Temples older than the pyramids, beautifully preserved medieval cities and some of Europe’s best diving — Malta might be one of the world’s smallest countries, but this Mediterranean island is almost bursting with attractions. There’s even a kosher restaurant.
And this year, capital Valletta is European capital of culture, with a programme of events focusing on art, film and music, to run alongside the island’s annual music festivals.
Because whether you stay near one of Malta’s only sandy beaches at Mellieha in the north or the colourful fishing village of Marsaxlokk in the south, where the evil eye adorns the boats brightly painted in primary colours, in stylish St Julian’s or among the resorts of Sliema, all roads lead to Valletta.
The fortified city, a grid of cobbled streets and steep steps, was built in the 16th century by the Knights of St John — otherwise known as the Knights Hospitaller — given by Charles V of Spain for the rent of one falcon each year.
Charged with protecting it against the Ottomans, the knights built their new walled capital as a fortress to keep out the Turks. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, its golden stone streets seem almost unchanged today.
The façades of the auberges, the knights’ grand former palaces, still line the centre, while visitors can enter the Grand Master’s Palace, home to the Maltese government. The Auberge de Provence houses the National Museum of Archaeology, with artefacts from Malta’s Neolithic temples up to the Phoenician period.
When those same Phoenician traders were landing on the island’s shores and settling the island they called Maleth back in around 750 BCE, the Jews may already have been there too — at least according to an inscription at the Ggantija temple in Xaghra on neighbouring Gozo, dating back to 3600BCE.
One of the oldest freestanding structures in the world along with Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta, where the earliest inhabitants worshipped their goddess, it is a thousand years older than the pyramids of Giza.
And in the ancient catacombs, built around 400 years after St Paul — formerly Saul the Pharisee — was shipwrecked just off Malta in 62CE, there is a carving of a menorah still to be seen. By the time the Arabs ruled the island in 870, Jews held positions of power, and made up a third of the population of former capital Mdina.
Unlike Valletta’s wide, planned streets, the 9th century twisting alleyways here are quiet: Mdina has the nickname of the silent city, with only residents’ cars allowed inside the walls, and the clop of horse and carriage echo through the narrow lanes, used as a filming location for Game of Thrones. There are still signs for the Jewish Silk Market and a Jews’ Gate. In medieval times, under Norman occupation, the Jewish population was responsible for supplying oil for the street lamps.
Repeatedly expelled from the island, in 1492 when it was part of the Spanish kingdom of Aragon and later as a condition for the Knights of St John to receive the island, many of the community fled to Sicily — but many returned, with Jewish names still common on the island, and Jews living here under Napoleonic and later British rule.
Today the community numbers around 150, with the L’Chaim kosher restaurant run by Chabad in St Julian’s and a synagogue in Ta’Xbiex.
Quiet and tranquil as Mdina is, there’s only one place to find true silence: under Malta’s clear blue waves. Previously voted the best diving destination in Europe, there are more than 30 underwater sites, with reefs, fish, caves and lagoons as well as numerous wrecks, plus a diving season which runs from April to November.
Even on the rare occasions when there’s bad weather, or when the wind makes the sea too rough for diving in one place, there is always a more sheltered option to try less than an hour’s drive away too — a bonus of Malta’s compact size.
Floating 15 metres below the busy quayside cafes of Sliema, where the fishermen discreetly smirked as I shoehorned myself into a wetsuit and tourists relaxed in the sunshine, I discovered another slice of Maltese history.
Royal Navy wrecks dot the seabed, sunk during the Second World War. Today seaweed waves gracefully through the hatches and octopus and fireworms make their homes.
Off nearby Manoel Island, a spit of land opposite Valletta, lies the bombed barge Lighter X127, aka the Carolita — the gaping blast hole still visible, and paraphernalia from the old hospital in the fort above, including beds and wheelchairs, left to rust below the waves.
For a more picturesque sight, Malta’s sea is home to grouper, rainbow wrasse and parrot fish, not to mention eels and more elusive barracudas and seahorses, especially the clear waters of Cirkewwa in the north. Underwater caves line the coast, along with a natural stone arch, while shoals of brightly coloured fish dart over to investigate these bubble-blowing intruders to their realm.
After swimming alongside them during the day, it felt almost rude to tuck into fish every evening. But with restaurants including Peppino’s and Barracuda in St Julian’s Bay tempting celebrities from Brad Pitt to Orlando Bloom and Daniel Craig, during filming in Malta, it’s hard to resist, especially when the fish in question is fresh that day.
With so many attractions on land and under the sea, it’s far from the only thing that makes Malta irresistible.