Fought over by invaders ranging from the Carthaginians to Napoleon, Malta’s strategic role in the Mediterranean has been a meeting point and melting pot for the three continents that surround it. As you sail into the sandstone-hewn Grand Harbour in the capital Valletta, its magnificence and significance unfolds – little wonder this became the headquarters of the Knights of St John in 1565.
This tiny island nation of bastions and belfries has one of the oldest universities in the world and no other country boasts so many walled cities, churches and chapels in such a small area. There are three World Heritage sites: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the Megalithic Temples, and the City of Valletta.
The time of the Knights is described as the most glorious in this nation’s history, but it was the island’s role in World War II that is remarkable. As the Nazis attempted to blockade and bomb Malta into submission, it held firm and sent the Luftwaffe packing. The loyalty of the Maltese was recognised in 1942 when King George VI awarded the island the George Cross.
Today, the legacy of the Knights lives on in the fortress city of Valletta which this year is one of two European Capitals of Culture (the other being Leeuwarden in Holland). No visit here is complete without seeing the impressive Palace of the Grand Masters which has been the seat of government since its construction in the 1570s; and the flamboyant high-Baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral, the former Knights’ church. Hanging above the Oratory in this magnificent place of worship is Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, considered by many art historians to be the best painting executed during the 17th century.
Situated on a ledge of land in the geographical centre of the island, the ancient capital of Mdina is one of the best-preserved Baroque cities in the world and has remained virtually unchanged since a renovation in the 1720s. This living museum, known as the ‘Silent City’, is awash with medieval townhouses reflecting a jumble of architectural styles – Arabic, Sicilian and Norman.
With so much history it should come as no surprise that Malta was used as a location for recent films including The Da Vinci Code, Gladiator and Clash of the Titans, as well as the cult television phenomenon that is Game of Thrones.
Bringing 7,000 years of island history to the big screen in a purpose-built auditorium, the 45-minute ‘Malta Experience’ at St Elmo Bastion is a great starting point for first-time visitors.
Try local delicacies sold by street vendors such as pastizzi (small pasties filled with ricotta or mushy peas) and their sweet equivalent with a date filling – imquaret.
Take a day trip to neighbouring Gozo. Ferries operate from Cirkewwa, a taxi ride from Valletta, or climb aboard the new seaplanes which also offer scenic tours around the Maltese Islands.