Mediterranean island now directly accessible from Cork Airport
TO coincide with the start of Ryanair’s new route from Cork to Malta in April, we were part of a group of journalists hosted by the Malta Tourism Authority to sample the myriad attractions this historic island in the middle of the Mediterranean has to offer.
With reasonably-priced flights to Malta from Cork Airport and back twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, people in the south west may avail of weekend, midweek, week-long or longer breaks to the Maltese archipelago, which includes the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino.
The biggest of these is Malta where we were treated to a luxury stay in the five-star Phoenicia Hotel in the pristine capital city of Valletta, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and was the European Capital of Culture in 2018.
The hotel is located off a plaza immediately outside the main gate of the heavily-fortified city which has had quite a turbulent history over the centuries because of its key location, less than 100km south of Sicily and 300km north of Africa.
Valletta is laid out in a grid formation, like a smaller, hilly version of Manhattan, making it easy to find one’s way around and soak up its rich heritage.
The first thing one notices after entering the city gate from The Mall is a replica of the Iron Throne, which has a seemingly never-ending queue of people wanting to be photographed sitting on it. Some scenes for Game of Thrones were shot in the impressive medieval city of Mdina, the former capital of Malta, which we also visited.
In Valletta, we were shown the modern recently-built Parliament House – politics is an obsession with the Maltese people who seem a friendly lot – before being brought by our guide, Maria, to the new Museum of Art, MUZA, which is green-powered and represents best practice in renovating an historic Maltese building. Then we visited the elaborately and expensively-decorated baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral and museum, built in the late 16th century, with works of art by Mattia Preti and Caravaggio’s only signed painting, ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist.’
Malta boasts 300 days of sunshine every year, but we got only one of those during the three days we were there – locals telling us that their normal weather patterns have also gone awry in recent years with a lot more storms – however temperatures get up to around 30 degrees Celsius in July and August.
Our short crossing from Valletta waterfront to the Three Cities in a small ‘dghajsa,’ a typical Maltese gondola-shaped boat, was a bit wet and windy and tested our sea legs, but we got there!
One of the highlights of the visit was our ‘Rolling Geeks’ tour of the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua.
The ‘Rolling Geeks’ are small electric jeeps that carry up to four people and can be hired out from €65 – a driver can be provided or you can drive one yourself, but you must produce a full driving licence.
The jeeps are linked to GPS and the onboard commentary gives directions and a description of the various sites on the tour, which can be as long as 18km. In Malta, they also drive on the left-hand side of the road (the country has the same three-pin plug sockets we have too) and even if you break down or get lost, they can track you down easily. Well worth doing, see www.rolling-geeks.com
We spent the most of a day – the sunny one we got – on the largely-rural island of Gozo, just a 25-minute ferry crossing from Malta with the return trip costing just €4.65, a fraction of the cost of getting to West Cork’s offshore islands. On Gozo, as here at home, the natives like to live life at a more laid-back pace.
Among the places we visited were the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ggantija Temples which are the oldest freestanding structures in the world dating from the third millennium BC and excavated from 1816 to 1820. There were also the Qbajjar Salt Pans, which date back from Roman times, painstakingly carved out from the natural limestone rock to make collection pits for salt water to evaporate.
We went to Ramla Bay to the largest sandy beach on Gozo – but it was too cold for swimming then! All the settlements on Gozo were either down by the coast or high up on hills and we went to the remote Ta Mena Estate where we sampled and learned about local food, wines, olive oil and liqueurs.
We did not get to the smallest island of Comino, but back in Malta we looked in on Popeye’s village, the set of the movie, starring the late Robin Williams in the title role, which was left there after filming in 1980 as a tourist attraction.
There were so many other things to see and do across the islands that one need never be bored and other recommended places not already mentioned include St Julian’s, Bugibba, Qawra, Sliema and Golden Sands Beach.
Back at the Phoenicia Hotel, director of sales Rob Bruno told us that a new niche market for the hotel is wedding groups from Ireland and the packages they offer include arranging everything from the church or civil ceremony to the reception.