Malta: Ancient Sites, Mediterranean Culture

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Reed Travel Features contributing editor Carla Hunt visited Malta. Her report follows:

VALLETTA, Malta -- My initial thought on leaving Malta after my first visit was: How could someone who loves the Mediterranean have skipped Malta all these years?

The islands of Malta and Gozo, plus three other isles in the archipelago that make up the nation of Malta, add up to 123 square miles of stony, treeless terrain.

To this rather biblical-looking landscape, add cobalt-blue harbors filled with multicolored fishing boats; hills ablaze with crimson poppy fields and patches of pink and white oleanders, and manorial homes, distinguished churches and public buildings built of local honey-yellow limestone.

Not to be omitted from the canvas is a calendar full of festivals that fall usually in the summer months and celebrate saints' days with churches full of flowers, streets crammed with floats and costumed paraders and night skies illuminated by bonfires and fireworks.

Americans visiting here will have no language problems; The Maltese speak English well, as would be expected after more than a century of British rule that ended in 1964.

There are some 375,000 Maltese inhabitants.

They communicate in Malti, a lyrical-sounding language close to Arabic, although liberally laced with Italian.

Above all, Malta is a surprising and rewarding treasure chest of art, architecture and archaeological sites, tailor made for the cultural traveler.

The islands were settled about 7,000 years ago, and there are few places in the world where visitors will find so much prehistory on view: more than two dozen sites, including such megalithic temples as Gantija and Hagar Qim, and the newly restored Hal Saflieni Hypogeum burial complex -- all Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Jump to the 16th century, when the wealthy crusading Knights of the Order of St. John ruled Malta and built its capital city, Valletta, a fanciful, baroque place, not unlike an Italian stage set.

The Knights left a cultural heritage that is still a dominant factor in Maltese society, accompanied by some of the most distinguished civic and religious architecture in the Mediterranean.

The original 16th century hospital of the Order of St. John, for instance, has been restored and converted into the Mediterranean Congress Center, a good place to begin understanding the island nation through the Malta Experience, a 40-minute audiovisual show that covers 5,000 years of history.

This masterful presentation may surprise American viewers, who learn or are reminded of Malta's major role in World War II, resisting fierce German attacks so long and so valiantly that Winston Churchill declared that its brave stand shortened the war by a year.

A plaque of gratitude from President Franklin Roosevelt stands in the main square of Valletta, where visitors will find that the seat of Parliament occupies the 426-year old Palace of the Grand Masters, once the knights' headquarters.

Inside the marble halls is the Armoury displaying the Knights' weapons and battle gear, Gobelin tapestries and the Matteo Perez d'Aleccio friezes depicting the Knights' victory over Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent during the Crusades against Islam.

Another must-see attraction is the Manoel Theatre, a Baroque jewel of a building, still in use and restored to the way it was when the Knights crammed its seats and gilded boxes.

Valletta's artistic piece de resistance is the elegant Co-St. John's Cathedral, a title it shares with the co-cathedral of St. Paul in Madina.

Here, every inch of the floor is covered with inlaid, multicolored marble tombstones of the Knights; every inch of wall, column and ceiling is either finely carved or highlighted with paintings by Caravaggio and Mattia Preti or Flemish tapestries.

And certainly no perspective of Valletta beats the view of the capital's massive fortifications rising in imposing grandeur from the sea.

Cruise lines are increasingly adding Malta to their Mediterranean itineraries, with cruise ship arrivals up 20% in 1997, according to Michael Piscopo, director of the Malta National Tourist Office in New York. "Word must be getting out about Malta's vacation appeal," Piscopo said, "for last year even our U.S. long-stay visitors went up 25%, and this January and February, we enjoyed a 65% increase over 1997. With a total of 20,984 visitors from the U.S. last year, we are still operating below potential, but Malta is on the move."

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