The Maltese Islands are a unique cocktail of genes and architecture forged by a most unusual history. It stretches back 5611 years to the carbon dated megalithic Ggantija Temples on the Island of Gozo, built by an advanced civilization that crossed from Sicily on a land bridge that no longer exists. These are the oldest structures in the world, and were built 1,400 years before the Pyramids.
Coveted for their highly strategic position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and Africa, they have been controlled by a succession of dominions ever since, starting with the Phoenicians who used them as a safe anchorage for their ships. They were overrun by the Carthaginians who were eventually conquered by 30,000 Roman Legionaries. Byzantine rule followed this in 395 AD, accompanied by an ongoing tussle with the Vandals and Goths. Towards the end of the 9th century AD an Arab invasion secured occupation which was ended by a Norman Conquest that returned the islands to the Christian Faith in 1090.
Charles V of Spain, as King of Sicily, ceded the Maltese Islands to the Order of the Knights of St John in 1530. This was a cosmopolitan assembly of English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Bavarian Knights who became the biggest influence in the eventual development of the islands. After surviving a heroic siege in a concerted attack from the Turks in 1565, they went on to become Malta’s greatest benefactors as they developed an infrastructure that contributed much to the architecture and culture existing today.
The Knights of St John’s reign lasted until Napoleon Bonaparte seized the Islands in 1798 at a time when the Knighthood had basically run its course. He needed the ‘Islands’ as part of his strategy for conquering Egypt and the narrows of the Mediterranean Sea stood in his way. For the next two years the French confiscated all the property of the Order, and stripped the churches and civic properties of their bounteous treasures. Exquisite artifacts of gold and silver were melted into ingots, the people taxed to impoverishment and Maltese sailors press ganged into service in the French Fleet.
Malta was rescued from Napoleon’s
grasp by one of the great sea
battles at the turn of that century.
Heading up a fleet of twelve ships Admiral Nelson surprised him at Alexandria where he had disembarked for his campaign against Egypt. In the encounter that followed only three ships of Napoleon’s original armada of thirteen battleships and four frigates survived, whilst there had been no losses on the British side. With seriously depleted battle resources, the remnants of the French occupation in Malta were easily overthrown, thus beginning a lengthy period of English rule. This ended with the granting of independence in 1964, when it became a sovereign state within the British Commonwealth.
The Maltese Islands and Britannia were close allies during the Second World War. They were subjected to the most vicious onslaught from neighbouring Italy and Germany, as Malta was a big thorn in the supply route for Rommel’s North African campaign. Until Italy was defeated in 1943, more bombs rained down on this tiny enclave than in any other locality during the whole war. The devastating destruction was responsible for a huge death and casualty toll, along with mammoth deprivation as air attacks wreaked havoc with the shipping supply lines.
The gritty Maltese, bolstered by their extraordinary Catholic faith and support from England, managed to survive against overwhelming odds and were undoubtedly a major factor in Germany’s failed North African campaign. In April 1942 King George V1 awarded the George Cross to the entire population of the Maltese Islands in honour of their heroism and bravery - the only time in history that such recognition has been bestowed.
Every country is the end product of its history, and all of the dominions that occupied Malta over the centuries have left their imprint in the DNA of its language, culture, customs and architecture. This makes it an extremely fascinating country to visit. The Maltese Tourism Authority vigorously promotes an industry that tops well over a million visitors a year – an impressive number for islands that measure 316 square kilometers in total, with a population of only 415,000 people. I was lucky enough to be their guest for a stimulating 4 days at the onset of summer. Accompanying me on this mission was Darrell Azzopardi - an affable guide with a warehouse full of historical information. He would be a useful investment for anyone wanting to explore the islands with only a limited amount of time.
My introduction to the many enchanting links with history was a night visit to the ‘Silent City’ – Mdina – which was a colonial settlement of Imperial Rome, and thereafter the first Capital City of the Knights before the seat of government moved to Valetta. Situated high on a plateau with a commanding view, it was a natural choice for an imposing citadel with fortification in mind. Its history stretches back through the ages to the Phoenicians, who built the original walls, and is one of the finest examples of a medieval city anywhere in the world today. In Roman times it was where the Apostle Paul was kept when he was washed ashore from a shipwreck on the island in 60AD. From here he was later deported to Rome, where he was executed.
Mdina is split into an eastern and a western half by Villegaignon Street. In 1693 the town was struck by a powerful earthquake that did little to damage the western section that was built on solid rock. The eastern side built on clay was devastated, and rebuilt in the first half of the 18th century - thus introducing the Baroque style of that period. The prime example of this is the triumphal archway at the entrance to the city.
Malta’s greatest natural resource is a vast deposit of a distinctive butter coloured limestone that has been used for building throughout the past, and is the medium still in use today. This eliminates the need for exterior paint and gives structures throughout the islands a unique patina. When added to the craftsmanship of the skilled stone masons through the ages, there is a commanding ambiance that assails the senses. Far from being a collection of historical buildings, Mdina is a fully functioning village with over 300 residents who are the only people allowed vehicular access. Occasionally, whilst wandering along its flag stoned streets, a horse and buggy will clip clop past adding to the timeless charm.
