Islands that conjure up a feeling of escapism, yet are closer to home than you think.
The Maltese Archipelago lies virtually at the centre of the Mediterranean, with Malta 93kms south of the Italian island of Sicily and 288kms north of Africa. Gibraltar is 1,826kms to the West and Tel Aviv is 1,940kms to the East.
Yet Malta is just a few hours’ flying time from most mainland European cities and has excellent intercontinental connections. Choose from scheduled services or charter flights, many of which offer a convenient departure point from European regional cities.
The national airline, Air Malta, operates flights to and from all the major airports in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Malta’s climate is strongly influenced by the sea and is typical of the Mediterranean. The Islands have a very sunny climate with a daily average of five to six hours sunshine in mid-winter to more than 12 hours in summer.Winters are mild, with the occasional short chilly period brought about by the north and north-easterly winds from central Europe.
Summers are hot, dry and very sunny. Day-time temperatures in summer are often mitigated by cooling sea breezes, but in spring and autumn a very hot wind from Africa occasionally brings unseasonally high temperatures and humidity. This is known as the Sirocco, or, in Maltese, the Xlokk – this wind affects Greece and Italy as well; in Malta the air is generally drier because of the short sea track from the African coast.
Annual rainfall is low, averaging 578mm a year, and the length of the dry season in summer is longer than in neighbouring Italy. Sea bathing is quite possible well in to the ‘winter’ months, and the peak beach season can last until mid- to late October.
The official languages are Maltese and English. Maltese is a language of Semitic origin written in the Latin script. Over the centuries, it has incorporated many words derived from English, Italian and French.
Gozo and tiny Comino provide a tranquil haven for a tempo and scene change.The charm of Gozo is apparent the moment you arrive there. Greener, more rural and smaller than Malta, life on Gozo moves at a leisurely pace. The rhythms are dictated by the seasons, fishing and agriculture. In winter and spring, the Island is covered with flowering herbs and lush crops. In summer, it’s awash with oleander, bougainvillea and geranium.
Gozo is steeped in myth. Thought to be the legendary Calypso’s isle of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s a peaceful, mystical backwater. Baroque churches and old stone farmhouses dot the countryside.
Its rugged landscape and spectacular coastline await exploration. Choose from rocky inlets to red sand beaches or sail, snorkel, dive and fish. Gozo has some of the Mediterranean’s best dive sites.
But there’s more. Gozo comes complete with historical sites, forts and amazing panoramas. Plus one of the archipelago’s best-preserved prehistoric temples, Ggantija, not to mention a nightlife and cultural calendar all of its own, and some great dining out.
All roads in Gozo lead to Victoria, or Rabat, as the local people call it. Almost the moment you arrive in Gozo, you see its Citadel rising steeply above the surrounding countryside. The impressive bastions command a superb view of the Island.
For centuries the Citadel served as a sanctuary from attack by Barbary corsairs and Saracens. At several times in Gozo's history, its population was taken into slavery by these raiders. When the threat subsided after the Great Siege, a prosperous town grew up below the Citadel.
Victoria is not just the geographic heart of Gozo, it is also the centre of everyday activity. It manages to combine the bustle of its market and shops with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere. It is a great place to watch the Islanders go about their day, especially when the main market square, It-Tokk, comes to life.
Browse around Victoria's market and narrow winding streets and you'll find everything from delicious fresh produce, cheeses and wines, to antiques, craft goods, fishing nets and knitwear. The town also has a thriving cultural life with some surprising attractions ranging from opera to horse races in the main street on festa day.