I recently returned from a trip to Malta, my first time on the island and it was spectacular. I booked an organised holiday called ‘Historical Malta, Palaces, Folklore and WWII’ and was not disappointed with the tours and trips included.
Malta is in the middle of the Mediterranean sea directly south of Italy and north of Libya. The island is 27 kilometres long and 14.5 kilometres wide, with a total area of 246 square kilometres. You can easily drive from one end to the other in just over an hour.
Malta is an island full of history and DAY ONE took us on a tour of the capital city Valletta. Traffic free behind the city walls there is an abundance of shops, bars and restaurants, palaces and churches, enough to keep you walking all day long.
However, we took a trip on the road train to see more and ended up at the Upper Barrakka Gardens where, twice a day, you can see the saluting battery, when eight replica cannons are fired and the changing of the guard. We also paid a visit to the 5D Malta show where you get a fun 20 minutes covering some of the history of the island.
Valletta owes its existence to the Knights of St John, who planned the city as a refuge to care for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the 16th century. After years of moving from place to place in Europe, the Knights of St. John accepted the islands as a gift from Charles I of Spain (as King of Sicily) in 1530 with the only payment being that every year on All Souls Day the Knights would send a live Maltese Falcon to his representative, the Viceroy of Sicily.
In 1565 The Order of St John and the Maltese people withstood a major Ottoman invasion known as the Great Siege of Malta. When the Ottomans departed, the Hospitallers had but 600 men able to bear arms. The most reliable estimate puts the number of the Ottoman army at its height at some 40,000 men, of whom 15,000 eventually returned to Constantinople.
The Great Siege of Malta may have been the last action in which a force of knights won a decisive victory.
Valletta had no buildings other than a small watch tower but Grand Master La Valette soon realised that if the Order were to maintain its hold on Malta, it had to provide adequate defences. Therefore, he drew up a plan for a new fortified city.
Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain supported the project with financial aid and the Pope lent the Knights the services of Francesco Laparelli, a military engineer, who drew up the necessary plans for the new city and its defences. Work started on the city in March 1566 and was to be called Valletta in honour of La Valette. Sadly, he did not see the completion as he died in 1568.
Built for gentlemen by gentlemen, Valletta is full of the early buildings, including the Sacra Infermeria, St John’s Church, the Magisterial Palace and the seven Auberges, or Inns of Residence of the Knights.
Valletta’s design is with defence in mind and because of its strong fortifications people from all parts of the island went to live there, so much so that it took over from Mdina as the capital of Malta. Even the steps in some streets don’t conform to normal dimensions, they were designed to allow knights in heavy armour to be able to climb the steps.
Our trip included St John’s Co-Cathedral where the most recognised painting, by the most famous artist to ever work for the Knights of St John, is located in the Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral. The artist is none other than Michelangelo Merisi, popularly known as “Caravaggio” The canvas, known as “The Beheading of St John”, is the largest he painted and the only one he signed.
There is a statue of the beheading of St John the Baptist which has the papal seal hanging from its neck.
Many of you may remember another siege, that of World War II which brought havoc to Malta and destroyed many parts of the island, including Valletta which was quickly restored over the next few years. In 1942 the Maltese were awarded the George Cross for gallantry.
Today Valletta is being restored again and, as a UNESCO world heritage site, it has been chosen as the European City of Culture in 2018.
DAY TWO and we set off for Gozo, one of Malta’s sister islands along with Comino. The short ferry ride took us to the port and we then headed for Marsalforn to board the trackless train which took us around the coastline and the island’s rock-cut salt pans.
We then boarded a small fishing boat and took a tour through the caves and out into open sea to view the purple coral. This is a divers dream with clear blue waters and caves and alcoves to explore.
A short stop to taste wines made from pomegranate, carob and prickly pear, to try the local olive oil and watch lace being made. Views of the Tas-Salvatur Hill, topped with a statue of Christ was followed by dinner in a restaurant on the bay with a stunning sunset.
Mellieha and Palazzo Parisio was our trip on DAY THREE.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta around 60AD, St Luke, his companion, came across one of the caves in Mellieha and painted the figure of Our Lady on the rock face. In 409 AD the cave was consecrated as a church and is now known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha. During the early years of the Knights rule in Malta, Mellieħa had been abandoned but in the late 16th century, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa was rebuilt.
In complete contrast, we then went to ‘Popeye’s village’ in Anchor Bay, which had been purpose built for the 1980 live action film Popeye starring the late Robin Williams. The village has now been restored as a tourist attraction.
Onto the Parish Square to see the tunnels dug into the limestone rock during WWII to provide protection for the town inhabitants from air raids. These tunnels had been covered for many years and it was only recently that a local bar owner was digging foundations to provide a storeroom and came across the tunnels, therefore the entrance is actually through the bar. The tunnels run for about 500 metres and some of the rooms are displayed to show what it might have been like. Small rooms were inhabited by whole families and one was even used as a maternity ward.
Our next stop was the aviation museum situated on the site of a former RAF airfield in the village of Ta’Qali where, our very knowledgeable guide, took us around aircraft, trucks, bikes and cars.
The museum, based in three hangars, covers the history of aviation on the island with exhibits particularly from the Second World War and post-war periods.
From the aviation museum we were taken to Palazzo Parisio for afternoon tea and scones. In 1798 the French under Napoleon occupied Malta and ruled for 2 years during which (for 6 days) Napoleon resided at Palazzo Parisio. The French ransacked the Churches of the island, which infuriated the Maltese and they rebelled, kicking the French out of Mdina. The French relocated to Valletta and it was then that the Maltese people appealed to the British for help. In 1800 the British took control from the French and the island initially became a British protectorate and a colony a few years later.
