On a map of the Mediterranean Sea, if you let your eye fall to the centre – just South of Italy’s heel and to the West of the Mediterranean’s heart, you will find an enchanting archipelago comprising Malta, Gozo, and Comino, along with the smaller, uninhabited islands of Cominotto, Filfla and St.Paul.
Serving as the administrative capital for all the islands, Valletta is on Malta itself under the watchful gaze of impressive fortifications commissioned by the Knights of St. John in 1524. For such a small geographical area – the entire group covers only about 320 square kilometres/120 square miles – the population is relatively dense at around 350,000.
As is typically in the Mediterranean, Malta really has only two seasons - a hot, dry summer and a short, cool winter. The summer season runs from a windy April to a milder October, with average high temperatures on the year of 21° C/71° F. Average low temperatures, however, only drop to 9° C/49° F in January and February so it’s not surprising that the Republic’s climate was selected by International Living as the best in the world.
As is common with many Mediterranean island nations, Malta’s geographic position was beneficial for both trading and military purposes. That means the Maltese islands have a long and checkered past that stretches back to 5000 BC and includes periods of Vandal, Goth, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Genoan, Swabian, Angevin (French), Aragonese, Castilian and Saracen rule through to it’s present establishment as a republic in 1964.
More recently, however, Malta is noted more for its nightlife than its Norman past. Tour groups can assured of excellent dining and entertainment – along both modern and traditional lines.
Due to their location, the Maltese islands have frequently been in the middle of world events throughout history. In addition, they have hosted a number of visitors (welcome or otherwise) over that time. The Apostle Paul, for example, was shipwrecked on what is now known as the St. Paul’s Islands in 60 AD.
The events and the people over the years have left indelible marks and visitors can see history come alive at Baroque palaces, Napoleonic fortifications, Renaissance cathedrals and some of the oldest known human structures in the world. Malta is also home to the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, which was excavated in 2500 BC. It is currently the only prehistoric temple yet discovered and officially named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The legendary warmth that the Maltese have shown to visitors has been documented as far back as St. Paul’s unscheduled visit after being shipwrecked. The intervening 2000 years haven’t changed a thing. In fact, a local saying has it that foreigners are tourists only on their first visit. On the second, and all visits thereafter, they return as friends.
- Getting there: Air Malta is the republic’s flag carrier but a number of airlines fly to Malta International Airport (MLA) from many European hubs. The terminal has all the facilities expected of the modern traveler. A high speed passenger and vehicle catamaran ferry from Sicily is also a popular choice and takes about an hour and a half.
- Language: The national language is Maltese, which is realted to Arabic, but English (the official second language) and Italian are both widely spoken.
- Currency: Malta is in the Euro Zone. You can find conversion rates online. Automated Teller Machines are widely available and all major credit cards are accepted. Some foreign currency, especially United Kingdom Pounds, is accepted in some tourist areas.
- Tipping: Gratuities are not normally included and 10 percent is customary in restaurants, for taxis, etc. Housekeeping and room service are usually included in the bill.
- Car Hire: Renting a car is easy, inexpensive and a great way to explore the main islands. Driving is on the left and speed limits are enforced with speed cameras. Car rental companies will typically want to see both a driving licence and a passport prior to releasing a vehicle.