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In Malta you cant even crash a Segway without being given a history lesson. Wed travelled to Golden Bay – the most developed of a trio of sandy beaches on the north-west coast-in search of a family adventure on two wheels and after a quick briefing in a car park from an enthusiastic chap called Jean Karl had all bumbled off down a rough track.
I had been quietly impressed – one of those smug how great is my family? moments – by how quickly our two sons aged 14 and 12 got to grips with all the off-road gyroscopic chicanery when the inevitable happened and the younger one hit a pothole at speed.
He was soon lying on the ground bleeding copiously from his elbow while the still enthusiastic Jean Karl set about him with bandages and antiseptic wipes.
Clive our guide immediately saw his opportunity and took me by my own elbow (which was mercifully unscathed) to point out a group of limestone buildings rising golden in the sun.
Old barracks from when the British governed Malta he told me before spinning me round. And that is the Ghajn Tuffieha Tower he said gesturing to the southern tip of the bay. Built in the 17th century by the Knights of St John to signal a pirate attack.
My children are at an age where a balance needs to be struck. Activity holidays where the boys get daily exercise – a bit like puppies – always work well but from their parents point of view theres that growing pre-GCSE anxiety that they should be exercising their minds at the same time.
Happily a long weekend in Malta delivers plenty of opportunity for both these things to happen frequently within seconds of each other.
For a start theres that constant peeling back of the historical onion skin. Golden Bay was once known as Military Bay its now dominated by a hotel complex and plenty of parasols alongside those quietly disintegrating barracks buildings.
Much longer ago the Greeks Phoenicians Carthaginians and Romans all left their mark in Malta. Indeed throughout the centuries armies have arrived traders traded and pirates pillaged aplenty here. As Clive pointed out you can expect little else on a strategically positioned piece of rock with one of the deepest and best harbours in the Mediterranean.
To all that you might add a welcoming climate (Clive 300 days of sunshine a year) that lures European retirees by the Zimmer-load and wonderful medieval and renaissance architecture – not to mention helpful tax breaks – that has led to a more recent invasion this time of film crews.
Plenty of scenes from Game of Thrones were shot here with the ornate former capital of Mdina doubling for Kings Landing and the crumbling cliffs at Migra l-Ferha our next stop serving as an occasional backdrop for the exploits of Khal Drogo the Dothraki horse lord.
As he was only bleeding a little by now we took the opportunity to hoist our youngest over the edge of those cliffs for his first-ever attempt at abseiling. Marek an invader from Prague helped us do it once hed located the right equipment (Sorry I forgot your helmets and harnesses should go down as one of the great opening lines in abseiling history).
By the time wed all got to the bottom the boys were so proud of their achievements that – had it been age-appropriate – they would probably have attempted to conquer George R R Martins fictional land of Westeros by themselves.
Maltas sister island Gozo lies a 25-minute ferry crossing away to the north-west. Its celebrated limestone arch the Azure Window (also a Game of Thrones location) collapsed into the Med earlier this year and is now attracting scuba divers rather than sightseers but we didnt let that put us off.
On our visit we combined a session of sea-kayaking – making our way from the harbour at Hondoq ir-Rummien towards the smaller isle of Comino (population: three) and its blue lagoon – with an excursion to the Ggantija megalithic temple complex (Older than Stonehenge! reported Clive gleefully).
Here huge blisters of ancient stone had been assembled into cloverleaf patterns long before the arrival of the wheel provoking awe even in seen-it-all-on-PS4 teens. Gozo is lusher than Malta rendered fertile by its blue-clay soil.
The capital Victoria named as a sop to the British queen on her Golden Jubilee in 1887 but more commonly known as Rabat is hugely impressive the stone slabs of the 17th-century Citadel rising above the town twisting streets leading to a massive baroque cathedral at its heart.
I know what youre thinking: massive baroque cathedrals arent usually the sort of thing that grab teenagers attention. However the Maltese archipelago delivers its history in an absorbingly theatrical fashion. Perhaps thats why the Game of Thrones producers were lured here: these citadels cathedrals and palaces still resound to echoes of the past a blink of the eye from being real inhabited places where exotic-sounding people such as the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John went about their lives.
Theres a delight in the detail too: in the story of the aerial bomb that pierced the dome of the Roman Catholic church in Mosta in 1942 falling during mass but failing to explode an event interpreted as a miracle by the locals (unsurprisingly given the huge size of the replica on display) or the sombre facts elicited at the Catacombs of St Paul in Rabat on Malta (the amphora burials for children the mourners hired to lament during the funeral) or the ornate balconies – wooden stone enclosed open – that you see everywhere.
Even the door handles are impressive as much status symbols as ways of getting entry to a building (The bigger the family the bigger the knockers! said Clive clearly getting into his stride).
Then theres Maltas capital Valletta where light from the prism of history splits to cast fresh colour on the present. The extraordinary City Gate project by architect Renzo Piano completed after much delay in 2015 is a vital link: a clean modern entrance to the peninsula that nevertheless has echoes of the past reflected in the pattern of missing stonework in the parliament building (designed to represent the crumbling limestone bricks found all over Malta) and in the open-air theatre that rises from the ruins of the former opera house (bombed during the Second World War).
The boys inevitably were rather more interested in the more literal echoes caused by the saluting battery a tradition begun in 1820 so that naval vessels could recalibrate their chronometers at noon each day. That evening a fireworks festival added some bonus gunpowder while lighting up the panorama in flashes of white gold and red.
Almost everything in Valletta is appealing from the sheer drama of its position a spike between two harbours to the view of the so-called Three Cities – Birgu Senglea and Cospicua – across the bay where the Knights repelled the Turkish invaders in the great siege of Malta of 1565.
Our only misstep was to visit the Malta 5D show a rather tired project that attempts to summon up Malta through the ages via some ropy CGI shaking cinema seats and a few puffs of scented air. Game of Thrones it was not.
Malta doesnt need computer-generated enhancement or vibrating furniture to show off. A visit here is a chance for your children to set out on a few adventures of their own while watching real-life history unfurl before them – and there will be plenty of drama for the grown-ups to enjoy long after the Lannisters and Starks have done battle for the last time.
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