Historical Riches in Malta
By Patricia Cotti
Situated between Sicily and North Africa, Malta is the largest of 3 islands in the Mediterranean Sea that make up the Maltese Archipelago. Malta is only about twice the size of Washington D.C. with a population of approximately 400,000. It is the smallest member of the European Union.
However, situated at the crossroads of civilization, Malta’s strategic location has provided for a long, rich and turbulent history. Malta has been occupied by Phoenicians, Carthagians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Spanish, English, European Crusader Knights of the Order of Malta, preachers (St. Paul was shipwrecked here in 60 AD), painters (Caravaggio painted here), politicians (Napoleon in the 18th Century). The culture has absorbed various aspects from its diverse occupiers. The language although close to Arabic has Latin based vocabulary. The cuisine has Italian flavors. The Maltese drive on the left.
Perhaps, the most impressive is Malta’s architecture which reflects its 7,000 year history. Valletta is the “new” capital of Malta and a UNESCO World Heritage site. A walled city was built by the Knights of St. John to defend against the Ottoman invasions in the 16th Century. From the Upper Barrakka Gardens, one can get a panoramic view of the Grand Harbor and the Three Cities enclosed within fortified walls. Originally, the Upper Barrakka Garden was a private garden of the Italian Knights whose residence inns are close by. In 1824, it was opened as a public garden and suffered great damage during World War II. Each day, at mid-day, there is a re-enactment of a Victorian military salute with cannons fired.
A beautiful Renaissance city was created within the walls. Here you will find St. John’s Co-Cathedral with its elaborate baroque interior vaulted ceiling and tombs of more than 375 knights and officers of St. John beneath the ornate marble floor. You will also be able to view two of Caravaggio’s masterpieces: The beheading of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome. These were painted during Caravaggio’s stay in Malta.
The Medina is Malta’s “old” capital city. It is a rather magical place. Access begins through an elaborately carved city gate. Once inside, medieval and baroque architecture dominates the narrow, winding cobblestone streets. It is especially magical in the evening when the lighting creates shadows on the buildings and the horse and carriages parade through the lanes. You can easily understand why Malta has been chosen as a desirable film location for many period films like: The Count of Monte Christo; Game of Thrones; The Da Vinci Code; Gladiator. I felt the karma of the past walking the streets of the old town.
Hagar Qim is another UNESCO World Heritage site and represents one of Malta’s megalithic temples. It dates to the Neolithic Period, 3200BC. Huge assembled stones seem to have solar significance. There is an elliptical hole which is hewn out of the stone in perfect alignment with the sunrise on the Summer Solstice. At sunrise, on the first day of summer, the sun’s rays pass through this opening and illuminate a stone slab inside the chamber. Who built the structures and why they were built still remain unanswered questions.
Off the southern coast of Malta is the Blue Grotto (of Malta). This is a naturally eroded grotto at the base of a wall of sheer cliffs. The sunlight reflects the phosphorescent colors of submerged plants and the dark blue color of the sea in the waters of this chain of caves.
A short 25 minute ferry ride brings you to the smaller island of Gozo. Gozo is a popular destination for local outings as there are small unspoiled swimming bays and beaches. Gozo, too, has a small fortified city; prehistoric stone builders left the Ggantija Temples believed to be the world’s oldest free standing structure (a UNESCO site); Nature carved a free standing natural arch called the Azure Window.
Malta is a short flight from Italy or a ferry ride from Sicily. It can be a delightful and easy extension to a visit to Italy or Sicily. Often, Malta is a port of call on a Southern Mediterranean Cruise.
You will not be disappointed by the food. The fish is fresh and well-prepared. The food is served in picturesque, outdoor venues near the harbors or within the iconic, historic buildings. Many restaurants, clubs and 5 star hotels are located in the vibrant area of Malta called St. Julians. Perhaps, you might prefer to stay in a small, boutique hotel in the Mdina where you can experience a restored 17th Century Palazzo. I was amazed by the development occurring on the island. It is a thriving destination where you can meet visitors and workers from around the world. Malta has, surely, been discovered by Europeans. Lonely Planet has declared Malta as one of its 25 well kept secrets.
The country is small and compact but the history, culture, architecture and experiences loom large. Get yourself to Malta now and be delighted by the discovery of its riches!