There are many wonderful towns in Malta with specific atmospheres, styles and stories. However, if you are dependent on public transport as a means of traveling around the island, as we were, and don’t really have too many days to spare for random explorations, chances are that you will have to make a selection of towns that you want to visit and simply hope that you made the right choice. This being our first trip to Malta, we decided to focus on the better known towns of the island, trying to experience diversity in terms of urbanism, atmosphere and location, knowing that we can’t visit them all.
The first “must-do” town on our list was the picture-perfect traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk. This was the place I was most excited to see when we started preparing for our visit to Malta and from the very moment we got off the bus and the lovely colorful sight appeared in front of our eyes, I knew that my expectations were going to be met, if not exceeded.
Marsaxlokk is historically important as its bay, Golfo dello Scirocco, was where first Phoenicians landed and set up trading posts on Malta during the 9th century B.C. The village is also an important element of the island’s fishing tradition, since most of Malta’s fish supplies are caught by fishermen coming from this port.
Today, the village is famous for its fishing market and luzzus, colorful fishing boats painted in bright yellow, red, blue and green that can be seen rocking on the clear blue sea. With their colorful appearance and eyes, believed to protect them from danger, painted on the sides, the luzzus appear as all-knowing mythological sea creatures lurking quietly at the passers-by.
Most of the boats are carefully and lovingly preserved and kept by their owners and as such they look really gorgeous, set against the Marsaxlokk promenade lined with palm trees, cafes and market stalls selling traditional products.
We sat down in one of the cafes, enjoying the warm, sunny weather. The sight of boats rocking in front of us was almost hypnotizing. This was yet another image of Malta that will forever stay in my memory, with the colors of luzzus, the atmosphere of Marsaxlokk and the feeling of presence of the mysterious island heritage.
Another beautiful, although quite different Maltese town that we had the chance to visit was Mdina, The Silent City. This fortified town became the part of popular culture as the place in which parts of the Game of Thrones series were filmed – it “played” King’s Landing in season 1 of the series. For Malta, it bears a much greater importance, as it served as the island capital from antiquity to the medieval period. Mdina’s role as a capital, therefore, spans from ancient history to fictional worlds and times.
From the outside, hidden behind austere, monumental walls, the town seemed a bit unwelcoming, but once we crossed the bridge and entered the maze of quiet narrow ochre streets, we felt warm, secure and detached from the everyday life.
Mdina feels a bit like a museum town, and the nickname “silent city” suits it perfectly, as it gives out an air of mystery – as if the walls and buildings had a secret and if they could talk, they would tell fascinating, if somewhat frightening stories.
Adjoining the fortified town of Mdina stands Rabat, a town that takes its name from the Arabic word for suburb (as it was the suburb of the old capital Mdina) and it still feels like one, rather than a city of its own. Maybe because of that, Rabat is less occupied by tourists and a walk around this town shows a more domestic, everyday side on life on Malta.
Rabat is home to the famous Catacombs of St Paul, a complex used in Roman times to bury the dead as it was deemed unhygienic to bury them in Mdina. To walk around the complex today, dimly lit with yellowish light, and explore the niches is an interesting, if somewhat bizarre experience after which exiting the complex into fresh air and the sunny weather seems like a real relief.
Discovering small towns of Malta with their idiosyncratic appearances and atmospheres is a wonderful way to spend some time on the island. They show many different sides of the island and the way these towns and their residents live. Especially valuable is getting lost in back alleys, away from tourist trails – this is a way to discover the face of the island that is not created and presented for tourists only, that is more authentic and that is real everyday Malta, as seen and experienced by the lucky people who live there.