12 July 2010 by Pete Mathers
Day 1 - More to Malta
The tiny island of Malta, adrift in the Mediterranean like a stepping stone between Italy and Africa, has been forced to endure many injustices in its 7,000-year history - a five-month siege by Ottoman Turks, irreparable looting by Napoleon’s garrisons and 154 days of Luftwaffe bombing to name but a few. Yet, in its own way, the current affront to Malta causes equal indignation.
I am talking, of course, of the island’s reputation as a mere bucket-and-spade, fly-and-flop package destination, with little more to offer than jam-packed dive sites and beaches crowded with leathery pensioners.
It is time to explode this myth and send it scurrying for cover like the returning French football team.
Malta is in fact the perfect destination for anyone with a penchant for history, culture, stand-and-stare architecture, gin-clear water and meals that revolve around the fishermen’s catch. And if you want that wrapped in a fabulous climate then you’ll find that too - April to October sees little but sunshine, usually tempered by a cooling sea breeze.
Better still, it’s just a three-hour flight from the UK. Easyjet, Ryanair and BMI Baby all fly the route, though the national flag carrier, Air Malta, offers the more civilised flight times, operating out of Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and, in summer, Glasgow.
Transfers? Hardly an issue. The only airport is less than 45 minutes’ drive from anywhere on the island, and is just 8 km from Valletta, Malta’s Lilliputian capital (at barely a kilometre long and only 600 m wide, it may well be Europe’s smallest).
Perhaps to prove that Malta can cater as well for the discerning traveller as it can for the mass market, my friend and I choose to stay at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, Valletta’s most luxurious hotel, with an enviable position on the Marsamxett Harbour waterfront.
The lobby sets a tone of classical-inspired elegance, with a wide central staircase, freestanding statues and the smart Harbour View bar. But it’s not until you stop to take in said view that you realise you’re already on the sixth floor, with the bulk of the hotel’s far-reaching facilities focussed on the waterfront below you.
Serried ranks of sea-front rooms boast spacious balconies with magnificent views of the passing yachts and the honey-coloured buildings of Manoel Island. In fact, barely anywhere in the hotel is the water out of sight. From the moment you wake for breakfast at the glass-fronted Spice Island restaurant (the smoked swordfish is a treat) to watching the sunset - cocktail in hand - by the freeform pool or on the small private beach, it’s almost impossible not to gaze out to sea.
Then again, such marvellous panoramas had a great deal to do with Valletta being built in the first place, though its orchestrators were thinking more about defence than impressing hotel guests.
In 1530, Malta was given to the spiritual and military order, the Knights of St John, whose origins trace back to the Christian Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries. The Knights, however, almost lost the island to the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565 and, fearing further reprisals, set about building a new city in a more defensible position on the Sceberras Peninsula.
The result was Valletta, named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Grand Master of the Knights and the hero of the siege. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, Valletta was bestowed with churches, palaces, buildings tall enough to offer shade from the sun and straight streets to allow the cooling sea breezes to circulate. A great ditch was cut across the peninsula to protect the landward approach and massive walls and bastions were raised around the city’s perimeter. It remains a masterpiece of architecture and town planning, described by UNESCO as "one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world".
Among its streets, as I discover to my delight, are a number of great restaurants, cafes and wine bars. We begin with a glass of merlot at Trabuxu, a cosy spot decorated with oak barrels, musical instruments and black and white photos, before sitting down to eat in the private courtyard of Fusion Four, set into the 400-year-old bastion walls. Few restaurants exude as much charm and character; fewer back it up with either such warm-hearted service (the owner gave us a private tour of the restaurant’s museum as she filled us in on the island’s history) or such mouth-watering food: freshly caught sea bass and tender pork fillet, wrapped in pancetta and served on a bed of stewed apples.
Day 2 - Medieval Marvels
Valletta in daylight and my first impressions are of limestone façades fronting six- or seven-storey buildings. At street level, shopfront signs reveal Arabic and Italian influences - Maltese is close to colloquial Arabic and Sicily is just 90 minutes away by ferry - and on almost ever corner are the chiselled features of Catholic iconography. The Maltese claim to be one of the oldest Christian peoples in the world, having been converted by St Paul after his shipwreck on Malta in AD 60, and 98% of the island’s population remains Roman Catholic.
