The island nation just below Sicily, is an increasingly popular cruise stopover worthy of an extended stay, writes Roy Harris.
A strategic location can be more curse than blessing. Just ask the Maltese, whose tiny island nation lies 80km 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 travellers today, Malta's proximity to Europe's glamour destinations is a definite plus — though not a widely appreciated one. Often experienced as a day stop on Mediterranean cruises, Malta greatly rewards a longer stay. The 27-by-12km island is packed with lovingly restored sites that bring history to life.
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. And from rows of city buildings to its ubiquitous walls, which replace fences and hedges as property boundaries, nearly every structure is coloured with the ochre 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 its hospitality. That includes a seafood-based cuisine that blends influences including Italy, Spain and Morocco, as befits a cultural crossroads.
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 the attacking Ottomans must have seen.
But today, the 16th century has to wait. By a steep stone stairway we descend to the Lascaris War Rooms, which preserve a command centre and connected network of tunnels built during World War II to provide security from constant air attacks.
In a Mediterranean Sea that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini tried to transform into "an Italian lake", Malta had "the only harbour 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 about 16,000 tons of Axis bombs dropped over Malta's fewer than 260sq km.
"The Maltese," Atkinson says, "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 Sicily-based Axis bombers, 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 make the 15-minute walk to Fort St. Elmo, which the Turks seized briefly during the Great Siege. Its 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 back to the Crusades, were given Malta as their home by the Church in return for a nominal annual fee: a single Malta-trained hunting falcon. (The jewel-encrusted black bird of movie fame was the creation of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett.)
Next comes Saint 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 sample Malta's diamond-shaped ricotta pastry dish — pastizzi — with a glass of Cisk, the lovely light-coloured local beer. Then it's on to the massive Renzo Piano-designed City Gate, part of a complex — with his new parliament building and open-air theatre — that replaced an opera house destroyed in World War II.
Controversy over its modern style waned as the Maltese took their turn as this year's EU European Capital of Culture.
In the fishing town of Marsaxlokk, just southeast of Valletta, the harbour teems with brightly painted boats, which draw the eye from the ochre buildings on the shore. Its dockside crafts market displays many items bearing the eight-pointed Maltese cross.
Like many Maltese restaurants, Ferretti (ferretti.com.mt), has a historic setting: It occupies an 18th-century battery surrounded by a moat, from which the harbour 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.
A 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 back to 3600BC, 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 tunnel-like streets among a smattering of other tourists. At Bacchus, we're seated 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, aljotta, is so full of giant mussels that little room is left for broth.
Continuing our holiday in Venice, we realise the cost of visiting Malta is considerably more reasonable — and the crowds much smaller. Still, the EU's smallest nation is among its healthiest economically. It benefits from the tourism from cruise lines, although travellers who stay longer are a rarer breed.
Venice's glittering canals are more colourful than Malta's walls. 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 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.
Many cruise lines offer itineraries calling at Valletta, including Norwegian Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, MSC Cruises, Costa Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, and Star Clippers. Talk to your travel agent to find the best itinerary for you.