Valletta has been acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1980. Photo: Alamy
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Malta can feel like a nation designed for pub quiz questions. Which country was governed by knights for almost 300 years before being surrendered to Napoleon? What is the nearest Commonwealth nation to Britain? What is the smallest nation in the EU?

It's not just the smallest country in the EU – Malta is one of the very smallest anywhere in the world. Small enough that it would fit into New South Wales more than 2500 times. Its population, however, is roughly only 17 times smaller. Malta may not be huge but it's simultaneously one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Of all its pockets of humanity, nowhere is quite so full of life as the current capital, Valetta. As well as being Malta's seat of government, it was one of 2018's European Capitals of Culture although given its tiny size and limited accommodation, organisers hoped the extra tourists would take a look at the entire country through a cultural lens.

To walk its narrow lanes now, to see its busy restaurants and bustling bars, Valetta feels both modern and ancient.
To walk its narrow lanes now, to see its busy restaurants and bustling bars, Valetta feels both modern and ancient. Photo: Shutterstock

Why did Valetta pursue this cultural construct handed down by the EU? While some destinations seek to put themselves on the map and others try to get the public's perception of them to change, the Maltese used it as an excuse to give Valetta a much-needed spring clean.

Walking the stone streets and feeling the Mediterranean breeze, it's hard to imagine that not so very long ago Valetta was rundown enough for many locals to consider leaving. It was perceived as unsafe and many of its businesses foundered. That, despite the city being acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site as far back as 1980.

To walk its narrow lanes now, to see its busy restaurants and bustling bars, Valetta feels both modern and ancient, something like a younger, more functional version of a mid-sized Italian city. It's casually cool but also polished and clean – the idea that it was a borderline ghetto seems genuinely impossible.

Quite where Valetta ends and the neighbouring towns begin is difficult to identify – so compact is the architecture and so ill-defined are the borders – until you stumble north to Spinola Bay. This could be any neighbourhood, anywhere in the Med, ravaged by mass tourism.

When Valetta was planned by the Knights of St John almost 500 years ago, they took into consideration the climate and built high structures to provide as much shadow as possible. Nonetheless, it can feel breathless in July and August, when the streets seem to constrict in the relentless heat.

Having walked as much as I could handle in the capital, I decide to take a trip west to Malta's second largest island, Gozo. Ask the anyone here where they're from and Malta might be their second answer: first and foremost they are Gozitans with a proud and distinct heritage, attitude and – though my ears couldn't decipher it – accent.

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A short ferry ride from the mainland, past the small almost completely uninhabited island of Comino, Gozo has just 33,000 of Malta's total population. Its largest settlement is Victoria in the centre of the island. Here grandmas sit outside their houses fanning themselves and awaiting the latest gossip; in town, generational gold dealers haggle over the latest arrivals. Above, the Cittadella dominates the town. The oldest parts were built more than 3500 years ago but the majority of what stands today was reconstructed in the early 1600s.

Too soon, my whirlwind tour of the island is over and I make my way back to the ferry and, eventually Valetta where the city is gearing up for another night of celebration – saints' days are causes for parties across town on these sticky August nights.

I feel as though this kind of thing has been going on in peace and prosperity forever, but I am assured that isn't the case. Thus the Maltese government's will to implement change via the Capital of Culture project seems like an endorsement of this EU initiative.

Next stop: Gozo.
Next stop: Gozo. Photo: Alamy

And its next big project now that Valetta's fanfare has died away? Gozo.

TRIP NOTES

Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Visit Malta.

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traveller.com.au/malta

visitmalta.com

FLY

Getting to Malta requires at least two stops. Etihad and Emirates offer relatively efficient routes through code share arrangements. See etihad.com; emirates.com

STAY

Located in a historic building in the heart of Valetta, the Palais le Brun was opened in 2018. palaislebrun.com

from traveller.com.au