In Malta, there is a unique sense of continuity over a very long time. Look at the Ġgantija and Tarxien megalithic temple complexes, over 5,000 years old, then go into downtown Valletta and see the newest construction or restorations, and you’re looking at the same creamy sandstone, fashioned into imposing structures. In the countless changes over the millennia of who’s been in charge, you can’t suppress the feeling of a resilient people that sticks to its traditions.
Malta is strategically placed to command the key shipping route between Eastern and Western Mediterranean, so much so that it has been a fortress island for much of its history. The mediaeval battlements were made obsolete by the arrival of heavy artillery, so what you see today is largely a product of the 17th century, the apogee of the rule of the Knights of the Hospital of St John, tasked by the Vatican with defending the West against the Turks. Malta’s unique topography – fingers of land jutting into the ocean enclosing deep water harbours – combines with the impressive military engineering and the continuity of architectural style to produce spectacular views from a plethora of viewpoints and angles in the city. Angled walls, staircases, bridges interweave to provide patterns that would do Escher proud, outlined in sharp contrast against the hard light of the Mediterranean sun.
To describe the Order of St John, three words spring to mind: Catholic, rapacious and rich. And the baroque era being what it was, that means gold in the decorations, in prodigious amounts. St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a riot of ornate gilt. Whether you consider it magnificent glory or gaudy frippery, there’s no denying the outstanding workmanship or the sheer scale of the effort that went into its creation. St. John’s is by no means the only example: if you try to navigate by seeing a giant dome and assuming that it’s St John’s, you’re doomed, because there are several of similar size.
Take the half hour ferry to Gozo and head for the Citadel, a typically Maltese mix of religion, military and scenic setting: the cathedral in the middle of the stronghold is another ecstasy of gold, together with glorious painting. You walk on an imposing array of tombstones, each inlaid with its particular marble version of a memento mori – a scythe, a skull, even a full skeleton. Back on the main island, stop off at the fine botanical gardens that adjoin the St Anton Presidential Palace, step into the (curiously unguarded) courtyard of the palace itself and take a moment to look inside the Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar to admire the frescoes. It’s a tiny baroque gem.
Each of the congregations of these churches seems to have its own identity, which it delights to celebrate with its own feast day. If you ask the question “when is the feast?”, the answer is either “which one?” or “every day”, the correct question being “which village has a feast today?”. Feasts seem to be characterised by (a) multi-coloured fairy lights on the front of the church/cathedral and (b) fireworks, both night time and in daylight – we were somewhat spooked on our first arrival in Valletta by what sounded for all the world like a re-run of a World War II raid but was in fact the one-week-ahead pre-feast feast in honour of St Joseph, at the cathedral in the suburb of Msida.
A word for the unwary. Malta is without question the most difficult place I have ever tried to navigate around by car. It’s partly because of the language: Maltese is what linguists call a “contact language”, an unfathomable mixture of Arabic and Italian, with bits of Spanish, French and English thrown into the pot for good measure. The result is that road signs tend to have two or three different names for the same place. The difference between Mdina, Medina and L’Imdina is just about navigable at speed; the difference between Victoria and Rabat (in the middle of Gozo) is not, especially given that there’s another Rabat on the main island. But also, the Maltese share the Italian penchant for lulling you into a false sense of security by providing a series of road signs to your intended destination, only to abandon you at some critical junction where a mistake can take you ten minutes out of your way. For a laugh, by the way, switch on a Tom Tom sat nav system and enjoy its attempts at pronouncing Maltese names.
But for me, the defining term for the Maltese is “resilient”, and the place to see it is the National Military Museum in Fort St Elmo, at the tip of Valletta. State of the art A/V tells the story of survival through a series of sieges of ever-increasing ferocity. Like much of Malta, the buildings around you are a strange juxtaposition of immaculately modern and somewhat ramshackle, with outbreaks of just plain derelict. But remember that this is an island that was collectively awarded the George Cross for its fortitude in surviving month after month of intense German air bombardment. Malta may be most often seen as a sun-and-sea destination, but it’s a place full of history, a place to make you think.