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This little country is possibly Europe’s best-kept secret

There are some countries that remain an enigma, even when many of us travel the world daily via the internet. Malta is one of those countries, although we’re starting to suspect its mystery may be intentional…

This little country is possibly Europe’s best-kept secret
Photo: © viewingmalta.com

One of many things you probably don’t know about Malta is that it’s an archipelago. Granted, it’s a small archipelago made up of just three islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. But when each is as rich with natural beauty and history as the Maltese islands are, three is more than enough.

Planted in turquoise Mediterranean waters, just 90 kilometres south of Sicily and 300 kilometres north of Africa, Malta is a secluded gem with old-world charm. What’s more, with 300 days of sunshine a year and an average temperature of 23 degrees Celsius, it’s a year-round destination.

It’s also an eclectic spot with something for everyone. And we mean everyone. From sun-seekers to history buffs, water sports fanatics to self-confessed foodies.

With megalithic temples older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge (and claimed to be the oldest free-standing structures on Earth), 365 churches and chapels built from the 11th century onwards, spotless beaches, trendy restaurants, hip bars, and a climate that’s been voted “best in the world”, it’s hard to find a single place that offers more.

Find out more about Malta and start planning your trip

Holidaymakers searching for sun can unwind on stretching shorelines bordered by crystal clear seas. Sailing, snorkelling, windsurfing and scuba diving, among other water sports, are on offer, so you can spend a day at the beach even if you’re not a sun worshipper.

Ghajn Tuffieha beach. Photo: © viewingmalta.com

Among Malta’s many virtually untouched beaches are Ghajn Tuffieha, a narrow stretch of golden sand that appears to have been frozen in time 2000 years ago; the Blue Lagoon on Comino, a picture-perfect spot with cyan water and breath-taking views of the archipelago; and the red sands and lush greenery at Gozo’s Ramla Bay.

There are ferry terminals on all the islands so you can hop about the archipelago and soak in a view of the vast open ocean along the way. Ferries run all year round and take approximately 20 to 40 minutes each way, so you can easily explore all three islands.

After a day in the sun, you’ll be faced with the challenging task of picking where to eat at one of the many restaurants serving local and international cuisine. And wherever you’re staying — whether St. Julian in the north or Birzebbugia in the south — you’ll find a menu to suit your taste.

Order the catch of the day, share a freshly baked pizza, or try traditional Maltese dishes including rabbit stew and widow’s soup, a hearty hotpot with lumps of fresh goat’s cheese.

Dine at one of Malta's many cafes and restaurants. Photo: © viewingmalta.com

There’s also an up-and-coming nightlife scene with sleek cocktail lounges, rooftop bars, and late-night clubs — including a resident DJ spinning tunes at Twenty Two, Malta’s highest nightclub on the twenty-second floor of the Portomaso Tower.

The country’s potential as a party destination hasn’t gone unnoticed. For the past three years Ibiza favourite Annie Mac has chosen Malta to host her pre-summer event, Lost & Found Festival, held each year in May. It’s lured in a whole new type of tourist and spurred on the country’s ongoing efforts to rival popular destinations like Barcelona and Croatia.

But it’s not all beaches, restaurants, and bars. For those of you who like your sunshine holidays with a side of city break, Malta is proof you can have both. Although it’s been independent since 1964, everywhere you look you see well-preserved evidence of the several civilisations that have inhabited Malta over the past 7,000 years.

Read more about everything there is to see and do in Malta

Previously, Malta was a naval base for a succession of superpowers, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, and British, to name just a few. For lovers of culture, this is perhaps one of Malta’s most alluring qualities.

The blend of customs left behind is evident everywhere. From the cuisine (a mix of rustic Mediterranean dishes) and the local language (descended from an extinct variety of Arabic with Italian and French influence — although English is also widely spoken), to the architecture (a combination of styles from Siculo-Norman to Baroque and neoclassical) and the art (including several Caravaggios painted by the Italian artist during his 15-month stay on the island).

The waterfront in Valletta. Photo: © viewingmalta.com

Its capital city is among the three Maltese sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Valletta, known locally as “Il-Belt”, was built in the late Renaissance period and is awash with cultural and historical features. It’s no surprise the city has been named 2018’s European Capital of Culture.

