One of the best moments on your travels is when you come face-to-face with
something famous that you’ve heard about or only seen in pictures before.
Apart from ticking it off your list of things to see and photograph, it means
you can also view it from every angle and see what all the fuss is about.
I had such an experience in the Maltese capital of Valletta inside St John’s
Co-Cathedral. Moving around the breathtaking Baroque cathedral, I made my way
into the Oratory. On the far wall of a dark empty room was a vast painting
looming over a group of tourists, who were looking up in awe. The painting was
Caravaggio’s renowned Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Brian Sewell I know a Picasso from a Matisse,
but that’s about it. So I was surprised at my own reaction. The portrayal of the
characters depicted in this gruesome scene, and the use of light and shade in
the painting, drew me in and left me spellbound along with the other visitors.
Caravaggio was one of the 17th century’s most controversial artists. He
arrived in Malta in the early 1600s on the run from a murder charge in Rome, and
was commissioned by the religious leaders of the period to paint several works.
He had enough time to knock out a couple of masterpieces before being thrown in
jail and then escaping back to Italy.
All this was news to me, and the painting’s effect was all the more profound
because I had no idea it was there. This is typical of Malta the island is
full of pleasant surprises.
For example, I had no idea I would find a city with the character and history
of Valletta on Malta. In the old town, visitors will find narrow streets kept
cool in the shadows cast by the high ornate buildings and populated with locals
nonchalantly going about their business.
I hadn’t expected to find a building as striking as the Grand Master’s
Palace, now the parliament building but open to culture-vulture tourists who
will enjoy the art collection and displays of suits of armour.
I didn’t think I’d find a street as interesting as Republic Street: the main
pedestrianised thoroughfare where young and old strut their stuff
Mediterranean-style, past trendy shops and crowded al fresco caf’s.
I was unaware too of Malta’s history of the Knights of St John who came to
the island in the 16th century and were responsible for much of the Baroque
architecture seen today in Valletta. I didn’t know that in the last 500 years
Malta has faced numerous invaders from all over Europe, from the Ottomans, the
British and Hitler’s Nazis.
Knowing the history of the island adds a great deal to a visit to Malta and
helps to appreciate the architecture and layout of Valletta and the old walled
city of Mdina. Clients who don’t have time to read up on its history can visit
the Malta Experience an Imax cinema next to the St Elmo fort in Valletta.
Inside, the chequered history of the island is played out in a film on a massive
screen. A number 98 bus stops at the cinema and tickets cost ё4.50 for a
40-minute show that both adults and children will enjoy.
My final surprise came on my last night as I ventured out for a quiet evening
near my hotel in the aptly named district of Paceville in the resort of St
Julians, two miles north of Valletta. I had the impression Malta was a
destination for older clientele but the place was teeming with the young and
Five bars and four nightclubs later, I stumbled back to my hotel, my idea of
Malta completely revised but knowing the self-inflicted headache I was going to
have in the morning would come as no surprise.
Cadogan offers seven nights at the five-star Hilton Malta from euro689 per
person twin-share in April, including breakfast and flights.
First Choice offers seven nights at the all-inclusive four-star Coastline
Hotel in Salina Bay from ё339 per person in early December, including flights.
Sunstart offers seven nights’ self-catering at the three-star Bugibba Holiday
complex from euro275 per person at the beginning of June, including flights.
1. The Maltese national dish is rabbit stew. Clients should ask for fenkata
a delicious feast of rabbit and potatoes stewed in wine and tomato sauce.
2.The Maltese Falcon was a 1940s film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, but in
the 16th century these hunting birds were so prized that Emperor Charles V of
Spain granted the island to the Knights of St John in return for a single falcon
3. The Maltese language reflects the island’s diverse culture and history and
is based on a form of Arabic, with a spattering of Italian thrown in, but almost
everyone speaks good English as well.
4. The island is home to the oldest freestanding temples in the world much
older than Stonehenge and pre-dating Egypt’s pyramids by 1,000 years.
5. Which? magazine recently found Malta to be the best value-for-money
destination in Europe the UK was the most expensive.
Travel Weekly, November 5, 2004