Sunday, 9 October 2016

The exotic in Europe: Malta

If you drew a line from Gibraltar until the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, on the northern coast of Syria, the middle point would fall very close to Malta. With a Semitic language but firmly within Europe, besieged by the Turks but never conquered by them, this small island country can be considered a dividing point between Europe and North Africa, not to mention between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.

A downhill street in Valletta
For the European visitor Malta is exotic and yet familiar. The architecture resembles that of North Africa, with cream-coloured houses and flat roofs, except that there are Catholic churches everywhere. Imagine a mix of cultures that rarely speak together: Italian, Arabic and a sprinkle of British. A British phone booth with on the background  a palm tree, or a Sicilian cannolo sold next to a fish and chips restaurant. Not to mention the typical and incredibly photogenic Maltese balcony, a sort of southern European version of the British bow-window.

A phone booth in Marsaxlokk
Invaded by many countries and once home to the multinational Order of the Knights of Saint John, Malta is used to mixing cultures and languages in a natural way. In Malta there is a lot of history, ranging from incredibly-fascinating prehistoric temples to opulent Baroque churches, but also natural beauty and a rich food culture. The island is small but it is ideal for a relaxing holiday, where you can throw in a little bit of everything, from beach days to museums and even a little bit of hiking.

The  Azure Window in Gozo

You never need more than one hour to reach any place on the island, even if you use the excellent public buses. This allows you to base yourself in one place and then explore with liberty. The tiny capital of Valletta is a treasure hunt for cultural sites, from Caravaggio paintings to the knight's armoury. The ancient capital of Mdina, nicknamed the silent city, is full of picturesque corners, while the smaller island of Gozo - easily reachable by ferry - is  famous for its natural beauty and more relaxed atmosphere.

A church in Gozo

Malta is an ideal destination for a varied holiday, and moreover it is easily reached with a Ryanair flight, it has euro and everybody speaks English. In spite of the proximity to Italy, I discovered an extremely rich culture and a history that I almost completely ignored. Did you know, for example, that Saint Paul got shipwrecked in Malta and personally started the evangelisation of this island? Or that the Order of Saint John, founded at the time of the crusades, established itself in Malta and successfully managed to stop the Turkish invasion of the island in what is called the Great Siege of Malta?

A peaceful corner of Mdina, the old capital

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