Travel With Diplomatic Connections

Malta: A Mediterranean Jewel

By Monica Frim
Photography by John Frim and Monica Frim

For a small island that’s basically a rock, Malta boasts an uncanny mix of history, culture and recreational delights. Roads lined with stone and prickly pear fences radiate from the capital city of Valletta to hillside towns and megalithic temples that lie scattered like chaff among patchy fields of spurge and fleabane.

No matter where you stand, you are always within viewing distance of a castle, fort, monument or statue that honors the past. History flows seamlessly here, cascading over cliffs and ramparts to a fossil-flecked coastline stippled with caves and grottos. Everything—from the land itself to the buildings and lookout towers—seems carved out of honey-colored limestone, Malta’s greatest natural resource. Upon closer inspection, beads of color burst through the monochrome rock in the form of brightly painted balconies and flowerpots, riotous with foliage and tropical blooms.

Three islands make up the Maltese archipelago: the main island of Malta; the smaller Gozo, which some believe to be Homer’s Ogygia where Odysseus spent seven years cavorting with his beautiful captor, the sea-nymph Calypso; and teensy Comino, which measures less than 1.5 square miles but boasts stunning caves and a Blue Lagoon. Together, the islands’ footprint is smaller than Kansas City, but their worldly imprint is vibrant and large.

Fort Manoel in Gzira was built in the 18th century by the Order of the Knights of St. John

Whacked on all sides by the Mediterranean Sea and the various marauders who crossed it, Malta has been a coveted territory for millennia, proving that even long ago, location mattered more than size—especially when it came to control of the Mediterranean trade routes.  Seafaring Phoenicians colonized the island in the seventh century B.C., followed by Carthaginians, Romans, Sicilians, Vandals, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Ottomans, Spanish, French and British. They all left their marks, which makes the Maltese one of the most intriguing blended cultures in the world.

Megalithic temples, thought to be the oldest in the world, are scattered throughout the country, built by a Stone Age people who mysteriously disappeared around 2,500 BC. We wandered awestruck through the ruins at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, set on the hills above the Blue Grotto, one of Malta’s most scenic attractions. Known for their solstice alignments, these ancient temples comprise sacred halls and passageways with square portholes hewn out of the rock. Below the temples, the Blue Grotto, with its massive arch and sea-caves, shimmers with multiple shades of cobalt, purple, green and turquoise. Both the grotto and the temples offer mesmerizing views to Fifla, the uninhabited, mysterious islet that sits like a stone altar in a cerulean sea, off-limits to people but home to a large colony of storm petrels.

The noon day canon fre at Saluting Battery, Valletta

Curiously, Malta’s most impressive temple complex is not in the open air, but hidden underground in the village of Paola, roughly eight miles southwest of Valletta. Known as the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the complex is made up of three levels of underground caves and chambers carved out of the limestone to mimic the temples above. Built between 3600 and 3000 BC, it is the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world. Originally used as a place of worship it later became a burial site. Excavators found more than 7,000 human bodies along with a wealth of pottery, ornaments, and figurines. The temple’s most iconic masterpiece is the ‘Sleeping Lady,’ a unique statue that emblemizes the “fat ladies” temple culture, which also includes corpulent stone figures from other temples including Hagar Qim. Despite the name, the statues are androgynous, bereft of features that would decidedly pin down their gender. These figures, including the ‘Sleeping Lady,’ are now on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

Only a half-mile long and 600 yards wide, Valletta squeezes a smorgasbord of historic buildings with protruding baroque balconies into a gridwork of long narrow streets lined with lively bars and restaurants.  Yet, a surprising number of urban breathing spaces abound in the form of cobbled squares and flower-filled gardens. At the Upper Barrakka Gardens, flowers and statues constitute the foreground to an arcaded viewing platform that overlooks the Grand Harbour and the massive Fort of St. Angelo.  We timed our visit to the gardens to coincide with the traditional cannon shot fired at noon from the Saluting Battery below, which is possibly the best—and loudest—daytime entertainment in the city. If you’re holding a camera, try not to jump… or you’ll miss the shot.

Defense, culture and religion go hand in hand in Valletta, where most of the historic structures were established during the 200 year reign of the Knights of St. John. Most outstanding is St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a paean to Baroque flamboyance, with gilded ornamentation, intricately carved stone walls, frescoed ceilings, and the tombs of some 400 knights embedded in the floor. Among the glorious statues and relics, the Beheading of John the Baptist and St. Jerome, two paintings by Caravaggio, are the cathedral’s most awe-inspiring attractions.

Like St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the Grandmaster’s Palace at St. George’s Square is an austere Mannerist building on the outside, but richly decorated on the inside. Once the seat of power for the Order of the Knights of St. John, it now houses the Office of the President. Along with the State Rooms, the Palace Armory is open to the public and contains a large collection of arms and armor used in the battles of centuries past.

In gratitude for the Knights’ defense of Christendom against the Ottoman Empire during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Europe rallied to help the Knights build a combined city-fortress for Christianity and to serve as the center of culture. They chose Mount Sciberras for its strategic location overlooking a deep natural harbor as the site of the Knights’ new headquarters and named it Valletta in honor of the their leader Jean Vallette. When the British assumed control of Malta in 1800 they added more grand palaces and defense works including the Lascaris War Rooms, an underground complex of tunnels and chambers used as a command center during World War II. Today, the once ultra-secret complex serves as a museum, open to all.

Heavily bombed during World War II, Valletta has been rebuilt over the  years, with many of the historic buildings turned into fascinating museums, galleries and government offices.  Out of the eight Auberges that once housed the knights of the European territories or “langues,” five survive, repurposed and refurbished, but still bearing the knightly countenance of their history. The Auberge de Castille, perched atop the highest point of Valletta, fittingly houses the Office of the Prime Minister. It is one of the finest baroque buildings in Malta.

