Ten years ago I had no idea where Malta was. In fact, I had never even heard of it. When the activities director from my school in Nice told me that she was going to Malta for the weekend, I was too embarrassed to ask her where it was. Later I asked a friend, who said “I think it’s somewhere between England and Germany.”
It wasn’t. In fact, it was a Mediterranean island just off the coast of Sicily. Once I discovered that, I was interested in exploring it. Never mind that it took me ten years to get there. The important thing is that I went. And I loved it.
I spent last weekend in Malta with a good friend of mine from London. We arrived on Friday morning at 2am, and were taken to our hotel in Mdina, a city in the center of the island. The Xara Palace hotel was the only one of its kind in the medieval walled city, and it had invited us to stay in the Presidential Suite. Not a bad introduction to Malta.
The suite was huge. Situated over two floors, it had a large living area with comfy sofas and chairs, a dark wood table, and beautiful curtains covering the tall windows. The upper floor had a marble bathroom and a bedroom loft that overlooked the living room.
Exhausted from our flight, we went straight to sleep when we arrived. The next morning I had a quick buffet breakfast in the hotel’s de Mondion restaurant, which had expansive views over Malta and out to the sea. This was followed by tea in the ground floor lounge with Nicola Paris, a member of the family that owned the hotel.
Nicola told me that the hotel was housed in a 17th century palace. It was converted into a 17-suite boutique hotel in 1999, and now it is a Relais & Chateaux property with two great restaurants.
She also told me about Malta. Given that it was Good Friday, she mentioned the deeply religious nature of Maltese culture, and suggested that my friend and I attend the Stations of the Cross procession later that afternoon in the neighboring town of Rabat.
After tea, I met up with my friend and we set off to explore Mdina. The city was small and very walkable. The only vehicles allowed inside the walls were those of residents, so we didn’t have to worry much about cars. Even if cars had been allowed in Mdina, most of the streets were so narrow and winding that they wouldn’t have had an easy time navigating them.
We started our day of Malta sightseeing with a trip to the Mdina Experience, which Nicola had recommended. It was a 30-minute film about the history of Mdina and the rest of the island. After watching it, we were struck by the sheer number of invading empires, countries, and cultures that Malta had experienced over the years. From the Romans to the Ottomans to the British, Malta had been sacked, attacked, and colonized by just about every major empire in European history.
Learning about Mdina’s past gave us a better understanding of the country as we continued our Malta sightseeing. Walking around the city, we noticed that everything from the architecture to the religion to the language was influenced by all of the cultures that had come through the island. It was fascinating.
When we had seen most of the city, its beautiful streets, and its yellow stone buildings, we exited through the gates and made our way to Rabat. The city was bigger and more modern than Mdina, but still retained a great deal of charm.
We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant called Il-baxa, where we shared a heaping plate of hummus, olive tapenade, baba ghanoush, and salad. Afterwards we visited a local sweet shop for some traditional Maltese pastries. What with it being Easter in Malta, we had passed by a number of street vendors selling seasonal round breads and buns, all of which had made us hungry for dessert.
After lunch we wandered past the catacombs and churches, which were closed for the Easter holidays. Eventually we made our way back to Mdina, where we had a glass of wine at a cafe on the city walls. The views over Malta were beautiful, and it was a great way to spend the late afternoon.
In the evening we returned to Rabat for the Good Friday procession. The streets were packed with locals, two of whom befriended us and explained that cities all over Malta had processions that day.
We later learned that each costume in the procession was specific to a given family, and was handed down over generations.
The Stations of the Cross procession was a great insight into Maltese culture and heritage. Over the course of several hours, we were able to watch as the story of Good Friday unfolded. Men carried heavy platforms with sculptural depictions of the Passion of Christ while children walked among them carrying signs and symbolic objects. Everywhere we looked we could see the signs of Easter in a country that took the holiday very seriously.
Dinner that night was a special one. My friend had booked us a table at the de Mondion restaurant before we even knew we would be staying at the Xara Palace. The restaurant, which served modern Mediterranean food, had won many awards, including “Best Restaurant in Malta” in 2010.
We arrived with high expectations, and we weren’t disappointed. The starter of risotto with squab and mushrooms was excellent. It was cooked just right so that the rice was neither too crunchy nor too soft, and the meat and mushrooms were tender and juicy.
Of particular note was the main course of John Dory. Intensely flavorful, it was some of the best of its kind that I’ve ever had.
We were too full to order dessert, but our server brought us a tray of petit fours after dinner. We couldn’t resist devouring them. They were a great way to end the meal, and we were glad that our hotel room was just two floors down so that we could indulge our food comas right away with some rest in our suite.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the Champagne that had been set out next to the water and juice. We made our rounds at the buffet, and also ordered eggs and bacon from the hot breakfast menu. While we ate, we savored the views over the sea.
When we finished breakfast, we hopped on a bus and headed down to Valletta for the afternoon. The journey only took 15 minutes, and soon we found ourselves entering the city gates.
Valletta was laid out on a grid pattern, so it was easy to navigate. As we walked down the main thoroughfare, Republic Street, we were surrounded by shops and restaurants as well as beautiful historic buildings.
From there we branched out to the side streets for some more Malta sightseeing. There we saw everything from the the cathedral to the library, from the beautiful cliff-top gardens to the large plazas full of fountains. A historic fort, a palace, and plenty of theatres and museums were also present.
Eventually we settled in for a late lunch at an iconic restaurant in Valletta called Caffe Cordina. We sat at one of the hundreds of tables in Republic Square and enjoyed some local wine and bruschetta. Afterwards we got gelato from the restaurant’s shop, and sat in St. George square enjoying our dessert in the late afternoon sun.
Back in Mdina, we were invited to have dinner with our hotel’s marketing executive, Claire Camilleri. After a drink at the hotel bar, she took us to the Trattoria AD 1530, the Xara Palace’s casual restaurant on the ground floor. We sat outside in the plaza and settled in for a great meal and equally good conversation.
Upon learning that we wanted to try local Maltese food, Claire ordered a meze platter and a plate of bruschetta with traditional local toppings that included tomatoes and capers.
For our mains, my friend and I both ordered the swordfish. I’m normally nervous about ordering swordfish, as it can be very tough, dry, and fishy. I’m glad I took the risk, though. The swordfish at Trattoria AD 1530 was amazing. It was moist, light, and tasted flavorful without any hint of fishiness. When Claire told us that an Italian friend of hers that runs a restaurant in Malta claimed that Maltese fish is the best in the world, I had to agree with her.
We barely had room for dessert, but the Sicilian cake with marzipan and ricotta looked too good to pass up. We enjoyed it with scoops of vanilla ice cream, and finished dinner dizzyingly full and completely content.
We fell into bed shortly thereafter, dreading our 4:45am wake-up call for our flight back to London. But even having to wake up before sunrise couldn’t dampen our spirits after such a great trip to Malta. Everything from the excellent food to the wonderful hotel and the great Malta sightseeing had made our trip unique. I was glad I learned where to find Malta on a map all those years ago, and returned home knowing I would never forget the island in the Mediterranean.