Malta's secrets are best revealed on a small group tour like this one

Asia's Tech News Daily

Dghajsa skiff in Grand Harbour – MARKSTRATTON

There has been much discussion of late about a brave new world of travel, reemerging slower-paced and more localised than it was prior to 2020, with greater cultural immersion and environmental consideration. The hope is that destination and enjoyment will no longer be subservient to the daily practicalities of breakneck itineraries, changing hotels every night and arriving late to find the only thing available foodwise is an insipid buffet, plus guides who interpret destinations with the finesse of a gatling gun.

But is the travel industry listening? I decided to find out by joining Cox and Kings’ inaugural “Spotlight” itinerary – a six-day small group tour of Malta. “On the back of the pandemic, our clients told us they would feel more comfortable travelling in smaller groups and moving around less,” said Kerry Golds, managing director of Cox and Kings. “They wanted to do less in one region rather than spend a lot of time travelling around. They wanted to see popular destinations like Malta in greater depth.”

There were only six of us on this first departure led by Agnes Spiteri, a guide of 35 years. The tour is a mixture of short outings, early finishes, and the same accommodation throughout: the modern four-star Waterfront Hotel, off Sliema promenade, lively at night, its sidewalks jammed with seafood restaurants and bars.

My first instinct, a rebellious one, wondered if we might have stayed in historic Valletta, across Marsamxett Harbour, perhaps in a converted palazzo. Yet the first sunrise assuaged my grumbles. Viewed from my eighth-floor room, Valletta’s thick fortified limestone walls shone brimstone-yellow around breakfast (and smouldered peachy-pink around dusk). It was an absorbing sight.

The other members of our small band had backstories woven into the fabric of Malta. Roger Welby, a retired chartered surveyor from Bognor Regis, explained that his military father survived the Italian and German besiegement of Malta here between 1940 and 1942; Anna Dreaper, from Winchester, surprised us one day when chancing upon a plaque commemorating Sir Nicholas Upton, who died battling Ottoman Turks here in 1551: “Oh look, my ancestor; we had knights in our family.”

Agnes Spiteri with boatman Gerald – MARKSTRATTON

The pace of the tour suited Anna perfectly. “I’m a bit lame,” she said. “I don’t want to get up at the crack of dawn to change hotels. I want more time off, so it feels like a holiday”.

And indeed, it did. A rhythm was set during our first leisurely day exploring Valletta, built from scratch by the Order of the Knights of St John in 1571. The bastions, palazzos and churches, fashioned from calamine-hued limestone, tell a thousand stories. However, Agnes focused on just two buildings: a private palazzo and Valletta’s iconic Baroque masterpiece, St John’s Co-Cathedral, started in 1572. The interior bears the mark of the Knights throughout – eight-tanged Maltese crosses representing the eight langue (linguistic divisions) of the knights, each with its own opulent chapel.

The decorous interior of gold-painted floral bas-reliefs beneath a ceiling chronicling the life of St John by Calabrian, Mattia Pretti, seemed like zealous overkill. Even the dowdiest black-painted gates of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament were silver beneath. “They disguised them to stop Napoleon’s troops pinching the silver in 1798,” explained Agnes. That same year, the Knights were expelled.

“By then they had become decadent and unpopular,” Agnes told us. “They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but had given up on them all when the French kicked them out”.

Unrushed, there was time to soak in the chiaroscuro brilliance of Caravaggio, who in between brawling and murder, found time to paint the masterful Beheading of St John here in 1608, his signature scrawled in St Paul’s oozing blood.

And who knows? Perhaps the brooding maestro once turned up at Casa Rocca Piccola, where Marquis Nicholas de Piro d’Amico Inguanez, Ninth Baron of Budach, took us on a personalised tour of the ancestral knick-knacks contained in his 1580s palazzo. He talked us through it all, from papal slippers to an 18th-century portable altar and a lacquered chinoiserie – which he opened to reveal a cross, relics, and tabernacle. “If we have a drink we make sure the doors are closed,” he laughed.

Casa Rocca Piccola tour group – MARKSTRATTON

Showstopping theatricality arrived when he teasingly revealed a photograph, like a magician milking a trick, of the most well-known person ever to visit him. “An agent asked me to host a private tour for an American actress,” said the marquis. “Of course, I’d never heard of her at the time.”

