Malta’s size and climate make it just right for exploring on foot. Discover rugged natural beauty, rich history and a rainbow of flowers on this small, sunny island in the middle of the Mediterranean
Words by Rose Dykins
Malta’s beautiful Blue Grotto
Joyful lemon-hued crown daisies carpet the meadows on either side of our path. They explode over the dry-stone walls bisecting the farmland, where ramshackle limestone rubble pieces are skilfully stacked without mortar, irregularly placed, like wonky teeth. Patches of Opuntia cacti punctuate the valley, sprouting bright-red prickly pears.
It’s our first day of hiking in Malta. Pav, our sage walk leader, guides us uphill, and we slowly climb the dirt track, the sun feeling surprisingly fierce on my winter skin. Soft new thistle leaves brush at our shins as we make our way along the verdant, overgrown path. It feels as if we’re among the first to make this journey in quite some time. We pass the occasional dog-walker, but otherwise it’s like wandering around a giant garden and having it all to ourselves.
The fishing harbour of Marsaxlokk
Coastal walker’s paradise
Multi-faceted Malta is a natural choice for ramblers to explore, with impossibly beautiful coastal views, manageable yet sufficiently challenging walks, and 700 or so indigenous species of plant life to admire along the way. I’ve joined a Ramblers Walking Holidays trip for four days to explore Malta’s natural beauty and intriguing history, before the rest of the party moves on to the ancient remains and secluded bays of neighbouring Gozo.
Due to its strategically important location in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has been shaped by a succession of occupations since around 750 BC, when it was colonised by the Phoenicians. A former British colony – gaining independence in 1964 – the archipelago provided Allied forces in the Second World War with an important base for intercepting supply chains to the Italian forces. As a result, these tiny, idyllic islands became among the most heavily bombed places on earth.
During the pandemic, Malta was one of the hardest-hit tourist destinations in the EU, with an 80% drop, year on year, in overnight stays in the 12 months after Covid-19 struck in spring 2020. Now there’s a sense of revival. When we touch down at Malta International Airport – up to three and a half hours from Heathrow or Gatwick – there is an ample, yet fast-moving queue at Arrivals, where our passenger locator forms and NHS passes are checked (fully vaccinated travellers are welcomed). A 40-minute drive whisks us away to the sleepy village of Mellieha on Malta’s north coast, which makes a great base for walkers wanting to see Malta’s varied delights.
A quiet street in Rabat
A rambler returns
For David, an avid rambler, the trip marks his 90th Ramblers Walking Holiday – and this very same Malta–Gozo itinerary was the first one he joined 10 years ago. ‘Malta is a great place to come in the spring before it gets too hot, while it’s cold, dark and dank in the UK,’ he says. ‘The walking’s not too strenuous and the climate’s good. I also really like going to Gozo. The coastal scenery is fantastic, and it’s a much slower pace of life. There are two speeds in Gozo: slow and “leave it till tomorrow”.
‘After two years of not going anywhere, it’s great to be back travelling abroad, walking in places that are lovely and friendly, in a group environment,’ he adds. ‘There’s always this anticipation when you arrive at the airport: Who’s got walking boots on? Who’s carrying a rucksack? Who looks like a rambler?’
During each walk we take, David powers ahead, his enthusiasm palpable. He knows exactly where to go – and he’s happy to be back.
The Victoria Lines
The ‘Great Wall’ of Malta
For our first day, we set off on a five-hour walk to explore the Victoria Lines – fortifications built by the British in the 19th century along a natural geographical fault line – also known as the North West Front (or the Great Wall of Malta). They stretch for 12km/7 miles across the northern part of the island and are accompanied by relics of the nation’s military history – defensive structures such as a stone pillbox and artillery posts. Today, these serve a different purpose, marking the best vantage points for enjoying mesmerising views out across the Malta Channel.
We clamber across a section of the wall, carefully negotiating the uneven, rocky surface underfoot, with the emerald forest canopy on either side of us adding to the intrepid atmosphere. The modern world seems to melt away with each step. The following few kilometres lead us past a 17th-century knight’s tower and then down a narrow riverside path fringed by long, tickly grass. We walk in single file, views of the boulder-strewn Il-Qolla country park to our left, and the peach-coloured walled city of Mdina, perched on the hilltop ahead, growing ever closer.
We stop for our lunch break beside Chadwick Lakes, tucking into closed spinach pies bought fresh from a bakery in Mellieha that morning. These give us the fuel we need for a steady, steep ascent up a dirt road, which transitions to tarmac as we approach the town of Rabat. Here we peek into sunlit alleyways, crane our necks to peer up at intricate balconies, and choose our favourites among the freshly painted sea-green and turquoise doors that pop against buttercup-yellow limestone walls.
