Find out about the history, culture and beach fun that Europe's small Maltese Islands have to offer family travelers.
Mickey Mouse lives in Disney World, but Popeye makes his home at Sweethaven Village. The actual film set of Robert Altman’s Popeye, the 1980 musical starring Robin Williams, is situated on the Mediterranean island of Malta, surrounded by 6,000 years of historic sights, great sandy beaches and loads of fun family attractions. The 196-square-mile Maltese Islands consist of Malta, Gozo, Comino and two uninhabited islands lying 100 kilometers from Sicily and 290 kilometers from Tunisia. Together, the islands have starred with Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Brad Pitt in Troy, to name only a few films that are sure to excite your teens.
The population of over 400,000 can trace their origins back to 4000 BC. Malta’s location nestled in the waters between Europe and Africa made control over this area a pre-requisite to domination of the Mediterranean Sea. Malta’s colonializers included the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, Knights of St. John, the French and lastly the British. Malta gained its independence in 1964 and became a republic 10 years later.
Malta’s Influential Past
The influences of Malta’s past are evident everywhere on the islands. The prehistoric Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a below ground, rock-cut city dating back to 3800 BC. The ruins, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are believed to have been an ancient necropolis.
The island’s Catholic faith dates back to the Apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked on Malta’s shores in AD 60. The language is Semitic, similar to Arabic, but with a hint of Romance. Much of the culture is inherited from the Knights of the Order of St. John who ruled the islands from 1530 for 268 years. The food is reflective of neighboring Italy, so pasta is plentiful. Malta’s deep sense of democracy and its second official language come from 150 years of British rule.
The history of Malta is rich, and its courageous people survived two great sieges: the first by the Turks in 1565 and the second in World War II. In 1942, the people of Malta were awarded for their valorous services to the war effort a plaque from US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the prestigious George Cross from England’s King George VI.
Experience Malta in Valletta
Malta’s many historic attractions are made easier for the entire family to understand, by a number of informative multi-visual presentations called “Experiences” — perfect to see before you start to explore on your own, so you can visit the sights of most interest to your family. After the victory over the Turks in the 16th century, the capital was moved from the ancient city of M’dina to the new fortified planned city of Valletta. A visit to Valletta should start with the Malta Experience (356/2124-3776; St. Elmo Bastions, Mediterranean Street, Valletta).
Valletta’s narrow streets are made for walking or better yet, climb up for a horse and buggy ride, much easier on a little one’s feet. Sights to see include St. John’s Co-Cathedral (356 2122 0536), formerly the conventional church of the Order of St. Johns and The Palace of the Grand Masters (356/2124-9349; Merchants Street, Valletta, VLT 04), now housing Malta’s Parliament and the Armory where kids can check out the heavy hardware the Knights wore in battle.
The Upper Barracca Gardens, once the private gardens of the Italian Knights, overlook the fortified towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, commonly referred to as the “Three Cities” across the Grand Harbour. This is an ideal place to rest everyone’s feet over a cool drink or cappuccino.
After a day of sightseeing, playtime or a picnic in the gardens is so relaxing. Captain Morgan Cruises (356/2346 3333) offers scenic, narrative ferry excursions around the harbour, as they’ve done for more than 30 years. It’s best to take the cruise later on in the day when the midday sun passes. Light refreshments are available for sale. Also be sure to check out the other cruise options that are available, such as the Underwater Safari and the full day Round Malta.
Valletta offers war history buffs an abundance of attractions including the Wartime Experience (+356 2122 7436), the National War Museum (356/2122-2430; Fort St. Elmo, Valletta, VLT 02) in St. Elmo and The Lascaris War Rooms, (356/2123-4936) the actual headquarters under Valletta’s fortified walls, where US General Eisenhower and British Lord Mountbatten planned their strategies against WWII’s Axis Powers. Families can walk from room to room and see the old equipment that was used to win the war. Wax figures depicting the period now stand where our courageous soldiers once stood. (Editor’s Note: Both the National War Museum and the Lascaris War Rooms are both closed until further notice).
Medieval Malta in M’Dina & South
Other places of interest in Malta include the Medieval walled city of M’dina, nicknamed the “Silent City.” Be sure to wear walking shoes when exploring the city’s winding streets. Attractions include the M’dina Experience and the popular Knights of Malta (356/2145-1342; Casa Magazzini, 14 / 19 Magazines Street, M’dina) a walk through the past consisting of 120 life-size wax characters in historical chambers. Wearing period costumes, they are so real you’d swear they move! If your family tires, call a karrozzin (horse-drawn carriage) for a guided tour of the old quarter.
A trip south of Valletta brings you to the Blue Grotto, where you can board a typical Maltese fishing boat through 140 foot high arches and sea caves. If you put your hand in the water, your hand will turn blue too! On the way to the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk where bargains on T-shirts, Maltese lace and souvenirs are everywhere, stop at the prehistoric Hagar Qim Temple (356/2142-4231, closed temporarily for Fall 2008). The kids could spend a good hour here exploring the ruins.
Excursions Around the Island & To Gozo
More excitement can be had on the north coast. It’s fun to visit Anchor Bay (sometimes called Popeye’s Village, because Popeye was filmed there) — it’s located one kilometer west of Melliehait and is so picturesque that it feels like you’re in the movie. However, it is all down hill, so parents with strollers be forewarned, what goes down, must come up! Malta’s world-class Mediterranean Film Studios are noted for their water tanks and special effects equipment, permitting filmmakers to recreate “life” at sea, both in calm and stormy conditions, and within view of the actual Mediterranean Sea.
