We visited the Mediterranean country of Malta to attend its colourful Pride festival and explore the beauty of its landscape and architecture.
Malta is composed of three inhabited islands – Malta (the largest), Gozo, and Comino.
The country is probably best known for its abundance of churches; there are more than 300 Catholic churches on the islands, or almost three per square mile. Many of the country’s churches display two clocks on their exterior. The clock on the right shows the correct time, while the one on the left is always incorrect, in order to confuse the devil so he does not disturb mass. This is just one of many quirks that makes Malta a truly unique set of Mediterranean islands.
We stayed at the Fortina Spa Resort in Sliema, a town in the east of Malta. The five star resort boasts an on-site spa with everything from manicures and massages to holistic bathing rituals. The rooms showcase an astonishing view of Manoel Island, which was historically used as a quarantine zone for those infected with the plague.
The entire island of Malta is surrounded in the most opulent baroque architecture. Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a prime example of this ornate beauty. The Co-Cathedral is the burial place of many of the Knights from the Order of Saint John, who ruled over Malta for more than 250 years. Its marble floors, carved stone walls, and painted ceilings are so intricate and stunning that you find yourself questioning how all of it could’ve been done by hand.
One of the most notable things about Malta is the care that is put into preserving its history. Monuments and statues are extremely well-maintained by Heritage Malta and historical sites are free from tourist traps. An oratory in the Co-Cathedral is home to several paintings by Caravaggio, most notably The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The experience of seeing these magnificent paintings is made even more special by the fact that photography is not permitted.
Valletta was struck particularly badly in the Second World War. The Royal Opera House was almost entirely destroyed in the carnage caused by the bombing campaign. A few of the building’s walls still stand and the area is used as an open air theatre.
Malta was a British colony until it gained independence in 1964, though there are lingering reminders of Britain everywhere you go – from the three-pronged plug sockets to the presence of M&S and Costa on the streets of Valletta.
“The parade was greeted with waves as RuPaul echoed down the streets of Valletta.”
In a departure from the bustle of Valletta, we visited the fortified city of Mdina; which has a population of less than 300. The stillness of Mdina is particularly evident in the evening – when the city’s towering walls seem to block out the world outside. Game of Thrones fans will recognise parts of Mdina from the show’s first season – when the city was used for scenes set in King’s Landing.
Production of Game of Thrones has since moved to Croatia, but Malta remains a hub for filmmaking. Films like Troy and World War Z have been shot there, while Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt used the island as the backdrop for their film By the Sea. The notorious 2002 Guy Ritchie/ Madonna feature Swept Away was also filmed in Malta. It’s rumoured that Madonna fell in love with a house in Mdina, but the owner was unwilling to sell and rejected her astronomically-high offers.
Malta Pride is a fairly new event – only approaching its fourth year in 2017. However, in this short time, it has grown from 80 participants to almost 1,000. The parade, complete with a float ridden by drag queens in wedding dresses and an open-top bus decorated with rainbow flags and balloons, was greeted with waves from passers by and shop owners who temporarily left their stations to take a look at the action as Madonna and RuPaul echoed down the streets of Valletta.
In the UK we’ve come to expect throngs off people and rainbow flags as far as the eye can see, with some corporate sponsorship thrown in for good measure. The appeal of Malta Pride is in its simplicity.
It was political, with the aforementioned float a protest against the government’s lack of action on same-sex marriage.
The parade was followed by a concert hosted by British drag queen and The Voice UK contestant Divina De Campo – then on to the nightclub Aria to dance the night away.
Any Mediterranean trip would not be complete without sampling some fresh fish. At Caviar & Bull, the fish is covered in a thick layer of sea salt and baked. It’s then brought to the table by a waiter who sets it on fire, chips away the salt, filets the fish and serves it to you. The theatrics only add to the splendour of the fish, which is irresistibly fresh. If you aren’t a fan of fish, the restaurant boasts everything from tacos to curry.
Malta is well known for its wines, which have become more popular around Europe since Malta become a Member of the European Union in 2004. Marsovin is the largest producer of wines in the country. They have a variety of wines, made from 100% locally grown grapes. Their 1919 wine – named after the year in which the company was established – is notable for its ever-changing label, which is redesigned every year by a different artist. They also host the Marsovin Summer Wine Festival, which takes place in Hastings Gardens, Valletta and boasts some of the best views on the island.
Malta may be small when compared to its Mediterranean neighbours, but it certainly does not disappoint. With spectacular cuisine and wine to the astonishing visuals of its landscape, Malta’s growth and popularity will only increase as Valletta will be a European Capital of Culture in 2018.
Rooms at the Hotel Fortina start from £125 per night based on two adults sharing a Deluxe Garden View Room.
Return flights from London Gatwick to Malta start from £80 with EasyJet. To book visithotelfortina.com andeasyjet.com/en.
For more information about the Maltese archipelago visitmaltauk.com. Malta Pride takes place on 17 June, maltapride.org.