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Island of the brave.

The aperitif to the history of Europe

This group of small, fiercely independent and extremely brave Ireland’s in the Mediterranean, midway between mainland Europe and Africa is as distinct and different place and you could find, with quaint towns, fine beaches, buses straight out of the 1950s and some of the most ancient antiquities in the world.

Think of Malta as a glass of fine, vintage liqueur at the end of a rich meal called Europe is one way to place this small cluster of islands, 60 miles south of Sicily, in the tourist firmament.
Or perhaps Malta should come as the aperitif to the history and heritage of the countries around it. Why so much fuss about the Pyramids, the Parthenon and even Stonehenge? There are sites here older than them all.
But however you approach Malta, one thing you can never say is: ‘It reminds me of...’
Because there isn’t anywhere quite like this small nation, alone and proud in the Mediterranean, with its quaint towns, fine beaches, dear old buses and a bravery so deep the whole place and all its people were given a medal for holding its nerve in the last war.
It’s as foreign as you like, yet as shot through with a familiar sense of Britain as a stick of Blackpool rock.
There’s something deceptively cosy about Malta. You fly in over low hills and terraced fields. The very name is a simple anagram of the original letters - the Phoenicians, one of many proprietors down the years, called it Malat, meaning safe haven. But packed with fine buildings, the capital Valetta would grace the waterfront of any major nation.
‘Built by gentlemen, for gentlemen,’wrote Sir Walter Scott.
Now this marvellously well preserved 16th Century walled city has won a place on the elite list of world heritage sites. UNESCO judges the city’s 320 monuments - churches, palazzos and fortifications - to be one of the most impressively concentrated historic areas in the world.
We have the patronage of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem to thank for much of the building.
The Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans and Arabs all gave it form. But the Knights, granted the island by Spain, did the finishing.
Mind you, they were saving on the rent. All they had to pay was a measly two Maltese falcons a year.
Best to take a boat trip around the Grand Harbour and decide what to see afterwards. Top of any visitor’s list ought to be the St John the Baptist Cathedral, starring Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John, the only painting the artist - whose London show generated such interest recently - actually signed.
Most places in Malta do their own version of the festa, a week-long celebration in honour of the local saint (this is a heavily Catholic country) with much parading and passing round of nougat and strong wine.
We hired a car to sample the vibrancy in these villages and towns. Many are dominated by huge churches, and the one in Mosta is perhaps the most remarkable memorial to the island’s wartime ordeal. One day in 1942 a bomb penetrated the glorious blue, gold and white dome of St Mary’s Church, one of the largest in Europe, with 300 people inside praying. The bomb landed on the mosaic floor but did not explode. And you can now see a replica of the ‘miracle’bomb in the sacristy. Little wonder that King George gave the George Cross to the entire population of the British-controlled islands for their fortitude.
On occasion we left the car and took the bus. There are about 500 of them, painted a deep yellow with an orange band. It felt like a test drive from a museum, but this antique fleet, mostly traditional British makes such as Leyland, AEC and Bedford, provide very efficient public transport, even if it is Fifties-style. You need one for Mdina. Only residents’cars are allowed within the walls and up the narrow, twisting streets. It’s worth the steep walk to find a cafe with a long view of the island and out to sea.
Malta’s prehistoric remains are much less famous than they deserve to be. There are seven megalithic temples on the islands, the product of some advanced people who were greatly skilled at moving massive stones and who lived here between 4100 and 2500BC. These stones, too, have been given World Heritage recognition. After marvelling at the great creations at Hagar Qin, Mnajdra and Tarxien, we took a gentle tour of the coast, indented with bays, coves, sandy beaches and fishing villages such as Marsaxlokk, Marsascala and Birzebbuga.
At a harbour-side cafe we watched the traditional fishing boats, their prows emblazoned with the huge eyes of Osiris. But the only intimidating thing here is the place names. Well, most of them. Easy on the tongue is St Paul’s Bay, one of Malta’s largest resorts. The sea views from the ample beaches take in St Paul’s Island, where the boat carrying the apostle is said to have been wrecked.
inCompleting the temple trail is only one reason to visit Malta’s smaller sister, Gozo. Ggantija (Maltese for giant) is the main prehistoric site on this island, about 30 minutes by ferry and an easy daytrip. On the way you pass tiny Comino, the third, car-free, island. Gozo is greener and more rural than Malta, studded with Baroque churches and old stone farmhouses and coloured with oleander, bougainvillea and geranium in the summer. This is said to be the mythical home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey. It also holds some of the Med’s best dive sites.
All roads in Gozo lead to Victoria, topped by its citadel. (The locals prefer the ancient Arabic title Rabat, which means ‘the town’, to the name the British imposed on it in 1897.) It is well worth a visit for the big morning market in the main square, It-Tokk, where stalls are stacked high with Gozitan lace, knitwear and silver trinkets. Find a restaurant high up among the ancient bastions and sample local lampuka fish, best lightly panfried in olive oil, or oven-baked with a tomato, onion and caper sauce. Although mostly Italian in character, Maltese cuisine borrows widely from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. For something even more traditional, rabbit is very much the national dish. Then find yourself a village festa. There’s bound to be one on somewhere. In the summer, the Maltese never stop partying.


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