The Maltese Connection

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Malta’s traditional Luzzu fishing boats.

The Mediterranean island of Malta, sitting between Italy and North Africa, is a melting pot of different cultures and influences. Abbe Bates visits to discover what to include on a group trip.

alta is the largest of the Maltese islands, which also include Gozo and Comino. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean means it has had numerous invaders over the centuries, giving it a rich and vibrant history that could fill a visit on its own. When looking at accommodation, it is advisable to use four or five-star hotels for your group, as the standard below that can be patchy. You can get some good value deals and there are a choice of locations, from the resort towns of St Julien’s, Sliema and St Paul’s Bay to the historic capital Valletta. The climate is pleasant all year round, with temperatures dipping to not much below the teens Celsius, even in winter.

The two main languages on the island are English and Maltese, and the Maltese language reflects the different influences on the island, largely Semitic in origin but using the Latin alphabet, with a smattering of French words picked up during Napoleon’s reign and English from its time under British rule.

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An aerial view of the Grand Harbour in Valletta.

Valletta and the Knights of St John

Malta’s capital Valletta is a ‘must-see’ whilst on the island and it is certainly worth booking a guide for a walking tour or to join your coach. With its grid-like layout and limestone buildings, it was built in 1566 by the Knights of St John, who play an important part in Malta’s story and still exist today, with modern connections to organisations such as St John’s Ambulance in the UK.    

This Catholic order of hospitallers arrived on the island in 1530 and fought off an invasion by the Ottomans known as the ‘Great Siege’ in 1565 before founding Valletta to help fortify the island, naming it after their leader, Grand Master La Valette.

There are numerous places to visit on Malta connected to the Knights of St John. St John’s Co-Cathedral, in particular, includes two famous paintings by Caravaggio in its Oratory, as well as a beautiful interior and many of the tombs of the Knights. You can also visit the Grand Master’s Palace, with its Armoury of around 6,000 pieces and impressive State Rooms featuring Gobelin tapestries. Those looking for a religious theme to a tour are, in fact, very well catered for, with over 350 churches across the islands.

For a very good overview of Malta and its history, Malta 5D is a multi-media audio visual show in Valletta that takes about 15 minutes and provides a good starting point to a visit to the islands.

An insight into the nobility of Malta is given at the well-presented Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century palace still lived in by the family

, who will personally escort groups around the site, and also provide Champagne evening tours. Be sure to meet the resident macaw and terrapin in the courtyard!

Picturesque and wide-ranging views can be taken in from the Baracca Gardens over the Grand Harbour and you will find the Saluting Battery here, where daily gun firings are made at 12pm and 4pm.

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The Grand Master’s Palace.

Valletta is European Capital of Culture in 2018, and for more details of events taking place, see the panel on page 44.

Across the harbour, easily accessible on a boat cruise, is the town of Vittoriosa, where the Knights of St John made their home before they built Valletta. You can still see some of the auberges or inns where they stayed. A walking tour will reveal peaceful streets with houses that are slowly being refurbished – look out for the intricate doorknockers in the shape of fish
and dolphins!

Mdina and Rabat

A visit to Mdina is also a highlight of any trip to Malta. On the way, it is worth stopping at one of the oldest villages on the island, Naxxar, and visiting the 18th-century Palazzo Parisio. It was added to during the 19th century and houses some beautifully decorative rooms and deceptively big gardens as well as an adjoining restaurant, Luna.     

Mdina itself has a history dating back more than 4,000 years and was the old capital of Malta before Valletta was built. It is one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city and is often known as the ‘silent city’, mainly because of its lack of cars and subsequent tranquil atmosphere. Winding your way around its narrow streets, you will find numerous restaurants and cafes, as well as shops selling local crafts including Mdina Glass; from the top of its walls, you get a great view of the island.

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The gardens at Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar.

It is said that apostle St Paul lived in Mdina after he was shipwrecked on the islands, and you will find a number of attractions dedicated to him in neighbouring Rabat, including St Paul’s Grotto, where he is believed to have founded the first Christian community on Malta, and St Paul’s Catacombs, a maze of underground Roman cemeteries that represent the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity on Malta. Rabat was an important site during the Roman period and you can also visit the Roman villa here, Domus Romana, with its fine mosaics.

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Intricate mosaic patterns at Domus Romana.

