As travellers and nomads who go out to explore the world and discover it, I believe we can all agree on one universal fact: each place is as unique as its name. I can tell you all the reasons why every single city on my latest trip is different; from Istanbul to Mykonos, to Sicily and Catania, Rome, Venice and Florence, and of course, Malta. But something about Malta makes it stand out among this line-up: its unlikelihood.
I didn’t know anything about Malta before my visit: a rock of extravagant beauty, isolated in the middle of the Mediterranean, home to one whole country, unheard of and unknown by many, visited by few, maybe heard about once or twice in movies or TV. I first heard of it on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. And then it turned out that Malta is one of the most beautiful places in Europe, which despite its tiny size played a crucial role in some of the most important historical events of the Mediterranean.
“Never was there a more unlikely place upon which the fate of empires would hinge.”
What is it like to arrive in Malta?
A tiny and coarse island, a mere six leagues long by three wide, no bigger in that great sea than a grain of sand upon a beach, yet O –what a grain!
What fortunes turned upon it!”
Let me paint you a picture: you’re arriving from the sea in the early hours of morning. The bright sun illuminates the day, blinding to waking eyes. When the haze clears, a golden city greets you, rising from the deep blue sea. Hundreds of buildings carved and built from this particular glowing rock, thousands of colourful doors and windowsills that pop out among the labyrinthine alleys. Both a fortress and a home, tall walls surrounding the rock once inhabited by the ancients, then the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs and Islamic desert nomads, the Christians, the Germans and the French, the Aragonese and the Spaniards, the Knights of St. John…
Malta is a place of culture clashes and marriages, where nothing is just from one place or another, but everything belongs to all over. Its language is a beautiful jumble of Arabic, Semitic and Italian and its food a mixture of tastes, textures and colours from near and faraway lands.
To many, the island is reminiscent of a fairytale kingdom like Lilliput, the setting of Gulliver the Giant’s adventure. And it is full of spots that would narrate great stories and tales: temples, ruins, hidden coves and perfect coasts, dramatic limestone cliffs, sheltered bays, busy marinas, underwater caves and shipwrecks, watchtowers, fishing boats with painted eyes, and its elegant, dream-like capital, Valletta.
Malta will make you lose your mind. It may just be the most underrated country in all of Europe. It is the epitome of culture convergence: somehow Western, somehow Eastern, a mixture of all worlds. Buildings covered in artwork from the world’s masters. The timeless decadence of its streets and balconies, the way it looks like it’s crumbling and holding itself up at the same time.
And just as unlikely as the place itself, you will find yourself surprised, because although this is a country where the past of many civilisations comes together, it is also a country that juxtaposes our present and future with history and time. In between tiny balcony-lined alleys and market-filled streets, you will walk into open spaces taken over by the modern’s worlds great artist making ode to this fantastic realm in the best way they know how. You may be shocked, but these masterful buildings dance in perfect harmony with the city’s ancient elegance.
You can get lost in this city, and you should. Let it take over, let it guide you. Visit the Three Cities and its paradisiacal beaches, take the ferry to the harbour, wander the museums and go underground to the temples, look out at the world from the hilltops and the villages.
Yes, this amazing place should be on your Bucket List, because although you can read extensively about its beauty and culture, and look at thousands of photographs, the experience of a place like Malta, one unlike any other, will take your breath away.
So, shall we meet in Malta?
Quotes from David Bell's The Sword and the Scimitar.