Investigate probably the most noteworthy and best protected old destinations in the Mediterranean on the different islands of Malta, Gozo, and Sicily. See the staggering sanctuaries, experience the casual island way of life and test flavorful nourishment and wine en route.
Megalithic Temples – Discover the UNESCO-Listed Ggantija, Hagar Qim, and Mnajdra Temples
Valley of the Temples – See Sicily’s most celebrated Classical remains and the wonderful Doric engineering
Erice – Experience this walled medieval peak town with its labyrinth of tight winding cobbled avenues and curious shops
In and around Gozo
The trip starts at Malta International airport from where we drive to Cirkewwa and catch the ferry across to the island of Gozo. Gozo is fertile and picturesque and has retained much of its traditional character. Only 15 kms in length and 7 kms wide, all parts of the island are easily accessible, and for its size the variety of scenery is incredible. Please note that there are two transfers arranged for the first day of this trip. The main transfer will be late afternoon with an additional transfer midday to assist with any early flight arrangements you may have in place.
In and around Xaghra
We start our exploration in Xlendi, on the south coast, for a short photo stop and walk along the promenade before heading to the island’s capital, Victoria; a tiny city named after Queen Victoria in 1887 but locally known as Rabat. After climbing up to the imposing Citadel we’ll have a fantastic view of the whole island. We’ll explore the old prison where the Knights of Saint John would send their rowdier members to cool off within. The graffitied walls give a fascinating insight into the lives of those who were incarcerated here. Descending to the graceful central square, It Tokk, we have time to wander the cobweb of narrow streets and take some time for lunch. Heading to the town of Xaghra, we reach Ggantija, a megalithic temple complex dating back to 3600 BC and thus named as it was believed only giants could have moved the stones. Some of the colossal stones are over 5 meters long and weigh over 20 tons and the temple still reaches a height of over 7 metres. Predating the Pyramids, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is believed to be the world’s oldest free-standing structure. We continue to Calypsos Cave, alleged to be the cave referred to by Homer in The Odyssey. In the afternoon we’ll get the chance to stretch our legs on a walk from the area of Calypso’s Cave to Ramla Bay where we can enjoy a refreshing dip at the beautiful red sandy beach, if the weather is permits, before heading back to the hotel.
Dwejra is perhaps Gozo’s most spectacular natural landmark. Here, geology, time and sea have worked together to produce some of the most remarkable scenery on the island. We’ll see Fungus Rock, notable as the habitat of a rare fungus which was highly prized by the Knights of Saint John for its medicinal properties. You will then have the option to take a boat ride along the coast from the Inland Sea (weather permitting) – a shallow inland lagoon linked to the sea via a 30-metre tunnel. From Dwejra we continue to the Ta Pinu Basilica, renowned for the miraculous cures reported by it’s supplicants. We drive past neat, well-tended fields with their dry-stone walls and enjoy glorious views on our way to Zebbug; perched on a hilltop above the patchwork of green fields below. As with all these fortified hilltop villages, the far reaching views across the island and beyond are spectacular on a clear day. From Zebbug, we’ll take a walk to nearby Xwejni Bay. The coastal scenery along the way is varied – at times we pass limestone outcrops eroded by the wind and sea into unusual shapes, where traditional salt pans dominate the view. This section of the coast is one of the most remote and rugged on the island but our walk is relatively steep downhill. There may be a chance to swim (weather permitting) before we visit to the seaside resort of Malfarsorn, our chosen location for lunch. We head back to Mgarr, via Nadur for a brief photo stop of Comino and the Blue Lagoon, to catch the ferry to Malta where we transfer to our hotel in Sliema near the capital. The capital stretches east from Valletta along scenic bays with busy marinas. A seafront promenade skirts around the coast of this busy town and is great for people watching. Our hotel is in Sliema where many restaurants and bars can be found.
In and around Valletta
This morning we plan to drive from the hotel for a walking tour around the impressive and heavily fortified Old City. Originally built by the Knights of the Order of Saint John in the 16th Century, Valletta, UNESCO World Heritage Site, is built on the steep slopes of the Sceberas Peninsula and surrounded by two huge natural harbours which have helped to make it such an important strategic port at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Fort Saint Elmo guards the entrance to the harbours. Walking down Triq ir Republika – the main thoroughfare in the centre of the city, we visit the elaborately decorated Saint John’s Co-Cathedral and the grandiose Grandmaster’s Palace with its fine collection of artworks. We’ll also admire the classic views across the Grand Harbour from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Your afternoon is free for your own personal exploration.
