food / travel

A Visit To Malta, A Hidden Gem Of History In The Mediterranean

Valetta, Europe’s biggest natural port
Valetta, Europe’s biggest natural port
Ludovic Bishoff

VALETTA It is an inhospitable rock floating in the Mediterranean Sea. A piece of coralline limestone blown by the winds and burned by the sun with a layer of earth so thin that nothing much can grow on it.

Welcome to Malta, a simple and unpretentious place. Yet, this archipelago comprising eight islands – only two of which are populated – was disputed by every great civilization surrounding it for over 5,000 years. The firsts to lay foot on it were from nearby Sicilia. Then came the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines but also the Arabs and the Normans. They all came to get a piece of this poor land, whose strategic geographical position made it a crucial gateway in the Mediterranean.

The ones who truly left their mark on Malta were the Knights of St. John, from Jerusalem, who ruled the islands from 1530 to 1798. The Knight’s reign ended when Napoleon Bonaparte captured Malta on his way to Egypt. And of course wherever there is Bonaparte, there are angry Britons nearby. The island became a British Dominion in 1800 and continued its tumultuous history under the domination of its Most Gracious Majesty for almost 200 years.

To understand why Malta was so coveted, all you need to do is lay eyes on the smallest country of European Union, whose architectural riches take your breath away. Its capital, Valetta, bears witness to its turbulent history. Its vast fortifications were built to resist yet another invasion, that of the troops of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which the Knights stopped the invasion during the 1965 Great Siege of Malta. The impressive fortified-city built by the Knights is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The St. John’s Co-Cathedral is the masterpiece of this smallest capital of Europe. A Baroque jewel whose centerpiece is a painting that Caravaggio painted during his stay on the island in 1608 – The Beheading of Saint John The Baptist. The floor of the cathedral consists of 400 marble tombs housing Knights and officer of the order, decorated with fascinating skeletons and skulls.

St John's Co-Cathedral - Photo: Tony Hisgett

But the open-air museum that is Valetta has also decided to live in the present. Renzo Piano, one of the most daring architects of our time, has been commissioned to rebuild Valetta’s City Gate, destroyed in WWII. The Italian architect will also be building a new Parliament building and converting the old opera house site into an open-air theater. In a few months, the heart of Valetta will be writing a new page of its history.

The three cities

Until then, you can enjoy the view from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which tower over Europe’s biggest natural port, where once upon a time, galleys, caravels and English destroyers found safe harbor. Now you are more likely to see cruise ships. From the top of the fortifications, we can see the “three cities” that have provided a home all who settled on the island: Senglea, Cospicua, Vittoriosa (also known as Birgu). These cities offer an authentic slice of Maltese history. In Vittoriosa, there are guesthouses for those who want to avoid the big coastal resort towns of Sliema and St. Julian's.

The main island (also called Malta) is only 246 square kilometers but is home to almost all of the 400,000 residents of the Maltese Republic, which makes Malta one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

To escape the crowds, do as the Maltese do and take the ferry to the nearby island of Gozo. On the second island of the archipelago (67 square kilometers and 30,000 inhabitants), people seem to know how to take the time to enjoy life.

Do not miss the Azure Window on the west coast of the island. A very photogenic stone arch formed millions ago, which can be explored by boat. Nearby, the most beautiful bay of the island, Xlendi Bay, is definitely worth stopping for.

The Azure window-Photo by : Berthold Werner

But if you come to Gozo, it is first and foremost to visit the ruins of Ggantija temple complex, the earliest Neolithic temple in the world still standing. The construction of this cloverleaf-shaped complex dates to 3,600 BC. Ggantija has often been compared to Stonehenge in England, but it is at least 700 years older.

Ggantija was the site of a fertility cult and its inhabitants carried out animal sacrifices, presumably to beg the gods and heavens to bring some fresh water to this arid land.

Today, if water is still scarce in Malta, alcohol flows in the Paceville district, west of St. Julian’s, where bars attract thousands of young Europeans who have come to the language of Shakespeare under the Mediterranean sun. Malta’s language schools are a huge industry. The English presence can be seen everywhere from the old red phone booths to the character of the Maltese people: a mix of British composure and Mediterranean feistiness. This unusual mix is what makes the charm of this atypical people speaking a language that is close to Arabic but written in the Latin alphabet!

Malta is unique because it has been the cradle of different civilizations, which were able to develop on a sterile land. That in itself is reason enough to visit the archipelago.

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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