Some places remind you of somewhere else. You’d never say that about Malta. Its unique mix of influences gives it a character like no other.
We’ve come to Malta for some winter sun. Our first lunch is al fresco. Breakfast ¬– eaten cosied up in the No 1 Traveller lounge at Birmingham Airport as water streamed down the windows – is a distant memory. I wander around Mosta in a T-shirt, dazzled by the sunshine but mostly by the beauty of St Mary’s Church, with its intricate blue, gold and white dome. Malta’s curious and vibrant mix of cultural influences are enough to put a spring in my step. That, and the rabbit stew on many a menu.
Daughter Sophie’s mesmerised by the ‘foreign-ness’ of Malta; the Middle Eastern appearance of its flat-roofed houses and the incredible palette of blues that is the sea. Street stalls are piled high with oranges. Cactus plants twice as big as her burst out of scrubby patches of land. Magnificent churches rise up from towns which look like someone has tossed a pile of Betta Bilda in the air and let the tiny bricks fall randomly. Then she spots the first of many familiar Arriva buses. High Street names like Next and The Body Shop occupy ancient buildings of golden stone. There’s a time-warp feel; red telephone boxes and garages where attendants still pump petrol. Signs are in English. Everyone speaks English.
Wandering narrow streets is a charming experience. The trick is to look up at the carved facades decorated with icons and ornate balconies.
At Marsaxlokk restaurants try to lure us with ‘fish caught by our husbands and sons’. The colourful boats – luzzus – have eyes painted on their prows, believed to protect from evil. Between the flashy yachts alongside Sliema’s prom the clear waters teem with tiny fish. At Mdina we wander the ancient hilltop citadel in awe, untroubled by traffic, except for the occasional trundling of horse-drawn carriages carrying tourists.
Buses are an easy, cheap way to get around. Arriving in Valletta, the capital and UNESCO World Heritage City, we’re drawn to a three-deep throng of camera-flashers packed between the colonnades of the 16th century Upper Barrakka Gardens. We’re wondering why everyone’s come to admire the view of the Grand Harbour – the biggest natural harbour in the world – at the very same time. There’s an almighty bang and I scream, then laugh, as I realise that they’re all here to watch the midday cannon salute. Another spectacle is the sunset from the cliffs above Golden Bay in the north west. It’s more than enough to keep our Maltese memories warm for a while back in blustery Britain.
* No.1 Birmingham is open daily from 4.30am-8.30pm with complimentary bistro-style menu, bar, newspapers, magazines and internet access. Entry £27.50 per adult, £22.50 in advance. No.1 Heathrow Terminal 3 is open daily from 4.30am-10.30pm and also has a quiet room, showers, cinema, games rooms, family room and Travel Spa (extra charge). Entry £35 per adult, £30 online. Lounges also at Gatwick North and South terminals and Stansted. www.No1Traveller.com