If you're looking for the ideal spring getaway in Europe, Malta might just be the place. Bang in the middle of the Mediterranean, the EU's smallest member state is compact, dense with people and culture, interesting and varied, as well as sunny. We made use of the possibilities afforded by the rotating EU presidency and visited for a sunny April weekend.
First of all, nature. If you would imagine what a largely built-up lump of dry limestone in the middle of the sea looked like, you most likely wouldn't think it was (relatively) green or that it would be home to such varied landscapes as dramatic cliffs, jagged coastlines, rolling hills or sandy coves all around, yet here it is. Even without any natural watercourses and with as dense a population, Malta manages to surprise. We were especially impressed by the cliffs at Dingli on the island's Southern coast, from where you have a wonderful view of one of Malta's (uninhabited) smaller islands, Filfla.
Then, food. Unsurprisingly, the island's cuisine is dominated by its excellent seafood: we visited the island's main fishing harbour at Marsaxlokk on a market day (Sunday) and sampled some of its excellent fried squid and idiosyncratic octopus stew in red wine sauce. One of your authors was also interested to learn that even though the island could not historically sustain any large farm animals, the inventive Maltese took to farming snails and rabbits instead: these are still an important part of Maltese cuisine and make for an excellent dinner (if you're into them, that is).
Lastly, culture. Unsurprisingly given its strategic location, Malta has over the centuries played host to an impressive sequence of civilisations, all of which have left their mark on the local culture. You can visit some of the oldest surviving buildings in the world (the prehistoric temples at Tarxien and Ġgantija) and follow the thread of the centuries right down to some rather quaint-looking British imperial buildings, as well as the striking contemporary City Gate and Parliament House complex by Renzo Piano. These can be found in Malta's capital city, Valletta, which is the unquestionable cultural highlight of any visit to the island. We were particularly impressed by the island's premier artistic treasure, "The Beheading of St John the Baptist" by Caravaggio, which hangs in its original location in the oratory of St John's Co-Cathedral: wanted for murder in Rome, the artist donated the painting to the Knights of Malta by way of a reward for (temporarily) giving him asylum.
Of course, we cannot end a post about Malta without a tribute to the island's cutest citizens: especially in Valletta and the surrounding areas, well-fed, cuddly cats reign over every corner.