Malta is one of the most southern of the Western Med islands being just 90km south of Sicily and 350km from the North African coast. Malta is, in fact, made up of the three islands of Malta, Comino and Gozo with a population of over 400,000 and land covering around 320 sq km. The Maltese islands have been inhabited for over 7,000 years and is full of history, art, culture and breathtaking scenery. 98% of the population is Roman Catholic and dates back to when St Paul was shipwrecked here in AD60. However, neolithic settlements and temples predate Stonehenge. Phoenicians and Carthaginians settled here with the former introducing trade and the making of glass and jewellery.
The Romans occupied the islands from BC218 to AD400 and the Byzantines from AD535 until the Arabs invaded Malta from Sicily in AD870. The Normans seized the islands in AD1091 and started forming much closely ties with Europe rather than North Africa. The islands were passed onto various European dynasties until the Aragonese finally took control in AD1282. The Aragonese and Catalan families that settled here became the island’s aristocracy. The formal running of the islands was established in the fortified town of Mdina (Rabat) and a number of magnificent baroque churches were built.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor donated the islands to the Knights of St John in 1530 when they became homeless, having been removed from Rhodes after the Crusades. Their rent for the islands was one Maltese Falcon per annum.
The Knights found an island of some 15,000 people who were to have their lives transformed with all the fortification work as well as the establishment of a hospital system that would be the envy of the region. Before the Great Siege of 1585 by the armies of the Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, the centre of Malta was around Birgu, one of the three cities in the Grand Harbour. The Fort of St Elmo was seen as sufficient to withstand a siege.
The Great Siege lasted from May 18th to September 8th with many forts being reduced to rubble. Some 40,000 Turkish troops landed on Malta and heavily outnumbered the local troops. Local folklore states that it was divine intervention that relieved the siege so September 8th is now a national feast day. After the siege, Valletta became the capital and huge fortification work began and is very much in evidence today. The Knights also brought security and prosperity to the islands until Napoleon invaded in 1798. It was a very short lived occupation as the Maltese rose up in revolt and besieged the French inside Valletta until the British took over two years later. It was during the British occupation that the naval dockyards were expanded and it became a strategic destination for troop and ship movements in the Med.
During the Second World War the islands really suffered at the hands of the Axis powers when they were bombarded by air strikes and blockades for three years. They held out, just, until a relief ship arrived in May 1943.
In 1942, King George VI granted the islands and its people the George Cross for bravery and it was incorporated into the national flag. Malta gained its independence in 1964 but continue to have strong ties with the UK and Europe.
Walking around Valletta, you really get a sense of history and can see why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The legacy of the Knights is very strong as is the number of churches! The Co-Cathedral, completed in 1577, is another example of the Knights’ influence with so much gold decoration and many of the Knights buried there. It was granted Co-Cathedral status, along with the cathedral in Mdina, during the French occupation of 1798-1800. There is a Caravaggio painting of The Beheading of St John the Baptist in the Co-Cathedral that is simply stunning. Across the water on the eastern side of Valletta is Grand Harbour, now full of super yachts for the winter. This area of the Three Cities (Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa) provides fantastic views of Valletta.
We hired a car to travel round the rest of Malta, where we saw a combination of Baroque architecture, Neolithic temples and amazing landscapes. In Rabat, we visited the catacombs of St Paul, where early Christians were buried. Sadly, the photos did not come out well. We also travelled to the south east corner to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk with its distinctive fishing boats. The picturesque harbour is filled with excellent restaurants serving locally caught fish.
Gozo, a short ferry ride away, is a very different island. Much more laid back but still with plenty of history. The Neolithic temples at Xaghra were expensive (by Maltese standards) but it did include an excellent tour of a nearby windmill. Although we saw it at New Year, so not exactly at high season, it was much quieter than Malta and you got a feeling that it was more of a beach destination. We did spot a few bays on our travels that looked good anchorages for later in the year.