This brave little island is packed with history ... and tourists, writes Roger Hall.

Our planned cruise was to sail from Malta.

"We should spend a few days there before we start," said my wife.

"No," I said, "nothing to see."

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How wrong I was.

Malta, small but perfectly formed, is in the southern Mediterranean (further south than Tunis, in fact), thus gets very hot mid-summer and is best avoided then.

Stone arches of the Upper Barakka Gardens frame the waters of the Grand Harbour. Photo / Getty Images
Stone arches of the Upper Barakka Gardens frame the waters of the Grand Harbour. Photo / Getty Images

Malta's history is dominated by its desirable tactical position in the Mediterranean: over the centuries different powers have ruled it, from the Phoenicians to the French and British.

But it is the Knights of St John who have made the lasting impact on the island, in particular on the capital, Valletta.

The Knights, having been chased out of Rhodes by the Turks, were offered Malta in 1530 by the Spanish Emperor, Charles V.

Malta then was "just a rock of sandstone" but even there the Knights weren't immune from attack. In 1565, 40,000 Ottomans lay siege but the Knights and 8000 locals held out against them. The Knights then set about building a new town as a fortress, choosing the peninsular of Valetta to do so. It's an example of early town planning with the streets set out in a grid system. The main streets (virtually pedestrian malls) run along the spine of the peninsula, with the other streets falling away on either side, in some cases so steeply that steps are needed. Glimpses of one of the two sparkling harbours can be seen almost wherever you go.

A walk around the fortifications, which rim the city, is a must. There are vantage points everywhere to watch the harbour traffic: ferries and the traditional dghajsa, boats that used to ferry sailors from ship to shore. The rowers stand at the back — the local equivalent of gondolas. Best place for harbour-watching is from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, themselves an attraction, and most days you can stare down at the huge cruise liners that dock just below. Access to that waterfront area is via a splendid 60m lift, completed in 2012, itself a great attraction, which will take you down for nothing, but charge you €1 to come up again.

But don't just look at the harbour, make sure you take a Grand Harbour tour. There are several ways to do it (with varying prices), but we caught the ferry across to Sliema and got a 90-minute tour for a modest price.

Attractive though Valletta is, it shows signs of having gone to seed with its mix of slightly run-down buildings, and tacky tourist shops (it is very touristy and at times the streets are jammed with visitors).

But right now, Valletta has undergone a makeover for its role as Europe's City of Culture in 2018.

There are some central top-name stores and a splendid, brand-new Parliament building. Many of the gone-to-seed buildings are being gentrified. Where we stayed, in a spacious apartment, was an example of a recently renovated building.

There are numerous restaurants and cafes (all with outdoor tables to cater for the smokers). Many of the restaurants and bars are tiny, no more than a room. At Legligin, we enjoyed a good tasting-menu of local foods for €29, and another one-room bar specialised in tapas and gin, offering a choice of 138 types of gin and 48 brands of tonic. (I have 137 to go.)

While the 1535 siege led to the founding of Valletta, it was Malta's more recent siege in World War II that ensured it enduring fame and earned the whole island the George Cross. Rommel realised it was strategically essential as a supply base for his North African troops and once Italy declared war in 1940, Italian and German planes, based in nearby Sicily, began the aerial bombardment that lasted almost three years (longer than the London blitz). It almost defies belief that they survived. Two museums are devoted to it. One, the Malta at War Museum, is worthy, and jammed with exhibits, and quite hard to get to. I found The Lascaris War Rooms far better. Have the human-guided tour in preference to the audio guide. Our guide described how, at first, Malta had only three ancient planes to defend it. Later, it took three days for any pilot shot down to be replaced as they had to be flown out from England. New Zealander Sir Keith Park was a key figure, once he took charge and revised the air-defence tactics.

 Sir Keith Park prepares to visit an RAF station on Malta on October 13, 1942. Photo / Getty Images
Sir Keith Park prepares to visit an RAF station on Malta on October 13, 1942. Photo / Getty Images

There are many written descriptions of this era, plus the movie Malta Story, but for a brilliant account of what it must have been like to have been a British soldier during the siege, read Chris Cleave's novel Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

You can't really go to Malta and not go to Mdina, an hour's bus ride from Valletta (Malta has a very good bus service). Perched high on hills, it was the island's original capital and, inevitably, a fortress town. It has only 300 residents and is movie-set perfect. Or it would be if it wasn't thronged with groups doing guided tours. Pointless to resent them, as we contributed to the number of visitors, but you do. It's a walled city with fine buildings (home of many noble families, who live as privately as they can) and has a dignity lacking in Valletta. Entry is through a splendid city gate to a fine cathedral and town square.

Sandstone buildings are enhanced with bougainvillea spilling down their walls.

My male friend and I, jaded by sightseeing, foolishly passed on going into Palazzo Falson, a restored fine home full of treasures owned by a discerning collector. Our wives said it was superb and told us we had missed a treat.

What we certainly weren't going to miss was Fontanella, a tea place that is so famous it was hard to get a table. Perched up high with wonderful views from the outdoor tables, it serves a superb selection of pastries (me ... lemon cheesecake and toffee and banana) and coffee, of course. People hovered around waiting for the next spare table. Look at their cakes on the website and you'll want to set off right now.

High on most people's must-see list is the Hypogeum, a burial site that goes back to 4000BC, the only prehistoric burial site in the world open to the public and a Unesco World Heritage site. The remains of some seven thousand bodies are there. As you go down deeper and deeper and see all the burial chambers, you cannot but wonder how they did it. Attendance numbers are strictly limited and you need to book well in advance before you go. We did, which was just as well, as when we visited the next available space was five weeks ahead.

A few minutes walk away is another Unesco Heritage site, the Taxien Neolithic Temples, well worth a visit .

Within Valletta, the top attraction is St John's Co-Cathedral ("Co" because for a time it had equal status with Mdina's cathedral). After years of travelling one can become jaded with churches and cathedrals, but this baroque interior is special, with numerous chapels sumptuously decorated with the Knights lavishing money on altars and alcoves, statuary and paintings.

The star work of art (in the oratory) is by Caravaggio, a simple but very powerful painting of St John being executed. There is no dignity in the deed, just the executioner holding John's head firmly on the ground wanting to get on with the job.

The admission charge (€12) includes a good English audio guide, which also prints out the words on its screen, a useful bonus if the place is noisy. To avoid the crowds from cruise ships, go early or late in the day.

A weird choice perhaps (I was the only visitor for most of the time) was the Malta Postal Museum. As I gazed at the numerous stamps from Victorian times onwards, I was filled with nostalgia for my boyhood stamp-collecting days. There were displays of how mail was delivered before the postage stamp came in. Yeah, thrilling, but I enjoyed a quiet hour away from the heat and crowds.

What we didn't see or do. Diving. Some 50,000 people come to Malta for its diving. Many come for its beaches. And we didn't visit the nearby island of Gozo (but our friends did and declared it enjoyable.)

Malta is off the beaten track for most visitors to that part of the world, but if you've already seen much of what Europe has to offer and can fit it into a trip, this brave island is well worth a few days' visit.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

For information on visiting Malta, go to

visitmalta.com

.