Just south of Sicily and north of Tunisia, Malta has the most historic sites per square foot than any other country in Europe. “It’s a small country and densely populated. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to see. From pre-historic temples, centuries-old fishing villages and fortresses reminding us of Malta’s strategic importance during world conflicts, Malta literally offers something for everyone,” said Mark.
Why Malta? “We’ve been thinking about finding a relatively safe haven if the political and cultural tone of our country doesn’t change dramatically,” said Bill, “and we thought we’d take a look at places where we might enjoy spending time. LGBT rights and marriage equality are enshrined in Malta’s constitution, the cost of living is low, the climate and cuisine are Mediterranean and English is one of two official languages.”
Bill and Mark learned a lot about Malta during their brief visit. Malta served as a springboard for opera artistes in its famed opera house, which was one of the 30,000 structures destroyed by Axis bombing during WW II. After years-long discussions about rebuilding the venue, it was decided that the impressive ruin should remain as a reminder of the devastation of war. It has been retrofitted to host outdoor concerts and events in good weather, which in Malta is nearly 328 days of sunshine each year.
The biggest and most abiding historic influence in Malta’s history has been the Knights of St. John, which was founded as an organization of caregivers who established and ran hospitals in Jerusalem during the Crusades. They were driven out by the Arabs and finally settled on Malta where their Grand Master ran the government. They continued to run hospitals, but became a very strong and potent political force. They are sometimes confused with The Knights of Malta, who were military in nature and don’t seem to hold the same importance to the island nation’s history.
Malta is so picturesque that it’s served as film locations for such movies as Robin Williams’ Popeye, Midnight Express and Russell Crowe’s Gladiator in which an ancient island fortress was used for the combat arena.
Malta’s culinary culture and history were of particular interest to Mark who used to be a restaurant reviewer and food writer. Rabbit and octopus are two items found in some form on most every menu and Italian, North African and French influences abound. A very popular sweet treat from street vendors is the Imqaret a pastry like a giant fig newton, but filled with date paste instead of fig. Distinctive and delicious Maltese bread, which is known for its wonderfully crunchy crust and light crumb, is highly perishable and considered unusable the day after baking.
The landscapes are amazing. Malta, the main and largest island, and its capital Valetta, are very hilly, in fact everything is on a hill – and we mean everything! If you’re not within a block of the seafront, prepare to channel your inner mountain goat because you’re going for a hike uphill or downhill to get anywhere. Another island, Gozzo, popular with expats and retirees, has gorgeous rolling hills of vineyards, lemon and olive groves alongside giant cactus and wild bamboo which grows everywhere and is used to construct windbreak fences for citrus trees.