A strategic location can be more curse than blessing. Just ask the Maltese, whose tiny island nation lies 50 miles below Sicily. Early in World War II, when Malta was a British possession, Germany and Italy bombed it almost daily.
Centuries earlier, it was the site of the Great Siege of 1565, a devastating, yet ultimately unsuccessful, step by the Ottoman Turks toward conquering all of western Europe.
For travelers today, Malta’s proximity to Europe’s glamour destinations is a definite plus — if not a widely appreciated one. Often experienced as a day stop on Mediterranean cruises, Malta greatly rewards a longer stay. The 17-by-8-mile island is packed with lovingly restored sites that bring history to life, as my wife and I discovered in mid-May in a perfect four-day prelude to a visit to Venice, Italy.
Beyond its history, Malta’s landscape offers a natural, if hauntingly monochrome, beauty amid the brilliant blues of the surrounding sea and sky. Greenery is sparse. From rows of city buildings to its ubiquitous walls, which replace fences and hedges as property boundaries, nearly every structure is colored with the ocher of the soft limestone that underlies the surface of the island. Its people, though, are eager to show what Malta has contributed to world events — as well as to extend its hospitality.
That includes a seafood cuisine that blends influences from Italy, Spain, and Morocco, among other places, as befits a cultural crossroads. And with English being an official language, along with Maltese, the country is especially attractive to Americans.
We spent our time there with a Utah couple planning to visit Barcelona, Spain, next, as well as a Pittsburgh couple who make Malta their second home. The Pennsylvanians were eager to lead us in touring — a godsend, as Malta can be hard to explore on one’s own.
For visitors, the idea of taking the wheel is daunting: Roads are narrow and lined with limestone walls. Plus, drivers in this sun-drenched, densely populated country of 450,000 are known for a somewhat cavalier attitude. (Asked which side of the road Maltese drive on — Britain’s left-side approach is the rule — one local answers, “The shady side.”) It is worth arranging for a private guide, although buses do make circuits to the many tourist attractions around the island.
Because history is a major draw for our group — we’ve all read up on the Great Siege, for instance — our first stop is Valletta, the compact, walkable capital overlooking Malta’s magnificent Grand Harbour. Several small peninsulas are spread before us, each crowned with a fortress much like what the attacking Ottomans must have seen.
But today, the 16th century would have to wait. By a steep stone stairway, we descend to the Lascaris War Rooms, which preserve a command center and connected network of tunnels built during World War II to provide security from the constant air attacks.
In a Mediterranean Sea that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini tried to transform into “an Italian lake,” Malta had “the only harbor available to the British between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt,” notes military historian Rick Atkinson. That made it “the most bombed place on Earth in the early 1940s, with some 16,000 tons of Axis bombs dropped” over Malta’s fewer than 100 square miles. “The Maltese,” Atkinson adds, “showed remarkable fortitude, given the thousands of casualties suffered and the enormous privation imposed on them by the war.”
Bernard Cachia Zammit, our war-room docent, proudly elaborates on that perseverance while pointing to a large wall board with expected arrival times of Axis bombers from Sicily, just 20 minutes away — and noting the Allied fighter squadrons pursuing them. Much of the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily also was planned here.
Climbing back to Valletta’s streets, we then make the 15-minute walk to Fort St. Elmo, which the Turks seized briefly during the Great Siege. The fort museum describes the nobles of the multinational Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, who along with the Maltese people helped repel the invaders. The knights, who date to the Crusades, were given Malta as their home by the Church in return for a nominal annual fee: a single Maltese-trained hunting falcon. (The jewel-encrusted black bird of movie fame? It was the creation of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett.)
Next comes St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the plain limestone exterior of which opens into a glorious gilded sanctuary. Like Valletta itself, this gem was built by the knights in the late 1500s as the island sought to refortify itself after the destruction of the siege. Among the cathedral’s treasures: two stunning works by the realist painter Caravaggio, who lived in Malta in the early 1600s, including his largest (and perhaps most gruesome) work, The Beheading of John the Baptist.
Lunch at Triq il-Merkanti’s busy outdoor street market gives us a chance to recover from the artist’s graphic depiction and to sample Malta’s own diamond-shaped ricotta pastry dish — pastizzi — with a glass of Cisk, its lovely light-color beer.
Then it’s on to the massive Renzo Piano-designed City Gate project, still under construction, as part of a complex with his new parliament building and open-air theater that will replace an opera house destroyed in World War II. Controversy over its modern style seems to be waning as the Maltese gear up for their country’s turn next year as the European Union’s designated European Capital of Culture.
