Last month we spent a weekend in Malta, visiting friends.
Malta is a small island country, located in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and the North African coast. It’s a compact archipelago, at around 122 square miles, and is one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries. It’s also very pretty, has a lovely climate, and has a long and interesting history.
Here are a few snapshots from our visit, along with some facts about Malta that we learned during our stay…
This was actually our second trip to Malta. We first visited back in 2010, and on both occasions we came to visit our good friends who live on the island. This time we stayed in a beautiful Airbnb in Mellieha, overlooking the ocean. It was sublimely relaxing, and the perfect place to catch up with old friends.
On our previous visit we stayed in Valletta, the capital city. Valletta, is actually the smallest national capital in the European Union, at only 0.3 square miles. It was, however, the first planned European city, designed in 1565 by the Knights of St John. It’s incredibly beautiful and, according to UNESCO, is ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’.
When we were exploring the island on foot, it really did feel like there was an incredibly old and striking building or monument around every turn. So much of the landscape in Malta is dotted with beautifully maintained ancient limestone architecture, frequently set against a striking backdrop of blue sky, ocean or rugged coast.
Apparently there are 359 churches in Malta, which is pretty incredible when you consider the country’s compact size.
Over the centuries, Malta has been occupied and ruled by a succession of powers including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British. This melting pot of influences is apparent in various aspects of the country’s culture, including in it’s language.
Maltese, the national language of Malta, is the only Semitic language in the European Union, and is descended from an ancient form of Arabic that developed in Sicily.
Listening to locals chat on our recent visit, I noticed that a lot of the words being used were also words in Italian and English. It was interesting to learn that “the original Semitic base… comprises around one-third of the Maltese vocabulary… but about half of the vocabulary is derived from standard Italian and Sicilian; and English words make up between 6% and 20% of the vocabulary” (via Wikipedia). So the language really is a mash-up of cultural influences!
A highlight of our trip was visiting the ancient fortified city of Mdina, which was Malta’s capital from antiquity to the medieval period.
Today, Mdina has a population of 300 residents, and property prices within the walled city are apparently very high.
Cars are not allowed inside Mdina (expect for a few residents and emergency vehicles), so we decided to explore the city in a guided horse drawn carriage.
Exploring the narrow, ancient streets of Mdina was an incredible experience. The area has been immaculately preserved, and around every corner there is another magnificent building or square. We stopped for a coffee at a hotel within the city walls, and popped into a couple of lovely boutiques.
Malta is a great destination for anyone interested in ancient history; the island is packed with relics, including seven megalithic temples, two of which are over 1,000 years older than Stonehenge or the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
The country’s vast and varied history is fascinating, and we felt very immersed in heritage by virtue of the density of ancient architecture and monuments on the island. We’d love to return and explore the country more! I’ve heard there are also some great vineyards to visit for a wine tasting ;-)