Since earning the title in 2012, Valletta has received a facelift, including the regeneration of Is-Suq tal-Belt, an indoor market built in the 1860s under British rule. Many of its ancient palazzos have also undergone a transformation and are now stylish boutique hotels and apartments.

With all this going on, it’s no wonder Malta likes to retain an air of mystery — although this gem in the Mediterranean won’t stay hidden for much longer. Visit the country’s official tourism page to find out more and start planning your trip.

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Visit Malta.

 
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CULTURE

Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

Depopulation threatens the future of Switzerland's picturesque mountain villages, but three brothers are trying to keep theirs alive by capturing its essence in a bottle.

Brothers keep Swiss mountains in high spirits

In the one-road hamlet of Souboz, nearly 900 metres (2,950 feet) up in the Jura mountains, the nature-loving Gyger brothers distill whatever they forage, such as gentian roots and juniper, in a bid to sustain the local economy.

Switzerland is trying to stave off the slow-motion extinction of its remote communities as young people move to the cities for jobs and opportunities.

Thanks to a grant from the Swiss Mountain Aid foundation, the Gygers were able transform their grandfather’s old home into the Gagygnole distillery,
turning professional a couple of years ago.

The name comes from eldest brother Gaetan’s nickname Gagy, and gnole — French slang for a drop of the hard stuff.

On the ground floor of an old farmhouse, the scent of coriander and juniper berries hangs in the air, while warmth emanates from the 2.5-metre-high copper still in which Gaetan distills gin over a wood fire.

“This production site has been in our lives since we were very young. We really have roots anchored in our village,” he told AFP.
 An agronomist by training, Gaetan, now 30, had studied in Geneva.

“We didn’t want to set up in the city,” he said, despite the bigger potential client base.

 Mountains in Swiss DNA

The brothers’ choice is a rare one in Switzerland.

The mountains cover 70 percent of the country, but three-quarters of the population lives on the plain between the Juras in the north and the Alps in
the south and east.

Geneva, Lausanne, Bern and Zurich all lie in the area of relatively flat terrain between the two mountain ranges.

The mountain villages are emptying, their grocery stores are closing and, as in Souboz, the schools are shutting, too, as the population gradually
shifts ever more towards the lower-lying towns and cities.

The population of Souboz has dropped from 135 in 2012 to 85 last year.

Faced with the slow-motion exodus, some villages are trying everything they can to reverse the tide, including financial incentives to attract newcomers,
such as offering empty houses for a symbolic sum of one Swiss franc.

READ MORE: ‘Impossible’: Why Switzerland’s one franc homes are too good to be true

And Swiss Mountain Aid provides funding to hundreds of entrepreneurs, such as the Gyger brothers, to bring jobs and business to the hills.

The mountains are “part of our genes, our DNA”, but “if we want to keep the mountains alive, there must be people”, said the foundation’s chairman Willy Gehriger. “We act like the spark,” he explained.

Established in 1943 to help lift mountain dwellers out of poverty, the privately-funded foundation mainly supported farmers initially — but broadened its scope around a dozen years ago. Now it helps small businesses, installs Wi-Fi, pays for computer courses and funds the transformation of dilapidated listed buildings into tourist accommodation.

Gehriger said the agricultural sector alone was no longer enough to keep the mountains thriving.

 Message in a bottle

 Dressed in baseball caps and t-shirts and armed with an iPad, the Gygers are far from the stocky, rustic, grumpy stereotype of mountain men.They are on a mission to repopulate Souboz and revive the economy in the local Juras.

“We’re aware of doing something good for Souboz. Our mountain regions have enormous potential. They’re really something that we Swiss should be proud of,” said middle brother Luca, 27.

Their gamble has paid off as the family business has a handful of employees and occasionally takes on local artisans and farmers to help bottle up the
brothers’ original gin, whisky and vodka recipes.

Last year, they produced 18,000 bottles of spirits.

Gagygnole’s eaux de vie are sold in 200 shops around Switzerland and one of their concoctions was voted the best gin in the country last year — while the brothers’ gin fondue is also a hit.

The Gygers think it is still too early to consider exporting.

“We always refused because it was difficult in terms of logistics, but why not… as long as it goes with our philosophy,” said 26-year-old Tim.
 

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