We Brits have had a soft spot for little Malta for some time. The scenic Mediterranean archipelago earned a special place in our Queen’s heart after she and Prince Philip lived there for almost two years as young newlyweds from 1949 to 1951 when Elizabeth was still a princess.King George VI awarded its people the George Cross in recognition of their courage in the face of bombardment by German and Italian air forces during the early years of the Second World War.I had been intrigued by the islands’ mixed history since being mesmerised by a Maltese Cross-shaped, multi-coloured gemstone brooch owned by my grandma.
And these days, hordes of British holidaymakers are choosing to head here thanks to the destination’s beaches, blue waters and generous sunshine.Around 50 miles south of Sicily, Malta has been dubbed Europe’s Caribbean, yet is barely a three-hour flight away. It also offers great value for money and – that well-used phrase – offers something for everybody.Taking its name from the Phoenicians, who called it ‘Maleth’, meaning ‘refuge’, Malta has all manner of outdoorsy leisure activities, from snorkelling, diving and other water sports, to boat trips, golf and walking.
There’s nothing wrong with plonking yourself on a beach for a week, but there is also plenty of sightseeing, not least in the capital, Valletta, home to 320 historic monuments, allowing visitors to have both fly-and-flop relaxation and a bit of a city break, too.Designated European Capital of Culture 2018, Valletta was built as a fortress city by the Knights of St John after the Great Siege by Ottoman forces in 1565, and is named after Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, then leader of the military religious order.
It has a number of must-sees. St John’s Co-Cathedral, consecrated in 1578, is home to Caravaggio’s The Beheading Of John The Baptist, Malta’s most famous work of art. The Grim Reaper Memorial Stone, depicting a scythe-wielding skeleton, won’t make you feel any better. On an equally gruesome note, the Grand Master’s Palace houses 5,000 pieces of military hardware used for inflicting injuries on the enemy.
Fortunately, lunch will cheer you up. Malta is finding delight in its traditional cuisine, so tuck into fenek (rabbit) and torta tal-lampuki (fish pie). Malta has scrummy bread and savoury pastries, too.To wash it down, there’s local lager, pale ale and Maltese wine if you’re feeling adventurous.Festivals celebrate fireworks, food, fashion, flowers and art, and Jess Glynne appears at this year’s free summer music festival, Isle of MTV Malta in Il-Fosos Square, Floriana, on June 28.
The list of celebrities who have stayed on Malta is huge – thanks to the destination’s thriving movie industry. Blockbusters filmed here include Gladiator (Russell Crowe), Troy (Brad Pitt) and The Count Of Monte Cristo (Guy Pearce). So keep your eyes open – you never know who might stroll past.
The town of Sliema is home to the four-star Fortina Hotel and five-star Fortina Spa Resort, which have great views of Valletta across the water. These sister hotels are renowned for their spa facilities, or there’s always a little retail therapy – island souvenirs include pottery, lace, glass and leather goods. Or perhaps see if you can find yourself a Maltese Cross brooch.