The stretch of water between Malta and Gozo is one of the most historic on the planet. They fought many battles here for command of the Meditteranean, Now it is the tourists are winning.
There are boats, ferries, catamarans and helicopters plying their way offering the contrasting features of the tiny two-island nation, two bus stops in the complicated history of the Mediterranean,
Think Innishmore only more crowded. Malta’s personality is defined by two words, old and stone. The dates are unimaginable, the temples that go back to an unimaginable time between the eras of Newgrange and Stonehenge. Phoenicians, Arabs, Carthaginians, Romans, and Normans stopped by. Each has left its trademark, most notably the language, a living breathing tongue with its Arab words, the only Semitic language to use the Roman alphabet.
You can fit two and half Maltas into Ireland’s smallest county, Louth. Gozo is smaller again, one fifth the size of its neighbour.
Which makes you wonder how you can fit so much activity, so much history and so much fame into one small place, 400,000 residents and 1.2m tourists, into such a space, and still have lots left over for the beaches, the terraces and the trademark stone fields and clay fields.
A few green fields mark out loose boundaries between the suburbs of what is one big city state. Solitude is not its trademark. It is one of the most reliable winter sun destinations in Europe, with lots of beach resorts. It uses the euro, has a three times a week direct service from Ryanair and discounted hotel rooms of down to eight euro including breakfast in the current economic siege.
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There are nearly 400 churches in Malta, one at every turn of the road.
Always most prominent building along the landscape is the parish church. This place has three times as many churches as pubs, the Irish eye will quickly gather.
The church wedding is still important to a lot of Irish people and Malta with its easy bureaucracy and three day residency, the civil function’s close relationship with the church wedding, and preponderance of churches and good hotels makes a nice wedding destination.
It also can save a lot of money. A wedding in Malta will set you back an average of Eu4,500, compared with the average of Eu23,000 at home.
The variety is enormous. Plates can come in at u15 with some good options at u30.
There are close cultural, economic and religious connections. One of the oldest traditional wedding venue hotels, the Phoenician, is Irish owned.
There are over 300 restaurants as well and everybody has decided to chase the wedding business. You can get married in a vineyard (Ta Mena Estate in Gozo), a historic palace (Palazzo Parisio, Naxxar) or even underwater (a Chinese couple did it at the Azure Window in Dwejra, an impressive natural arch standing some twenty metres high).
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The advertisements for Malta depict its Best beaches: Ghajan-Tuffieha with its famous reddish sand or Ramla Il-Hamra in Gozo.
But don’t take it that you are heading for a Med version of the Caribbean. Malta is a citybreak.
There are 420,000 people living on an island half the size of County Louth. It means that the 54 villages on Malta and 14 on Gozo are always within a few fields of joining up with each other.
It also means traffic. The small roads are full of cars, nearly one per head of population.
The famous old buses are gone, consigned to the postcard stalls, but the new transportation system is having teething problems, so allow some extra time for that airport transfer.
Expectedly for such an ancient island, there is lots of culture to be found.
St Paul’s catacombs lurk under the modern streets, the funerary picnic sites as gloomy as they ever were.
The Phoenicians rolled through, followed by the Greeks and the Romans and the Arabs whose place names still dot the island and whose words perforate the language, the Normans were followed by the Knights, chosen from the aristocracy of Europe they brought their best architects and engaged in competitive palace building.
Caravaggio’s finest painting of all, the largest and the only one with a signature, is in St John the Baptist cathedral.
A big change in recent years is the way the paintings in the Blessed Host Chapel at the other side of the building have been restored.
Romance comes with all this history. There are terrific wine estates to be visited.
Maltese folk music is easily accessible and enjoyable, for the real thing have a listen to Claudio Baglioni singing Wied Ghasel U Jien and shed a romantic tear.
Before you depart for home trip upstairs to Club 22 for a drink with a view and down to Barcelona, and a trip along the strip in Paceville with its action.
Tired of walking? There is a segway tour you can take through Valetta, avoiding the potholes and navigating the narrow streets. Everyone waves as you pass, waving back involves risking your life but you do it anyway.
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