Then we reach Mdina. Under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the walled city was Malta’s capital until the 16th century. When it lost its capital status, mass movement away left it feeling like a ghost town, and people nicknamed it the Silent City. We pass through the city walls and into the warren-like streets, where cars are forbidden and a tranquil atmosphere pervades, the silence broken by little more than the gentle bustle of tourists and the clip-clop of horses and carts.
Valletta, the medieval capital
From village to Valletta
Our second walk of the holiday is a 6km/4-mile coastal hike from St Thomas Bay, finishing at the photogenic fishing village of Marsaxlokk. The reviving blue crescent of the bay sparkles in the morning light as we set off on our southward ramble down Malta’s eastern coast, the breeze concealing the strength of the sun.
We travel along clifftop dirt roads and another barely trodden coastal walking trail. At times, the path is no wider than 50cm, with grasses, bamboo and flowers shooting up past my waist. Our cameras click constantly at the rock windows and ivory cliffs that frame the bays we pass, including Il-Hofra z-Zghira and St Peter’s Pool, and the cyan-streaked sea beyond.
The final stretch leads us past industrial scenes of stacked shipping containers and a water-desalination plant, but soon we’re back among the meadows and crown daisies that line the stony path approaching Marsaxlokk. In the village, traditional Maltese fishing boats, striped turquoise, canary yellow and red, bob on the water of the island’s second-largest natural harbour. Some tourists settle on colourful benches or the harbour wall to watch fishermen at work, while others take a seat at one of the restaurants facing the water, or peruse the souvenir stalls.
That afternoon, it’s time for Valletta, Malta’s capital since 1571. Our minibus pulls up at the magnificent medieval limestone city, flanked by its comparatively frenetic commercial port. We wander a grid of intriguing streets, admiring the sights, such as the Barakka Gardens, designed to show off the surrounding seascape, and the city’s distinctive boxy Baroque closed wooden balconies. Some of the group make the stop at St John’s Co-Cathedral to get a glimpse of the only signed Caravaggio painting in the world, while others seek out the best spot for an aperitivo. Republic Square fits the bill: a tree-lined piazza with open-air cafés and the beautiful facade of the National Library of Malta.
Rambling a rainbow
We kick off our third day just outside the village of Mgarr, for a 15km/9-mile clifftop ramble back towards Mellieha, which takes most of the day. The terrain switches between red clay and stony paths, with some steepish ascents and descents. After a few hours, we reach the biscuit-coloured shore of Golden Bay – a lovely setting for an alfresco coffee at a cliffside restaurant, with the sapphire sea frothing against the surreally shaped cliffs, sculpted by time.
We walk on through an open expanse of fragrant thyme shrubs and spongy yellow euphorbia. Sky-blue thistles, scarlet poppies and the ever-present crown daisies guide us along our rocky path.
Tiny purple flowers, white daisies and the occasional violet iris find ways to grow out of cracks and crevices beneath our feet. After a stop for lunch, we carry on along the stony trail, descending sharply before strolling past neat squares of farmland and nurseries of cabbages, baby artichokes and squash.
Then for the steep bit. We lean in and dig deep to climb a near-vertical path that turns into steps – the final stretch that will take us to the medieval St Agatha’s Tower, also known as the Red Tower. When we reach the top, the ketchup-coloured structure stands straight ahead, while Gozo lies to the left.
Named after the patron saint of Malta, St Agatha’s Tower is shaped like a perfect sandcastle. Before heading back to our Mellieha base – traversing the sandy curve of Ghadira Bay en route – I want to be the queen of the castle. My leg muscles have a satisfying ache as I climb one of the stone staircases. The wind welcomes me with a blast when I reach the top. I hold on to my hat and look back over how far we’ve ventured today, and the journey that’s yet to come. It’s beautiful to behold. And, like Dave, I know I’ll be back.
Victoria Lines to Mdina (11km/7 miles, 4 hours). St Thomas Bay to Marsaxlokk then transport to Valletta (6km/3¾ miles, 2 hours). Mgarr to Red Tower round trip (15km/9 miles, 5 hours). Buskett Gardens to ‘Clapham Junction’ and temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra (13km/8 miles, 4 hours). The holiday then continues on the neighbouring island of Gozo.
When to visit
Malta is a year-round destination, but spring, early summer and autumn generally offer the best walking weather, while avoiding the peak tourist season.
Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 331133, ramblersholidays.co.uk) offers a 10-night Malta and Gozo trip from £1,369pp (next departures 5 October, 23 December 2022, 23 February and 22 March 2023), including return flights from London, airport transfers, baggage transfers, en-suite half-board accommodation, local travel costs and a dedicated leader.