Oohs aplenty followed, as his photograph revealed Meghan Markle wearing a ghonnella – a traditional black Maltese cape with a hood stiffened by whalebone. “She insisted upon trying it,” he said.

“Imagine then how surprised we were when she turned up later engaged to Prince Harry,” he added. He didn’t get a wedding invitation apparently, yet his parents attended her majesty’s coronation in 1952 and amid all the clutter is a padded stool his mother used on the occasion, a keepsake from Westminster Abbey. No explanation was forthcoming about how she squeezed it into her handbag.

After a farewell prosecco in his Italianate garden, we were back at our hotel by 4pm, ample time to freshen-up for aperitifs and browse dinner options. “I feel guilty bringing you back to the hotel so early,” said Agnes, departing. None of us minded.

The next day was completely free. In the late morning, I caught the five-minute ferry to Valletta, where I moved in the shade of the backstreets, enjoying the city unplanned. Our group reassembled the next morning and we head for the “Three Cities” – Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Conspicua – which protrude into the Grand Harbour south of Valletta and which were fortified by the Knights from the 1530s. “Think of them as open-air museums,” said Agnes. We reached them the slow way, by dghajsa, traditional wooden skiffs made of ash and teak. “When I was six years old my father took me out on his dghajsa and I’ve never disembarked,” said Geraldo, the 68-year-old boatman.

Marquis Nicholas de Piro at Casa Rocca Piccola – MARKSTRATTON

We visited the Auberge d’Angleterre, a stone palace from 1503, that housed the English langue, the head of which carried the title Turcopolier and was responsible for military arrangements. “After Henry VIII renounced Catholicism, the English knights had no official status, although many formed an alliance with the Bavarian langue,” said Agnes.

Later in our tour we set off by ferry to visit tranquil Gozo, Malta’s sister island. Being whisked around in a tour bus would have been tiresome in intense heat. Instead Scott, from Stockport, a Maltese resident of 17 years, waited with a supersized tuk-tuk for us outside the ferry terminal. It was a quirky touch, and the breeze was delicious as we followed roads lined with prickly pears around this rugged little island, bronzed from a hot summer.

Two iconic sites had still to be seen. The first was Ggantija, one of 32 limestone-built prehistoric structures built in Malta by a civilisation of which little is known, between 4100 and 2500BC. Ggantija was a temple, its inner-sanctum of pitted blocks enclosed by 25ft-high coralline walls constructed around 5,600 years ago.

“We’ve no idea who these people were or why they disappeared. But archaeologists found no weaponry; they were a peaceful society of architects and artists,” Agnes told us.

Less peacefully, the Turks arrived in 1551. They laid siege to Gozo’s imperious hilltop Citadel in Victoria, still known by its Arabic name, Rabat, and the last of our stops. From the vertical walls, overlooking dry terraces and flat-topped peneplains resembling liquorice, the Turks enslaved almost every Gozitan when they entered the citadel. A handful survived by scaling down this wall and running away.

Hotel Room View across Marsamxett Harbour – MARKSTRATTON

Ultimately, it was the time afforded by our leisurely itinerary that heightened my enjoyment. Like the unhurried lunch, with Maltese wine, within the cool citadel walls of what was once a gracious home and is now an inviting artisanal restaurant called Ta Rikardu. Mr Rikardu explained that his goat cheese was produced by his own flock. It was served with a plate of home-pickled capers and sun-blushed tomatoes, and homemade bread. A sprinkling of local salt, too. Marsalform, a remarkable chequerboard coastal platform of salt pans, fashioned by the Romans, still yields sea salt. A lady sells me a bag of it: “My father, Alfred Attari, has been making it for 45 years. Before that, it was his mother’s brother.”

The final day meandered past, and that evening, I scratched an itch. All week, taking the ferry back and forth to Valletta, I’d eyed a little Sicilian restaurant by the jetty called Porticello, which produced classics such as spaghetti vongole in an old neoclassical former police station. I finally succumbed and took a table by the Mediterranean’s edge. It was warm outside. Fireworks were lighting up the fortified walls. Malta in the slow lane delivers plenty of moments like these.

How to do it

Cox & Kings (020 3797 8866; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a seven-day Spotlight on Malta tour from £1,395pp, including flights, transfers, guiding and some meals, based on two people sharing.

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