In the center of the Mediterranean lies the magical island country of Malta. This was the last stop on my Eurotrip. Since Malta is one of my countries of heritage, it had been on my bucket list for some time. I longed to see the country my paternal grandparents called home.
My beloved Nana always had such fond memories of her life there and spoke of her country with great pride. She spoke about it often up until she passed and would even slip into speaking Maltese sometimes, a language she hadn’t spoken in years. Although I had never visited Malta before, it did not seem like a foreign country to me as all the others had. When I arrived, I immediately had a feeling of familiarity and comfort. It’s as if all of my Nana’s stories had permeated my being and become a part of me as well.
Malta’s history dates back to prehistoric times, and the evidence of this can be seen throughout the islands in its caves and ancient temples. The discoveries made on the island actually suggest that at one time it was part of a larger landmass that had broken off.
The Maltese islands are home to not one, not two, but seven megalithic temple sites. These add to the richness of the history of the island and give an important insight into the earliest settlers of the island. One of the oldest standing structures in the world can be found on the island of Gozo. The Ggantija temples date back to 3,600 BCE and predate both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. When I arrived to visit, I was one of a few tourists there and had almost the whole place almost to myself. It was incredible to be standing next to structures that old and well preserved. You can still see the remnants of altars and stone hearths that were used thousands of years ago.
Since Malta is made mostly of limestone, many caves can be found on the island. The Hypogeum is probably one of the most beloved and well-known archeological sites in Malta. It is a complex labyrinth of underground temples and burial sites dating back over 5,000 years. In order to preserve this ancient treasure, they permit only a limited number of visitors per day, so a visit there definitely takes some prior planning.
One of the oldest caves can also be found in Malta, Ghar Dalam or “cave of darkness.” Inside this cave, remains of animals that have long been extinct have been discovered. This cave is believed to have given refuge to the earliest inhabitants of the island. A visit to this cave also gives you access to the museum where you can see and learn about the remains and artifacts that were found in the cave. Although visitors are allowed in the cave, their access is limited to protect the light-sensitive organisms that live there.
Fast forward to the more recent history of the islands and we can see the strong military presence that protected the county. There are fortresses, watchtowers, and military architecture constructed to protect the island. Malta has been fought over throughout its history due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean and multiple safe harbors. Several of Malta’s cities were fortified to protect against invasion, including the capital Valletta. What once served as protection is now a beautiful and interesting part of the landscape.
My stay in Malta was in the fortified city of Vittoriosa which lies across the bay from Valletta. The first day there I grabbed a coffee and simply walked around and immersed myself in the unique and interesting city around me. Walking through the streets to me was like going back to a simpler time, and I relished in it. In addition to the city streets, I was steps away from the beautiful waterfront which is docked with both small sailboats and large luxury yachts.
Fables and Folklore
Along with all the natural beauty of Malta comes the legends, myths, and folk tales of how those things came to be. It seemed that each landmark I visited had some sort of story attached to it. It’s these stories that give the country so much character. Our ancient ancestors did not have the scientific knowledge we have today, so to make sense of certain things, they turned to tales and legends.
One of the most well known is that of Calypso’s Cave. In Homer’s Odyssey, Calypso was a water nymph who could not leave the island on which she lived. Odysseus found himself separated from his crew and stranded on the island where Calypso saved him. She fell in love with him and he stayed with her for seven years before returning home. The way that Homer describes the location of Ogygia, many believe that Gozo is Ogygia and that the cave in which she lived is one that overlooks Ramla Bay.
The presence of multiple megalithic temples also leaves much up for speculation. Seven of the oldest known temples in the world lie on the Maltese islands which lead many to believe that Malta is actually a small remnant of a much older civilization and could have even been part of the landmass which comprised Atlantis. Interesting? Yes! Farfetched? Perhaps, but it’s the history and folklore that give Malta its unique and interesting personality.
Food and Agriculture
Maltese cuisine has been influenced by the other nations and forces that occupied the islands throughout its history. It has strong Sicilian and English influences along with hints of other Mediterranean cuisines. Although traditional food can be found, there is no shortage of contemporary restaurants and cafes. Eating vegan here was much easier than I had anticipated.
The island of Gozo is the main agricultural center of the country, producing potatoes and grapes specifically. The grape growing region has a soil composition that is slightly different, so there is a unique character to Maltese wines, which I sampled quite a bit of during my time there. Waiting in Gozo’s capital city Victoria, I had time to kill before my bus arrived, so I began walking around looking for something to eat. Wouldn’t you know that right across from the bus stop was a health food café called Green Mood.
I walked in and was greeted by the owner Nico, who made me his favorite smoothie. It was a creation I would have never dreamed up on my own, but it was tasty and left me feeling light and energized throughout my day. I was also surprised at the many gelato shops and carts in town that offered vegan options–of course, I sampled them all!
The main island of Malta had even more delicious plant based options. Walking along the streets of Valletta, the capital city, I was offered another fortuitous discovery. After waking up early and spending several hours getting lost in the city streets, my stomach began to rumble. Not a moment later did I come across a café specializing in local food with many vegan options. I had a delicious spicy lentil burger wrapped in a piadina (thin Italian flatbread). Although there were plenty of vegan places to choose from, I found each restaurant I ate at to be very accommodating.
From the very first moment I landed in Malta, I was greeted warmly and had a wonderful conversation with the taxi driver. He had a lot of great suggestions for me and gave great insight on what to see in my time there. One night at dinner in Gozo, as I was finishing up a delicious bowl of pasta and glass of local red wine, I was invited by the group sitting next to me to join them for a drink. I accepted and we ended up in the town center with several more people talking, laughing and drinking until the early morning.
On my last night in town, I attended the Malta World Music Festival at Fort St. Elmo. I listened to unique sounds from around the world in the beautiful surroundings of a former fortress. Although I was content to spend the evening dancing in my own world, I met an interesting and intriguing man who I spent my last hours on the island with. As many beautiful and interesting things that I saw in my travels, it is the people I met that really made my trip special and meaningful.
So that, my friends, is the conclusion of my European adventure. Thank you for coming along with me as I relived and reflected on one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
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Photo: Kathryn Farrugia