After five days trudging through record snowfall in Rome and one melancholy evening in rainy and cold Bari, I found sunshine and warmth on the island country of Malta. Within a few hours Winter's cold cavity had been replaced with a bright Mediterranean splendour reflected in the sun-bleached architecture and charming local smiles.
Malta and I were a glorious pairing worthy of the many stories it has inspired me to write since. It's one of the sunniest places in the world (annual rainfall of less than 300 millimetres), so you have a great chance of experiencing warm sun year-round.
I stayed in Malta for eight days, the longest out of any country I visited during my Europe tour. From freshly baked pastizzi and St Julian's nightlife, to Mdina and the capital city Valletta, here are some of the ways I embraced a warmer winter in Malta.
A Tale Of Two Capitals
With a flip-flop-friendly 16 degrees Celsius daily average, Valletta is Europe's warmest capital city during winter. Valletta's narrow and winding streets made navigating a little tricky – a deliberate design ploy to confuse would-be invaders. I initially bee-lined to prominent sights, such as the 16th-Century Fort St Elmo and a midday cannon salute from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, but in the end, simply spotting an intriguing piece of architecture, art or history on a random corner was what made this city pop for me.
About 13 kilometres away was the retired capital city, Mdina, which (I didn't think it possible) was far more historically impressive. Dubbed the 'Silent City' by residents and visitors – only certain vehicles are allowed to pass through the ancient walls – Mdina took me as far back as 4,000 years. Monasteries, catacombs, palaces and the scenic Bastion Square all contributed to the city's pulsating ancestry.
Dance Away That Nightly Chill
Even Malta can't always keep the heaters burning once the sun goes down, so I often found myself cuddling up to a drink in one of the late-night establishments. Although St Julian's does a decent job of fulfilling its reputation as Malta's party mecca, I spent more time in Paceville, which is all about bar-hopping convenience with an entire street of neighbouring clubs and bars.
The overwhelming crowds of summer tourists were nowhere in sight, leaving a far more enjoyable bunch of local revellers to drink and dance with until sunrise. Malta's nightlife isn't only designed for a drink and boogie. One of my most unforgettable nights began with karaoke at Memories, continued across to Havana nightclub's dancing poles for patrons, and finished with salsa, scotch and a 1am swim in a different club's indoor pool.
There's More Than One?
My pre-visit research into Malta extended as far as the weather report – I was desperate. So finding out that Malta was actually comprised of three islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – left a need to see them all. I visited the first two, but if I ever return I've been told to pack my snorkelling gear for the waters around Comino.
While standing on the rooftop deck of the ferry, I was fooled into thinking Gozo would be little or no different from the rest of Malta. Out on the water, I was still too far away to know Gozo's external appearance only betrayed a smidge of the distinct rural charm that was to come. The island let me drop the pace and appreciate Malta's countryside, coastal inlets and mythical lore. That's right, Gozo has Ramla I-Hamra Bay, where I encountered a rocky cliff with Calypso Cave, said to be where the nymph Calypso imprisoned the Greek king Odysseus.
There was something pleasantly pinch-worthy about the days I got to spend outside enjoying Malta's springtime climate. One such moment occurred during a visit to Dingli Cliffs, a popular picnic and scenic spot on the south-west coast. With a bag of pastizzi in one hand – a pastizz is a divine pastry filled with either mushy peas or ricotta cheese – I sat down on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean ocean. It was a clear day, I needed only a shirt and shorts, and the view complemented my mushy pea pastizz.
Looking a little closer, I discovered Dingli Cliffs' slightly morbid edge. The remains of vehicles could be seen clinging to the flatter areas of the cliff. The reasons and stories behind their existence gave Dingli Cliffs far more character than any 'scenic spot' I had visited prior or have been to since.