“Can I buy you a plane ticket for Christmas?”

Kate, the friend with whom I do most of my travelling, was ready for our next trip and wanted to make it a surprise.

“Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”

She sent the dates I’d need off work, told me to prepare for a lot of walking, and kept me updated on the weather forecast. Our destination remained unsaid.

Our flight was early, around 7 a.m., so we spent the night before in an airport hotel. I woke up with no idea what country I’d be in that afternoon.

As we approached the airport scanners, Kate pulled out two boarding passes and thrust one slip of paper into my hands.

Malta. We were going to Malta.

I knew just two things about Malta: it is an island and it is beautiful.

What I didn’t know was that Valletta, the capital, had been dubbed the European Capital of Culture 2018. We would be at the opening ceremony.

Mdina

Malta is small, but packed with sites and experiences. The island alternates between feeling Greek, Spanish, and Italian, depending on the area, but there’s an undercurrent of something uniquely Maltese that I hadn’t known to expect. The buildings are predominantly beige stone, ancient and well-kept. In the old capital, Mdina, the streets are narrow and vines sprouting purple flowers grow on the side of tall buildings.

Even in the winter, the Maltese air is warm and crisp, the Mediterranean a pale blue. Having grown up landlocked in Iowa, I never tire of seeing oceans and seas expanding infinitely.

That made Kate’s second surprise extra nice: we were staying on a boat. A tiny cabin room in a docked houseboat, floating in the Mediterranean, home to a delightful French couple who shared hot wine with us and served breakfast in the sunshine, was ours for two nights.

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Breakfast aboard the Hakuna Matata in Malta

After falling asleep to the sound and motion of the waves, we awoke early to check out the Megalithic Temples of Malta. The sites are astounding, even with protective tarp-covered contraptions surrounding them. Some are over 5,500 years old; they are the oldest free-standing structures on Earth.

I thought back to the awe I felt standing in the Colosseum, then read a timeline saying these temples were nearly 3,700 years old when the Romans finished building their arena.

Maltese temples

We spent the day in the past, but the evening in the future.

Back in Valletta, the European Capital of Culture celebrations were beginning and we made it with less than a minute to spare. The day before I’d seen a massive statue on the ground and assumed it was a permanent fixture being repaired or moved; I was wrong.

The man — he had to be 50 foot tall — was on his feet, glowing blue, dancing before a mountain in the city centre. There were acrobats floating in on a rig across from him, moving with perfect synchronization dozens of feet off the ground, seemingly drawn in by the man. Malta had brought out their best for the occasion and I was ecstatic to witness it.

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