This Mediterranean nation may be small, but it packs a hefty historic punch – best absorbed among the streets of its two most interesting cities
Size isn’t everything, as any Maltese person will tell you. The tiny capital, and even tinier former capital, of this tiny nation have a rich and colourful history, as well as a vibrant modern-day culture.
Strategically set in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Maltese Islands have been at the heart of so much. Prehistoric remains suggest Malta may have been part of a causeway from Europe to Africa, while megalithic temples date back to 4000 BC.
The Phoenicians and Romans knew the islands well; from AD 870 they were occupied by the Arabs for 200 years, before becoming an adjunct to Sicily. But in 1530 Spain gifted the islands to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who had lost their base in Rhodes. The archipelago’s population was only 12,000, and the only town was Mdina, a hilltop settlement in the middle of the main island.
The knights settled first in Birgu (now officially called Vittoriosa), building auberges (colleges), where they lived and worked. In May 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent sent a major force to invade Malta. The resulting siege lasted until September, leaving Malta and the Knights battered and bruised. It was clear a new, defendable city was needed, and so Valletta, with its fine natural harbour, was built and became the new capital.
The power of the Knights had waned by the end of the 18th century. Napoleon invaded in 1798, but the islands were only in French hands for a couple of years before Britain helped kick them out and took over. Malta remained strategically important and suffered heavy bombing during World War II, before finally gaining independence in 1964.
Today, Valletta is one big museum, its history confronting you around every corner. Wander the streets and alleys and you can almost see the ghosts of the Knights and hear the laughter of the sailors who plied Strait Street – infamously known as ‘The Gut’ – on their shore leave.
But, although a World Heritage site, it is also a living, breathing city. A controversial scheme is underway to redevelop the site of the former Opera House, the City Gates and Freedom Square – but even the development is worth seeing. Meanwhile the whole city is gradually regenerating as the Maltese start to feel proud of it again.
The gem that is Mdina is still the seat of some of Malta’s oldest and most noble families. Only 280 people live within the citadel’s medieval walls, although each day coaches spew an invasion of tourists. But walk around the streets in the evening and you’ll see why this is called the ‘Silent City’.
It’s too easy to dismiss Malta as a package holiday destination. Yes, much of the east coast is horribly overdeveloped.
But away from the resorts is a different Malta, one of Unesco sites and layers of visible history; of fairly priced world-class cuisine and excellent wines from the Meridiana estate. One of honey-coloured buildings and golden light (superb for photographs); of a language and culture that has borrowed from various invaders over the centuries.
Oh, and it has Marks & Spencer.
Catholic Malta, was the only EU state not to allow divorce, but passed a law legalising the practice in October 2011. Residents no longer have to travel overseas to end their marriages.
Sail the harbour, delve into the catacombs and raise a glass to an English hellraiser
If arriving in the afternoon, start by exploring Mdina, taking a stroll or a horse-drawn carriage through the atmospheric ‘Silent City’ to get your bearings. A stunning, walled medieval city, the streets are deliberately angled, party for defensive reasons, partly for coolness.
Only residents and deliverymen are allowed to drive here. During the daytime, the town can be very busy with visitors, but by late afternoon you’ll have the place to yourself.
Dominating the main square is St Paul’s Cathedral. Most of the original cathedral was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1693, with rebuilding starting a few years later. Looking at it you’ll see it has two clocks, seemingly different: one tells the time, the other the date (or it’s there to confuse the devil, depending who you believe). You have to pay
to enter (€2.50), which is done through the side door. Inside, the floor is a mosaic of tombs of the great and the good. The altarpiece is by Preti and predates the earthquake.
Back outside, head to Bastion Square for panoramic views over the national football stadium, the Meridiana Winery and the great dome of Mosta. Close by is Mtarfa, known to the British for its World War I hospital and barracks. Have a cuppa with a view at Fontanella Tea Garden.
Splash out on dinner at de Mondion restaurant; if it’s not too windy you can eat out on the veranda.
Compact but packed with sights, Valletta is a dream to explore and St John’s Co-Cathedral is as good a place to start. Dating back to the 16th century, it’s plain outside makes the lavish Baroque interior even more of a surprise. Move on into the Oratory for two masterpieces by former novice Caravaggio, including his largest work: The Beheading of St John.
In Republic Square, do some people-watching at the legendary Caffe Cordina; you could even be rubbing shoulders with the prime minister – the nearby Grand Master’s Palace houses the Parliament. Take one of the hourly tours at nearby Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century palazzo; your guide may be the present-day marquis.
Head to Upper Barracca Gardens for views of the Grand Harbour and the firing of the noonday gun. Grab lunch to go – eat it on a across to Vittoriosa, one of the Three Cities.
Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, was the original capital of the Knights of St John. Wander the quiet streets before heading up to the Couvre Porte, the system of defensive gateways. Grab a drink at one of the waterfront cafés or head back to Valletta to raise a glass to Oliver Reed in The Pub on Archbishop Street: this was where the late actor drank his last. For dinner, try Giannini for fresh fish and views over the harbour, or the ever-popular Rubino.
Stroll back through Mdina to catch any of the sights you bypassed. Malta’s Natural History Museum is easy to miss; it’s inside the Vilhena Palace, a lovely Baroque building by Mdina’s main gate.
Another sight to catch up on is the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum it’s the second-oldest building in Mdina and is packed with antiquities that were collected by its previous owner Captain Gollcher. Enjoy lunch with a view at the Palazzo’s rooftop café or pop down to the Old Priory Café, set inside the Carmelite Priory Museum.
Head back out of the main gate and into the town of Rabat (the name is Arabic for ‘suburb’). St Paul is believed to have stayed here for three months following his shipwreck on the island. The grotto in which he reputedly lived is next to the church dedicated to him; the altarpiece in the church depicts the shipwreck.
There are several Roman catacombs that are well worth exploring; St Paul’s is labyrinthine and the most impressive. Do use one of the audio handsets.
Have dinner at The Medina restaurant. Or, if you had a well-deserved big lunch, enjoy a glass of local wine or Cisk beer in one of the atmospheric bars on Magazine St.
If staying an extra day, visit at least one of the prehistoric temple sites, such as Hagar Qim, and the mysterious cart ruts at Dingli Cliffs. Alternatively, take a cruise around the islands or board the ferry to Gozo.
When to go: Summers are hot, dry and busy. Winters are mild. Spring/ autumn are best for sightseeing.
Getting there: Air Malta flies from various UK airports to Malta’s Luqa airport. Ryanair and easyJet also have services. Flight time is three hours.
Getting around: Valletta and Mdina are only 10km (6 miles) apart, so you can stay in either. Buses (www.arriva.com.mt) are plentiful and good value; fares are €2.20 for a two-hour ticket; a day ticket is €2.60. Agree taxi fares up front. Water taxis (dghajsa, say it ‘die-sa’) can be picked up from Vittoriosa Waterfront or booked to meet you on Valletta Waterfront (www.maltesewatertaxis.com)
Where to stay: The Xara Palace in Mdina is a family-owned 17th C palazzo. In Valletta, the Phoenicia is a five-star; the Castille is mid-range; there are several B&Bs.
Where to eat: Mdina has excellent restaurants: try de Mondion at the Xara Palace and The Medina. Try to book in advance.
Further info: Malta & Gozo (Bradt, 2013); www.visitmalta.com
Pastizzi are small savoury pastries filled with cheese, and sold everywhere; ftira is a sort of Maltese sandwich – a round loaf with various fillings.