Malta's Past Perfect; Gareth Huw Davies on the Island with a Wild Coastline and an Amazing History

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Byline: Gareth Huw Davies

For a country half the size of London, Malta packs a mighty punch. It has archeological sites older than the Pyramids, the Parthenon and even Stonehenge. The capital Valletta was once known to the ruling houses of Europe as Superbissima - meaning 'most proud'.

Benjamin Disraeli named it 'a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen'. Unesco has put this marvellously wellpreserved 16th Century walled city on its elite list of World Heritage Sites, judging its crush of 320 churches, palazzos and fortifications one of the most impressive historic areas in the world.

Then there are the Maltese themselves, apart and proud in the Mediterranean, drawn from stock so brave the whole country was given the George Cross for holding out against the Germans and Italians in the last war.

Not that first-time visitors guess any of this when they fly in over low hills and terraced fields. It looks, and sounds, so cosy and tame. The very name is a simple anagram of what the Phoenicians, one of many proprietors down the years, called it - Malat, meaning safe haven.

And, like a stick of Blackpool rock, the country (that's Malta and its pebble dash of tiny satellite islands) is shot through with a familiar sense of Britain, with red phone boxes and many a British pub.

Look closer, though, and you'll discover a distinct and different land with 7,000 years of history, with quaint towns, and a coast indented with coves, beaches and tongue-trippingly named fishing villages such as Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga. Think of it as the aperitif to the history and heritage of the countries around it. But one thing you can never say is: 'Malta reminds me of ...'

A good way to start a visit is on a harbour tour in Valletta, to gauge the fine work of the Knights of St John, in their fortified city perched on a high rock above the deep water port. They inherited the building contract from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans and Arabs, who all contributed to Malta's heritage.

Top of my list is the St John the Baptist Cathedral, starring Caravaggio's Beheading Of St John. The artist was here on the run from nearby Italy, after killing a man.

Among the many highlights in Valletta is the National Museum of Fine Arts, in an exuberant Rococo 1570s building, and the Museum of Archaeology.

Mdina is another town of distinction. Tourists' cars are not allowed up its narrow, twisting streets, and rightly so. It's worth the steep walk to find the Fontanella Tea Garden, a cafe with a long view of the island and out to sea, selling cakes of distinction.

Huge churches dominate many towns. Mosta's St Mary's Church has a miracle (or a piece of great good luck?) to relate. One day in 1942 a bomb penetrated its glorious blue, gold and white dome, as 300 people prayed inside. …