When on a trip to Mdina and Rabat, the nearby Meridiana Wine Estate is perfect for groups. The attraction provides a tour, which includes a visit to the fermentation room and underground cellar as well as a wine tasting and lunch, which can be enjoyed either inside or on the outdoor terraces. Here you can sample the red, white and rose wines produced at the vineyard, as well as buying the produce in the on-site shop.

Wartime in Malta

Due to its significant geographic position, Malta played key roles in both World War One and Two, especially as at that time it was under British rule. During World War One, the island effectively became a hospital and cared for hundreds of thousands of injured Allied soldiers including those from the Gallipoli campaign, earning the nickname the ‘nurse of the Mediterranean’. During World War Two, the island suffered another siege by enemy forces, with bombers based in Sicily subjecting it to some of the heaviest bombardments of the war during 1942. This almost crippled the island but it held out and in 1943 became the Allied base for the invasion of Sicily. The whole population was awarded the George Cross by King George V for their bravery during this period.    

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The Saluting Battery in Valletta.

The Malta at War Museum in Vittoriosa gives an insight into daily life on Malta during World War Two through original artefacts from the time, multi-sensory displays and original wartime footage. There is also a viewing of an underground air shelter included with a visit.

Across the harbour in Valletta, the Lascaris War Rooms give an excellent idea of how Allied operations were conducted from Malta during World War Two. The original rooms are housed within a network of tunnels, displayed as they would have looked at the time, and an informative film helps you to understand Malta’s role in the conflict. From the Saluting Battery in Valletta, which includes a restored Artillery Store and Gunpowder Magazine, you can take a War HQ Tunnel Tour too to explore the World War Two underground tunnels further.   

For more World War Two connections, in Mosta, the town’s 19th-century Dome houses a replica of the bomb that crashed through the roof in 1942 during the aerial bombardment of Malta, when the church was crowded with people sheltering from the action. Miraculously, it did not explode and no-one was killed.

At Ta’ Qali, a former Royal Air Force station, meanwhile, the Malta Aviation Museum houses a collection of aircraft that includes wartime planes such as the Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX and the Hawker Hurricane IIa.

With all this history on Malta, it is easy to see how you can design an itinerary ideally suited to those with a particular interest in wartime heritage.

Prehistoric temples

Further back into history and the islands of both Malta and Gozo are the sites of imposing prehistoric temples now on the UNESCO World Heritage List along with Valletta and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.     

Reached by a short ferry journey from Malta, the Ggantija Temples are considered the oldest surviving free-standing monuments in the world and are believed to have been built between 3600-3000BC, pre-dating both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. A tour of this site will allow you to marvel at the sheer size and scale of the blocks.

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The prehistoric Hagar Qim.

Whilst on Gozo, make sure to visit the picturesque coastal swimming sites and viewpoints such as the Azure Window at Dwejra Point and the Bay of Xlendi. You can also make the trip over to the smaller island of Comino from Gozo, which is car-free so ideal for walkers, and swim in the Blue Lagoon.

Hagar Qim is the main prehistoric site on Malta, dating from a similar period to the Ggantija Temples. A tour will reveal how the stones are aligned for the summer solstice and intriguing features such as table altars. There is an onsite visitor centre showing a short film that gives further insight into the temples. The site overlooks the islet of Fifla and adjacent to it is another temple, Mnajdra. Not far away is another beauty spot, the Blue Grotto, an ideal stop for taking pictures as well as boat trips.

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Traditional Maltese food and drink at the Meridiana Wine Estate.

Maltese food and drink

Traditional Maltese food is making something of a comeback on the island, and is often described as typical peasant food, with favourites such as ‘pastizzi’ – flaky pastry parcels filled with ricotta or peas – sold in abundance on the streets and in cafes. Dishes such as Lampuki Pie (fish pie), Bragioli (beef olives) and Bigilla (a thick pate of broad beans in garlic) are delicacies to try as is the freshly caught fish on Gozo and in the wonderful restaurants and markets in Marsaxlokk, the largest fishing village in Malta and a great place to spot the traditional Maltese fishing boats, the Luzzus.

As well as the Maltese wine, be sure to sample the local beer on Malta, Cisk (pronounced chisk) too.

Malta events

A host of international events take place on the Maltese Islands every year, including the Malta International Fireworks Festival in April, the Malta Jazz Festival in July and the Malta International Arts Festival in July and August, as well as popular sporting events such as the Malta Marathon in February and the Gozo Half Marathon in April. For more details on events in Malta, visit www.visitmalta.com/en/events

You will also find lots of cultural events including exhibitions, theatre and music planned for 2018 during Valletta’s tenure as European Capital of Culture. Visit www.valletta2018.org for more information.

