The three islands which make up what is officially known as the Republic of Malta are perfectly set in the azure heart of the Mediterranean.
Sun-kissed and blessed with the prettiest of towns and villages, dotted with medieval towers, wayside chapels and three stunning UNESCO World Heritage sites, Malta has long, and justifiably, been a magnet for visitors.
Malta itself is the largest island and the cultural, commercial and administrative centre as well as the bustling focus of tourism, while the second largest island, Gozo, is more rural, characterised by fishing, crafts, agriculture and a more laid-back style of tourism. Comino, the smallest of the trio, has just one hotel and is largely uninhabited, making it the perfect choice for tourists with a sense of adventure and a taste for quiet, contemplative days by the sea.
The official languages here are English (makes life so easy!) and Maltese. If you’re a quiz fan or simply have a taste for quirky facts, it will please you immeasurably to learn that Malti is the only Semitic language written in Latin characters ... and if that has sparked your curiosity, it is possible to attend holiday language schools to find out more and pick up at least a few words and phrases.
Malti is a treasured aspect of these islands’ rich culture, but evidence of its unique heritage abounds. While it is possible to visit Malta simply to enjoy its amazing beaches, great restaurants and vibrant night life, you’ll be missing a trick if you don’t seek to absorb some of its unique ‘back story’ too.
7,000 years of history have left their impression. Seven megalithic temples are found on the islands of Malta and Gozo, The two huge Bronze Age temples of Ġgantija on Gozo are the oldest, free-standing monuments in the world, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids of Giza by at least 1,000 years, while, on Malta, the temples of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien are unique architectural masterpieces of their day, now inscribed on the World Heritage List.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, discovered during construction works in 1902, is a rock-cut underground complex that was used both as a sanctuary as well as for burial purposes by the original temple builders. The three underground levels date from around 3600 to 2400 BC.
The capital of Malta, Valletta, is inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of St John of Jerusalem and you will see the distinctive Maltese cross everywhere. Built in1565, this heavily fortified city has hundreds of monuments, all within a relatively small space, making it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
The islands have almost one church for event day of the year - over 360 churches and chapels are scattered across the archipelago. The Maltese are among the oldest Christian peoples in the world and it was St. Paul, shipwrecked here as a captive on the way to Rome in A.D. 60, who first brought the Christian faith to Malta. His steps can be retraced in the shrines, grottos and catacombs of Rabat and in the ancient capital, Mdina.
Today historical re-enactments and local festivities keep the past alive, notably during the Summer season, These include the historical re-enactments 'In Guardia' and the Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of the Grandmasters’ Palace in Valletta.
Happily, heritage is very much part of daily life here and, if are looking for evidence of charming traditions kept alive then look no further than the harbours around the island where today’s fishing boats are still painted in wonderfully vibrant colours. Then enjoy a taste of the islands’ culinary traditions as you dine on the catch of the day in one of those superb little harbour-view cafés or in an elegant hill-top restaurant.
Past and present, Malta is magical. Find out more from the Malta Tourism Authority at Belfast Telegraph Holiday World, 18 – 20 January, or go to www.visitmalta.com