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Malta … the rock in the Med

If you’re looking for long stretches of sand, hammocks swinging under palm trees and coconuts hanging above your head, then Malta is probably not the place for you. But if you’re looking for blue skies, almost 99.9% guaranteed sunshine, value-for-money, and a heady blend of culture, history and sea, then this English-speaking enclave in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, located halfway between Sicily and Libya (two countries which are worlds apart) is probably a good choice.

Traditional Maltese fishing boat near one of the island's many caves and inlets.

What do the British, Italians, North Africans and Arabs have in common? … Malta
Malta is a fascinating melting pot of British, Norman, Italian, Roman, North African and Mediterranean influences … the language alone is a pot-pourri of English, Italian and Arabic although it sounds a little more like Arabic with its guttural vowels and “sh” sounds. No matter how hard you try or how many languages you speak, you’ll be hard pressed to figure out anything of a conversation or article in Maltese. After visiting Malta for the past ten years, I’m just getting my head around names like Naxxar (pronounced Nashar) and Ghar Lapsi (pronounced Ar Lapsy).

Dotted along the coastline are the imposing watchtowers built by the Knights of Malta, while on the next corner there’s a restaurant serving English breakfasts or Italian pasta … that’s the beauty of Malta. All these influences and traditions blend seamlessly together for a powerful fusion of unique, and somewhat exotic, local culture.

EU membership a plus for the island nation
Since Malta joined the EU in 2004, and since my first visit to the island almost ten years ago, the island has developed dramatically. Infrastructure has improved, more hotels and high rises have appeared, recycling has become part of the norm and the island has replaced its Maltese Lira with the Euro. Long promenades along the seafront have been constructed and driving standards have improved. But what’s really nice to see is that as Malta modernizes and European-izes, it has still managed to hold on to its quirky habits and personality. Just take a look at the ancient Leyland buses which weave their way through the numerous small villages en-route to the chaotic Valletta bus terminal. Or the limestone houses with their crumbly facades with a Porsche or BMW parked outside.

The stunning casino at Dragonara.

Locals grumble that Malta’s got more expensive since it entered the EU and adopted the Euro, which is true, but it’s still good value-for-money compared with other Eurozone countries. Expect to pay around EUR 30 for two people in a nice restaurant with starters, main courses, wine and coffee.

One of the biggest draws for me, as an English speaker, about Malta is the language. You get Mediterranean sunshine, warm people, vibrant life and Italian-inspired food but the beauty is that I can communicate with the locals, read the newspapers, chat to people on the street, watch a movie in English and in case I really miss some of my Anglo traditions, I can also enjoy an English breakfast or afternoon tea.

Malta and Ireland: blood brothers?
Many Maltese people tell me that Malta and Ireland (my country of birth) are very similar and in the beginning I used to wonder if they had been smoking pot. What could a rainy potato-eating island on the windy Atlantic coast have in common which went from boom to bust have in common with a sunny, pasta-loving island in the deep Mediterranean? But, after ten visits to Malta, I start to see some similarities. I just hope that Malta doesn’t follow Ireland’s “boom to bust” approach to handling its economy where materialistic greed and overspending have more or less crashed the entire country.

For a start, it’s pretty obvious that both islands are perched on the perimeter of Europe and both were British colonies for many years. And both countries drive on the wrong side of the road, as the Germans are fond of saying. But dig a bit deeper and you see that both nationalities have a similar relaxed attitude to life, living it to the full and both countries have the same Catholic background. Then there is the language issue – English and Gaelic are Ireland’s official two languages; English and Maltese are Malta’s. Both second languages are important for the local culture and are an important source of national identity, but both are pretty much useless on an international level. What makes it even more fun is that nobody – except the Irish and the Maltese – can understand their respective indigenous language.

More recently, I’ve also started to notice another similarity. The little stone walls dotted around Malta and the barren land often reminds me of the west coast of Ireland and the Burren limestone plateau.

View of the landscape on Gozo. Gozo is one of the three islands which makes up the country of Malta.

Or maybe not?
So what’s different? Well the weather for a start. And secondly, Ireland definitely has more, and longer, sandy beaches than Malta, although they are wasted in a country where the temperature rarely soars above 20 degrees! The Maltese definition of a “beach” is often a bunch of rocks from which people dive into the water. There are some sandy beaches scattered along the north and west coast – Golden Bay, Paradise Bay, Armier Bay to name but a few – but they are all quite small and can get crowded in the summertime.

Well, if you’ve done Spain, Greece and Portugal and don’t want to go too far from western civilization and the Euro, Malta’s a great vacation choice for a long weekend or for a two-week summer vacation. (Sicily is just a two-hour boat trip away and makes a nice trip from Malta, if you get itchy feet.)

Get there: Ryanair, Air Malta and Lufthansa offer good fares and regular scheduled flights; while SAS flies direct from Stockholm.

When to go: Weather is pretty decent the whole year around although March and April can be a bit blustery and the occasional “freak” storm is known to hit in August and September. Summers are hot.

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