This morning we head to the historic Three Cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua, considered to be ‘the cradle of Maltese history’ as settlers and rulers from the Phoenicians to the British all made use of the defences here. The Knights of the Order of Saint John settled in Vittoriosa in 1530 and used the city as their headquarters. The Three Cities have retained much of their romantic medieval charm and we’ll see the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa and admire the views from the Gardjola Gardens – a look-out post to guard the harbour entrance – in Senglea. Driving on to Marsaxlokk, we will take some free time for lunch and exploration. This charming town is Malta’s largest fishing port with its colourful boats and excellent fish restaurants. After lunch we will transfer to Sliema for a harbour cruise because the best way to explore the creeks and dockyards is by boat. Only by travelling across the water does one appreciate the sheer magnitude of the ramparts and forts that protect the city.
A short drive brings us to Hagar Qim and Mnajdra; another incredible Megalithic temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site. For three millennia, from around 3600 – 3200 BC, the Maltese archipelago was home to a unique, temple-building civilisation. The discovery of many fat lady statuettes in the vicinity of Hagar Qim has shown it to have been built to worship the Venus of Malta, the sleeping goddess of fertility. Mnajdra is probably the most atmospheric of all of Malta’s temples, occupying an isolated position overlooking the rocky coastline. We walk between the two temple groups along a short well laid path before continuing a short distance along a rough country path to the Tal Hamrija costal 17th century tower to enjoy breathtaking scenery as the cliffs rise out of the blue Meditteranean Sea. We return to our bus where we drive down to the Blue Grotto where we have the option of taking a boat trip (weather permitting) to see a series of natural caverns which glow with brilliant corals and sea sponges. We’ll then spend the afternoon sampling a range of local food specialities. We’ll learn how sun dried tomatoes and the local wine is produced and then get to sample these along with a selection of other vegatables farmed in the region as well as maltese bread and olive oil.
In and around Mdina
This morning we’ll take a short transfer to Malta’s Medieval old capital, Mdina, for a tour on foot around this beautifully preserved city. Its warren of winding, narrow alleys (mostly too narrow for cars) and fortified walls contain a number of impressive buildings such as the Palazzo Falzon and cathedral dedicated to the Conversion of Saint Paul. We’ll also take time to see Domus Romana (a townhouse usually belonging to Roman dignitaries) and Saint Paul’s eerie catacombs (underground). After our visit to Mdina, we’ll drive to Mosta Dome and San Anton Botanical Gardens; the private residence of the President of Malta.
Depending on the time of our flight we normally have the majority of today free in Malta to explore or relax as we choose. We transfer to the airport this evening for the flight to Catania in Sicily. Our flight arrives late tonight and on arrival we will drive to Syracusa, which takes about an hour. It’s therefore best to have an early dinner in Malta before boarding our flight. We will either meet those members of the group just travelling on the Sicily part of this trip tonight or tomorrow morning. During the Greek Classical period, Syracusa was the largest city in the ancient world – even bigger than Athens. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also notable as being the birthplace of antiquity’s greatest mathematician, Archimedes.
In and around Ortygia
We start today by driving the short distance to the city’s Neapolis Archaeological Park, where a local guide will show us its famous Greek theatre hewn out of the hillside and the fine Roman amphitheatre where gladiators once fought. We then drive over to Ortygia Island, where we have free time to have lunch and explore. This small island is the historical centre of the city and home to many landmarks such as the Fonte of Aretusa, Temple of Apollo ruins, Maniace Castle, and the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter with its old baths found under the Residenza Alla Giudecca Hotel. Alternatively you could take a short boat trip along the rocky cave-strewn coastline. Ortygia Island is also a great place to go to a local cafe or restaurant and sit and watch the world go by. Its limestone buildings and pretty harbour front make it an ideal place to sip coffee and enjoy a cake. Perhaps try cannolo, a traditional Sicilian dessert, a crisp shell filled with sweet ricotta and chocolate chips topped with candied fruits. If you prefer a savoury snack then arancini is a rice ball stuffed with a range of fillings such as beef ragu and gooey cheese – it’s simply delicious. Leaving Syracusa this afternoon we drive for a couple of hours inland to Piazza Amerina, a charming market town set amid rolling countryside, which will be our base for the night. This isn’t a town on the tourist trail and tonight you have the opportunity to dine in one of the delightful family run restaurants. As you stroll along through the peaceful streets and picturesque squares you can see the local men gathering to discuss the events of the day and to put the world to rights, like they will have done for generations. Tonight will be your first opportunity to sample Sicilian cuisine and wine. According to Greek legend the god Dionysus brought wine to Sicily, whereas it’s more likely that wine has been produced here since ancient times due to the island being blessed with plenty of sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, along with fertile volcanic soils. Nowadays there is a huge variety of both delicious red and white wines to choose from. You might like to try a typically Sicilian dish such as pasta with sardines and wild fennel, aubergine stew or boiled pork in salsa verde and saffron.
