Neil Hennessy-Vass explores the rich cultural heritage of these two Mediterranean islands
Having what’s widely considered the best port in the Mediterranean Malta has always been an island of interest, the crossroads of the Arab and Christian worlds. It has been invaded many times over the centuries by Greeks, Romans, North Africans and French, British etc, the legacy of which survives today in its rich historical architecture. It is no wonder it is has been prime film location for decades. From the eponymous Malta Story to Gladiator, The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander, Troy, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Da Vinci Code to the steam roller that is Game of Thrones to name a few. And there’s a very good reason for this, it’s beautiful, sunny and packed full of fascinating buildings untouched for centuries.
The smallest of the EU members and just 50 miles south of Sicily, Malta is tiny at only 122 sq miles it became a republic in 1974. The capital Valletta is also the smallest capital in the European Union it’s a good place to base oneself. Full of winding streets of Baroque architecture it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I checked into the plush and centrally positioned Domus Zamittello a five star luxe hotel.
If you want to delve right into history you could check out the underground cemeteries of St. Paul’s in Mdina, west of the capital. These accessible catacombs (with the right footwear, and mind your head the ceilings are low) were in use until 8th century and are the earliest evidence of Christianity on the island. The main complex leads to two large halls with pillars and two stone altars with seats used for Roman feasting. These have been carved from stone and are rare as most were destroyed during the Christian era. There are many arcosolium (an arched recess for sarcophagus) remains of painted walls and carved inscriptions to discover, if you go with a guide you’ll get a lot more out of it.
The Mdina lies in the middle of the island and is populated by just 300 people within the vast city walls it was the ancient capital until medieval times. Also known as the ‘silent city’ as no cars are allowed within walls except those owned by residents, it offers the intrepid walker (or you could take a horse and carriage) a feast of baroque and medieval architecture. There are palaces and churches, quiet streets where time has stood still for centuries.
The Maritime Museum in Valletta goes some way to depicting the significant naval history that Malta offers. Looking at invaders and the importance of faith on the island, it has been Arabic, conquered by the Normans, ruled by the House of Barcelona and part of the British Empire. Today 45% of the population is catholic and there are many churches some of which are very grand and in constant use.
Gozo the neighbouring island accessible by a ferry (90 mins) is also worth looking at. The Citadel is the main pull here. Occupied since the Bronze Age it has as rich a history as Malta. The citadel is situated next to the principle town Victoria. Occupied by the Phoenicians and Romans an acropolis was established which then became the citadel. Later abandoned it was then transformed into a castle during the medieval period. As the settlement grew to become the city of Rabat formed on the Roman site. At this point Crown of Aragon ruled the islands. In 1530 Emperor Charles V handed over control of the islands to the Order of St. John whose task it was to maintain a war against the Ottoman Empire and retain the Christian religion of the islands.
Gozo also offers something quite unique, the oldest freestanding structure created by man in the world still in existence. The Ggantija Temples or Giants Tower are 1000 years older than the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza. Constructed from stone the dome structures are thought to be aligned to the sun and used for sacrifice. They would have been adorned with paintings and appear not to have been used as dwellings. At 5500 years old it is remarkable how much there is to see of the two towers. A clear floor plan and walls are evident including the beginning of the roof shape.
St John’s Co-Cathedral built 1572–1577 and redecorated in the Baroque style by Mattia Preti is widely considered to be the finest example of its kind in Europe. The ceilings are painted with scenes from John the Baptist’s life and the cathedral contains nine chapels. The most famous work of art housed there is Caravaggio’s beheading of John the Baptist (1608). Considered one of his greatest works and the only one he signed it is impressive and moving piece of art. Also on display is Caravaggio’s St Jerome Writing (1607-1608).
Just wandering around the charming streets of Valletta is in itself a wonderful experience with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars to spend your time in but for my money the real heart of these islands lies in the history and its accessibility. It’s hard to think of anywhere that has quite the breadth of culture in such a concentrated area. Easy to get to and get around when you’re there this is a must destination for the curious and intrepid alike.
Flights to Malta from London Gatwick start from £132 return with British Airways
Rooms at Domus Zamittello start from £146. For more information and to book visit www.domuszamittello.com/
For more information about the Maltese archipelago visit www.maltauk.com