Our tour on DAY FOUR began on a vintage tour bus. These had been the main transport on the island for many years and were painted different colours depending on the route they took. Many of the islanders were unable to read at this time but they knew that the blue bus (for example) went from Marsaxlokk to Valletta
Our first stop was the Mosta Dome, perhaps the most impressive church in Malta. With its massive rotunda that, I believe, is the third largest in the world. Built in 1860 it is dedicated to the Assumption of our lady. During the Second World War the church was almost destroyed when, during an air raid, a 200kg bomb fell through the dome without exploding.
All the 300 people attending morning mass were left unharmed. On the 9th April, 1942 the detonator was removed and a replica is now on display inside the church as a famous tourist attraction.
Our tour guide then purchased ‘pastizzi’ (a traditional Maltese pastry filled with cheese) from the local bakery and we headed for Dingli to sit on the cliffside (200 metres above sea level) to eat them. One of the highest points on the island, which made me smile as I live 800 metres above sea level.
After savouring these tasty dishes and taking in the wonderful views we headed for the botanical gardens of San Anton Palace.
San Anton Palace was built in 1636 by the Knights of Malta. It originally served as a summer residence for Grand Master Antoine de Paule. Years later, during the British Rule in Malta, the palace was used as the official residence of the Governor. The gardens were opened to the general public in 1882.
Our next stop was to the Craft Village of Ta’Qali where you could see Mdina glass blowing, the making of filigree, buy some souvenirs or just chill out and have coffee and cakes.
The evening was a tour of the Mdina by night, a stunning walled city full of palaces, narrow walkways (built this way for defence) and churches. It was obvious why this is called the ‘silent city’ as, due to the high buildings and narrow walkways sound seemed to stop in its tracks and there was an overall feeling of peace and quiet. From here a short walk outside the city walls for an evening meal while being entertained by local guitarists.
We headed off to the Blue Grotto on DAY FIVE on the southern part of the island. An amazing cave system leading to the open sea it attracts 100,000 visitors every year and is especially popular with divers. The site also featured in the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt. The location of this fascinating natural grotto combines with sunlight and the surrounding chain of caves to reflect the phosphorescent colours of the submerged flora and the deep dark shade of blue of the sea. A group of fishing boats take you on tours through the caves and out into the open sea where, if you put your hand in the water, it appears to turn blue. The area also has bars, cafes and souvenir shops and if the uphill walk back from the boat is too far then a golf cart will bring you back up the hill for just 1€.
We boarded our coach again and headed for the prehistoric Hagar Qim temples a short distance from the Blue Grotto. Dating back to circa 3600-3200 B.C. They are estimated to be older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge. They were first excavated in 1839. In the external wall is a stone that is one of the largest of any temple, standing at 6.4 metres long it is estimated to weigh close to 20 tons.
From here we headed to the picturesque fishing town of Marsaxlokk with a history dating back to the ninth century B.C. It was here that the Phoenicians landed and set up businesses and where the Turkish fleet anchored during the Great Siege of Malta. Today it is more recognised for its colourful fishing boats, fish restaurants and market and its green waters.
We woke on DAY SIX to a cloudy sky and drizzly rain but this didn’t stop us from heading off on a walking tour of the Three Cities, Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea which were built and fortified by the Knights of Malta. Together, these cities are a fascinating place and retain much of the medieval aura that you would expect from Malta. Vittoriosa has some intriguing buildings and museums including the Inquisitor’s Palace and Malta’s Maritime Museum.
Senglea and Cospicua were heavily bombarded during World War II so very little remains of the historic monuments and buildings that once adorned these two cities.
Cospicua was built on five hills and studies show that they had been inhabited since Prehistoric times probably by fishermen due to its close proximity to the sea. Like the other two cities it is surrounded by massive fortifications, but in this case there are two sets. After the Great Siege in 1565, the Knights, still living in fear of attacks decided to strengthen the fortifications even further.
It is said that it the Knights of Malta took some 100 years to complete all the fortifications that surround the three cities, finishing the last set in 1736.
Boarding a boat from the harbour we proceeded to cruise around Valletta’s famous Grand Harbour giving a completely different view of Valletta and its fortifications.
The fortifications of Valletta first saw use during the French invasion on 9 June 1798. The Order capitulated only three days later on 12 June, and Valletta and its fortifications were handed over to the French. Upon viewing the fortifications, Napoleon reportedly remarked “I am very glad that they opened the gate for us.”
A couple of months after the beginning of the French occupation, the Maltese people rebelled against the French and blockaded them in the Harbour area with British, Neapolitan and Portuguese support. The French managed to hold out in Valletta until September 1800, when General Vaubois capitulated to the British, who took control of the islands.
Various modifications were made to Valletta’s fortifications during British rule. The most significant of these was the construction of Fort Lascaris between 1854 and 1856. Other alterations included the addition of batteries and concrete gun emplacements, changes to parapets and their embrasures, and the construction of gunpowder magazines.
With its new harbour and competitive mooring rates, Valetta is fast becoming a popular area for the rich and famous.
Our last evening took us to a typical Maltese restaurant overlooking a bay for a farewell dinner, a folklore show and local guitarists.
DAY SEVEN was off to the airport, formerly RAF St. Luqa for our trip home, or in my case back to the UK for an overnight stop at Gatwick before my flight home to Spain.
A wonderful holiday, a fascinating island and new friends. Can’t wait for the next one!!!