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MALTA: The Small Wonder

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August 13, 2015 by marksetchfield

MALTAIt might be a dot in the Mediterranean sea, but I discover that Malta is perfect for some fun in the sun, retail therapy and a lesson in history

I’d heard Malta was a lovely holiday spot. Growing up in the UK, I remember as a child my friends would boast about their trips to the island, while I was camping on the east coast of England. I have to admit, I’ve never been very good at geography. So when I found out I’d finally be visiting the island, I decided to look it up on the internet. It took me a while, but there it was – a small European island in the Mediterranean sea, south of the island of Sicily.
An archipelago of seven islands, Malta is the largest of the three inhabited ones. The other two are Gozo, which is rural compared to Malta, and Comino, which was uninhabited for a long time and used by pirates as a resting place until the 17th century.
Flying into the island you get a real sense of how small it is. Malta joined the European Union in May 2004 and its economy is largely dependent on tourism; I was shocked to find everything is imported – from water to electricity.

SAM_0881As the island has so much cultural diversity, with strong European and Arabic influences, it’s hard to figure out its identity. The capital city, Valletta, one of the smallest capitals in Europe, is dotted with red telephone boxes and post boxes that remind me of London, but it has street names that are a mix of Italian, English and Arabic. But what is clearly evident is the lasting impact British rule has had on the country. Even after gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Malta adopted not only the British system of administration, education and legislation but driving rules as well; yes, on the left-hand side.

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But driving is not how you should explore the Valletta; walking is. Armed with my camera, I headed out from the Grand Hotel Excelsior, which is one of Malta’s biggest and most central hotels with more than 300 rooms. Its location is popular with tourists and celebrities alike; and the manager Norbert Grixti said Lady Gaga and Rita Ora have visited. The city rises up from the sea, and is enclosed by huge defence walls. As I sweated my way uphill, I was overtaken by one of the many horse-drawn carriages you can ride in, that trundle up to the city’s edge.
As I looked around, I realized the spot gave me a spectacular 360-degree view of the city’s skyline. With historical buildings on one side that seemed as if they were stacked one on top of the other, and the very modern port on the other, I felt as if I had a panoramic view of time travel. All that climbing up made me hungry and I decided to have lunch at a small open-air café. Satisfied after my huge fresh seafood salad, I walked back into the centre of Valletta. Its narrow steep streets can be challenging but I was on a shopping mission as I wanted to get my hands on some souvenirs.

There are daily craft markets and art fairs around the city but they are open only from 8am to lunchtime. Since they had already closed, I decided to return the following day. And I was not disappointed. From exquisite handmade lace to beautiful handcrafted gold and silver filigree jewellery, the place was retail haven. What made it all the more fascinating, apart from the haggling, was watching the gold and silversmiths create their masterpieces. The silversmith’s shop on Republic Street is a good example of where you can watch the proprietor at work. But it wasn’t jewellery I was after, it was shoes. I was completely taken by the leather goods, particularly the Italian-styled shoes that were not only great value for money but well made too. Then I thought of the huge number of pairs that already occupy my shoe rack and decided not to give in to my impulse.

On the waterfront, there are several craft shops that are famous for their pottery and glass works. The Forni Shopping Complex is home to a host of designer shops such as Singular, Bijoux Terner and Sterling. It’s not just shops the city has to offer. It has a lot of open space and small squares, where you can relax with a coffee. They’re ideal if you want to watch the city pass you by. With average temperatures in the late 20s, it’s great to sit outside and absorb the busy vibe of the city. After having absorbed the beauty of Malta from inland, I decided I wanted to view it from the sea. Since the island is only 42 kilometres long, I was told I could take a 40-minute boat ride to take me around it. After a sumptuous lunch of seabass and calamari at Scoglitti restaurant, which is famous for its seafood, I boarded a 5.5 metre-long yacht to get another perspective on the skyline and then eventually go to the neighbouring island of Gozo.

SAM_0876Soon the delicious lunch and the fresh breeze began to work their magic and I kicked back and closed my eyes, thinking everybody should have a yacht. For those who don’t have the stomach for sailing, there are ferries that run all day between Malta and Gozo. They take half the time, too. But I was in no hurry as I was enjoying the spectacular view of the aqua blue water and a sky that had hues to match. It was simply breathtaking. The skipper dropped the anchor and we were gently bobbing up and down. While some of my fellow passengers took to the water, I used the time to capture the glittering coastline of Gozo on film. Tempting as the water appeared, it also looked cold. After 30 minutes the skipper switched on the engine and we gently headed back out to sea. It was a 30-minute journey back to Valletta port but we were given the VIP treatment and were going to dock at the Excelsior’s private jetty.

So I kicked back on the deck and relaxed and followed the coastline back to Malta. Wanting to find out more about Malta I was invited to meet hotel manager Norbert Grixti, who was born and raised on the island. He took great pride in explaining its history and how European and Middle Eastern influences have had an impact on the country’s food, culture and language. In sharp contrast to the historical architecture of Valletta, Dubai-based developers Tecom Investments have begun the construction of Smart City in Malta, with strong design influences from Dubai’s Jumeriah Lakes Towers and Marina Walk.

SAM_0904A 20-minute drive from Valletta, which allows you to take in the stunning countryside, spectacular views and sprawling vineyards, Smart City will be a brand new mini city, close to the sea and will be a mix of residential, educational and business buildings. The developers hope to transform the Ricasoli Industrial Estate into a state-of-the-art information technology and media city that is inspired by Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City. The project was unveiled in September 2007 by the former Prime Minister of Malta, Lawrence Gonzi. It covers 360,000 square metres, will cost at least €275 million (about Dh1.35 billion) and should be completed by 2021. One attraction it already has is a fountain. Designed by the same people who made the one in Downtown, as well as the fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, this one is small, but charming nevertheless. Five minutes from Smart City is Rinella Movie Park, where you can still see some of the original film sets. Malta is a popular destination for movies. Film producers from across the world have used it as a location for the past four decades. From the 1970s’ Alan Parker’s epic Midnight Express to recent blockbusters such as Gladiator and Troy, they were all filmed in Malta.

You can still see the replica of the Colosseum that was built for Gladiator in 1999 at Fort Ricasoli on the eastern arm of Grand Harbour. The Norwegian film Kon-Tiki, which was based on the life of Thor Heyerdahl, an adventurer who crossed the Pacific Ocean on a raft in 1947, was also shot mainly in Malta. It was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at last year’s Academy Awards. To really understand the history of the island and experience a 5D movie, (yes there is such a thing) visit Malta 5D. It is initially nerve-racking, considering I am not used to being tossed around by my movie seat and having water sprayed on me and blasts of air catching me unaware, but once I got into my adventure mode, I enjoyed it immensely.

A 15-minute movie takes you through the history of this remarkable place. It is then that you realise how much it has suffered at the hands of invaders. I felt sorry for the island and its people for the way it has repeatedly been battered, bombed and invaded. But the island has always bounced back, risen from the ashes in true Hollywood style. As my visit to the tiny yet beautiful country drew to a close, I realised my experience of Malta might be short but I was taking memories that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Whether it was its rich history, delicious food or natural wonders, it has a lot to offer. The Maltese people are rightly very proud of their island. Flying back to Dubai, as I looked down from the aeroplane’s window, I promised myself, “Now that I know where you are Malta, I’ll see you soon.” And a man can never have enough pairs of shoes, right? So until next time…

Words and pictures: Mark Setchfield

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Original feature for Friday Magazine, UAE

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