Like a permanently moored aircraft carrier, a 245sqkm limestone block rides the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa. Known to the Romans as Melita and nowadays as Malta, it has long played a strategic role. The Turks tried to wrest it from the Knights Hospitallers in the Great Siege of 1565, and in World WarII the Axis powers attempted to pound it into submission by aerial assault.
Their failure to do so cost the Axis North Africa and led to the invasion of Italy in 1943. For its suffering, King George VI awarded the entire island the George Cross.
Although under British control from 1814 until independence in 1964, Malta is anything but British. True, most Maltese speak impeccable English, but their own tongue, Maltese, is closely related to Arabic. It is a sun-scorched Mediterranean island that has known a who’s who of conquerors. Thousands of years ago, neoliths landed from Sicily and set about building what are today some of the oldest freestanding monuments in the world.
The megalithic temples of Tarxien, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra date as far back as 3500BC. The great limestone blocks hauled into place by these ancient people have withstood the elements and neglect for more than 5000 years; it’s a shame the sites are not better protected. (Mnajdra has been vandalised several times in the past few years.)
The landscape is otherwise dotted by cheerful if frequently dowdy villages, nearly all of them graced by outsized (generally baroque) churches. The hefty ramparts and forts of Valletta and the surrounding Three Cities area are an impressive reminder of the heyday of the militant Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Knights of St John of Jerusalem). In coastal villages such as Marsaxlokk, the pretty rainbow-coloured fishing skips still head out in search of a good catch.
On the cusp of joining the European Union (next month), Malta has been discovered by the film world. In 1999, scenes for Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, were shot there. Four years later, Brad Pitt and Sharon Stone were among the VIPs hanging around for the shooting of the blockbuster Troy and the more modest A Different Loyalty.
The Maltese archipelago is made up of the main island of Malta, its smaller, greener neighbour Gozo and the islet of Comino, which lies between the two and is inhabited only by guests of a five-star resort.
Best arrival: Gliding in under sail would be best. Otherwise settle for the modern high-speed ferries to Valletta from Italy. Only this way does the island’s capital, with its impregnable ramparts and forts, strike with the full force that must have impressed foreign raiders since the late 16th century. There the Knights Hospitallers made their prime base and it was to Valletta’s Grand Harbour that Allied supply ships would limp in after taking a pounding from Axis planes during World War II.
Best sightseeing: While the masses swarm around the coastal resorts looking for a place in the sun (or a sun lounge), sneak away to the walled medieval citadel of Mdina. Occupied since Roman times, it was the island’s capital from the days of Arab occupation (AD870-1090) until 1530, when the Habsburg emperor Charles V handed it to the homeless of Knights Hospitallers. They had been evicted from their bastion of Rhodes by the Turks eight years earlier. In the years that followed, the citadel was largely remodelled in baroque style. Local buses rattle up the hill through Rabat to the moat (now filled with orange trees) and baroque city gate. The gently sloping main square, Pjazza San Pawli, with its apricot-hued splendour, is dominated by a grand cathedral dedicated to St Paul. Further north, the ramparts around Pjazza Tas-Sur afford views of the north coast, Valletta and the extraordinary dome of the Mosta Rotunda.
Best vantage points: The tiny Madalena chapel atop the Dingli Cliffs on Malta’s south coast is one of the archipelago’s highest points (260m). To the south, the deep blue Mediterranean stretches to the horizon and Libya, while to the north you can see clear across the island to Valletta. The best views of Valletta, however, are from the ramparts of Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa (also known as Birku), just across the Grand Harbour.
Best church: Even the most unprepossessing huddle of cubic, flat-roofed houses boasts a disproportionate place of worship in Malta. One of the greatest of these religious caprices is the 19th-century Rotunda, or Church of St Mary, in Mosta. Built on a circular plan and with a neoclassical facade, it lays claim to the fourth largest church dome in Europe. Inside is kept a replica of a German bomb that crashed through the dome during World War II, bounced about the congregation and failed to explode.
Best seasons: As for most of the Mediterranean, the best times to visit Malta are northern spring (except the busy Easter break) and early autumn. Summer can be fiendishly hot and from November to February you are as likely to encounter rain as sunshine.
Best eats: Midday hunger is best dealt with in a local pastizzeria, home to classic Maltese snacks. Pastizzi are light, filo-like pastries stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese or peas. Malta has long had an indifferent culinary reputation but that is changing.
Some of the most attractive restaurants are scattered about St Julian’s on the north coast of Malta. A magical setting for elegant Italian dining is Barracuda (194-5 Main St), a 17th-century clifftop villa overlooking the Balluta and Spinola bays. Carpaccio (several options) for two on a candlelit terrace table is perfect for the romantically inclined. Ta’ Kris (80 Fawwara Lane) in Sliema is tucked away in a back lane near the busy, touristy Strand. On offer are copious portions of al dente pasta in a variety of sauces and a succulent fillet of the local fish favourite, lampuki.
Sometimes simplest is best. On Gozo the best prepared catch of the day can be had at the no-nonsense Rexy (100 Mgarr Rd), about 1km uphill from Mgarr port (where the ferry arrives from Malta island) on the road to Gozo’s capital, Victoria.
Best diving: Head for Dwejra Point and its Blue Grotto at the western end of Gozo. Tall limestone cliffs lunge into the deep, inky but transparent waters. Visibility is as much as 20m and the depths contain pretty coral and sea life. Boats run in and out of the so-called inland sea, where the Med has penetrated the island’s rock walls to form a little bay. On nearby Fungus Rock, capped by a fertile patch, the Knights Hospitallers used to pick mushrooms for medicinal purposes.
Best beaches: The rocky coastline of Malta and Gozo islands occasionally softens up in splendid fashion. Away from the madding crowds of Malta’s northern beaches twinkles the untouched pebbly strand of Fomm ir-Rih, carved out of the island’s west coast. Reached by lousy roads and a narrow cliffside walk, the translucent azure water is worth the effort (BYO food and water). On Gozo, the golden sands and modest dunes of Ramla Bay beach in the north of the island are cupped by verdant terraces and watched over by a prominent statue of the Virgin Mary, who sits like a Bondi lifesaver atop a high, whitewashed pedestal.
Best excursions: An intriguing cultural leap is the one-day trip to Sicily, 96km north. Virtu Ferries catamarans speed to Pozzallo on Sicily’s south coast, from where coaches run to the rumbling volcanic heights of Mt Etna and on to Taormina, one of the prettiest towns on Sicily’s east coast. Etna, whose gently sloping bulk lords it over much of eastern Sicily, is tetchily active and you may not be permitted to reach the crater. Ferries leave Valletta at 7am and return at 11pm.
Air Malta connects the island with destinations in Europe and several in North Africa. From Australia, Emirates flies from Sydney to Dubai with connections to Malta. By sea, high-speed car and passenger ferries run from Pozzallo in southern Sicily to Valletta.
The Weekend Australian April 10, 2004