The Hidden Gem: Discovering the Jewish Heritage & History of Malta – Part 1

Avraham Abulafia (Credit for all photos: New York Jewish Travel Guide)
Inland Sea

My journey started with an amazing flight on Turkish Airlines, my new number one airline from this day forward. Flying business class with Turkish Airlines was a real treat for me, as they provided us with all the amenities I could wish for; making the trip very comfortable. Time just flew by! Turkish Airlines has one of the best in-flight entertainments, as well as food and beverage services for all classes. It’s no surprise that the airline has won numerous awards. I strongly recommend this outstanding airline and look forward to flying with them again.

If you have a 4 hours layover in Istanbul while flying with Turkish Airlines, use the Turkish Airline Business Lounge.The Business Lounge is amazing (please note that you have to be in Business Class to have access). I can truly say that its worth the upgrade just to experience it! It is worth every minute of it! It is spread out over two big floors and consists of pure comfort, and offers an extremely friendly, contemporary design. The food is nothing short of incredible and caters to all different tastes. The lounge offers a huge array of activities, such as playing pool, watching TV, which offers channels in all languages and provides individual headphones, visiting the theatre, practicing your golf in a simulator, getting a free massage, taking a shower in a spacious bathroom, trying a range of Turkish delicacies and flavorful teas, playing the piano – the list is endless! I would go out of my way to have a layover in Istanbul, just to go back there. It is an absolute paradise for travelers.

“New Window”

I finally arrived at the exotic Island of Malta; staying at the most exquisite Hotel on the Island: The Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. This hotel is roughly located in the middle of the Island, away from the party scene, and offering a peaceful stay with a very friendly, amazing staff who seem genuinely pleased to welcome their visitors upon arrival. The service was excellent from check-in to check-out. The entire staff, from reception to spa, bars & restaurants, couldn’t have done more to meet my needs. The bedrooms were sumptuous with lots of space, containing huge, comfortable beds, leading out onto a lovely balcony and overlooking the beautiful gardens. The hotel provides free, high-quality Wi-Fi throughout its entire premise. Breakfast was excellent with a wide array of cold and hot dishes. Particularly good was the selection of freshly cut fruit, the frequently replenished poached eggs, and the variety of Maltese breads and pastries. The honeycomb was culinary heaven….very different and much lighter than many heavily processed honeys you can get at home. Delicious. It certainly got me off to a good start every day.

Ghajan Tuffieha – Sunset

Many thanks go to Chef Hogan, the Executive Chef of the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, and his team for the beautiful “light dinner”, served with amazing cheeses, fish, a variety of fresh salads and Maltese breads. It was “a tease of some wonderful flavors that we would be experiencing in Malta”. On a personal note, Chef Stefan Hogan cooked for the Queen of England last year!

The exploration of Malta and Gozo was led by Mr. Damon Allen from Exclusively Malta, a destination marketing company that provides authentic and exclusive experiences of the Island, as well as a unique Malta program infused with Jewish History that dates back from the Roman Period to the present. They did not disappoint by providing the best tours of Malta and its Jewish Heritage history. http://exclusivelymalta.com/

The main Island of Malta is 316 square kilometers, scattered with small cities everywhere, and the street are made of cobblestone. The total population of the islands is 450,000, including about 150 Jews, most of who are living on the main island, and make up one of the smallest active Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin.

Ghajan Tuffieha

The Island of Comino, almost uninhabited today, but famous for the Blue Lagoon, has Jewish roots. Comino is where the well-known Jewish Mystic Avraham Abulafia lived from the year 1285 on until his death in the 1290s. He was a kabbalist from Zaragoza. Abraham Abulafia was a Spanish mystic and founder of practical Kabbala. A strange character, he dreamed of forging a unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, he tried to convert Pope Nicholas III to his ideas. He was about to be burned at the stake, but with the Pope’s sudden death, he was spared, and later on sighted in Sicily, followed by Camino, where he claimed to be a prophet and the Messiah.

He wrote his book Sefer ha Ot or “Book of the Sign” in 1288, and his most intelligent work, Imre Shefer, also known as “Words of Beauty”, in approximately 1291. He supposedly died here, but there are no indications on where he is buried. The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish Community is an old man known by all as “The Admor”. He claims to be a direct, and personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta.

At L’Chaim Restaurant, Chabad Center

Gozo Island is the most charming destination of the Maltese Islands. With its quaint pastoral landscape, quiet towns, and pristine beaches, this little island is the perfect place to enjoy a relaxing vacation while discovering cultural attractions. Gozo is the best choice for beachside relaxation, snorkeling, scuba diving, and nature hikes. Unfortunately, there are no Jews living in Gozo today .

