As I sat freezing at a café in Malta, I wondered if I had made the right decision to visit. I had come to Europe for a friend’s wedding and, not wanting to fly back right away, thought I’d make the most of it and travel somewhere new. Why not start off the new year in a new country, right?
But, see, I hate the cold.
If you want to make me sad, send me somewhere cold. I needed somewhere (relatively) warm and—since I only had a week—small. Looking over a map of Europe, Malta seemed like the best choice. It was far south, had easy flight connections to the mainland, seemed tiny, and came highly recommended by friends.
For Europe in January, it seemed liked my best bet.
But as I sat shivering in a sweater, hat, scarf, and winter coat, I realized I should have researched the weather a bit more before I came. Sure, I happened to visit during an unseasonable cold snap (“It’s never like this!” people would say), but that didn’t make me feel any better.
I don’t like exploring places in the cold, which is why you hardly ever see “winter travel” tips on this site. Spring, summer, fall — those are my seasons! I don’t like carrying big bulk clothes, I don’t like sightseeing while freezing. (Nor did the weather appeal to my friend who had come from Stockholm for warmer weather.)
Yet neither of us had been to Malta before. Both workaholics, we really wanted to put our phones away, turn the computers off, and just enjoy the destination. It had been a long time since either of us had done that.
So we had to make the most of the (terrible) weather. Otherwise, we’d end up inside, back on our computers, and that wasn’t an option!
In the wintertime, you can visit all of Malta in about a week since this place is really a summer beach destinations, and the weather in the winter is definitely not beach weather. (In the summer, you’ll need two weeks to account for beach days.)
My friend and I had grand plans to see everything possible. We’d be up by 7am and out the door by 8 but, after the second day of hitting snooze, we gave up those plans. While I missed a few museums I wanted to see, didn’t wander Gozo’s citadel as much as I wanted (the day we went it was 4°C with piercing wind and rain), and missed the underground ruins at Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the Tarxien Temples, the underground WWII tunnel tour in Valetta, the Popeye Village, and the famous fish market.
However, while we moved slowly and my to-do list never quite got completed, I regret nothing. Malta cast a spell on me. I found the locals funny, charismatic, and jovial. They always had a good story to share. And the landscape – wow! As you drive out of the towns just that seemed to form one giant megacity, there were vineyards waiting for spring, rocky, rolling hills, ancient villages, sheer cliffs, churches rising high into the sky, and sharp cliffs with sweeping views of the deep blue Mediterranean.
In terms of sightseeing, the catacombs of Mdina were the most interesting, with their maze of hallways and chambers (though not enough skeletons), and the nearby ancient Roman house, with its intact frescos, was a highlight for me. In Valletta, the capital, I sat watching the harbor from the serene Upper Barrak Gardens (where there are fewer people than the lower gardens) and attended mass at the famous St. Stephen’s Church. And I imagined sitting in the main square enjoying the summer sun while having a glass of wine.
However, what I found most striking about the country were the towns that seem to teeter on decay. Throughout the country, they are filled with centuries-old buildings showing a mix of Arabic and Italian influences and picturesque balconies that jutted out so one could spy up and down the street. The cobblestone streets, clearly built before even Europe’s small cars were around, beckon you to explore their turns. In Malta, they name their houses, and I found myself wandering the streets looking at the random collection of names (my Airbnb’s was “The Devon”).
But as I stood wide-eyed, with one ear listening for a car sneaking up behind me, I couldn’t help but notice that it often felt as if Malta was only half-loved. For all the renovated houses and mansions brought back to their historic glory, there were more decrepit and boarded-up ones, sometimes taking up whole blocks. For every beautiful garden and restored square, there seemed to be an equally run-down one. It was as if half the island quickly left and the other half, busy with preservation, was just waiting for them to come back to fix the rest up.
For all that is written about the island’s natural beauty, wonderful beaches, and majestic capital, what I’ll remember most of Malta was this stark contrast. It was like a mystery yearning to be solved. Why don’t people just fix it up? Why does the government let these safety hazards stay up? Who owned these buildings? Some looked like they had been abandoned for decades. Why rebuild a beautiful house only to have the own next door look like it was a crack den? It all seemed so confusing and haphazard. No one could give me a good answer.
My orderly, OCD mind couldn’t wrap its head around it. (I’d be a terrible Southern European!)
My visit to Malta was like watching the preview of a good movie. When it’s over, you can’t wait for the whole movie.
But I don’t know if I’ll ever get back for the feature presentation. There’s so much to see in the world that I have this gut feeling it will be a long time before I get back to Malta. But, even if I never get back, I enjoyed the preview as well as the fact that I finally turned off my computer and just enjoyed where I was without distractions.
It’d been a long time since I last did that.