Friday 22 November 2019

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Cork Independent

Lifestyle & Leisure

Malta, a little piece of paradise

Wednesday, 10th July, 2019 4:50pm

Malta? They should call it Small-ta, and I mean that in the fondest and most endearing way imaginable. It’s a really fantastic spot.

Being Irish, and more specifically Corkonian, I like cosy spaces, friendly faces, walkable distances, culture, craic and sunshine, all of which are crammed in abundance into this Mediterranean paradise.

I was mad to see the place, and with Cork and Malta now directly connected thanks to Ryanair’s new route which opened in spring, I had no excuse not to take a quick press trip. So, excited by the country’s claims of a scorching 300 days of sunshine a year, I packed my bag and was out the gap.

The first thing that hits you after the relatively short flight, is of course the heat. Lying only 93km south of sunny Sicily and 288km north of the African coast, Malta has one of the warmest temperature averages in Europe.

We were lucky enough to be staying at the magnificent five star Phoenicia Malta Hotel. Sitting proud atop seven and a half acres of pristine gardens, and only a stone’s throw from the historic city walls in the capital city Valletta, the Phoenicia is one of Malta’s most luxurious establishments.

The hotel boasts an irresistible grandeur. The cool marble floors, the decadent lounge area, the sophisticated bar, all make you feel like you’re in a James Bond movie. My room was bright, spacious, calming and private.

The food in the hotel’s Phoenix Restaurant was outstanding with a carefully crafted menu combining the best local produce with international cuisine.

The Phoenicia Malta Hotel is a truly classy place.

Once rested, fed and watered, our first point of call was an amble through the impressive Valletta City Gate Project which incorporates the old city walls, the new Maltese parliament building, and an open-air theatre, all made from limestone and perfectly in keeping with the warm, off-white tones of the city.

The city of Valetta is a compact grid of intricate limestone architecture and bustling business and energy. Every time you turn a corner, you find more things to see and smell and touch and interesting people to speak to.

One place we stumbled upon was The Pub, a small English-style bar on Archbishop Street and by all accounts the spot where famous Hollywood actor Oliver Reed died during a heavy drinking session while filming ‘Gladiator’.

Thanks to its great weather and beautiful architecture, Malta has been the location for many movies and TV shows including ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Troy’ and ‘By the Sea’.

Before long we reached St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum, a church built between 1573 and 1577. A baroque work of art in its architecture and sculptures, the church boasts some of the most beautiful works of art by Mattia Preti as well as Caravaggio’s only signed painting.

We then headed for the more modern MUZA, Malta’s new Museum of Art which was the flagship project for Valletta’s European Capital City of Culture Title in 2018, a title Cork held in 2005. The entire museum is green-powered and generates all of its own energy needs. Well worth a visit.

Lunch was at the delicious and chic Noni Restaurant on Republic Street. I had rabbit for the first time in my life and I loved it. Combining Mediterranean and French cuisine, Noni will challenge and reward you.

A digestive walk was needed after lunch so we took a stroll around the city, taking in Saint Ursula Street, Victoria Gate and Saint Barbara Bastions which offered breath taking views of the harbour and the three fortified cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua.

We then took a ‘dghajsa’, which is a typical Maltese gondola shaped boat, across the harbour to the Three Cities where we embarked on what was one of the most enjoyable activities of the whole trip, a Rolling Geeks Tour of the Three Cities.

The Geeks are a type of kart, not unlike a golf kart, in which you can freely traverse the narrow streets and steep hills of the Three Cities to your heart’s content, guided remotely by the friendly staff back at the base. At €80 per car of four people for a 2.5 hour drive, it’s really not bad value at all.

The next day we were off to Gozo, but not before taking a quick look at the Popeye Village, a full-scale set used for the filming of the 1980 film starring Robin Williams. The set remains fully intact and attracts thousands of visitors.

Gozo is the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago and its charm is immediately apparent when you step off the ferry. It’s greener and more rural than Malta and life there moves at a more leisurely pace. First on the to-do list was the Ggantija Temples. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ggantija Temples are said to be the oldest freestanding structures in the world.

Next up was a visit to Ta Mena Estate which is a family-run establishment and claims to be the first agri-tourism complex in the Maltese Islands. There you can taste wines and cheeses and all manner of other foods all produced by traditional methods on the 25 acre estate.

On our last day we had a few hours to squeeze in a little more of Malta, and that we did. We set off for Mdina which was Malta’s first capital city and was also a colonial settlement of imperial Rome. Known as ‘The Silent City’, Mdina was used as a location for King’s Landing.

After that it was a short drive back to the airport and to Cork. I thoroughly enjoyed my short time in Malta and wish I could have stayed longer.

English is one of Malta’s official languages so communicating with locals is a breeze. Due to its small size, nothing is too far away in Malta. I would recommend giving yourself at least a week in order to see everything comfortably. Prices are great compared to Cork in terms of food and drink and €50 a day was more than enough for me. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen and you’re flying!

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