Invaders, pirates & 'Game of Thrones' sets: why Malta is a must-see

A trip to Malta and its sister island, Gozo, is the perfect pick for families with teens, writes Ben Ross

17 September 2017 - 00:00 By Ben Ross

In Malta, you can't even crash a Segway without getting a history lesson.
We'd travelled to Golden Bay - the most developed of a trio of sandy beaches on the northwest coast - in search of a family adventure on two wheels, and after a quick briefing in a car park from an enthusiastic chap called Jean Karl, had all bumbled off down a rough track.
I had been quietly impressed - one of those smug "how great is my family?" moments - by how quickly our two sons, aged 14 and 12, got to grips with all the off-road gyroscopic chicanery, when the inevitable happened and the younger one hit a pothole at speed.
He was soon lying on the ground bleeding copiously from his elbow, while the still enthusiastic Jean Karl set about him with bandages.Clive, our guide, immediately saw his opportunity and took me by my own elbow (which was mercifully unscathed) to point out a group of limestone buildings rising golden in the sun. "Old barracks, from when the British governed Malta," he told me, before spinning me round.
"And that is the Ghajn Tuffieha Tower," he said, gesturing to the southern tip of the bay. "Built in the 17th century by the Knights of St John, to signal a pirate attack."
My children are at an age where a balance needs to be struck. Activity holidays where the boys get daily exercise - a bit like puppies - always work well, but from their parents' point of view there's that growing anxiety that they should be exercising their minds at the same time.
Happily, a long weekend in Malta delivers plenty of opportunity for both.CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE
For a start, there's that constant peeling back of the historical onion skin. Golden Bay was once known as Military Bay; it's now dominated by a hotel complex and plenty of parasols, alongside those quietly disintegrating barracks buildings.
Much longer ago, the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans all left their mark in Malta.Plenty of scenes from Game of Thrones were shot here, with the ornate former capital of Mdina doubling for King's Landing and the crumbling cliffs at Migra l-Ferha, our next stop, serving as an occasional backdrop for the exploits of Khal Drogo, the Dothraki horse lord.
As he was only bleeding a little by now, we took the opportunity to hoist our youngest over the edge of those cliffs for his first-ever attempt at abseiling.
Marek, an invader from Prague, helped us do it, once he'd located the right equipment ("Sorry, I forgot your helmets and harnesses," should go down as one of the great opening lines in abseiling history).
By the time we'd all got to the bottom, the boys were so proud of their achievements that - had it been age-appropriate - they would probably have attempted to conquer George R R Martin's fictional land of Westeros by themselves.
Malta's sister island, Gozo, lies a 25-minute ferry crossing away, to the northwest. Its celebrated limestone arch, the Azure Window (also a Game of Thrones location) collapsed into the Med earlier this year and is now attracting scuba divers rather than sightseers, but we didn't let that put us off.On our visit we combined a session of sea-kayaking - making our way from the harbour at Hondoq ir-Rummien towards the smaller isle of Comino (population: three) and its blue lagoon - with an excursion to the Ggantija megalithic temple complex ("Older than Stonehenge!" reported Clive gleefully).
Here, huge blisters of ancient stone had been assembled into cloverleaf patterns long before the arrival of the wheel, provoking awe even in seen-it-all-on-PS4 teens.Perhaps that's why the Game of Thrones producers were lured here: these citadels, cathedrals and palaces still resound to echoes of the past, a blink of the eye from being real, inhabited places, where exotic-sounding people such as the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John went about their lives.
There's a delight in the detail, too: in the story of the bomb that pierced the dome of the Roman Catholic church in Mosta in 1942, falling during mass but failing to explode, an event interpreted as a miracle by the locals (unsurprisingly, given the huge size of the replica on display).There are the sombre facts elicited at the Catacombs of St Paul in Rabat on Malta (the amphora burials for children, the mourners hired to lament during the funeral), or the ornate balconies - wooden, stone, enclosed, open - that you see everywhere.
Even the door handles are impressive, as much status symbols as ways of getting entry to a building ("The bigger the family, the bigger the knockers!" said Clive, clearly getting into his stride).APPEALING LOCATION
Then there's Malta's capital, Valletta, where light from the prism of history splits to cast fresh colour on the present.
The extraordinary City Gate project by architect Renzo Piano, completed after much delay in 2015, is a vital link: a clean, modern entrance to the peninsula that nevertheless has echoes of the past, reflected in the pattern of "missing" stonework in the parliament building (designed to represent the crumbling limestone bricks found all over Malta) and in the open-air theatre that rises from the ruins of the former opera house.Almost everything in Valletta is appealing, from the sheer drama of its position, a spike between two harbours, to the view of the so-called Three Cities - Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua - across the bay, where the Knights repelled the Turkish invaders in the great siege of Malta of 1565.
Our only misstep was to visit the "Malta 5D" show, a rather tired project that attempts to summon up Malta through the ages via some ropy CGI, shaking cinema seats and a few puffs of scented air. Game of Thrones it was not.Malta doesn't need computer-generated enhancement or vibrating furniture to show off. A visit here is a chance for your children to set out on a few adventures of their own while watching real-life history unfurl before them - and there will be plenty of drama for the grown-ups to enjoy long after the Lannisters and Starks have done battle for the last time. - The Daily Telegraph..

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