Near Anchor Bay is the sparkling clean beach at Golden Bay where foreigners and locals play. If you want a spot to lie, come early because by noon it’s a madhouse. Also in the area is the Splash & Fun Park (356/2137-4283) next to the Mediterraneo Marine Park (356/2137-2218) small by North American standards, but you can’t beat the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop to the dolphin and sea lion shows.
When Maltese families vacation, many board the 45-minute ferry to the island of Gozo, arriving at the breath-taking Mgarr Harbor. The island houses the magnificent Cathedral, the Citadel and the Ggantija Prehistoric Temples built in 3600 BC, one thousand years before the Pyramids of Egypt. Try to visit the historic salt pans and bring home some of the rich, pure sea salt distilled here from the sea. As Gozo is more laid back than Malta, a day or two on this island offers a refreshing break from the constant touring on the larger island. For overnight lodging in Samat, the Ta Cenc Hotel (356/2155-6819) has 83 rooms and suites, each with a private terrace overlooking a charming courtyard, as well as terrific service, a good restaurant and reasonable rates.
Know Before You Go
Malta has long been a popular tourist destination and boasts thousands of hotel rooms at various price points. The very elegant Hilton Malta (356/2138-3383; Portomaso, St. Julian’s, STJ 02) opened in 2000 in Portomasa, above the St. Julian’s yacht marina and Valletta and has recently undergone renovations that were unveiled in early 2008. Resort facilities include watersports, tennis and diving, with an added spa and pleasant patisserie.
Perched on the Dragonara Peninsula along Valletta’s beach strip is the Westin Dragonara Resort (356/2138-1000; Dragonara Rd, St. Julian’s, STJ02), which families can enjoy as an isolated resort or as a posh getaway adjacent to St. Julian-Paceville’s Euro nightlife and trendy shops, depending on their needs. Besides the Westin kids’ program, the resort offers a spacious lobby, lounge areas around the two outdoor pools, extensive landscaped grounds and several restaurants. Suites have housed the likes of Brad Pitt (who made Troy here) and Jon Bon Jovi (while filming U571). Double rooms begin at EU$250.
The Victoria Hotel (356/21334-711, Gorg Borg Olivier Street Sliema, SLM 1807) in Sliema is a popular, moderately priced choice filled with the charm of a Victorian inn. A large pool terrace and sundeck service the 135 spacious rooms and suites. A very helpful front desk, nice staff, room service, babysitting on request, and convenient location near shops and sights, make it a good place for families.
Once you’ve found lodging, turn your attention to the wonderful shopping. Everything is open year round, though winter is the real high season (Malta’s average temperatures range from 55°F in the winter to 86°F in the summer.) Shoppers will find that the former local currency, the Liri, is no longer used and has been replaced by the Euro. There are great values; with many outdoor markets, there are best buys in jewelry, lace and Italian shoes.
In 2004, the influential British travel magazine Holiday Which? found Malta to be the best-value holiday destination in Europe. The official publication of the UK-based Consumers Association conducted a survey of prices in 21 European countries covering all aspects of a vacation, including accommodation, car rental, fuel, dining out and shopping for holiday items such as sunblock, bottled water and camera film. After all six surveyed categories were taken into account, Malta emerged as the best value destination overall. (You won’t even need a rental car, as the public bus system is cheap and excellent.)
Another of the country’s tourism magnets is its reputation for safety and friendliness, making it an ideal destination for single mothers with children. The Malta Tourism Authority promotes that welcoming public attitude because the travel and tourism industry employs 40,000 citizens. As part of its awareness efforts, the MTA has created a Maltese language activity guide called “Jien u t-Turist” or “The Tourist and I” which schoolchildren use to understand more about preserving the history, culture and environment of their country.
American and Canadian Airlines and British Airways conveniently connect with Air Malta at London’s Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4. Additionally, a highspeed catamaran car ferry links Malta with Sicily and the Italian mainland at Reggio Calabria. For more information call 356/2123-7747.
Kathryn’s Favorite Meal: Bragjoli (Beef Rolls)
To start: 10 thin slices of rump steak
Stuffing: 1/2 lb ground beef, 6 bacon strips, 2 hard-boiled eggs, 2 tbsp. chopped parsley, 4 tbsp. bread crumbs, carrot grated, pepper and salt
Sauce: 2 large onions, chopped, 3 garlic cloves, crushed, 4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped, 1 tsp. tomato paste, 2 carrots, scraped and sliced, 1/2 cup peas, 2 potatoes, peeled and quartered, 2 bay leaves, 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 cup red wine
1. In a bowl combine all stuffing ingredients.
2. Pound and flatten slices of steak.
3. Spoon about 2 tbsp. of stuffing on each meat slice. Roll up slice. Use string or toothpicks to secure rolled-up meat.
4. In a saucepan cook the onion and garlic for a few minutes in enough water to cover onion. Add beef rolls and brown over medium heat.
5. Remove beef rolls from saucepan and set aside.
6. Add potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, tomato paste, herbs, and wine to saucepan. Add pepper and salt to taste. Stir gently and cook for about 10 minutes
7. Return beef rolls in saucepan, add peas and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer to thicken sauce. Add wine if mixture begins to dry up before meat is thoroughly cooked.
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