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The Malta Jazz Festival.

Planning your visit

I travelled to Malta with Brightwater Holidays, the Fife-based tour operator, who in conjunction with the Malta Tourism Authority provided an excellent introduction to the island, its culture and cuisine.    

We flew with Air Malta, currently planning 30 weekly scheduled flights from seven UK airports to the island during the coming summer season. The airline offers flexible pricing, including one free piece of luggage and 10kgs of hand-luggage per person, as well as a complimentary snack and small bottle of water onboard.

Our guide during the trip was the excellent Josianne Lenicker who provided a varied and interesting commentary throughout our visit.

Brightwater is a major provider of tailor-made travel for groups and arranges holidays for all types, ranging from social groups to National Trust members centres, NADFAS and U3A, to name just a few. The company also works with many incoming overseas groups. It creates programmes to any specification and is happy to provide quotations and suggested itineraries for groups of any size on request – there is no minimum number of participants. Email ellen@brightwaterholidays.com or telephone 01334 657155 to request further details or ask for a group tour quotation.

Full page fax printFACT FILE

CURRENCY Euro

FLIGHT TIME FROM UK 2.5-3hrs

DISTANCE FROM THE UK 2,553 kilometres

POPULATION 423,282

SIZE 316km2 (total area of the Maltese archipelago

Some pictures courtesy of © viewingmalta.com

‘New for 2015’ at WWT’s London Wetland Centre

Group by H Tait

The WWT’s London Wetland Centre is launching ‘new for 2015’ special interest tours where groups can discover more about a wide variety of wildlife.

The tours include a wildflower walk (May-August) where visitors can stroll through stunning wildflower meadows while learning about the flowers that bloom at this time of year, including orchids, water lilies and cowslips.

Other options offered are a butterfly walk (June – August) to get close to butterflies and other insects while guides explain all about species including painted lady, brimstone and Essex skipper butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, a horticultural walk (all year) to find out more about the rain garden and tips about gardening for wildlife, and a fungi walk (October-January) to learn about these seasonal show-stoppers including common birds nest, giant puffball and waxcap species of fungi.

Please book early by calling 020 8409 4400 or emailing groups.london@wwt.org.uk. For more information about a range of group benefits at all nine fantastic Wetland Centres please visit wwt.org.uk/groups.

Christmas cheer

 

Christmas Market

Bristol’s Christmas Market.

Brenda Watkinson checks out what towns and cities are planning this Christmas to deliver an enticing mix of festive shopping opportunities for groups.

Christmas shopping outings are always popular with groups and a great way to get into the festive spirit. In fact, there is nothing more magical than strolling along ancient cobbled streets decked with colourful decorations and twinkling lights in search of those special Christmas gifts. In this feature, we present a snapshot of what some of the UK’s cities and towns are offering in the way of Christmas shopping opportunities accompanied by a varied programme of festive events.

 

YORK

The city of York makes a great group shopping destination and, for the first time ever, the popular St Nicholas Fair will run for a full 25 days in the run-up to Christmas. The fair features traditional wooden huts selling gifts, crafts and the very best in local farm produce. New for this year, York is launching a brand new St Nicholas Christmas Festival, also running from 27th November to 21st December, and this will include a host of festive events at the city’s major visitor attractions such as a programme of carol concerts at York Minster (see page 55), a Made in Yorkshire art and craft market at the medieval Guildhall, ice skating at York Designer Outlet’s Yorkshire Winter Wonderland and festive chocolate fun at York’s CHOCOLATE Story (see page 57). These events will run alongside the traditional festive market stalls, where stall holders will be dressed in Victorian costume.

 

BATH

Bath Christmas Market.

Bath Christmas Market (27th November to 14th December) features more than 150 beautifully decorated wooden chalets, selling a variety of high-quality products including handmade Christmas decorations, personalised gifts and toys, local artwork and designer jewellery. Set in the picturesque streets and squares surrounding Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths, Bath Christmas Market is located right in the centre of the shopping district so visitors can also enjoy the excellent mix of high street and designer shops, attractions, cafes and bars in this UNESCO World Heritage city. In the run-up to Christmas, there will also be candlelit carol concerts, special exhibitions, shows and music events on offer along with Bath on Ice, a great way to enjoy the city’s winter festivities.

