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Malta - The Country Next Door

Trilithon entrance to Hagar Qim temple.It is the nearest foreign nation to Sicilian shores. From the time of Count Roger I of Hauteville (father of Roger II), it was ruled by the kings of Sicily until 1530, and then remained a nominal part of the kingdom, under a crusading order of knights (now known as the "Order of Malta") who paid the Sicilian monarchs the symbolic annual feudal tribute of a falcon, until 1798. Its inhabitants still speak a language very similar to that spoken by Sicily's medieval Arabs (Siculo-Arabic) well into the thirteenth century. Indeed, its earliest structures, neolithic temples dating from around 4,000 BC (BCE), were built by prehistoric immigrants from south-eastern Sicily - the same people from whom the Proto-Sikanians were probably descended - and these are Europe's oldest free-standing structures. Maltese cuisine is similar to what was known in Sicily centuries ago. For the curious visitor, Malta offers a unique view not only of itself but of Sicily as well. It is, quite simply, a mirror of Sicily's past.

Returning to the present, Malta is, of course, quite different from its bigger neighbor in many important respects. The first impact, if you're arriving from Sicily, is that Malta's cities and towns are much cleaner than Sicily's. The crime rate is very low, with no organised crime. The Maltese speak their own language, naturally, but also English, the other national language; here in Sicily the lack of proficiency in English is one of the many factors that keeps our island backward. What is more, the Maltese you meet in Valletta and other cities often seem just a bit more engaging and courteous than the Sicilians you encounter in Palermo, Catania and Messina. The shops, restaurants and businesses in Valletta and nearby St Julian's are strikingly cosmopolitan compared to what you encounter in Palermo, Catania and Taormina. Most importantly, things actually function: buses and other transportation (no airline strikes), and public services such as the university and post, private enterprises and historic sites. Yes, we Sicilians could learn a lot from our friendly neighbors - and distant cousins - the Maltese.

A republic today, Malta was under British control for the better part of two centuries, which is why English is spoken there. This also explains a certain sense of British efficiency (at least compared to what one is accustomed to here in Italy) as well as the lingering presence of English cuisine and British banks such as HSBC. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in Roman characters, and the only Arabic tongue recognised as an official national language of a European Union nation. The euro is the national currency.

The typical Maltese may not be much more affluent than the average Sicilian, but you would never know this from just walking around Vittoriosa, Rabat or other Maltese towns. There are no street protests in Valletta or Mdina. Unlike Sicily, Malta is still overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in a serious ("practicing") way. People actually go to church and generally follow traditional Catholic teaching; divorce and abortion are illegal and marital infidelity is statistically rare compared to what is present in Sicily.Grand Master's Palace, Valletta.

Things to See: The legacy of the Knights of Malta is ubiquitous. Not to be missed are the Grand Master's Palace with its armoury, one of the largest in Europe, and the Co-Cathedral of St John, which boasts two paintings by Caravaggio. The National Museum of Archaeology is a must-see. All these attractions are in Valletta, itself a charming place to visit. In Paola, outside Valletta, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a vast subterranean complex built around 3,600 BC, is unique, and the Tarxien Temples are nearby. A visit to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples, overlooking Malta's southern shore, makes for a delightful excursion. Hilltop Mdina, the island's capital until the knights arrived, has some medieval elements, including the Norman-Arab Palazzo Falson (whose Arab fountain is a copy of the one in Monreale's cloister). In Rabat, just outside Mdina, is the cave where St Paul stayed during his visit en route to Sicily and Rome, and also the catacombs associated with St Agatha, Catania's patron saint. In Summer, coastal St Julian's is the most popular entertainment and resort district.

The Cuisine: Rabbit is a local speciality. Try it rustic style (stewed "fenek") or with garlic in white wine sauce; another popular recipe (similar to a Sicilian one) is with cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate. Pastizzi, rolls of bread pastry stuffed with peas or cottage cheese, seem to be sold everywhere. Gozitan cheese (a speciality, as its name implies, of the island of Gozo) is similar to Greek feta but slightly aged and denser. The seafood is excellent. There are several local liqueurs made from pomegranates, cactus pears and anise. Most drinking water is bottled; Malta produces very little spring water and the desalinated tap water is not recommended for drinking. There are many restaurants offering Italian or English cuisine.

Getting There & Around: Air Malta has regularly scheduled flights from Catania to Valletta (a 30-minute flight), and less frequent (seasonal) ones from Palermo. There's ferry and hydrofoil service to Valletta from Catania or Pozzallo, near Ispica (a 90-minute trip), with Virtu Ferries. Once you're there, you'll find buses and taxis at affordable fares. At the square on the edge of Floriana next to Valletta's main gate there are buses for every part of the island (routes 38 and 138 to Hagar Qim/Mnajdra, the 80 and 81 to Mdina/Rabat), including St Julian's, Paceville and Marsaxlokk.

More Information:
Lonely Planet and DK Eyewitness Top Ten are both very good guide books. Online, we suggest:
Heritage Malta, national tourism bureau guide with an emphasis on culture - suggested for information on archeological/historical sites.
Visit Malta is a good (though hardly exceptional) government tourism site.
101 Malta, published privately, is a very good general online guide to Malta and Gozo.
Malta Travel Net offers travel services and tours of all kinds.
Touring Malta plans all kinds of tours, particularly personalised ones.
Tour Guides in Malta for tour groups or personalized touring.

Last revision July 2012.

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