Today we will visit two of Sicily’s most important historic sites. We will start at the Villa Romana del Casale, which is just a short hop from our hotel and this should mean that we get to look around before the crowds arrive. A local guide will show us the ruins of this magnificent country mansion that contains some incredibly well-preserved and beautiful Roman mosaics, such as the famed bikini girls, fishing cupids and hunting scenes featuring exotic wildlife like tigers, rhinos and elephants. The mosaics are UNESCO-Listed and spread over a remarkable 3,500 square metres. We drive on to Agrigento, which was once one of the most prosperous cities in Sicily. The ancient acropolis, now the modern city, overlooks a southern ridge, misleadingly named the Valley of the Temples. Visiting these temples with a local guide, we will walk around the ruins of the largest Doric temple ever constructed – the Temple of Zeus. Standing next to this monumental structure you are only as tall as the first few entry steps and so you tend to feel very small starring up at the gigantic pillars above you. We will also explore the perfectly-proportioned Doric columns of the Temple of Concord, as well as the oldest temple in the complex, honouring Hercules. Later this afternoon, we will drive for a couple of hours north along the spectacular coastline to tonight’s hotel in Marsala. Our hotel this evening is about 25 minutes walk from the centre of town. We will go into the centre to the Porta Garibaldi from where our Explore Leader will take us on a short walk through the old town and there is the option to have a wine tasting to try the well-known Marsala dessert wine, which originates from here. After time for dinner we’ll return to our hotel.
In and around Palermo, Erice, Segesta
This morning we drive up the twisty mountain roads to one of Sicily’s best kept secrets, the delightful medieval hilltop walled town of Erice. Here we’ll have the morning free to soak up the atmosphere and get lost among the maze of cobbled narrow streets. At 750 metres above sea level, we hope to have impressive views over the valley and sea below (cloud permitting). The town is home to a number of churches that you may choose to visit and perhaps you’d like to go into the courtyard of the Norman fortress, Castello di Venere or the nearby Garden of Balio, which offers excellent views. It is also worth noting that Erice is home to Sicily’s most famous cake shop – Maria Grammatic. Early afternoon will see us travelling on to Segesta – one of the best-preserved ancient sites. Once home to the Elymians, who it’s believed descended from the Trojans. The two most famous monuments found here are the Doric temple and the amphitheatre that sit on the slopes of Mount Barbaro in a stunning natural setting – no modern day structures mar our appreciation of the site. Along the old entrance roads to the city is the Sanctuary of Contrada Mango and the Agora – the central meeting place of the city. Near to the amphitheatre you can see the more recent remains dating from around 1442 of a castle, mosque and church. If you visit in springtime then on a walk around the site you can spot colourful wildflowers and giant fennel. The site is large and hilly, so there is a complimentary bus service that operates in the archaeological site, which we can make use of. On leaving magnificent Segesta, we drive for around an hour along the north coast to our hotel in Sicily’s capital, Palermo where we have the evening free.
