History of tiny Malta far outweighs its size
ZURRIEQ, Malta -- The danger of going to Malta for a relaxing vacation is that a history lesson might break out.
Frankly, the place even exceeds the limits of history, because we don't really know a lot about those people who built temples here that predate the pyramids by about 1,000 years. The people we do know about made the two main islands of Malta a destination as soon as mankind learned how to float boats in one direction. Its desirability for navigation makes sense, because it sits nearly equidistant from each end of the Mediterranean.
But Malta's history is not all ancient. It was such a strategic aggravation to Hitler, because of British guns and aircraft, that he did his best to reduce these chalky limestone islands to gravel with bombings several times a day during World War II.
Because war has so defined the place, the warmth of the Maltese toward strangers is all the more amazing. If you're lost, I know for a fact that they will gladly help you get found, and they will do it in English, thanks to a British past dating back two centuries, though now it's an independent and also Maltese-speaking country.
The lay of the land
Sitting 60 miles south of Sicily, the nation of Malta is about 122 square miles -- the size of Omaha, Neb. -- most of that on Malta, the biggest of the stunningly deforested handful of islands. Although its 408,000 people make it the most densely populated nation in the European Union, the main island actually has enough countryside to get lost in if you're driving, which I was.
I rented a walled villa in one of the oldest cities, Zurrieq (pronounced like Zurich), because I wanted a more genuine Maltese experience and not one more urban European visit. Honestly, though the capital, Valletta, is beautiful in its antiquity, if that's all you experience of Malta, you might as well pick any of half a dozen Italian cities for the same kind of vacation.
My favorite small town is the Norman city of Mdina (St. Paul's Cathedral and the gorgeous medieval Palazzo Falson house/museum). You probably could get your fill of ancient architecture in Valletta and environs, but Mdina is a fascinating, scenic place to walk, with immaculate, narrow stone streets built on a curve supposedly to make attackers' flights of arrows more difficult to strike home. There also is a fair share of shopping, so you will find that Maltese-cross pendant you didn't know you wanted.
The picture-perfect fishing port of Marsaxlokk (pronounced "marsa-shloke" and home to a fishing fleet and attendant great seafood) is near the airport and thus a great way to decompress whether coming or going. On a Saturday in Marsaxlokk, restaurants offer all kinds of alfresco dining. I eeny-meeny-miny-moed one of the tents arrayed along the harbor and had some of the best amberjack I've ever tasted (they call it acciola).
I liked Zurrieq for a different reason: Not a tourist town, it seemed the most genuinely Maltese. It's also where a shopkeeper -- a sweet man -- started crying when talking about the global economic downturn. Until that moment, I'd envied his situation in life. Turns out he envied mine.
The town seemed Italian, with old men gathering on the streets near dusk to talk about a day that was a lot like the one before. Meanwhile, the old women went into the main church, I think to pray for their old men outside.
I'm not a foodie, but the standard fare of Malta seemed bland for a country so close to Italy, where blindfolded you can find great restaurants. I'm sure there's great food here; I just didn't find it, with that one exception in Marsaxlokk.
The only chichi restaurant I wanted to try was the one in Mdina seemingly favored by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie when he was shooting a movie here in 2011 ("World War Z," set for release in 2013). The man answering the phone at De Mondion (tinyurl.com/csyq5r2) seemed stunned that I thought I could make a same-day reservation. I didn't try again.
Malta's national dishes are rabbit stew and lampuka (dolphin fish). I thought the "stew" part meant I would not see enough rabbit shape to discern that I was eating a bunny. But there that big leg sat. It wasn't bad, but I prefer fish. The lampuka was OK, but my serving was no big deal.
OK, the history
You could spend an eon visiting crypts, churches, museums. For a comprehensive history lesson in one 45-minute sitting, do it with a film, "The Malta Experience" (themaltaexperience.com) along the Grand Harbor in Valletta. See St. John's Co-Cathedral in central Valletta for jaw-dropping opulence. This place is integral to Maltese history's chief players: the Knights of Malta (the Crusades, the Maltese cross, etc.).
You should see at least one of the prehistoric temples. Some are on the smaller island of Gozo, requiring a ferry ride. I preferred the Hagar Qim Temple on the southwest coast of Malta, minutes west of Zurrieq. (How the heck did those guys quarry and transport a 20-ton stone?)
And spend a day in Mdina. The Normans did nice work. Trust me. History can make for a relaxing vacation.
Want to go?
Flying to Malta from the U.S. means you will have a connection. Mine was in Paris, requiring a 2 1/2-hour flight south. The cost was in line with most any European destination.
GETTING AROUND: Arriva Malta (arriva.com.mt) provides bus service all over Malta, including the airport. Daily and weekly passes are dirt-cheap. If driving, expect Italian-like intensity while driving on the left. GPS advised.
STAYING THERE: I rented through homeaway.com last October, but the Malta Tourism Authority provides a wide array of options at visitmalta.com. There you also find links to historic sites.