Malta: a colorful Mediterranean archipelago of diverse activities

For centuries a key stepping-stone for European and Middle Eastern invaders, Malta has inherited a rich historical legacy, one it has combined with a modern lifestyle to create diverse tourism attractions.

Here are some of the best ways to enjoy what the Mediterranean nation has to offer.

No better starting place than the walled capital, Valletta within whose old cobbled streets lies a rich vein of culture, both of the new and the old world varieties.

For strong background, visit the Archaeological Museum on Republic Street to learn about the islands’ first inhabitants and admire varied artefacts including pottery, stone implements and sculptures dating from the Neolithic (5,000 BC) to the Phoenician (400 BC) periods.

Of particular interest are the Venus figurines including the ‘Sleeping Lady,’ a rotund reclining woman believed to represent eternal sleep found in the ancient burial site of Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum near the town of Paola, an enormous subterranean structure excavated around 2,500 B.C. Originally a sanctuary, the site became a necropolis in prehistoric times. Book ahead as only 10 visitors an hour are allowed in, due to environmental controls.

If you’re into decorative churches, then St. John’s Co-Cathedral is the place to spend an hour or two. After surviving the Great Siege by Muslims in 1565, and thus saving Christian Europe, the Crusader defenders received loads of money from the Pope and members of Royalty whose riches were at risk.

Many of these generous contributions went into building the cathedral and stocking it with art of all kinds including Flemish tapestries, sacred vestments, marble furnishings and Baroque wall paintings making it seem almost technicolor. Be sure to ask about the highly entertaining stories concerning the wayward Caravaggio and his completion of ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,’ which hangs in the oratory, believed to be the only work the artist signed.

For a sense of nobility, take a leisurely walk inside the nearby Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th century palazzo still privately owned. Its 50 rooms, filled with furnishings ranging from chandeliers from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to 17th century Maltese furniture, reflect the life of the elite down through the generations.

Strategically important Malta was carpet-bombed by the Axis during World War Two so it is interesting to find not one, but three underground shelters built under the villa’s garden.

The Palace of the Grand Masters symbolizes more formalized nobility. The former headquarters of the Order of St. John, nerve center for state matters and court of the Grand Master, its Doric portals, wooden balconies, paintings and gold and silver furnishings reflect the opulence of the rich and powerful.

Today, surprisingly, it houses the office of the President and parliament. An interior corridor leads to the armory where almost 6,000 items including rapiers, pikes, lances, daggers and pistols grant insights as to why military matters were so important for Malta’s survival. Particularly intriguing are the finely crafted swords used by sworn enemies, the Christian Crusaders and the Arabic Muslims and an impressive armored gold-embossed suit weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

For more dramatic celluloid entertainment, head for the ‘Malta Experience,’ a vivid 45-minute video re-enactment of Maltese history. Educational and informative, it helps bring the museum collections into vivid context.

While there, visit the ‘Sacra Infermeria’ (The Holy Infirmary) located beside it. Established by Crusaders (the Knights Hospitallers) and one of the first hospitals of Europe, the long, dimly-lighted chambers of this impressive two-story building seemed to me to still harbor the phantom cries of thousands of patients, many the cruel victims of war, treated here over hundreds of years.

During medieval times, feeding was from silver plates to reduce infection. For speed, amputations were carried out using guillotines. Part of the complex is now a conference center and Ana Giusti is an excellent resident guide, her talk replete with historical detail and wry humor.

A short ten-minute boat trip across the Grand Harbour allows for exploration of the narrow streets of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, three fortified districts also known as the ‘Three Cities,’ an honorific title bestowed on them by the French who ruled then.

For a better understanding of the Maltese love of the sea, wander around the Maritime Museum. Once the 19th century Royal Naval Bakery for the entire Mediterranean fleet, this spacious two-floored building encompasses both a ship engineering section and around 60 models of ships and boats, with weapons and equipment dating from pre-historic times through the Roman period to the British occupation in the 1800s.

In contrast to the beauty of boats is the Inquisitors’ Palace. Established in 1561 by Papal authority to root out what it termed ‘heresy,’ beliefs considered contrary to Catholicism, this is where cases were heard and punishments – often torture – meted out. A temporary exhibition until May 1st entitled ‘The Roman Inquisition in Malta’ comprises an engaging display of 90 artifacts, with curiosities such as the 1600 case of Didacus Mifsud charged with using a ‘magical paper hat’ with Arabic script on it to cure his headache and 40 Maltese witches tried 20 years later for using ‘love spells.’ Today, they’d probably be lauded for their entrepreneurial spirit.

Depending on length of stay and interest, it may be worth buying the Heritage Malta Multisite Pass, which gives free admission to 21 heritage sites and museums plus the National Aquarium.

No visit to Malta is complete without making the half-hour road journey from Valletta to Mdina, the old capital, also known as the ‘Silent City’ due to its labyrinth of narrow streets and vertical walls.  Here, on a high promontory protected by steep cliffs a blend of architectural styles meets the eye, from medieval moats to Baroque facades, palazzos and chapels, as well as a host of museums.

Gozo, Malta’s second largest island, is reached after a 25-minute ferry ride from Ċirkewwa on the northern tip of Malta and is renown for its artisan crafts, especially food and drinks, inspiring landscapes and ancient sites.

We enjoyed a trip to the 25-hectare Ta’Mena Estate, owned by the Spiteri family, where we were guided around extensive vineyards and olive groves, followed by a delightful lunch prepared tableside by friendly chef, Andrew Busuttil, in an open patio accompanied by homemade wines. Other tasting products in the estate’s shop include cheeses, jams, honey, sun-dried tomatoes, even prickly Pear and pomegranate liqueurs.  Several accommodation options are offered.

Among the cultural highlights of Gozo are the Ġgantija Temples, a UNESCO Heritage site consisting of two temples dating back to 3600 and 3200 B.C. The name Ġgantija derives from ‘ġgant,’ the Maltese word for giant as the site was commonly associated with a race of giants. A newly constructed Interpretation Centre allows visitors to explore various aspects of Neolithic life.

In terms of landscape, no place makes one more respectful of Nature than the ‘Azure Window’ near Dwejra Bay, an iconic, flat-topped natural rock arch over the sea formed when two limestone caves were eroded and collapsed. It’s a popular place for scuba divers.

Aside from its rich historical and cultural legacy, Malta is also a fun place of sun and sand featuring beaches aplenty and lively nightlife, with Paceville near St. Julian’s a hub for the clubbing scene, where internationally renowned DJs appear for guest weekends throughout the year.

Less rollicking events include the Malta Arts Festival, the Valletta Baroque Festival, the Opera Festival, the Choir Festival and the International Jazz Festival in July.

As for shopping, Tas-Sliema is the place to head to, mostly along Tower Road, Bisazza Street and the Strand, where global brand names sit alongside local boutiques.

Due to its favorable climate and diverse activities and entertainment, Malta has become an extremely popular vacation destination attracting 1.5 million visitors every year, so popular that George Cassar, a senior lecturer at the University’s Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture, warned recently that the island was reaching ‘saturation point in the mass market’ and that more ‘quality, upmarket cultural tourism’ should be nourished, a sentiment echoed by chairman of the Corinthia Hotel Group, Alfred Pisani, who is building a six-star hotel there next year.

Consequently, a word of advice: avoid the peak season between April and September.

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