 

BRISTOL

The city of Bristol makes a particularly good destination for a Christmas outing or short break. Bristol shopping quarter comprises Broadmead, the Galleries and Cabot Circus and is home to over 500 stores including flagship department stores and high street favourites, perfect for Christmas shopping. Free coach parking is available nearby. A free event at Cabot Circus shopping centre on Friday 7th November at 6pm will see the switch on of Bristol’s Christmas lights and the official start of the festive season in the city. Another highlight for groups this year will be the popular German-themed Christmas Market, located in the pedestrianised area of Bristol Shopping Quarter, Broadmead (7th November to 22nd December). Visitors will be able to browse the quaint wooden chalet-style stalls selling gifts, original homemade crafts, and German-themed food and drink before relaxing in the Bavarian beer garden. A local produce and craft market will join the German-themed market from 4th to 21st December, featuring gifts with a Bristol twist, local handmade goods and Fairtrade produce. A short stroll away is St Nicholas Market in the heart of Bristol’s Old City surrounded by beautiful Georgian architecture and boasting award-winning produce and some unique stalls. New for 2014 is a giant snow globe, which will be located near the Christmas market in Broadmead, where shoppers can step inside and have their picture taken, making a perfect souvenir or gift for family and friends.

 

GLOUCESTER

Gloucester Quays Outlet Shopping is bringing a mix of Christmas festivities to the historic Gloucester Docks this winter with its annual Victorian Christmas Market (20th to 23rd November) and Festive Fayre (12th to 14th December). Spanning the Quay’s waterside area, the traditional Victorian Christmas Market transforms the outlet’s outdoor space with over 120 stalls selling artisan food, handmade goods, gifts and bespoke fashion items. The atmosphere is enhanced by Dickensian street performers and live music including regional brass bands and choirs at the Victorian Bandstand. Meanwhile, the Gloucester Quays Outlet’s Festive Fayre features over 80 tempting producers, boasting the finest seasonal produce from around the country and even further afield. You will also find unique handcrafted gifts, locally grown Christmas trees, handmade decorations, wreaths, scented candles and seasonal plants. Gloucester Quays Outlet features over 60 stores including M&S Outlet, Next Clearance, Gap Outlet and many designer brands with savings of up to 70% off RRP.

 

SWANSEA

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The festive funfair in Swansea.

In Swansea, groups are welcome to join in the city’s Christmas festivities. Not to be missed is Swansea’s award-winning Christmas attraction Waterfront Winterland in Museum Park (14th November to 4th January 2015) featuring two outdoor ice rinks – the Admiral Rink and a children’s rink – a festive funfair, Santa’s Grotto and a Sky Ride right in the heart of the city. Ice skating tickets are on sale from September 2014. Always popular with groups, Swansea’s Christmas Markets (28th November to 21st December) offer both festive food and distinctive gift ideas while this year’s Christmas Parade (16th November) will once again have Father Christmas as the guest of honour to switch on Swansea’s Christmas lights and really get the festivities going.

 

BIRMINGHAM

In the Midlands, Birmingham is increasing in popularity as a Christmas and New Year destination and proudly boasts the largest authentic Christmas market outside Germany and Austria. The Frankfurt Christmas Market (13th November to 22nd December) is the centrepiece of the city’s festive event calendar and features over 180 stalls selling gifts, jewellery, decorations, handmade toys, delicious German fare and Glühwein. Meanwhile, adjacent to the Frankfurt Christmas Market, the Christmas Craft Fair offers a selection of beautifully hand-crafted items, created by local artisans. In fact, Birmingham is the perfect place to get Christmas shopping all wrapped up with over 1,000 shops within a 20-minute walk in the city centre. At the heart of the city is Bullring, home to 160 shops and the iconic Selfridges complex while The Mailbox houses some top designer names such as Harvey Nichols. Other key dates in Birmingham’s festive calendar include the annual Christmas Parade and Light Switch On (8th November) and Acorns Charity Santa Fun Run in Brindleyplace (6th December).

 

MANCHESTER SALFORD

Dickensian Street performers

Dickensian Street performers at The Lowry Outlet.

