Mellieha could be described as a small town or a large village. It has a population of about 10,000 and is perched on a group of hills on the northwest coast of Malta. It overlooks Mellieħa Bay, which includes Għadira Bay, the largest sandy beach in Malta. To the east of the town and bay, there is the Selmun peninsula, and St Paul’s Island lies about 80 metres off the coast. Mistra Bay lies close to Selmun, and this marks the boundary between Mellieħa and St Paul’s Bay.
Mellieħa was once an isolated 15th century hamlet and was abandoned for a couple of centuries because of its vulnerability to pirate and Saracen attack. Inhabited again in the early 18th century, it has since developed into a flourishing town though it still retains a quaint historic centre with narrow hilly streets and stepped alleys.
It is now a popular tourist destination during the summer months, well known for its sandy beaches, with the most popular being Għadira Bay and Golden Bay. Nearby Ċirkewwa is a well known dive site, some of its attractions being the wrecks of MV Rozi and the P29 patrol boat. Tourism continues to be aggressively promoted and developed and in 2009, Mellieħa was awarded the title of European Destination of Excellence due to its sustainable initiatives.
But despite this rapid tourism development, Mellieha is still full of authentic character and old world charm. In recent years its idyllic location has attracted lots of Maltese who have built elegant houses and villas there, and together with a perfusion of apartments and hotels dotting the hills and slopes, the result is a picturesque and vibrant resort. For me, it’s nice to see that it still manages to preserve its quaint character with its narrow streets, steep stepped alleys, old shops and charming hospitable residents.
My favourite part of Mellieha is the north end which is the town’s real historic area. This is where the magnificent Mellieha Parish Church stands on the edge of Mellieha Ridge. Built in 1881 and dedicated to the Birth of Our Lady, it is a magnificent church, dominating the Mellieha skyline and from around the church there are spectacular views over the lower green and fertile country side and Mellieha bay. It is also where an attractive cluster of medieval chapels are hewn into the rock and also where the people sheltered during World War 11, and those underground shelters can be seen today.
SANCTUARY AND CHURCH OF OUR LADY
Almost directly beneath the parish church is the Sanctuary and Church of Our Lady which is now a national shrine. This is an amazing structure set in a cave burrowed in to the rock face consisting of a crypt, a sacristy and a little church that is stunningly beautiful. The dimly lit interior of the church is charming in its simplicity, its walls are marble, the ceiling is low, and the altar has two marble columns supporting an arch of gold montage.
A fresco behind the altar of the Madonna with Jesus in her arms is believed to have been painted by St Luke in 60 AD when he was on the island with St Paul after the shipwreck. The centuries have taken their toll on the painting but it is still there to be admired and cherished by the devout congregations who attend Mass and the other services in this unique little Sanctuary.
GROTTO OF OUR LADY
A short distance from the two churches is located the Grotto of Our Lady. It is hidden away underground and can be reached by a long descending stairway. When you get to the bottom you find a little cave chapel and a shrine dedicated to Our Lady. It is believed that an Italian merchant paid for the grotto to be dug into the rock in the 12th century.
Inside the grotto is a statue of the Blessed Virgin in an enclosure that has a stream from an unknown source flowing through it. This water is said to have remarkable healing powers and down the years people with ailments and illnesses have prayed here, were cured, and came back to give thanks, leaving a memento to add to the existing collection adorning the walls.
I always pay a visit to this little shrine when I’m in Mellieha. It is so deep underground, so simple and peaceful, dimly lit with only the little candles left by visitors flickering in the silence, that you get a strange feeling of peaceful solitude. It’s as if the big world above doesn’t matter anymore and you have found a new little haven of peace and tranquillity. But reality soon sets in when you start climbing those numerous steep steps that leave you breathless and take you back into the real world.
The largest and best beach in the Maltese Islands is located in Mellieha Bay which is about 2km from the town of Mellieha. It is a beautiful sandy beach about 1km long and is very save for families and swimmers because the clear water is still only ankle deep one hundred metres into the sea. It is also patrolled by lifeguards and being adjacent to the main road; there is ample space for parking.
The problem with this lovely beach is that it is now too popular with the Maltese and tourists. In summer it becomes very crowded. Day-trippers, swimmers, surfers and lovers of all forms of water sports make this idyllic spot a hive of activity and a centre of wonderful pleasure and recreation.
MELLIEHA AIR RAID SHELTERS
Deep in the heart of Mellieha is a maze of rock-cut shelters where the people took refuge during World War 11 to escape Hitler’s cruel aerial bombardment. I have visited them and I was surprised and astonished. I found it amazing to see how a people under siege, with their lives and their children’s lives in peril used their ingenuity to defend themselves against deadly attacks of terror and firepower, and in doing so, endured the most appalling hardship to survive.
Down in those cramped shelters I saw living quarters that were hewn from the rock with bare hands and primitive tools. I saw little hospital wards where babies were born and the sick attended to, and I saw a system of regulation and order that was applied to preserve privacy and dignity, vital in such crowded underground living.
Those Air Raid Shelters are retained exactly as they were seventy-five years ago and they provide a fascinating image of a turbulent time in Malta’s past, a test of a people’s courage and resilience that was confronted and endured with bravery and dignity. The shelters are open to the public and are well worth a visit to see how Maltese families coped with adversity and survived Hitler’s onslaught of terror.
From ‘In Love With Malta’ (The Hidden Treasures)
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