Our group stays in the fishing town of Marsaxlokk, just southeast of Valletta, where we have rented an apartment. Its harbor teems with brightly painted boats that draw the eye from the ocher buildings on the shore. Its dockside crafts market displays many items bearing the eight-pointed Maltese cross.
Like many Maltese restaurants, Ferretti, our choice this evening, has a historic setting: It occupies an 18th-century battery surrounded by a moat, from which the harbor view is spectacular. We feast on local grouper, stone fish, and sea bream, offered whole and split among the diners. Offerings from the local Marsovin winery prove popular.
The next day’s scenic drive along Malta’s southwestern coast takes us to a place we’re unprepared for — since we’re still thinking of 1565 as pretty long ago. Malta has unearthed and meticulously reconstructed two elaborate prehistoric limestone temples dating to 3600 B.C.E., before Egypt’s pyramids and even Britain’s Stonehenge. Little seems to have been learned about the ancient builders of the temples, called Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, although excavation of the sites began in the 1800s.
We spend our last evening in Mdina, the walled capital at the time of the Great Siege. It lives up to its “silent city” nickname as we wander its tunnellike streets among a smattering of other tourists. Bacchus, our restaurant, seats us in a vaulted room that was once a gunpowder magazine. A variety of meats, including local rabbit, join fish dishes on the menu. My soup, called aljotta, is so full of giant mussels little room is left for broth.
The next morning, my wife and I break up our group of six and fly to Venice via Air Malta, the island’s main carrier. (Like most Americans traveling to Malta by air, we had made connections in another European city — London, in our case.)
The cost of visiting Malta, we found, was considerably more reasonable than Venice — and the crowds were much smaller. Still, the European Union’s smallest nation is among its healthiest economically. It benefits from the tourism produced by cruise lines, although travelers who come to spend a longer time there are a rarer breed. (For a multiday stay, one of Valletta’s many charming hotels served nicely, as the capital is also the excursion-bus and taxi hub for the island.)
Later, we heard from our Utah friends that they loved their Malta-Barcelona pairing. “Our time in Malta seemed a little jarring at first,” Patricia Richards said. “It was so arid, and it sometimes felt a little cramped with all those stone walls on either side. But our appreciation increased when we realized how accessible everything was. If you want to see something in Valletta, you just walk in. Barcelona, though, from Las Ramblas to the Gaudi architecture sites, was a sea of people wherever we went.”
And what of our vacation-capping Venetian trip? The glittering canals were more colorful than walls, to be sure. How refreshing to cross scores of bridges on foot each day, from Piazza San Marco to the far end of the Grand Canal, without seeing a single car or bus.
But we’ll always remember Malta’s unique wonders, and learning firsthand of its historic contributions, over the centuries, to how modern Europe has evolved.
Harris is a writer in Hingham, Mass. @royharrisjr.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Hotel Phoenicia Malta
The Mall, Valletta
A newly renovated, luxury hotel near city gate. Rooms from $238.
Grand Hotel Excelsior
Great Siege Road, Floriana
A luxury hotel with harbor views. Rooms from $190.
The Osborne Hotel
50 South St., Valletta
A smaller hotel, well situated near popular Valletta sites. Rooms from $137.
Castille Street, Valletta
A small, centrally-located hotel on historic site. Rooms from $127.
Where to eat
43 Triq il-Merkanti, Valletta
Sandwiches, salads and lighter Maltese fare. Entrées start at $6.
Triq il-Qajjenza, Birzebbuga650247
Seafood, meat and eclectic local specialties with great harbor views. Entrées start at $20.
Triq Inguanez, Mdina
Seafood, soups and game and other meats in historic setting, along with a large wine list. Entrées start at $25.
What to do
Lascaris War Rooms
Lascaris Ditch, Valletta
A well-preserved World War II command post. Open Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance fee is $13.
National War Museum, Valletta
Fort St. Elmo Triq San Guzepp
An overview of warfare in Malta, from prehistoric times to the present. Open Monday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Entrance fee is $11.50.
Saint John’s Co-Cathedral
Triq ir-Repubblika, Valletta
Dazzling 16th-century church housing two Caravaggios. Open Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Entrance fee is $4.80.
National Museum of Archaeology
Triq ir-Repubblika, Valletta
Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology, occupying a classic 1571 building, displays Maltese treasures dating back to 5000 B.C., in the Neolithic period. Open Sunday to Monday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Entrance fee is $5.75.
Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples Triq Hagar Qim, Qrendi
Triq Hagar Qim, Il-Qrendi
Brilliantly reconstructed prehistoric places of worship. Open 9 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Entrance fee is $11.50.