This Mediterranean country, 58 miles south of Sicily, has everything but a high profile
By Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb
Samuel Taylor Coleridge… Lord Byron… Sir Walter Scott…they all found inspiration in Malta’s legendary landscapes. It was Winston Churchill, however, who summed the place up best when he dubbed it “the tiny rock of history and romance.”
This three-island archipelago, covering only 122 square miles, certainly is tiny. Moreover, it reputedly has the world’s greatest concentration of historic sites. The romance quotient is remarkably high, too; though for centuries, most who came here couldn’t have cared less.
Malta’s strategic location was a far bigger attraction. Positioned midway between North Africa and the European mainland, it lured empire-builders from the ancient Phoenicians and Romans through to the imperial Brits, who prized Malta so much that they stayed for more than 150 years before pulling out in 1964. In their absence, moviemakers -– including those responsible for Gladiator and Troy -– moved in, drawn by a wealth of heritage sites, a camera-ready coastline and a reliably sunny climate.
Of course, the same attributes that make Malta an ideal filming locale make it an ideal vacation destination as well. As an added bonus, Malta, unlike her more popular neighbors, has an English-speaking population (it’s one of the legacies of Britain’s colonial rule), which means you can roam at will without ever having to worry about language barriers, if you speak English.
Silhouette of Valletta – Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority/www.visitmalta.com
The logical starting point is the capital, Valletta. The fact that this small harbor city rates as a UNESCO World Heritage site is thanks to the crusading Knights of St. John. After being forced out of the Holy Land by “heathen hordes,” members of the elite order were offered these islands as a new home base in return for one Maltese falcon per year. Happily, the token rent left enough in their coffers to fund a building spree that lasted from 1530 to 1798.
The results are visible in the Grand Master’s Palace, the opulent Manoel Theatre, Fort St. Elmo (a star-shaped citadel that was still fending off naval attacks in the 1940s), and the over-the-top auberges the knights called home. Even more evocative is their crowning achievement, St. John’s Co-Cathedral: a baroque extravaganza filled with such an abundance of gilt work, frescos, mosaics and paintings (among them Caravaggio’s massive “Beheading of St. John”) that it’s hard to find a bare surface.
Because of the density of sites within Valletta, it is not uncommon to see tourists charging brusquely down Republic Street –- from the city gate right to the sea –- frenetically ticking off sites in their guide book. But relaxing also has tangible rewards here. For instance, centuries of foreign occupation have made Malta a culinary crossroad. So you can get a combined course in history and anthropology by merely sitting down to dine!
Interested in eating your way through the entire curriculum? Try breakfasting on Arab-inspired pastries at Caffe Cordina, Valletta’s landmark coffeehouse on Piazza Regina, then ciao-ing down at La Cave, a 16th-century wine cellar converted into an Italian-style lunch spot. Later, take a break for traditional English tea at Hotel Phoenicia’s Palm Court Lounge; and for dinner pull up a chair at Barracuda, a suburban seafood restaurant housed in a 17th- century mansion.
THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE
While the Knights of St. John were Malta’s best known architects, they weren’t the first. That distinction goes to a Neolithic cult that spent more than a millennium building a mystery. Archeological evidence proves that they began work on a series of megalithic temples about 3800 B.C. It also shows that their efforts were dedicated to the Great Mother: a goddess rendered in clay as a voluptuous woman known simply as the “Fat Lady.”
The rest remains an enigma because, inexplicably, the Fat Lady began to sing… By 2000 B.C. those who worshiped her had disappeared. As a result, we’ll likely never understand how a people who hadn’t discovered either metal tools or the wheel managed to construct sophisticated structures, complete with archways and corbelled ceilings, on such a colossal scale. Nonetheless, we may appreciate the fruits of their labors, each of which has its own claim to fame.
On the country’s “big island” (itself named Malta), visitors marvel at the Tarxien Temples, the most richly-decorated of the megaliths; or the twin temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, which are notable for their seaside location. The Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, conversely, wins top marks for ingenuity: carved from solid rock with antler picks and stone axes, the site extends 36 feet below a suburban street near Valletta. The grand prize, though, goes to the Ggantija Temples on Gozo, a 30-minute ferry ride away.
Skorba – Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority/www.visitmalta.com
(left to right) Msida Church; Mdina Cathedral
Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority/www.visitmalta.com
Predating Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids by 1,000 years, they qualify as the oldest freestanding structures on earth. Such antiquity is difficult to grasp (quite frankly, the centuries-old graffiti is sufficient to dazzle most people). Factor in the sheer size of the stones used in construction – some of which stand 20 feet high and weigh 50 tons – and it is almost possible to believe that the Ggantija Temples were, as their name implies, built by a giantess.
MOTHER NATURE’S HANDIWORK
As if the mother lode of archeological sites wasn’t enough, Malta has a slew of natural attractions as well. The coastline is justifiably famous for geological oddities like the Azure Window, a towering stone arch encrusted with fossils. A lot of ink is also spent extolling Maltese beaches, particularly one on Rambla Bay where the mythological sorceress Calypso is said to have seduced Odysseus. But, truth be told, most are more like limestone shelves than sandy strands. So they seldom measure up to U.S standards.
The sunbather’s loss, however, is the diver’s gain because the rough terrain extends well beneath the waterline, creating seductive grottoes, dramatic drop-offs, and bizarre rock formations that beg to be explored. Conditions are optimal, too. The Mediterranean is clear here, with visibility up to 130 feet. Water temperatures rarely drop below 55° in winter, allowing for year-round diving. Plus there are dozens of outfitters happy to supply you with equipment or take you out on an organized dive.
Non-divers can get a glimpse of what lies beneath by signing on for a glass-keeled boat cruise around St. Paul’s Bay, the spot where the apostle was shipwrecked in 60 A.D. Meanwhile, those content to be on the water rather than under it can rent whatever they need at local sports centers. Since all three Maltese islands have them (even Comino, which has no resident population!) getting hold of a kayak, windsurfer or sailing craft is never a problem.
In this part of the world, though, the ultimate boating experience is also the oldest: namely crossing Valletta’s glorious Grand Harbour on a luzzu. These small, vividly-colored vessels have been plying local waters since the Phoenicians’ time and their prows are still painted with the god Osiris’ watchful eyes. Nowadays the luzzu serves as Malta’s unofficial national symbol. And nothing could be more appropriate in a tiny, waterbound land where myth and history remain inextricably bound.
Luzzu at Marsaxlokk
Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority/www.visitmalta.com
WHERE TO STAY
Tourist zones around Sliema and St. Julian’s are crammed with upscale hotels. Hilton, Westin, Radisson: all the big names are represented. But for the optimal combination of amenities and location, it’s hard to beat Valletta’s Hotel Phoenicia. Although it is poised right at the city gates and has all the accoutrements of a grand hotel (think marble floors, plush upholstery and impeccable service), bargain hunters can snag double rooms there for as little as 90€ a night off season. Those who fantasize about lounging around a Mediterranean villa may prefer to book a vacation rental though Gozo Great Escapes. Heritage properties with private pools start at 595€ per week, so you can enjoy the high life without paying a high price.