Tucked away in a reclusive corner of the ancient city is the Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux, a charismatic family run boutique hotel built into the residence of a 17th century nobleman. The bastions that surround the hilltop city actually form part of the building’s boundary wall. It is also the home of the de Mondion Restaurant a superb gourmet restaurant where we ended a stimulating tour after wandering around narrow streets and piazza’s bounded by cathedrals, churches and buildings that have defied the ravages of time, nature and human folly.
The Knights of St John ruled from 1530 to 1798, and left a glorious heritage in Valletta – the new capital that they commenced building after the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. As then, it is still the island’s centre of government and culture with its unique assembly of Baroque palaces, museums, and cathedrals bordering the streets and attractive piazzas. In 1830, Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime minister remarked that “Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe”.
Pride of place has to be the St John’s Co - Cathedral, originally the spiritual home of ‘The Knights’. A truly magnificent edifice it is a treasure house of murals, art and architectural relics, being every bit as magnificent as St Peters in Rome on a smaller scale. Hanging in the oratory is Caravaggio’s masterpiece, ‘The beheading of St John the Baptist’- believed to be the only painting he ever signed.
It would take several days to see all that Valletta has to offer. High on the list would be the Grand Masters Palace - originally the administrative centre of the Order of St John, currently housing parliament and the office of the president. Standing sentinel in the long corridors is an impressive collection of suits of armour, and in the rear is an armoury featuring a fine display of the weaponry used during the Knights tenure. The Upper Barrakka Gardens would be well worth a visit, along with the Valletta Waterfront and the War Museum. The latter houses the Lascaris war Rooms that are still intact and exactly as they were on the last day of the war.
Quite apart from Malta’s rich historic and architectural heritage, it is a great place for a holiday, as attested by the legions of visitors pouring into the country, mostly on Air Malta – the country’s very efficient airline that lists no less than 84 international destinations on its website. The weather is great year round with hot dry summers, warm autumns and short cool winters. There are plenty of bays beaches and coves along its 196 kilometer coastline. The crystal clear water is ideal for swimming, and scuba diving is especially popular amongst the many wrecks lying close to the shore. Those seeking night life will head for the party district of Paceville, where many bars,clubs and restaurants rock until the wee hours. And shopaholics should head for the Point - Malta’s newest and biggest retail complex that is linked to the prestigious Tigne Point development. There are also many Al Fresco eateries, as the sun filled days promote an intimate association with the many piazzas and waterfronts of the Maltese Islands.
On hand to cater for the huge influx of tourists is a large network of very fine hotels ranging from high end luxury to budget, all of which compare favourably with their European counterparts in terms of price and value. I was privileged to stay in two really superb five star establishments. The Phoenicia is Malta’s imposing Grande Dame situated conveniently at the entrance to Valletta in 7 acres of luxuriant garden. It is themed along attractive Art Deco lines and has a beautiful pool complex tucked away amongst the trees, plants and shrubs.
In fashionable Sliema I spent a night in the stylishly modern Palace Hotel, situated 500 metres from a popular beach. The main features were a generous balcony with a breathtaking vista, and a top floor centered round a rim-flow pool that created the illusion of pouring onto the street below. This area was completely devoted to leisure activities such as a bar, gymnasium, spa and a large bank of sun loungers.
The highlight of my trip to the Maltese Archipelago was a visit to the satellite island of Gozo in the north. It is accessed by a ferry that leaves every 45 minutes, and transports people and cars across the 6 kilometer channel in half an hour.
This is a magnificent travel bookmark, and is a place of great enchantment. A rural alternative to businesslike Malta, it is only 14 kilometers long, 7 wide and 67 squares in area. It has a truly spectacular coastline featuring craggy cliffs, seductive coves, blue grottos and glorious beaches where turquoise waves break onto brilliant orange-red sands. The best way to see it all is from a speedboat, and for this you should employ the services of Kevin Vella at Galaxy Charters.
The population of Gozo is only 31,000, of which 6,500 live in Victoria the capital. With temperate weather and a tranquil atmosphere, it is a popular retirement locality, and there is also quite a big farming sector. On the tourist trail, Gozo’s history is built into many of its buildings, most notably The Citadel - a small fortified city in the heart of Victoria that dates back to the Bronze Age around 1500BC. A World Heritage site, it carries the influence of all the occupying nationalities ever since, and the castle that was destroyed by the Turks in 1551 was rebuilt along with massive defensive bastions by the Knights between 1599 and 1603.
Rising from the sea, the Azure Window is a giant natural rock arch framing a distant cliff, and the Basilica Ta’ Pinu is the most famous place of pilgrimage for the islanders.
Both are places of fascination, and a visit to the megalithic Ggantija Temples will get you wondering about the mystifying origins of this compelling nation.
Roy Watts was infected with the travel bug at birth. He managed to hold this affliction at bay for much of his life by forcing his square body into the round hole of conformity. In 2003, after recovering from Guillain Barre, a paralysing neurological disease, he tossed his briefcase away and adopted a ‘Have Pen Will travel’ credo. This to more fully enjoy his mid life crisis!
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