Malta's Masterpieces - Constructed by the Knights Who Originally Aided Sick Pilgrims to the Holy Land, the City of Valletta on the Mediterranean Island of Malta Survives as a Testament to Its Builders

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On a map, the three islands of Malta look like a spatter of freckles on the face of the Mediterranean. But all my thoughts of diminutive dimensions disappeared as I flew over Valletta, the capital city. Massively walled and buttressed with forts, it guards a vast port, crucial to the islands' history and fittingly called the Grand Harbour.

Such superlatives abound on Malta, as do mysteries. Its megalithic temples are the oldest known human structures in the world, while the idols found there are the world's oldest statues of deities. For centuries, Valletta, built by the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in the sixteenth century, was the most heavily fortified city in Europe. The domes of the village churches in Mosta and Xewkija are the third and fourth largest domes in the world--bigger than that of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, for example. The 508-foot ward in its hospital was Europe's longest room.

And if your heart has ever gone out to Londoners pounded during the blitz, think of the Maltese. In March and April 1942, the Axis hurled twice as many bombs on Malta as they did in a whole year of the blitz. Why? Because Mussolini wanted to annex Malta to Italy. More significantly, Hitler's generals realized they could not win North Africa unless they wrested control of the Grand Harbour and its dockyards from the British, who had ruled Malta since 1814. Neither aim was achieved.

Today, most traces of the bombing have disappeared, and the strategic position that Malta exploits is the islands' charm as a vacation spot. Beaches and coves rim the coasts. You can dive, windsurf, or sail. At night, you can go to the casino and clubs at St. Julian's; by day, you can shop in the Three Cities area around the Grand Harbour or hunt for Maltese lace in village markets. For rustic peace, you can take the ferry to the smaller islands of Gozo or Comino. But with all this, the unique allure of Malta lies in the architectural monuments that enshrine its startling history.

I started by walking through the City Gate into Republic Square. People thronged the shops and cafes, yet its immense, Renaissance-era walls and the bombed-out opera house are reminders that Valletta has always been a fortress city. The Knights began work on it after they emerged victorious, though vastly outnumbered, from the Great Siege mounted by their ancient enemies, the Turks, in 1565. Proud in victory, the grand master of the order, Jean Parisot de la Vallette, determined to build an impregnable city. Money was no object; though the Knights were monks, their order accepted only aristocrats, who endowed it with their riches. Moreover, Europe's rulers rewarded them for thwarting the threatening Turks.

As well as the financial resources to build on a grand scale, the Knights had Francesco Laporelli, the pope's engineer. Laporelli warmed to the task set by La Vallette, who insisted that the city that would take his name should be as beautiful within as it was strong without: "A city built by gentlemen for gentlemen" was how Sir Walter Scott described it. Using the local globigerina limestone, which glows in the sun, he created a grid of straight streets to catch cooling winds. He put drains, a garbage disposal system, and a water supply into every house. Laporelli's assistant, architect Gerolamo Cassar, completed the work. Working in the style of the Italian cities, he built the grand master's palace, St. John's Co-Cathedral, the Sacra Infermeria, as well as numerous churches and mansions for the Knights. Later, Baroque architects and painters enriched his severe style, adding balconies, ornaments, and paintings to make Valletta Europe's handsomest capital as well as its most formidable.

From Republic Square I followed the main thoroughfare, Republic Street, to the star-shaped Fort St. Elmo, which defended Malta during both the Great Siege and in World War II. It now houses a war museum. Since it was the weekend, the fort was hosting its weekly military parade in which costumed police cadets enact the ceremonies of Malta's military past. …