For most visitors to the Maltese Islands, Valletta - and to a degree, its more ancient predecessor, Mdina – located on the eastern edge of the main island of Malta, is the main location of choice. Just 80km south of Italy, and a mere three-hour flight away from the UK, the island’s capital is replete with architectural and artistic treasures – so much so that it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
It has also been a staging ground for international diplomacy and geopolitics. In 2015, Valletta hosted the Valletta Summit on Migration in which European and African leaders gathered to discus the ongoing European migrant crisis. Later that same year, the city also hosted part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the 24th meeting of the heads of government of the Commonwealth of Nations, a meeting that played a large part in setting the path for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris and the ground-breaking climate change agreement that followed. Most recently, Valletta was crowned European Capital of Culture 2018, the first time for a location in Malta.
Not at all bad for the European Union’s smallest member state (the entire archipelago covers an area of just 316km2).
As part of the celebration for this, but also to shine the spotlight on areas other than just the much-visited capital, Malta has in recent years participated in a project put together by the European Commission, entitled European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN), that aims to promote sustainable tourism development models across the EU. Throughout the Union, national-level competitions result in the selection of an ‘EDEN Destination of Excellence’ award for each participating country. The competition centred around the theme of destinations which provide a tangible cultural offer, with each country arriving at one winning location and five runners-up.
Malta’s winner was Qrendi a small village located in Malta's Southern Region (one of the five governing regions that make up the islands) and home to approximately 2,750 people. Qrendi is the site of the famed pre-historic temples of Ħagar Qim and Mnajdra which date back to 3700BC and 3600BC respectively and have been described by the World Heritage Sites committee as being ‘unique architectural masterpieces’. Qrendi also houses Phoenician and Paleo-Christian rock-tombs, as well as Knights’ period watch-towers and churches, and the geological formations of Maqluba – a 420 square metre natural sinkhole that is considered a Special Area of Conservation – Candidate Site of International Importance and designated as a Tree Protection Area, forming part of Natura 2000 sites, a network of nature protection areas within the EU.
The first runner-up was the small village of Għajnsielem, on the southeastern coast in Gozo, which is the second largest island of the archipelago. Għajnsielem is translated as Peaceful Spring and gets its name from the water spring, around which in 1700AD, Grandmaster Perellos built an arcade containing public wash basins and fresh water spouts. Aside from the natural waters, its main draw for visitors is a Christmas event which has become one of the most popular in the Maltese islands. Twenty thousand square metres of once neglected land have been converted into a recreation of Christ’s birthplace, earning it the name of Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem and visitors surpass 100,000 annually. Over 15 different NGOs and private businesses are involved in the running of this site.
The second EDEN runner-up was Dingli, a village on the western point of the archipelago, set on a high plateau some 250m above sea-level, with vantage points over the sea and the surrounding countryside, providing some of the most beautiful views Malta has to offer, including that of the tiny, uninhabited isle of Filfla located five kilometres south of Malta.
Dingli gets its unusual name from that of Sir Thomas Dingley, a 16th century English knight of the Order of St John, who owned much of the lands in the surrounding area. The area contains a wealth of rock-cut tombs dating back to Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman times, as well as Roman baths and other remains.
Mellieħa is a 10,000-inhabitant strong village in the Northern Region which was the third runner-up in the EDEN contest. It's a popular draw for visitors due to pristine sandy beaches and its elevation, commanding as it does distant views of Comino and Gozo. As well as being home to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa, the labyrinth of a war-time air-raid shelters, and Popeye Village (a film set purposefully built for the 1980 live-action movie of the same name starring the late Robin Williams), it was also notable for being named a European Destination of Excellence in 2009 due to an array of sustainable initiatives put in place by the local governing bodies.
The last EDEN runner-up was Ta’ Xbiex. Located in the central region of Malta, the small town of Ta’ Xbiex is home to about 1,800 inhabitants, many of which are foreigners. Ta’ Xbiex hosts a number of foreign embassies together with the flowering yacht marina, both situated by the pleasant Ta’ Xbiex seafront, overlooking the magnificent Grand Harbour.
The blend of history and culture, warm and pleasant Mediterranean climate, beautiful scenery, and crystal-clear waters make the islands a magnet for diverse visitors fascinated by all the varied attractions that the island has to offer. Malta’s wide-ranging touristic product, offers experiences that never cease to surprise visitors who venture to explore the many contrasting corners of the beautiful islands.
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