When I first visited Malta, I was reminded of all those medieval movies with knights, dragons and looming castles. Sure enough, I later learned that this is a frequent destination for Hollywood movies and has included such greats as Troy and Gladiator! For several decades its main source of movie fame was another classic: Midnight Express.
Malta is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, dating as far back as 5,000 B.C. Throughout the centuries, navigators as well as invaders have been attracted to Malta due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea. The island’s harbor provided a sheltered base for naval fleets while the island itself, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, enabled its colonizing powers to exercise control over shipping in this vast and turbulent sea. Originally colonized by the Phoenicians between 800 and 200 B.C., Malta later became part of the Roman Empire. St. Paul is said to have converted the island to Christianity in 60 A.D. after having been shipwrecked on the island while en route to prison in Rome.
Malta may not be big, and it may not have the swarmy, breezy feel of other Mediterranean destinations, but the feelings that exude when you enter the harbor and tour the surrounding group of islands gives one a sense of a remote, less touristy escape. The deep blue water with brightly painted fishing boats buzzing around honey-colored stone buildings reminded me of a less touristy Venice.
A mix of cultures from Rome to Britain has influenced these five little islands over the centuries, so you’ll find Italian baroque architecture and an English accent combined with the Maltese gusto for life. Add good restaurants, friendly people and the remains of an ancient culture, and you’ll begin to understand Malta’s appeal.
Malta’s capital, the minicity of Valletta on the island of Malta, has ornate palaces and museums protected by massive fortifications of honey-color limestone. Houses along the narrow streets have overhanging wooden balconies for people-watching.
The three cities area of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua, across the Grand Harbor from Valletta, has its old-world charms, while Malta’s southern and eastern areas have prehistoric sites, as well as the stunning cliffs and waters around the Blue Grotto.
The ancient and silent walled city of Mdina rises out of the center of the island. The island of Gozo, northwest of Malta, is a place to relax. Its capital, Victoria, is a charming old city with warrens of narrow streets, a hilltop Cittadella, and two main squares. The island has some superb restaurants, and local bakeries turn out tasty, crusty round loaves. Lace making is practiced here by a diminishing number of older women. At the same time, diving has become increasingly popular, especially at Xlendi Bay.
The 3-square-km (1-square-mi) island of Comino, between Malta and Gozo, is populated by a handful of people year-round. Day-trippers walk the dirt paths and swim in the beautiful but overcrowded Blue Lagoon.
If you’ve ever wondered what sort of prize you’d get for saving Europe, look no further than Valletta. Named after La Valette, the Grandmaster who masterminded Malta’s successful stand against the Turkish siege of 1565, Valletta became the city of the Knights of the Order of St John and the seat of Malta’s government.
While traveling through the Mediterranean, Sir Walter Scott described Valletta as ‘the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’. Today it’s a beautifully preserved 16th-century walled city, small enough to cover in a few hours without sweating too much in the Mediterranean sun. In fact, the streets were carefully laid out to channel cool breezes in from the harbour.
Situated on the northeast coast of Malta, Valletta is the capital, and is built on the promontory of Mount Sciberras which juts out into the middle of a bay. This dissects the bay into two deep harbours: the Grand Harbour to the east and the Marsamxett to the west. Valletta is a rough rectangle at the tip of a peninsula on the coast, just a few hundred metres across in either direction and thus surrounded by water on its northern, eastern and southern sides.
The city was named after Jean Parisot de la Valette who was the Grand Master of the Order of the Knight Hospitallers (Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem).
This famed religious order of hospitallers was founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century and made their base in Malta after they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. During the time of Grand Master La Valette, in 1565, the Knights and the Maltese managed to suppress a siege on the island by the forces of Süleyman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in what was to become known as one of history’s greatest sieges.
Following the siege, the building of the city began in the same year 1565 in order to create a base for the defense of the island. Although Grand Master La Valette managed to lay the first stone, he died before its completion. Most of the embellishments of Valletta were done during the time of Grand Master La Cassiere, especially the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral. The reign of the Knights of St John eventually came to an end with the successful invasion by Napoleon who occupied Malta on his way to Egypt. A Maltese revolt against the French garrison was the catalyst for the occupation of Valletta by the British in 1800. Valetta is also the spot where the Italian fleet surrendered to the Allies in 1943.
Valletta’s network of streets is laid out in an orthogonal grid dominated by a main artery which crosses the length of the entire city and opens up into a series of squares at its geometric centre, around the Palace of the Grand Masters. The city architecture is inspired by Italian Renaissance planning principles, and served as an early model of urban design.
Valletta is one of the most important planned towns of the Renaissance. It equals in its noble architecture, any capital in Europe, while its timeless beauty and artistic treasures make it a well-deserved World Heritage site. There are a number of superb museums here as well as historical sites that are worth visiting. The main thoroughfare in the city is Republic Street.
You’ll find all the main shops and character-filled side streets leading off from here. For those interested in shopping, Merchant’s Street and Lucia Street are the places to go for the most interesting merchandise. Lucia Street is famous for the exquisite silver and gold filigree jewellery sold there. Merchant Street specializes in souvenirs and is also home to a large open market.