The Island of Gozo is accessible by ferry from Cirkewwa, on the Island of Malta, and only a 25-minute crossing. We were given the OK to use the salt pans of Xwenji near Marsalform. The traditional way of making salt in Gozo is still kept alive through the use of these pans. The rocks are very soft and white, and have been formed by the elements into spectacular shapes, which make a beautiful contrast with the crystal clear, blue water. It’s very scenic, to say the least.

“The New Window” is a beautiful place, with great photo ops. PLEASE do not ignore this place, now that the window has fallen. Sadly the sea reclaimed the Azure Window. Fungus Rock, the Chimney Hole and the Inland Sea are also really special. We explored the coast by taking a boat ride out into the caves and near where the Azure Window was, going from an inland lake through a tunnel, which lead out to the sea. It was simply amazing to sit in a little boat among the long row of cliffs and beautiful geology. The area is still well worth a visit, to see the inland sea with its cave entrance and the fossils in the bedrock, as well as the stunning scenery and the old Fort on the hill.

The Ggantija Temples is considered as one of the most important archaeological sites on the Maltese islands, and are certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This temple gives you a good picture of the layout of the megalithic temples and its excellent interpretation area, and will help you understand the other sites as well, such as Hagir Qim. To know the fact that they were built more than a 1,000 years before the pyramids is truly astounding. They are about 5,500 years old. It dates back to around 5000BC, and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, free standing building in the world. It’s even older than Stonehenge. The highlight for me was seeing a Black Whip Snake, appearing right in front of me. That being said, the Temples give you absolutely stunning views over Gozo.

For lunch, I would strongly recommend the restaurant Vini e Caprici, where I got to experience a wonderful culinary taste of the food of Gozo. This is a must-visit and you should book your next lunch or dinner here, if you are in the area. The list goes on: Best ice cream, cheese, eggplant, and so on and so on… Start with a Maltese platter for an assortment of bread, olives, bigilla (beans), sun dried tomatoes and my favorite Ftira Ghawdxija bread (Gozitan ftira), which resembles a pizza. This flat bread and the traditional Maltese loaf are kosher.

The Citadel of Gozo is a spectacular piece of history. Like Mdina, it is a fortress with a cathedral in it. I learned that, unlike Malta, Jews primarily lived outside the walls in so-called “Rabat”. However, there could have been a community within the walls that was used as a place for shelter and for selling goods, as the sign indicated. Not only does the history and culture enthrall you, the views from the top are simply stunning, and show the whole of the island. Walking on the walls of the citadel, including the fake dome ceiling in the church, is well worth a visit.

Ghajan Tuffieha (The Apple’s Eye) is another must-visit in Malta and a perfect place to watch the sunset. A truly magical place for hikers; the view from the top of the hills is majestic, full of life, and vibrant. Go and enjoy this calm and beautiful beach.

The ‎Temple of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra is another UNESCO-listed megalithic site. The prehistoric Hagar Qim Temples are located on Malta’s south coast in a commanding position on a rocky plateau, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the Island of Filfla. Dating from 3600 BC to 3200 BC, this ancient site was buried under mounds of earth until it was discovered in 1839. The facade, made up of two upright stones supporting one stone lintel, has a striking entrance. It is an amazing site, with two temple complexes, both very well preserved under canopies, to provide shade. They are on a hill, each 500m apart. Many of the smaller objects found at the site are now at the archaeology museum in Valetta. It was incredible to witness these timeless structures and learn about their mystery and importance. Walking amongst the monolithic stones sent me right back to the times of their creation. This is definitely a stop worth visiting for any history geek, or anyone who just enjoys beautiful vistas and impressive formations. The views over Filfla are spectacular.

Verdala Palace at Buskett Gardens was created to be a hunting lodge for the Grand Master, where they would import animals to be eventually hunted. It is the summer residence of the President of Malta and was originally built in the 16th Century. During the French blockade of 1798–1800, the palace served as a military prison for French soldiers, who were captured by the Maltese or British military, and surprisingly enough, they played checkers here!

We went on to Spinola Bay, located in St.Julian, for lunch at the incredible L’Chaim at the Chabad Center to meet Rabbi Chaim Shalom. We were received with a warm welcome. Delicious, fresh food was served to us in a clean and tastefully decorated restaurant with tables overlooking the sea and palm trees. It is centrally located, and with a very courteous staff. The restaurant holds a small synagogue and books in several languages. For all those who keep kosher, this place makes a visit to Malta much more comfortable, since it’s possible to eat both breakfast and dinner there. The restaurant offers Shabbat meals for a modest price and is even open on Passover. I was amazed by how good the kosher food in Malta could be- it really exceeded all my expectations. I highly recommend the baked fish all the dishes in this wonderful restaurant.

By: Meyer Harroch
(New York Jewish Travel Guide)

(To be continued next week)

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COMMENTS
  1. Great article, but I would strongly suggest not patronizing Turkish Airlines.

    They are super anti-semitic and anti-Israel and have gone against Israel on all matters.

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