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.
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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.
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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.