Further north, no festive visit to Manchester would be complete without a stroll through the famous Christmas Markets (14th November to 21st December). Located at a number of sites in the city centre, the markets comprise over 300 stalls and are a fantastic place to start your Christmas shopping experience as they offer a great choice of original gifts and a chance to indulge in an array of mouth-watering delicacies from across Europe. Afterwards, your members could head off to explore the rest of the Mancunian shopping experience such as the Arndale Shopping Centre, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and the out-of-town Trafford Centre, all of which will be celebrating Christmas in style. Outside the city centre, a Victorian Christmas Market can be experienced this year at The Lowry Outlet in the heart of MediaCityUK in Salford (4th to 7th December). Considered the highlight of the shopping season, the Christmas market boasts over 100 different producers with uniquely decorated stalls selling artisan food, handmade goods, gifts and bespoke crafts. There will also be lots of entertainment including regional brass bands and choirs at the Victorian Bandstand along with Dickensian street performers. The Lowry Outlet boasts more than 80 stores, restaurants and cafes including M&S Outlet, Molton Brown, Cadbury’s, Whittard of Chelsea, Gap Outlet and The Body Shop offering savings of up to 70% off RRP.

 

EDINBURGH

At Edinburgh’s festive markets.

Edinburgh offers a picture-perfect setting to celebrate the festive season and visitors can expect twinkling lights, mammoth Christmas trees and a superb selection of independent and high street shopping. The action starts on Light Night (23rd November) as Edinburgh’s Christmas lights are switched on in George Street directly followed by the opening of Edinburgh’s Christmas (23rd November to 5th January) featuring events, attractions and festive markets. Iconic favourites include the Princes Street Gardens’ ice rink and Big Wheel along with some exciting new additions, Santa and the Elves’ workshop, hidden in the giant Christmas Tree Maze, and the Santa train.

 

FESTIVE FAYRES 

 Festive fayres conjure up some very colourful images – Christmas decorations and lights brightening the streets, the aroma of mulled wine and cinnamon wafting in the air and the distant sound of choirs singing carols. However, it is worth noting that careful pre-planning is essential to make your outing a success as the fayres can get extremely busy, especially at weekends.

Famous for its connections with the Great British author, Charles Dickens, Rochester offers a selection of independent shops and restaurants and its High Street oozes with festive spirit in the run-up to Christmas. This year, 15th November will mark the beginning of Yuletide festivities with the traditional Christmas Light Switch-on ceremony, followed two weeks later by the 2014 Rochester Christmas Market. Held in the iconic setting of Rochester Castle Gardens, the market offers gift ideas, value goodies and stocking fillers along  with some tasty Christmas treats (29th and 30th November, 5th to 7th December and 12th to 14th December). Meanwhile, a separate event, the annual Dickensian Christmas Festival (6th and 7th December) is popular with groups too. New for 2014, a Christmas Lunch is served in the grand Queens Hall of Rochester’s Corn Exchange and is offered exclusively to groups during the Dickensian Christmas weekend only (pre-booking essential). Coaches and minibuses need to pre-book parking for the market and festival weekend.

Meanwhile, just 20 minutes from London, St Albans with one of the oldest regular markets in the UK, dating back to the 9th century, has confirmed the dates for its second ‘German-inspired’ Christmas Market this year (27th November to 21st December). The 25-day event will take place around the magnificent 11th-century St Albans Cathedral and feature more than 80 traders selling a range of high-quality goods as well as specialty food and drink. There will be live music and entertainment throughout the event. Coaches can drop off passengers in St Peter’s Street, a five-minute walk from St Albans Christmas Market.

Another traditional Christmas market is held in the cathedral city of Lincoln (4th to 7th December) where visitors can browse over 250 stalls located within the medieval square between the Norman castle and Gothic cathedral. In addition to the usual range of high quality stalls, several exciting changes are taking place this year, including more entertainment in all areas of the market to create an even more festive atmosphere. Visitors to the market should look out for handmade jewellery, hand-poured candles, wooden toys, hand-painted glass, ceramics and locally-created art, as well as fresh produce from the local area. Coach groups must pre-book for the Lincoln Christmas Market 2014 before 23rd November with Early Bird prices available until 30th September.

Celebrating its 22nd anniversary this year, Worcester Victorian Christmas Fayre (27th to 30th November) will feature more than 100 stalls this year and the city’s historic centre will be transformed back to the Victorian era. Visitors will have no problem choosing their Christmas gifts as they browse the range of products on offer in the local arts and crafts maker area, international area, festive gifts area and food court. Entertainment includes carol singing, instrumental performances, dance displays and juggling stiltwalkers!