Malta may be just an ink spot of an island sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, but this tiny nation has a big story to tell. Life on Malta stretches back 7,000 years, and Malta’s megalithic temples are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world (half a century older than the oldest Pyramid).
With its strategic, mid-Med location, the island of Malta became a target for every bully on the block—including the Romans, Normans, Spaniards, Turks, French, and British. In 1530, the island was given to the Knights of Malta (aka the Knights of St John) by King Charles V of Spain who asked only that the Knights give him one Maltese falcon each year in return. The Knights ruled Malta for 200 years transforming the island into a powerful bastion and turning back the Turks which led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In WWII, the Maltese people faced their greatest hardship enduring 154 days of continuous bombing by the Axis powers (almost triple London’s longest bombing raid during the Blitz). As a result of their bravery, the people of Malta were awarded Great Britain’s highest civilian honor: the George Cross.
Here are seven highlights of this special island, each one offering a different insight into the magic that is Malta:
Valletta is a city of stone surrounded by fortifications originally designed to repel invaders. For the best view, head for the Upper Barrakka Gardens overlooking the spectacular Grand Harbor lined with medieval ramparts.
Within the town, the narrow streets are crisscrossed with steep stairs, since the city was built on a ridge for defensive purposes. The towering buildings adorned with unique, brightly painted wooden balconies create a delightful hodgepodge of colors and angles.
Valletta is Malta’s capital and the caretaker of her long history. The Museum of Archaeology houses an exceptional collection of prehistoric artifacts and should be required viewing before visiting the many prehistoric sites on the island. The War Museum commemorates the events of WWII with mementos from the war and displays a replica of the George Cross medal. Valletta is also the country’s transportation hub with an extensive network of buses that will take you virtually anywhere on the island.
2. St John’s Co-Cathedral
The Knights of Malta began as a community of monks, volunteer Christian crusaders from the wealthiest aristocratic families of Europe, who were charged with protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The original Knights may have taken a vow of poverty, but their cathedral must have been exempt! The interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral is a stunner: a kaleidoscope of rich colors with an ornate Bernini-like altar. The marble floors are beautifully tiled often portraying pictures of skeletons—not surprising when you realize that the Knights are buried beneath your feet.
The cathedral also holds Malta’s most cherished painting: Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John—his largest work and the only one he ever signed. Caravaggio was actually ordained as a knight, but this bad boy of the art world could never stay out of trouble for long. He was soon cast out of the order when he got into a fight and wounded another knight. Two years later, Caravaggio died under mysterious circumstances; an intriguing new theory suggests that his death was a revenge killing orchestrated by the Knights.
3. The Hypogeum
This mysterious underground burial site, believed to hold 7,000 bodies, is Malta’s most unique site. Researchers believe that the Hypogeum, known locally as Hal Saflieni, was originally designed as a sanctuary but became a cemetery during the prehistoric era.
To protect the site, only 60 people are permitted to descend into the elaborate subterranean chambers each day. The builders of the Hypogeum replicated their aboveground temples by carving pillars and portals out of the solid rock beneath the surface. The most special room of all is the “Holy of Holies,” so beautifully carved that you would swear you were looking at a Greek masterwork (even though the Hypogeum was built several thousand years earlier).
Artifacts discovered here include the famous “fat ladies” who may have been fertility goddesses. The sinuous “Sleeping Lady,” on display at Valletta’s Archaeology Museum, looks more like a Picasso sculpture than a prehistoric relic.
A visit to the Hypogeum leaves you with more questions than answers. What tools did these people use? Since no traces of soot were found, how did they carve the underground rooms in almost total darkness? And most importantly, who were these ancient people and why did they abruptly stop building temples and disappear?
The small village of Marsaxlokk sits on Malta’s second largest harbor and is home to about 70% of the fishermen on Malta. The sheltered harbor provided an attractive landing spot for everyone from pirates to the Turks and has had many famous visitors. Napoleon made his first appearance on Malta here, and George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev chose Marsaxlokk Bay for their 1989 Summit.
The colorful harbor is a showcase for the distinctive Maltese boats, called luzzus, with their painted stripes of red, blue, and yellow. The local fishermen are a superstitious lot—look for the “Eye of Osiris” on the bow of each boat, talismans for warding off evil spirits.
Marsaxlokk offers a fine selection of harbor side restaurants serving the fresh catch of the day. A souvenir market sets up daily, but the shopping is even better on Sundays when Malta’s largest fish market lines the wharf.
5. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra
Located in the south of Malta with a lovely view of the sea, the 5,000-year-old temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are among the most ancient religious structures on earth. The Hagar Qim entranceway is flanked by 20-ton standing stones and no one knows how the ancient people managed to move such massive rocks.
On a tour of Hagar Qim, you can wander through interconnecting chambers, and marvel at the skilled craftsmanship of the unusual portal doorways. Be sure to look for the artistic carvings, especially the marvelous swirling spiral designs and the manmade pitted decorations that create dimples in the stone.
The impressive Mnajdra temple complex is a short walk away. These temples are aligned with the sun, and during the equinox, sunlight shines directly through the main doorway.
Mdina, the former capital of Malta, is an ancient walled city with an imposing location perched on a plateau. Like the rest of Malta, the city was conquered numerous times. During an uprising against the French, the people of Mdina threw the French governor off a balcony, proving that you don’t want to mess with a Mdinan!
Today, this is a lovely town of narrow, winding streets lined with graceful buildings where the nobility once lived. Mdina is often called “the silent city,” but unfortunately, it can also be filled with noisy tourists. Evenings are the most evocative time to visit—after the day trippers leave, the darkened old streets seem just as they were 1,000 years ago.
Gozo is a tiny Maltese island (8.5 miles long and 4.5 miles wide) only a 25-minute ferry ride from the northwestern tip of Malta. This laidback island with just one traffic light feels like a small town, and everybody seems to know each other. Despite its small size, a Gozo hop-on hop-off tour offers lots of diversions like a medieval citadel, a Miracle Church, and even some Gozo wine. For an intriguing glimpse of Gozo’s past, stop by the Folklore Museum in Gharb to see private collector Sylvio Felice’s 28-room labyrinth of Gozo treasures.
Gozo also has a number of secluded beaches and offers a variety of water sports including snorkeling and scuba diving. But the best reasons to come here are for the beautiful scenery and the feel-good ambiance.
– Anne Supsic
Photos are courtesy of Frank Supsic and may not be used without permission.