But Valletta is much more than a capful of history on a magnificent rock. The entire city was revitalized and re-conceptualized in preparation for its role in 2018 as a European Capital of Culture. An ultra modern city gate was notched into the 16th century walls, opening on to a new artsy parliament building that looks more like a museum than a place of political chambers. Beside it, the state-of-the-art Opera House Open Air Theater incorporates into its framework the crumbled remains of its classical columns, which were destroyed in World War II. Valletta may be the smallest capital in Europe, but it’s definitely neither trapped by its size nor its multifaceted past.

Neither is the rest of the island. You can walk through thousands of years of history in five minutes flat in just about any town, or take days to let the Maltese spirit seep into your bones. From fishing villages to walled towns to spirited coastal hotspots—nothing is more than a 45-minute drive from the airport.
At the south end of the island, Marsaxlokk is one of the most picturesque coastal villages on the island. Traditional luzzu, the Crayola-striped fishing boats with the “eyes of Osiris” painted on either side of the prow, float like oversized bath toys in the cerulean bay.  Rubber-booted fishermen stand on the quay inspecting and mending nets that are as colorful as the boats in the bay or the boldly painted doors of the villagers’ homes. Vendors tend open-air market stalls laden with traditional Maltese foodstuffs, handicrafts (lace, filigree, ceramics, glass) and mass-produced souvenirs (check the labels). One could spend an entire day peacefully walking through the village with its pretty Church of Our Lady of Pompei, shopping for Maltese mementos, strolling the promenade, or simply contemplating the idyllic surrounds from one of the colorful benches that lie between the quayside restaurants and the glimmering bay.

Throughout the island, hilltop towns with beautiful domed churches bubble out of the scrub and limestone and reach their apex in Mdina, the country’s oldest city and former capital. After the Knights built Valletta, Mdina became virtually a ghost town, which may be one explanation for why it is now called the “Silent City.”  The city was indeed quiet when we entered the Baroque Main Gate and followed the snaking alleys and backstreets alongside aristocratic palaces where zigzagging Arabic motifs and fanciful brass doorknockers with animal shapes graced Norman and Neogothic facades. But, oh, if walls could talk! The stories of Mdina’s 4,000–year history from its Phoenician roots, to the 11th century Norman invasions, to the 16th century arrival of the Knights in Malta, would surely yield a stockpot of intrigue.

As Mdina muted, Rabat roared. Famous for the Catacombs of St. Paul and St. Agatha, Rabat has become a bustling tourist destination that’s managed to turn claustrophobia into a must-do venture. I recommend it heartily. The dark narrow corridors with openings to chambers of endless tombs in a vast underground maze are not at all scary as one would expect, but exhilarating and paradoxically gripping—especially when one considers that many Maltese found refuge in the catacombs during World War II.

Although the Knights were offered the keys to Mdina when they first came to Malta, they opted to make Birgu (Vittoriosa) their first headquarters. There they improved the medieval Fort St. Angelo and built Fort St. Michael at Isla (Senglea).  The forts are located on the promontories on the south side of the Grand Harbour across from Valletta. Together with Cospicua (Bormla)—each city has two names—they form the Three Cities, an area that serves as a living canvas of Malta’s Medieval, Baroque and Renaissance periods.

From the wharf at the base of the Upper Barrakka Gardens, we skimmed across the harbor by water-taxi to Vittoriosa where the Maritime Museum, Malta At War Museum, the Inquisitor’s Palace and the imposing Fort St. Angelo are part of the city’s most popular attractions. But nothing compared to just walking the narrow twisted lanes of the collachio (old city center), where outdoor cafes, specialty restaurants and galleries breathe new life into history’s oldest buildings. It was hard to fathom that in bygone times brothels and taverns stood cheek by jowl with churches, auberges and aristocratic buildings.
When Charles V of Spain granted the island of Malta to the Knights in 1530 the deed included the island of Gozo and Tripoli.  Like the main island of Malta, Gozo suffered staggering historical calamities. When the Ottoman Empire failed to capture Malta in the 16th century, the Ottomans made up for their humiliating defeat by capturing virtually all of Gozo’s 5,000 citizens who had been hiding in the hilltop citadel.

Today the island is an oasis of serenity—an outdoor paradise ringed by cliffs and caves with great diving, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking and rock climbing opportunities. While most people visit Gozo for the sun, the citadel looming over Gozo’s main city of Victoria encompasses enough museums, churches, palaces and historic buildings to satisfy the artistic yearnings of anyone looking for a window into Gozo’s history and culture.

Inter-island ferry traffic by locals is reciprocal: people from the main island come to Gozo to relax; Gozitans go to Malta to work. Some swim! Michelle Muscat, wife of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, participates annually in a fund-raising swim. She completed her longest route between Cirkewwa and Mellieha July 2019—8.7 miles in five hours. No word on whether she’s eyeing up a swim to Sicily—136 miles away.

Everywhere on the Maltese islands the British presence is strong. The George Cross, awarded to the Maltese for bravery in World War II, is woven into the Maltese flag, and English is still an official language (along with Maltese, a mix of Arabic and Sicilian) even though Malta gained independence from British rule in 1964. Not surprisingly, people from the UK make up the largest piece of the tourist pie followed by Italians, Germans, French and other Europeans. Malta gets about twice as much sunshine as Northern European cities, so it’s easy to see why sun-starved Europeans would flock to the islands’ diverse resorts and beaches. North Americans have traditionally taken their dose of holiday sunbeams in the Caribbean, but a few years ago started to recognize Malta as a safe, stable, economical and trendy alternative.

The question is, why has it taken so long?

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