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Review: Malta

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Malta

Impressions and brief report of five days in Malta

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2341 reviews

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  • May 2012
  • Husband

53 people found this review helpful

We spent 4 nights in Valletta, stopping at Hotel Phoenicia after a week in Gozo, booked through Headwater. In retrospect it would have been better to have visited Malta first. After Gozo, it felt busy, congested and very built up. We didn’t like it as much.

With only five days we had to be very selective in what we could do. We allocated a day for the Hypogeum and Tarxien Temples, a day for Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, a day for Mdina and Rabat. The rest of the time we spent in Valletta and Floriana.

The Phoenicia Hotel was a good choice. It is actually in Floriana, just outside the main City Gate into Valletta and a few minutes walk from the centre. It is next to the bus station. There is a taxi rank outside the door and horse drawn tourist carts wait under the shade of the trees. In May 2012 there was a lot of restoration work on the fortifications at the entrance to Valletta and this area was dusty and noisy.

We planned to use the buses on Malta. The bus service is now run by Arriva Malta with a fleet of low level buses. The old buses beloved of male anoraks of a certain age have been pensioned off. There are new route numbers and timetables so information in guide books may be out of date.

This was a sensible decision as driving in the built up areas along the east and north coasts would be no fun. Traffic is heavy, there are parked cars along both sides of the road leaving little space for moving traffic and there is little or no advance signing.

A daily ticket costs €2.60. Buses start running between 5-6am and the last bus is usually 11-11.30pm. The buses are frequent and run at the same times each hour. There is an excellent Sunday service. Bus stops clearly indicate the service number and route. There is a timetable displayed although times on this may bear no relationship to those given by the information desk at Valletta bus station. There is a 10 or 15 minute services between main towns. However, at busy times time keeping can be a problem and at 5pm in the evening we waited 40 minutes at Rabat for a bus to Valletta. Then four arrived in quick succession.

Malta is a popular tourist destination and the east coast is very built up with a lot of new development. Flying into Malta, you realise just how built up this area is. Much of the development is unattractive cramming in as many buildings as possible into the smallest possible space. Many cruise ships call into Malta, especially Valletta, disgorging several hundred visitors. Streets are narrow and large tour groups add to the congestion.

Being the capital there is plenty to do and see in Valletta. This was built by the Knights of St John in the 16thC and the streets are arranged in a grid pattern so it is easy to find your way around. Triq ir-Republika is the main street with shops and eateries. Side streets drop steeply down to the shore. Buildings were large and grand although once away from Triq ir-Republika some areas are now very run down and uncared for.

St John’s Co-Cathedral is a major tourist attraction. There are long queues and the inside can be packed with people although fewer people visit the museum. The best time to visit is either when it opens, or towards the end of the afternoon when crowds are less. First impressions are jaw dropping with lavish decoration and lots of gold paint, although the marble memorial stones on the floor were either hidden by chairs are covered by carpets. When we visited several of the side chapels were shut for restoration.

There are many churches in Valletta. None of them get the crowds of the Cathedral. Each is different and all repaid visiting. St Paul Shipwreck is a large and splendid building which contains a reliquary with a wrist bone of St Paul and a piece of marble pillar on which he was executed. St Francis is smaller scale but beautiful with elaborate carvings and paintings. The Jesuit Church is completely different, large and fairly plain. The small Church of St Catherine of Italy has only recently reopened after ten years of restoration. Few people find this and the priest is very proud of the work and delighted to see visitors. Our Lady of Carmel was rebuilt after WW2 and is a large oval building with a dome. Compared with many other churches it is very plain inside. The Anglican cathedral has a very English feel to it.

Just down the road is the Grand Master’s Palace and Armouries, another worthwhile visit, especially the armouries. The armour reflected the wealth and power of the owner. On their death, the knight’s armour became the property of the order. Some of the armour is covered with elaborately etched patterns and the horse had a set of matching armour too.

The west coast is less well developed and much nicer. There is open countryside with good scenery and some agriculture. Settlements are a lot smaller with less modern development. If we visited again we would seriously consider basing ourselves here, concentrating on this are and hiring a car.

Mdina, the old capital with Rabat next to it are much more attractive than Valletta. Again, these are popular with day visitors so it is worth planning to be in Mdina early. The cathedral is worth visiting. It is a smaller and less lavish version of St John’s. The elaborate marble memorial stones on the floor are not protected by carpets and can be seen better. A short distance beyond is the Carmelite Priory Museum, another fascinating visit taking you into the kitchens, chapter house, monk’s cell and the church. This gets few visitors and was a highlight of our stop in Malta.

Rabat is a short walk from Mdina. One of the highlights here are the Catacombs. Plan your visit to try and avoid the crowds as the passageways are narrow. You wander round St Paul’s Catacombs by yourself with a audioguide. They covered an extensive area and you can see more passageways and tombs disappearing into the darkness. Photographs are allowed. St Agnes Catacombs are visited by guided tour only and no photographs are allowed. The highlight here is the underground crypt to St Agnes with its beautiful 13thC frescoes. This is followed by a brief tour of the catacombs.

Domus Romana is well worth a visit. The remains of a Roman house have been excavated and there are some excellent mosaics as well as an interesting small museum with examples of glassware, pottery etc.

Maltese history goes back a long way and one of the major tourist attractions is Hal Saflieni, the Hypogeum. This is an amazing site dating back to 2500BC. It is made up of a series of underground chambers with domed ceilings, recesses and doorways. In places there are the remains of circular painted decorations. It is unique and a World heritage Site. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled and places are booked up several weeks in advance.

Close by is Tarxien Temple dating from 3500-2500BC. This is spoilt by over enthusiastic restoration in the 1960s when stones were covered with concrete to protect them. Much more enjoyable are the two temples on the west coast, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra.

For anyone interested in archaeology and ancient history, a visit to the Archaeology Museum in Valletta is a must. Many of the carved stones from the temples are kept here along with displays of artefacts including statues of the ‘fat ladies’.

I have written a series of detailed reviews for all the places we visited.

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