On an island brimming with touristic activities, breaking away from mainstream leisure tourism in Malta is not as easy as one may assume. But, beneath the sun-and-sea exterior, the Maltese Islands radiate a vibrant local culture steeped in architecture, food, crafts, music and – above all – stories. The historic Three Villages of Attard, Balzan and Lija in the centre of Malta are the ideal place to start.
Pinning down dates is near impossible, but it’s safe to say that the Three Villages certainly date back to the early 1400s. Walking through the narrow streets of Attard, Balzan and Lija, you’ll understand why the Knights of St John chose the Three Villages for their country residences and hunting lodges. Villas here are renowned for having lush, landscaped gardens, including Grade I-listed Villa Bologna in Attard and Villa Parisio in Lija – from which baskets full of oranges are still traditionally sent to Buckingham Palace every Christmas.
It is the San Anton Gardens in Balzan, though, that are a true botanical heaven. Attached to San Anton Palace, the official residence of the President of Malta, the gardens are crisscrossed by limestone pathways, and are home to centuries-old trees, colourful flowers, antique fountains, cats, peacocks, swans and ducks. And, for a cup of tea and a snack, The President’s Kitchen Garden is not to be missed.
Of course, the villages are now much more than a collection of stately homes. The social band clubs, and the parish churches, such as that of the 17th-century Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary into Heaven in Attard, are hubs of life in the Three Villages. But, it’s the town squares, well-maintained alleys, limestone townhouses, corner coffee shops and bakeries that completely envelop visitors in the enchantment of small-town Mediterranean life.
Experiencing the soul of village life is the definition of local community-based tourism. Rather than only seeing sights, it’s about taking part in local culture and life. Few know this better than Julian C Zarb, founding president of the Malta Tourism Society and expert in community-based tourism. Julian wants visitors to experience the 'Malta of the Maltese'. In advancing community-based tourism on the island to safeguard local communities and businesses, Julian doesn’t want to just show visitors the places; he wants them to meet the faces.
“Community-based tourism galvanises who we are as a people and as a country,” Julian explains at the launch of the Malta Tourism Society’s first community-based tour in the Three Villages – an itinerary focused on Lija. “We are developing tourism for the person who wants to be here, rather than the person who just happens to be here. Our tour in Lija is a start – a town that is very culturally rich but still relatively unspoiled. We want to keep it that way, and we also want people to experience it that way.”
So when in Malta, instead of heading to the tourist traps, enjoy your morning coffee and then get ready for cobbled alleys, the smell of freshly baked bread and doughnuts, and a taste of local life.