This morning we will get to experience some of Sicily’s Norman history. In Palermo we will visit the Palatine Chapel with a local guide. This is the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily and is packed with spectacular Byzantine mosaics. Driving into the hills just a short distance out of the capital, we will go with our guide to visit the majestic Norman Cathedral of Monreale. Founded in 1174 by William the Good, the cathedral is also famous for its extensive mosaics, as well as its beautiful cloisters showing both Romanesque and Islamic influences. Returning to Sicily’s capital, the afternoon is free to enjoy Palermo. The city stands at the foot of Monte Pellegrino, with the fertile valley of Concha d’Oro behind. It was one of the richest cities in Europe from the 9th to the 12th centuries AD when Islamic culture, Byzantine magnificence and medieval Europe were merging into a fascinating civilisation. Today, the city maintains a sense of cultural diversity and is famous for its art, music and food. You might like to visit Palermo’s cathedral with its ornate facade, the grand Teatro Massimo opera house, the natural beauty of the Botanical Gardens or the extensive catacombs under the city, to name just a few of the attractions on offer. If you fancy a snack whilst exploring then you could try panelle, which is a popular street food. It’s a fritter made from chickpeas eaten in a roll like a hot sandwich. If you fancy something sweet then cassata is Sicily’s most famous cake, which is normally covered in marzipan and green icing over a moist fruity sponge layered with ricotta.
In and around Cefalu
Leaving Palermo this morning we drive along the spectacular northern coastline to the picturesque fishing village of Cefalu. Here we stop to explore the town and have the opportunity to go for a swim. You might like to visit the Norman Cathedral, with its stupendous mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. Alternatively if you’re feeling active then you can walk up the steps passed the Temple of Diana ruins to the Castle on the Rock (the ascent is 278 metres) and from here the sea views are incredible, and make the climb to get there worthwhile. From Cefalu we’ll continue our drive along the coast and make a brief stop in Messina, where you have the chance to visit to the Messina Museum or the cathedral. After stretching our legs we’ll drive on to the small coastal town of Giardini Naxos, which will be our base for the next two nights. This sweet little fishing town sits in the shadow of Mount Etna and is the spot of the oldest Greek settlement in Sicily back in 735 BC. It’s a great spot for relaxing beside the sea and tucking into fresh fish and gelato. Sicily has some of the creamiest and most tasty gelato in Italy, so it’s definitely worth sampling. Please note, on our 12 May, 15 September and 6 October 2018 departures we will be staying in Taormina instead of Giardini Naxos on days 6 and 7. The towns are only a short distance apart along the coast. The itinerary inclusions will remain the same and you’ll still have the opportunity to visit Mount Etna, the only difference is that you won’t be visiting Giardini Naxos and your free time on day 7 will be spent in Taormina instead. If you still want to visit Giardini Naxos then it’s easily accessible on the hop-on public bus from Taormina.
In and around Taormina
This morning, you have the opportunity to join a tour to explore the lunar landscape, craters and lava fields of Mount Etna – one of the most active volcanoes in Europe. You drive from our hotel to the cable car base at Rifugio Sapienza, which is on the south side of Etna and 1,900 metres above sea level. Here there are several cafes and gift shops and you can also see the old Silvestri Craters. From here you can board the cable car up to 2,500 metres where there’s another cafe and gift shop and you can have a walk around on the mountainside. From here you have the option of boarding a four-wheel drive coach up to 2,900 metres to take a short walk (around 45 minutes) with a mountain guide to view the craters formed in the 2002/3 eruptions and the fumaroles at around 3,000 metres, which is as close to the summit as we’re currently permitted to go. You then return down the mountain the same way. Alternatively, you might prefer to enjoy a more sedate morning enjoying the coastal location of Giardini Naxos. Here there is an archaeological zone that doesn’t feature a huge number of ruins but it does offer a very pleasant walk through the citrus groves. There is also a small museum here with some interesting findings from different historical periods. This afternoon, we will all meet back up and travel the short distance to Taormina, Sicily’s most famous resort. Once a favourite haven for the likes of D. H Lawrence and Oscar Wilde, Taormina is still today a popular tourist destination. After a walk around this chic and beautiful town, with its pretty medieval churches and charming streets, it’s easy to understand why. With a local guide we’ll visit the Greek Theatre. The snow-capped Mount Etna acts as a spectacular backdrop to the remarkably preserved columned stage and it’s easy to see why this is possibly the most famous view in all of Sicily and it makes for a superb photograph. We’ll also visit the Roman Odeon before having the rest of the afternoon free to explore before returning to Giardini Naxos in the early evening. You might choose to visit the Villa Comunale Gardens which offer a peaceful escape from Taormina’s bustling main street. Here you can walk amidst magnolia, hibiscus and bougainvillea trees. If you’d like to enjoy a drink and a snack then we’d recommend taking a stroll down one of Taormina’s side streets where you’ll find a variety of less-busy bars and restaurants than in the very centre of town.
Our trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Giardini Naxos, which is about one hours’ drive from Catania Airport.