Malta holds many mysteries for such a small island.
From a brief week there, I got the impression that whichever corner of the island I’d chosen to make my temporary home, it would still have thrown up little hidden gems. It’s an island steeped in history.
I was staying at the Riviera Resort & Spa, just 5 minutes on the bus from Mellieha: the closest town. Back home, I’d heard on the grapevine that there wasn’t much to do here, and that Mellieha was ‘a bit dull’, so I was kind of apprehensive.
I needn’t have worried.
Mellieha was a lovely place to visit, and would probably have been a nice place to stay, too, especially out of tourist season. (Convenient, too, as loads of buses seemed to stop there.)
It was also a fascinating place to explore. Aside from the beach (which is a bit coarse compared to some of the holiday-destination beaches of some of the Mediterranean’s surrounding countries, but it still supposedly one of the best beaches on Malta), and aside from going to the nearby ferry port to catch the boat to Gozo, there are a few hidden gems in Mellieha. It’s a town of hidden interiors.
HIDDEN INTERIOR 1: SANCTUARY OF OUR LADY OF MELLIEHA
One thing that Malta really does well is churches. Whether or not you have any kind of faith, many of the island’s churches are well worth a look, for their cultural, artistic and architectural awe if nothing else.
Mellieha is no exception to this. It has three churches, all pretty much on top of one another.
At the top of the hill is the Parish Church. Huge and imposing, it dominates the town, the highest point in Mellieha and visible for miles around. Every time we tried to get inside, we found that the door was locked, but it’s worth a look from the outside, and a good reference point for finding our first ‘hidden interior’.
Because just below the Parish Church is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha.
Stand facing the front of the Parish Church and then walk down a flight of steps to your right. When you reach a level plaza, you’ll spot the entrance to a beautiful courtyard, which has stunning views towards Gozo and across the Mediterranean. On the left of the courtyard is the entrance to the Sanctuary.
Inside, the church is a calm, peaceful place, rich with artwork and Latin inscription. It’s a place to sit and contemplate. A place to take time out from the bustle of discovery and being on the road and to just be.
HIDDEN INTERIOR 2: GROTTO OF OUR LADY OF MELLIEHA
I said there were three churches almost on top of each other, but so far I’ve only mentioned two. The third is the Grotto of Our Lady of Mellieha.
The Grotto is downhill, continuing the line between the Parish Church and the Sanctuary. From the Sanctuary, head across the road and down another (long) flight of steps.
The Grotto is a simple underground space with stone walls and wooden pews. Lit by candles and what little daylight filters in from the entrance, the Grotto is dominated by a simple white statue of the Virgin Mary.
The space was created in the 1600s by enlarging an existing natural cave. The feeling of being underground, away from the cars and buses hauling themselves up the hill above you, carries with it the weight of history, especially in what is clearly such a holy place. You can almost feel the worship, faith and yearning drifting like dust motes through the air.
At the back of the Grotto, pinned to the wall, are hundreds of prayers, hopes and messages. Many of these are accompanies by photos and letters, and some by objects. One heart-breaking prayer had been placed there with a baby’s Christening gown.
If the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha is a place to sit and be, away from the bustle of daily life, then her Grotto is a place to escape from your own life entirely. It’s a place to let the history and faith of a thousand people soak into your skin. Whatever your own beliefs, it’s a place to feel part of something bigger, more ancient – something sacred.
HIDDEN INTERIOR 3: AIR RAID SHELTER
But of course, not all of Malta’s history is religious.
Malta was heavily bombed during the Second World War. All over the island, the war forms a significant part of history, its legacy still noticeable in air raid shelters and look-out points right across the country.
The air raid shelter on Mellieha is one of many shelters on Malta. I heard from a number of people that it was the best one (I think for visitors, rather than necessarily for people seeking refuge).
This is partly because the shelter is huge. Entirely dug and chiselled out by hand, it’s an extensive network of tunnels that just goes on and on, with side rooms and man-made caves leading off into the hillside.
It’s also a very informative site, with facts and information at various points along the walls. Watch out for the mannequins posted at the tops of stairs and around corners… I think they’re there to give an impression of the sorts of people who would have used and built the shelter, but it can be a bit unnerving when you round a corner and suddenly see a face peering at you through the gloom!
But the best bit? The shelter is manned (at least some of the time) by an 84-year-old man, who remembers having to hide out in shelters like this one as a boy. And if you catch him in the right mood, he’ll tell you all about it! (He also has an adorable dog, which is always a bonus.)