The Mediterranean jewel

Davinia Hamilton

In Focus: Malta

Malta is the European Union’s smallest nation, but the swathes of settlers from Africa and Europe who have been and gone in the 7,000 years since the island was first inhabited have left it with history and culture to rival any European country





A group of small islands in the heart of the sparkling blue Mediterranean, Malta is a melting pot of cultures with a rich history spanning many millennia. With numerous picturesque beaches, a mild, sunny climate and stunning architecture, as well as a laid-back culture and ever-growing industrial sector, Malta is a favourite destination for tourists and explorers.

Malta is a democratic republic and a member of the Commonwealth, having gained independence from Britain in 1964. A mere 316 sq km in size, and with a population of just over 410,000, it became the European Union’s smallest member state when it joined in 2004.

The earliest inhabitants are believed to have been a prehistoric civilisation from Sicily, who arrived in Malta around 5000 BCE. There is evidence of a fertility cult, similar to those of many other neighbouring Mediterranean countries, in the temples and remains that are dotted around the islands. Ggantija temples, found on the Maltese island of Gozo, are among the world’s oldest man-made religious structures, and date back to 3000 BCE.

Since then, Malta has been inhabited by Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Greeks, Normans, the Spanish and the English, all of whom left a mark on the country’s culture – but none more so than the Knights of St John, who presided over the islands from 1530 until Napoleon’s arrival in 1798. Their indelible influence on Malta can be seen clearly in the country, especially its capital Valletta – a fortified city built by the Knights after the Great Siege of 1565. Even today, one can explore the beautiful churches, palaces and gardens they left behind and enjoy the rich patrimony they bequeathed – from works of art and silverware to furniture. The Maltese Cross – the eight-pointed cross worn by the Knights – is now one of Malta’s most recognisable emblems.

The main languages spoken by islanders are Maltese and English. Maltese is a Semitic language descended from the Siculo-Arabic dialect that developed in Sicily between the ninth and 12th centuries. It is the only Semitic language in the European Union and the only Semitic language to be written in a Latin script. Many Maltese also speak Italian and other, mainly European, languages.

A large majority of Maltese are practising Roman Catholics and the Constitution declares Catholicism to be the state religion, although provisions are made for religious freedom. It is believed that St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60CE and brought Catholicism to the islands. St Paul’s Grotto is known to be the earliest place of worship for Christians in Malta – it is thought to be the place St Paul was imprisoned during his stay on the island. The catacombs that lie under Malta contain evidence of Christian practices and persecution during the Roman reign.

There are more than 360 churches around the islands or, as the locals will tell you, ‘one for every day of the year’. Every Maltese town and village has a parish church, which acts as the village’s geographical centre. During the summer, the parishes celebrate their patron saints by holding a festa, or feast, which brings the entire village to life. These feasts are a treat for the senses – the devout participate in processions, where the statue of the patron saint is carried through the village streets, accompanied by a marching band; fireworks and petards are let off, creating dramatic shows of light in the night sky; and the streets are filled with vendors selling street foods and drinks, as well as toys and other knick-knacks, while the street party rages on and on for an entire weekend.

It is a fascinating mixture of the sacred and the profane – perhaps the grandest of which is Carnival, preceding Ash Wednesday and the sombre days of Lent. Carnival, usually held around February, sees the involvement of the whole island, with people, especially children, visiting the many festivities that take place over five days in Valletta, including performances, costume shows and processions of large, elaborate and very colourful floats made by Maltese craftspeople.

Another, more grotesque ‘spontaneous carnival’ is held at the same time in the Gozitan village of Nadur. As the sun sets, many masked and hooded figures take to the streets to participate in an evening of revelry. Many opt for satirical and often controversial and humorous costumes.

During the evenings, the village of Paceville is transformed into a buzzing hub of nightlife that attracts tourists and locals alike to its many clubs, bars and top restaurants to enjoy a meal, then dance the night away.

When it comes to food and wine, the Maltese are distinctly Mediterranean. Although many restaurants serving delicious, diverse cuisines can be found around the islands, the Maltese diet mainly consists of the staples bread, fish, pasta, and fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as local wine. Lots of traditional street food is also available from small kiosks, or pastizzeriji, around the island, with the most famous snack being pastizzi: inexpensive pockets of flaky puff pastry filled with ricotta or peas, generally accompanied by Maltese soft drinks or beer.

Valletta is set to be the European Capital for Culture in 2018 and Malta has taken a proactive approach to curating its arts and culture, using the run-up to 2018 as a timeframe during which to refine and support its artists. However, Malta’s cultural scene has been steadily growing over the last few decades, with events and activities for everyone from music and performance lovers to visual arts enthusiasts. Each year, the country hosts one of Europe’s most exciting jazz festivals, as well as the Isle of MTV shows and several live music events, concerts and recitals, which take place in various locations around the islands each year.

Malta also participates annually in Notte Bianca, an all-night cultural event that sees Valletta’s museums, private and public art galleries, and historical buildings open to the public for free, amid street performances, film screenings and music recitals.

Malta’s theatre scene is a thriving one, with a growing number of productions being staged in both English and Maltese each year in various venues, which include St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, the Mediterranean Conference Centre and the Manoel Theatre – Europe’s third-oldest working theatre, which dates back to 1731.

Besides all this, visitors can experience performances of Ghana – traditional Maltese folk music – or purchase crafts made by artisans, such as glassware and lace.

With gorgeous scenery, plenty of attractions, and locals known for their warmth and welcoming ways, Malta is a small but radiant jewel in the Mediterranean.

About the author:

Malta-born Davinia Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor currently based in London. Her interests include literature, psychology, travel and food, and she runs her own blog at


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