Multidimensional Malta welcomes a closer look, by travel writers

By Robert Selwitz

Malta wants more Americans to join the masses of Europeans who visit and relish its extraordinary multi-island nation. From gorgeous beaches and water sports to remnants of 8,000 years of history, this island nation has it all.

South of Sicily and east of Tunisia, Malta has long played a vital role in trade and battles in the Mediterranean Sea. Beginning with pre-Bronze Age hunter-gatherers and rising to prominence when it became the home of the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, little Malta was at the heart of the action.

Spring and autumn are the best times to travel to Valletta, the capital of Malta, named after Jean Parisot de la Vallette. A military hero, he was also renowned for his skills in urban planning, still evident in the current grid-based layout.

Vallette was a Knight of St. John, originally known as the Knights Hospitaller, who provided medical assistance to Crusader-era Holy Land pilgrims. Thereafter, they transformed into a fighting force that continually challenged the Ottoman forces. Centuries later, after being expelled from bases in Jerusalem, Rhodes and Cyprus, the Knights – in need of a new home – accepted a 1530 offer from King Charles V of Spain, who was also a Holy Roman Emperor. Germanic Roman. He urged them to move to Malta and protect themselves from Ottoman threats.

After several decades, the Knights granted Charles’ wishes. The struggles culminated in the great siege of 1565. From May to September, the Ottomans blockaded the islands, hoping to starve out and end Christian control. But as Grand Master of the Knights, Vallette organizes and reinforces the defenses. Eventually, the siege that began in May ended with the departure of the Ottomans in September. They never came back.

The knights dominated the region until 1798, when Napoleon’s invading forces expelled them during their brief reign. The conquest of Malta by Great Britain in 1800 made the islands a protectorate, a colony and a territory. Malta gained independence in 1974.

Today, Valletta is home to some 6,000 Maltese residents, or just over half a million. It is the center of government offices as well as tourist explorations. Among the must-sees, the Saint-Jean co-cathedral. Its interior is an extraordinary panoply of interior decoration, an impressive display of splendor rivaling that of virtually any other European church.

The cathedral has eight chapels – representing the nations from which the Knights originate. Each is sumptuous and deserves careful consideration. And don’t miss the separate oratory, which houses two paintings by Caravaggio, “Jean-Baptiste” and “Saint-Jérôme”. The church is also fascinating because, unlike the interior, its exterior is relatively simple. Many believe it was spared from air attacks in World War II, as there was little indication of its importance from above.

Currently undergoing reconstruction, the sumptuous interior of the Palace of the Grand Masters is another main attraction. Currently, however, only the Armoury, which features centuries-old possessions of knights and excellent explanations of Malta’s history and wars, is open. Nearby are the beautiful modern parliament building designed by Renzo Piano and the cozy Upper Baraka Gardens. From here you can watch the salute battery, when the guns are fired twice a day amid great pumping and precision marching.

Another perk is the Upper Baraka Lift, a comfortable link between the heights of downtown and Valletta’s waterfront. There, ferries run regularly from Valletta to the fascinating Three Cities, enclaves that predated Valletta. A highlight is the Palace of the Inquisitors in Vittoriosa. Also on the seafront are regular ferries to Gozo, Malta’s other major population base and attraction.

Definitely plan a visit to the National War Museum at Fort St. Elmo, a short taxi ride from central Valletta. Prominent during the Great Siege of 1565, the former British barracks provide the setting for fascinating depictions and memories of Malta through the ages.

For a serene change of pace, spend several hours in nearby Mdina. Originally Phoenician but later shaped by Roman and Arab influences, today it and nearby Rabat are serene and beautifully preserved enclaves of past lives and times. Mdina Cathedral – built long before Valletta was established – is why the capital’s St. John bears the title “co-cathedral”.

Malta’s extraordinary megalithic temples and sites must also be sampled. But before visiting them, explore the National Museum of Archaeology. This is the best place to understand and gain insight into this unique part of Malta’s heritage.

Although there are dozens of sites, several temples are easily accessible by guided tours from Valletta. Hagar Qim with its pre-erected massive stone entrance and nearby and more elaborate Mnajdra with its three side-by-side temples are truly impressive. This is essential not for what you see but for the fact that no one knows exactly how the stones were put in place when these temples were created between 3600 and 3000 BC.

Other fascinating stops are the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground necropolis, and the nearby Tarxien Temples which feature huge decorated blocks of stone. Gozo, Ggantija – the largest and perhaps oldest of Malta’s ancient edifices – features walls nearly 20 feet high and two separate temples. Gozo also has a mighty hilltop fortress, its bustling main town of Victoria, and plenty of beach and water offerings.

Along with all there is to see in Malta, you will also enjoy adventurous and excellent cuisine. Highlights include fabulous seafood and a chance to try rabbit-themed variations, a Maltese specialty. If something is playing at Teatru Manoel, don’t miss a chance to attend. Recently, this 290-year-old venue – one of the oldest in Europe – has offered various events, including a concert by the excellent Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and theatrical performances of ‘Othello’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’.

WHEN YOU GO

For more information: www.visitmalta.com

Visitors to Valletta pass the remains of an old opera house and the exterior of Malta’s parliament building. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

.  A boat trip in the harbor is a great way to capture the essence of Valletta, Malta.  Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

. A boat trip in the harbor is a great way to capture the essence of Valletta, Malta. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

    This construction was probably once an altar at Ggantija, the largest megalithic temple in Malta.  Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

This construction was probably once an altar at Ggantija, the largest megalithic temple in Malta. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

This construction was probably once an altar at Ggantija, the largest megalithic temple in Malta. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

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