«Why Malta?» That’s a question a Canadian tourist in this tiny island country hears frequently from Maltese who seem surprised someone would come from so far away.
Few Canadians, or Americans for that matter, venture this far from the usual Mediterranean destinations. But Malta, just south of Sicily, has been a popular spot for Europeans, particularly Brits, for decades. And the trip is well worth a little jet lag.
Malta, made up of three islands Malta (small), Gozo (smaller) and Comino (smallest) has more history in each of its 316 square kilometres than just about anyplace else on Earth. And it has some of the best natural harbours in the Mediterranean, harbours that have been fought over and defended for centuries.
Independent since 1964, Malta presents a historical feast for tourists, especially those from a country that by comparison is in its infancy.
There are megalithic temples built between 3600 and 2500 BC and 16th-century churches and forts built by the Knights of St. John.
The history of Malta is one of many invasions, the biggest being the Great Siege of 1565 when the Turks tried unsuccessfully to take the island from the Knights. Napoleon’s army occupied the forts for a few years, then were replaced by the British, whose armed forces were finally asked to leave in 1979.
All this history can be absorbed in an idyllic Mediterranean setting where English is spoken as much as Maltese.
And everything is just a short bus ride away. The Maltese transit buses are an attraction in their own right, and while none are quite megalithic, the suspension and mufflers on many are a distant memory. Privately owned, most of the orange and yellow buses Leylands, Fords and Bedfords have been lovingly cared for and decorated by their owners, and get Maltese and tourists alike wherever they are going with great efficiency.
Buses 38 and 138 originate at the main terminus just outside the Valletta city gates and go to Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, two megalithic temples on the west side of the island. One of the megaliths at Hagar Qim weighs more than 20 tonnes. The fertility goddesses discovered there would be considered obese today. And the Venus of Malta, a figurine on display at the National Museum in Valletta, is clearly middle-aged. How refreshing goddesses who were neither young nor skinny.
Bus 65, goes to Mdina, the old walled capital some 10 kilometres west of Valletta, and Rabat, a nearby town known for its early Christian catacombs.
On the way it’s worth stopping off at Mosta to visit the Parish Church of St. Mary, the site of the Miracle of Mosta. In June 1942, three bombs struck the dome just before mass. Two bounced off and the third smashed through the dome. None exploded and no one was hurt.
When in need of a break from buses, spend a day or two just walking around the capital city of Valletta. Stand still for a moment on any of the many narrow streets and a friendly Maltese is likely to ask if you need help and tell you he has a cousin or brother in Canada.
The National War Museum in Fort St. Elmo is a must-see. Malta was bombed relentlessly by the Germans and Italians during the Second World War, and thousands of Maltese civilians and Allied soldiers and sailors died defending this chunk of yellow rock. To honour the bravery of the Maltese, King George VI awarded the George Cross to the entire island in 1942. A replica is on display at the museum.
There are churches, big and small, splendid and humble, all over Malta 365 to be exact. In Valletta, the 16th-century St. John’s Co-Cathedral («co,» because of the cathedral in Mdina) was the church of the Knights of St. John who arrived in Malta in 1535. Some of their leaders, or «grand masters,» including Jean Parisot de la Vallette (1494-1568), are buried in the crypt. The floor of this church is spectacular, covered with hundreds of coloured marble tomb slabs with Latin inscriptions, and a Caravaggio painting hangs in the cathedral museum.
The Brockville Recorder & Times (Ontario, Canada) September 20, 2003