THE CROSSROADS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN
The Maltese Islands cover only 300sqkm yet across 7000 years
they have packed a pre-historic, medieval and 20th century punch.
JOY DODDS reports.
BERTHING at the Overseas Terminal in Valletta’s Grand Harbour is a visual cornucopia of restored medieval structures, largely built by the Knights of St John after the Great Siege of 1565 against the Ottomans. Quay Wall with 19 historic 250-year old warehouses stretches along the deep water’s edge, including the Forni Stores built in 1626. Today the Grand Harbour waterfront is a complete dining/retail/leisure experience, and a gateway to
To venture into the myriad cobbled streets and alleys of the baroque walled city is to feel history unveil, the Maltese Islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino - having been pivotal in Mediterranean shipping and trade since antiquity. Its WW2 Allied resistance and subsequent migrant exodus further add to its interest to Australians. During the 1940-43 Axis siege and blockade, more bombs were dropped on Malta than on Britain during the Blitz. Malta was at the point of capitulation and starvation but persevered, having the backbone to fight back and the entire population was awarded the George Cross for Bravery. The Siege Bell Memorial, inaugurated in 1992, is rung daily at noon and at the foot of the bell tower is a bronze figure representing the 7000 siege deaths. Fort St Elmo, Lascaris War Rooms and the Saluting Battery are of immense military history interest.
Fascinating city sights within the walls are easily accessible by foot or horse carriage. These include the Grand Master’s Place and Armoury, St John’s Co-Cathedral, The National Museum of Archaeology, the War Museum and Auberge de Castille, one of the seven original structures built for the “langues” of the Order of Saint John which today houses the offices of the Prime Minister of Malta. Located in Castille Square, near St James Cavalier and the Upper Barracca Gardens, it overlooks the harbour area. The walled city retains a British character with names such as Merchants St, Old Bakery St and Old Mint St, although the locals speak both Malti and English.
Many visitors explore beyond Valletta, where history continues with the megalithic Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples at Qrendi and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum prehistoric necropolis at Paola.
Just 15 minutes’ drive from Valletta, the once-moated citadel of Mdina, the capital of Malta until the 16th century and known as the “Silent City”, is a must-see. Mdina was a fortified Phoenician citadel as far back as 1000 BC and is a classic example of a medieval walled town, complete with panoramic views of most of the island from its bastion walls.
From its impressive main gate, explore the narrow cobbled streets by foot or from a horse-drawn carriage, or “karrozzin”. The Cathedral of Malta with its catacombs, grotto and museum, is dedicated to the apostle St Paul, who was shipwrecked in Malta in 60AD and whose life is celebrated in frescoes on the ceiling. The cathedral museum opposite is also impressive. When the Knights of St John built Valletta’s Grand Harbour, Mdina sank into the background, a retreat for Maltese nobility, and to this day, it maintains its aristocratic edge.
Wignacourt Collegiate Museum in nearby Rabat (Roman Melita) is a baroque 17th century residence of the Chaplains of the Knights of Malta. Part of a Pauline complex just outside the walls of the old Roman city, it is linked to St Paul’s Grotto, the cradle of Christianity in Malta.
St Agatha’s and St Paul’s Catacombs; the Norman House (Palazzo Falson); the Natural History Museum and Buskett Gardens and Verdala Palace are other highlights of Mdina and Rabat. Nearby is the quaint village of Naxxar and its Palazzo Parisio, a mini Versailles, the private estate of the Scicluna family. The scenic coastal route, “the golden mile of the Sliema seafront”, passes through the fashionable areas of Ta Xbiex and the Yacht Marina.
In contrast to the main island, Gozo, a 40-minute ferry ride away, is Malta’s rural outdoors and an archaeological jewel of pre-history. According to pottery remains near Il-Mixta, Gozo’s earliest inhabitants journeyed from Sicily in Neolithic times, around 5000 BC. The pre-Phoenician Gozitans were responsible for the oldest freestanding structures built by Man, the Ggantija Temples at Xaghra, massive megalithic structures which date from
3500 BC, older than the Pyramids.
Gozo is thought to be the Ogygia in Homer’s Odyssey, where the nymph Calypso detained Odysseus for seven years. A UNESCO site, its medieval and baroque buildings include the Citadella, a tiny fortified town and Victoria.
It’s a year-round destination of mild winters and sun-filled summers for world-class diving and caving. Its limestone arches, most well-known being the “Azure Window” which sits astride the underwater cave known as “The Blue Hole”, combine with dramatic cliffs, secluded bays and clear waters to make Gozo an outdoor paradise.
The Maltese Islands certainly pack a tourist punch which makes berthing at the Grand Harbour Terminal the start of a “Grand Order” experience.
Citta Vittoriosa (or Birgu in Maltese) is the old fortified city offering safe anchorage on the south side of the Grand Harbour where cruise ships berth at Valletta. Fort Saint Angelo is its histroic centrepiece, a symbol of Malta’s past.
For its rolein the Great Siege of 1565, the area earned its name, “victorious city”.
It’s a great area to wander and enjoy a rabbit stew or “mazzit” (blood sausage), two local delicacies, or shop for traditional filigree jewellery and lace..
WHERE TO STAY AND DINE
Phoenicia Hotel, Valletta – Located at the Old City Gate (Porte Reale) in Floriana, on a huge square, this stately hotel exudes a Raffles ambience in both appearance and service. Hotel rooms outlook to the harbour while its extensive 7.5 acre gardens produce the ingredients used in executive chef Saul Halevi’s acclaimed hotel restaurants, The Phoenix and Pegasus Brasserie. Built in the 30s under British rule, the hotel exudes an Art Deco feel and five-star service from professional staff. The long garden runs down to the pool terrace overlooking Marsamxett Harbour and ancient fortifications on the opposite side of Valletta from Grand Harbour. Located on the old walls at the main bus terminal, The Phoenicia is no more than an hour by bus from anywhere on the island.
MSC Cruises visit Malta as part of its Mediterranean itineraries, or as part of longer Grand Voyage crossings. Cruise durations vary from seven to 12 nights.
Details: www.msccruises.com.au or call (02) 8076 1000
Clockwise from above:
Panoramic view of town and harbour, Valletta;
Associazione Sbandieratori e Musici Dei 7 Rioni Storici in the old city of Mdina in Malta;
Coloured houses in narrow street in Valletta ;
The Valletta port is a popular tourist attraction full of cafes
Marsaxlokk Fishing Village.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media