whether you want to sit and soak up the rays on Golden Bay Beach, spend the day zipping around on a Segway, or immersing yourself in the country's rice history, this jewel in the Mediterranean has something for everyone.
The best traditional food for a true taste of Malta
Snack: Maltese pastizzi – A traditional savoury pastry that sees puff pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese or pea. Modern takes include fillings of truffle, sausage, or Nutella. Enjoyed at any time of day and found on nearly every street corner.
Starter: ‘Local’ octopus – extremely popular as is most of Malta’s seafood offering. The Maltese will habitually ask whether the ‘local’ octopus is Malta ‘local’ or Tunisia ‘local’, which is much chewier.
Main: Rabbit – the national meat of Malta and popularised during its Arab rule when those of high social standing ate ‘fenkata’, a rabbit stew, which is now a beloved dish.
Dessert: Mqaret – A traditional dessert pastry that sees thin layers of filo-like pastry deep-fried with a filling of cinnamon-spiced dates. Best enjoyed with orange blossom water anglaise and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Short on time? How to do Malta in 48 hours
Even if you've only got a weekend to spare, here's how to make the most of Malta
Morning: Get yourself a coffee and pastizz and prepare to loop Valletta (1) from City Gate to Upper Barrakka Gardens, making sure to visit St John's Cathedral and St George's Square. Ride the Upper Barrakka Lift down to sea level and catch a water taxi ride to Three Cities (2).
Afternoon: Enjoy a well-earned lunch immediately on Birgu's marina. Then, hire a Rolling Geek and explore Three Cities, making a point to turn into any interesting side street no matter how narrow it looks.
Evening: Tour Mdina (3) before the sun goes down and the streets are mostly clear of tourists. Dinner at Medina Restaurant is highly recommended.
Morning: Transfer to Cirkewwa to catch a ferry crossing to Gozo (4), making sure to have a pitstop overlooking Popeye Village (5). Take a tuk-tuk from Mgarr to Xewkija (6). Do some sight-seeing on a Segway by riding from Gozo Segway Tours base in Victoria to Gozo's northern-most bays and the Salt Pans (7).
Afternoon: Enjoy lunch beside Marsalforn Bay, Il-Kartell recommended (8). Arrange to meet Gozo Segway Tours for an e-bike ride to Sanap Cliffs (9). Make your ferry back to Malta.
Evening: Take a taxi to Gharghur and sample the delicious food and wine at Cent'Anni Bistro and Wine bar (10).
How to get there
Jet2holidays flies to Malta from eight UK airports: Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and London Stansted. With Belfast to also fly in time for Summer 2024.
They'll look after you every step of the way and can include hotel, flights, free transfers, 22kg baggage and 10kg hand luggage, plus In-Resort Customer Helpers.
There is 2-5 star accommodation to suit every budget and need. They offer a range of hotels, apartments and villas with board options ranging from Self Catering to All Inclusive Plus.
Book now for just a £60 deposit-per-person* (Terms and conditions apply) and infants go free with thousands of no-fee child places available.
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