Tiny island nation of Malta deserves more than just a stopover

Fort St. Elmo, which the Turks seized from Malta briefly during the Great Siege. At the fort, the National War Museum houses a superb collection of items which takes visitors back to prehistoric times.



A strategic location can be more curse than blessing. Just ask the Maltese, whose tiny island nation lies 50 miles south of Sicily. Early in World War II, when Malta was a British possession, Germany and Italy bombed it almost daily.

And centuries earlier it was the site of the Great Siege of 1565, a devastating, yet ultimately unsuccessful, step by the Ottoman Turks toward conquering all of western Europe.

For travelers today, Malta’s proximity to Europe’s glamour destinations is a definite plus, if not a widely appreciated one. Often experienced as a day stop on Mediterranean cruises, Malta greatly rewards a longer stay. The 17-by-8-mile island is packed with lovingly restored sites that bring history to life, as my wife and I discovered in mid-May in what was a perfect four-day prelude to a visit to Venice, Italy.

Beyond its history, Malta’s landscape offers a natural beauty amid the brilliant blues of the surrounding sea and sky. Greenery is sparse. And from rows of city buildings to its ubiquitous walls, which replace fences and hedges as property boundaries, nearly every structure is colored with the ocher of the soft limestone that underlies the surface of the island.

Its people are eager to show what Malta has contributed to world events as well as its hospitality. That includes a seafood-based cuisine that blends influences from Italy, Spain and Morocco, among other places. And with English being an official language, along with Maltese, the country is especially attractive to Americans.

For visitors, taking the wheel in Malta can be daunting; roads are narrow and lined with limestone walls. Plus, drivers in this sun-drenched, densely populated country of 450,000 are known for a somewhat cavalier attitude. It’s worth it to arrange for a private guide, although buses do make circuits to the many tourist attractions around the island.

Because history is a major draw for our group, our first stop is Valletta, the compact, walkable capital overlooking Malta’s magnificent Grand Harbour. Several small peninsulas are spread before us, each crowned with a fortress much like what the attacking Ottomans must have seen.

But today, the 16th century would have to wait. By a steep stone stairway we descend to the Lascaris War Rooms (lascariswarrooms.com), which preserve a command center and connected network of tunnels built during World War II to provide security from the constant air attacks.

In a Mediterranean Sea that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini tried to transform into “an Italian lake,” Malta had “the only harbor available to the British between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt,” notes military historian Rick Atkinson. That made it “the most bombed place on earth in the early 1940s, with some 16,000 tons of Axis bombs dropped” over Malta’s fewer than 100 square miles. “The Maltese,” Atkinson adds, “showed remarkable fortitude, given the thousands of casualties suffered and the enormous privation imposed on them by the war.”

Climbing back to Valletta’s streets, we then make the 15-minute walk to Fort St. Elmo (heritagemalta.org/museums-sites/national-war-museum), which the Turks seized briefly during the Great Siege. The fort’s museum describes the nobles of the multinational Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, who along with the Maltese people helped repel the invaders. The knights, who date back to the Crusades, were given Malta as their home by the Catholic church in return for a nominal annual fee: a single Malta-trained hunting falcon. (The jewel-encrusted black bird statue featured in “The Maltese Falcon” was the creation of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett.)

Next comes Saint John’s Co-Cathedral (stjohnscocathedral.org), the plain limestone exterior of which opens into a glorious gilded sanctuary. Like Valletta itself, this gem was built by the knights in the late 1500s as the island sought to refortify itself after the siege’s destruction. Among the cathedral’s treasures: two stunning works by the realist painter Caravaggio, who lived in Malta in the early 1600s, including his largest (and perhaps most gruesome) work, “The Beheading of John the Baptist.”

Lunch at Triq il-Merkanti’s busy outdoor street market (facebook.com/no43valletta) gives us a chance to sample Malta’s own diamond-shaped ricotta pastry dish, pastizzi, with a glass of Cisk, its lovely light-colored beer. Then it’s on to the massive Renzo Piano-designed City Gate project, still under construction, as part of a complex with his new parliament building and open-air theater that will replace an opera house destroyed in World War II. Our group stays in the fishing town of Marsaxlokk, just southeast of Valletta, where we have rented an apartment.

The next day’s scenic drive along Malta’s southwestern coast takes us to a place we’re unprepared for — since we’re still thinking of 1565 as pretty long ago. Malta has unearthed and meticulously reconstructed two elaborate prehistoric limestone temples dating back to 3600 B.C., before Egypt’s pyramids and even Britain’s Stonehenge. Little seems to have been learned about the ancient builders of the temples, called Hagar Qim and Mnajdra (heritagemalta.org/ museums-sites/hagar-qim- temples), although excavation of the sites began in the 1800s.

We spend our last evening in Mdina, the walled capital at the time of the Great Siege (heritagemalta.org/museums-sites/#RabatMdina). It lives up to its “silent city” nickname as we wander its tunnellike streets among a smattering of other tourists. Bacchus, our restaurant (bacchus.com.mt), seats us in a vaulted room that was once a gunpowder magazine. A variety of meats, including local rabbit, join fish dishes on the menu. My soup, called aljotta, is so full of giant mussels that little room is left for broth.

The next morning, my wife and I break up our group of six and fly to Venice via Air Malta, the island’s main carrier. (Like most Americans traveling to Malta by air, we had made connections in another European city — London, in our case.)

We loved Venice, but we’ll always remember Malta’s unique wonders, and learning firsthand of its historic contributions over the centuries to how modern Europe has evolved.

Beyond its history, Malta's landscape offers a natural beauty amid the brilliant blues of the surrounding sea and sky. It's a haven for scuba divers.

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