Fitting then that our first port of call is St John’s Co-Cathedral, the most impressive of Malta’s 359 Catholic churches. The façade may be plain, austere even, yet the interior is a celebration of Maltese baroque. The nave is long and low, with every wall, pillar and rib encrusted with ornamentation, including Maltese crosses and the arms of the Order. The floor is a patchwork of colourful marble tombs and the striking barrelled vault is divided into seven vast panels, each depicting a scene from the life of St John the Baptist.
But the headlines are held for what lies in the oratory: two original works by revolutionary painter, Caravaggio. His spine-tingling masterpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, dominates the far wall (note the artist’s signature in the blood seeping from St John’s severed head), while opposite is his equally evocative work, St Jerome.
Outside, in the sunshine of Republic Square, waitresses ferry frothy cappuccinos while an enthroned statue of Queen Victoria looks on impassively. We don’t stop, however, preferring instead to take our refreshments at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the British canons that top the bastion walls and the shimmering Grand Harbour beyond.
Once fortified, we board a yellow local bus for the short trip to Mdina. In medieval times, Mdina (from the Arabic for ’walled city’) was the favoured residence of the Maltese nobility and the seat of the governing council. But when the sea-faring Knights of St John made the Grand Harbour their base of operations, Mdina sank into the background.
This surely was its saving grace, as few old cities remain so gloriously unspoilt. This is historic Malta at its most photogenic: quiet streets and hidden lanes untouched by modern branding, wall-clinging bougainvillea and beautifully preserved palazzi (some, like Palazzo Falson, have been opened as museums, offering a rare glimpse behind aristocratic walls).
We eat lunch at the Fontanella Tea Gardens, perched on top of the bastion walls, looking out across the vineyards and dusty fields towards the ocean beyond. A pause between courses to wander the quiet streets, then dessert at Xara Palace, once a 17th century palazzo, now one of Malta’s most elegant small hotels.
Our trio of old cities concludes after dark with Vittoriosa, which faces Valletta from across the Grand Harbour. It was on this finger of land that the Knights of St John withheld the Turkish onslaught of 1565. Today, its regenerated waterfront sports open-air restaurants, a marina-cum-superyacht-parking-lot and even a casino. Yet despite the obvious flaunting of wealth, Vittoriosa remains quiet and picturesque. By day - I am told - its flower-bedecked alleys make for excellent aimless wanderings, while at night, the views of floodlit Valletta make a wonderful backdrop to the freshest of fish suppers.
Day 3 - Megalithic Magic
If seeing its walled cities had given me a sense of Malta’s last 500 years of history, I was about to be transported a lot further back in time. The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra in south-east Malta were first thought to be copies of the Mycenaean temple style, yet carbon dating has since shown them to be a full millennium older.
Staggeringly, Malta’s megalithic temples are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world, built between 3600 and 2500 BC, more than 1,000 years before Giza’s Great Pyramid or Avebury’s Stonehenge. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are among the best preserved and most evocative.
Tent-like structures have been erected above them to protect them from the elements and a shiny new visitors centre opened earlier this year. Walking through the monumental doorways into rounded rooms built of limestone blocks weighing up to 20 tons, erected by people who had neither metal tools nor even a written language, soon began to make my head spin.
What was needed was a walk to let history sink in. Leaving the temples, we take a coastal track towards Ghar Lapsi, where a cove in the limestone cliffs has been converted into a natural lido, with stone steps and iron ladders giving access to the limpid blue waters (such a pity about the blaring House music emanating from the waterfront restaurant).
Malta’s coastline is spectacular to behold, with layers of rock, millions of years old, forming vertical sea cliffs pocked with caves, reefs and vast limestone arches like the popular Blue Grotto. From June to October the average sea temperature is above 20°C and the water is an inviting turquoise blue.
Back by the pool at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, watching fireworks mark the start of another of Malta’s festas (a series of feast days that runs almost without stopping from June to September), I take stock of where I am. In front lies a harbour that’s played host to crusading knights and an Ottoman armada. Behind tower the walls of Europe’s first planned city. Scattered around me are contented guests and smiling staff - service alone at the Grand Hotel Excelsior is good enough to earn it its 5-star rating. I’ve found history and culture, swum in crystal-clear water and eaten like a king. But something is missing. Oh yes ... the buckets and spades and the package parades.