One of my more recent obsessions is European neolithic and Bronze Age sites, and Malta has some of the greatest concentrations of these, particularly impressive given that the island’s fairly pint-sized. Malta’s prehistoric sites are justifiably accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. Even if you’re not that interested in prehistory, the level of artistry in the architecture and stone carvings is astounding even by modern standards.
First, to get some context for Malta’s prehistoric sites, visit Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology, itself housed in a
historic building, former HQ for the Knights of Provence. There, you’ll learn theories about how the various sites were constructed. You can also see many of the treasures that have been brought in from the actual temple sites for preservation. The statues and tiny figurines of the “fat ladies” (who may actually not always be women) are astonishing, in that they look like something the modern sculptor, Fernando Botero, may have created, with a little dash of the simple lines of Henry Moore thrown in. When you consider that someone created these thousands of years ago, you have to marvel at our ancestors’ creative genius.
Once you’ve gotten the context, visiting the actual sites is all the more interesting. The Tarxien temples are easy to get to by city bus from Valletta, and fascinating in their own right, but particularly because you’re left to consider them in a seemingly incongruous setting: smack dab in the middle of a busy, modern Valletta suburb. (Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the nearby Hypogeum because you have to book well in advance. Some tickets are available for next day viewings at the Archaeology Museum or the Fine Arts Museum in Valletta, however, but these are on a very limited first come, first-served basis.)
To see temples in a more dramatic coastal setting away from an urban environment, the twin megalithic sites at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are breathtaking. The visitor center has a cool, informative, very short introductory film replete with smell-o-vision and 4D effects; afterwards, you can walk among the stones, unlike more well-known sites like Stonehenge.
After taking in the temples, the fabulous walking trails here help you discover Maltese flora and fauna. There are lovely vistas of the sea, and the surrounding hills are dotted with ancient-looking stone huts, once commonly used for bird catching.
Though this practice isn’t completely in the past. As you stroll the walking trails here, you’ll probably meet some friendly Maltese men with super cute dogs. Though they’re not supposed to because of EU conservation directives, the men may be scoping out birds to hunt. In fact, an overenthusiastic passion for bird hunting is why you won’t see any Maltese Falcons on Malta. They’re now extinct. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are still lovely for both nature and prehistory, however, just don’t expect to see a lot of birds.