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
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
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
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
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
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."