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The Pearl of the Mediterranean

October 24, 2010

I went to Malta in 1999 to study English. Before that I used to always go to the UK, but honestly, I was pretty tired of rainy Julys with the sun showing up only once or twice a week. So I managed to convince my parents to send me somewhere warmer, and they chose this little precious island in the middle of the Mediterranean.

The Republic of Malta is an archipelago with three major islands—Malta, Gozo and Comino, situated south of Italy’s Sicily. The country has two official languages—Maltese and English, and it is one of the smallest and most densely populated nations in the world. Despite its tiny size, Malta definitely has something to be proud of—its rich historical and cultural legacy.

As the country is situated on the crossing of marine routes among Europe, Africa and Asia, its strategic location has always been a bone of contention of various sea powers. In different historical periods, Malta used to belong to or be part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Kingdom of Sicily, Holy Roman Empire, Crown of Aragon, Napoleon France, and Russian and British Empires. But the biggest legacy the country inherited is from the Order of Hospitallers, also known as the Knights of Malta, which exists to the present day.

Hospitallers settled in Malta in the middle of the sixteenth century with the permission of the King of Sicily. The Order immediately started to fortify the island, which played a crucial role in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the knights managed to repel the invasion of the powerful Ottoman Empire. That is why Malta is often called the pearl of the Mediterranean for its beautiful architecture. This little country attracts tourists all over the world, and is often included in the routes of luxurious sea cruises.

Being born and raised in the world’s biggest country, which occupies one sixth of the land, it was quite an experience to explore Malta, which as I found out, was even smaller than my hometown in Russia. There are no actual borders between towns; all you can see is a little sign on the side of the road that notifies when you’re in a different town. Sometimes the distance between such signs can be less than a mile. And even though I was used to spacious lands and still give preference to big metropolitan areas, I think those little islands are enveloped in a certain romance.

During my study in Malta, I lived with a host family in Sliema, a town of wealthy, respectable Maltese. It is a quiet place with many green parks and a low crime rate. The most beautiful towns of Malta are Valletta (the capital) and Mdina, which represent the largest number of the Order’s legacy with its historical monuments, fortresses and temples. I think it was the first time in my life when I actually listened carefully during the excursions—that’s how interesting and engaging they were.

I also visited Gozo, Malta’s second biggest island, which in fact is only seven miles in length and four miles in width. Gozo is an island of rocks and cliffs, and good seafood restaurants. But my biggest impression of Malta is its incredible unique nature. Most beaches in Malta are rocky, which makes the water so clear that you can observe the sea bottom and its life pretty deeply. There are several sandy beaches, but I assure you the specialty of this island are the rocky ones.

The weather here is always nice. It’s not too hot and humid, but not too cold and windy—just perfectly in the middle. The two places world explorers can’t miss while in Malta are the Blue Grotto and the Blue Lagoon. These are naturally created Mediterranean marvels. It took my breath away when I saw windows in the rocks cut out by God’s hand, which let the sea water pass, forming internal lagoons with the water like warm milk. For those interested in Malta’s busy night life, the best places to visit are Paceville and St. Julian’s with multiple trendy bars and night clubs, and thousands of tourists craving adventures.

My other travel tip is to take a ferry to Palermo, Sicily. These three hours of potential sea bumpiness are definitely worth it. Upon arrival into the harbor of Palermo, we had a quick excursion around the town, observing the life of true Southern Italians with their rich gesticulation and sonorous language. After, we took a steep winding ride to the craters of the active volcano Etna, which erupts every now and then but doesn’t bring too much damage. Here at the peak of the sleeping volcano I had my first encounter with Italian culinary traditions, after which I forever fell in love with Italian cuisine. If anybody asked me what dish I could eat every day for the rest of my life, pizza would be my answer.

Maltese cuisine is a typical Mediterranean food with British and Italian influences. It is mostly based on rice, pasta, fresh seafood and various meats. It also boasts many delicious local specials, recipes of which you can find on my recipes page.

Malta Travel Guide:

http://www.101malta.com/

http://nikiburnham.blogspot.com/2010/10/malta-by-foot-cab-bus-and-boat.html

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