Bravery and baroque on the sunny isle

Friday 5 October 2012

John Fahey takes a trip to the beautiful Mediterranean island of Malta and is surprised by the rich history, ornate buildings and fascinating heritage he discovers there.
Valetta, MaltaValetta, Malta

I needed somewhere to just sit and catch my breath after the sights. The sun poured into the square and the cappuccino tasted heavenly. Perhaps that was inevitable after I’d spent an hour exploring St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

The Maltese capital is surrounded on three sides by the sea and by the massive fortifications seen as essential to deter another Turkish attack when the splendid cathedral was completed in 1577 for the Knights of St John – the crusading champions of Christianity. It is a stunning, astonishingly ornate building with a roof split into six panels depicting scenes from John the Baptist’s life by Calabrian artist Mattia Preti.

There are stone wall carvings currently undergoing a painstaking restoration and a cleaning programme which has been in progress for six years. The cathedral features one of the most imaginative church floors in the world, with 400 breathtakingly beautiful marble panels.

Caravaggio, the first great hero of the baroque movement, has a room within the cathedral showcasing The Beheading of St John the Baptist (his largest work) and The St Jerome Writing, another figurative masterpiece. Sipping my coffee in the sundrenched courtyard of the San Giovanna Cafe outside the cathedral, I began to understand why this island draws so many visitors from the UK.

The history is amazing – stretching back more than 7,000 years, with some stone buildings reckoned to be older than Stonehenge. Down the centuries, the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino have been fought over by the Romans, Ottomans, French and British. But there are remarkably modern locations too – such as Vittoriosa Waterfront, where superb alfresco restaurants overlook the marina and the super-yachts.

Malta is blessed with natural, deep, well-protected harbours, an important asset and one reason why the country was so prized by rampaging forces. The island gained the George Cross as official recognition of its courage during the Second World War; more than 16,000 tonnes of bombs rained down as the Nazis battled to gain a crucial foothold for their push into north Africa. The islanders survived by cutting shelters deep into the rock and one is preserved in the War Museum in Couvre Porte.

Though the island retains a lovely colonial feel and plenty of British references – old-fashioned red telephone and pillar boxes – we closed our last military base there in 1979, five years after the country was declared a republic. A former British fort, Rinella, not far from Valletta in Kalkara, is a ‘live’ museum where you can fire a 19th century cannon, explore the fort and its tunnels, and even sample Victorian soldiers’ hard tacked biscuits and tea.

It isn’t as tasty as the Maltese pastizzi though. I developed a penchant for the local speciality pastries served with ricotta or spicy pea filling, which you can snack on in any cafe. Local wines are pretty good too (there is little Maltese wine in our supermarkets because they keep it for themselves).

You can exhaust yourself taking in some of Malta’s attractions and history – the silent citadel of Mdina, a cruise by water taxi across Grand Harbour, and prehistoric World Heritage Sites such as the temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim. But this is also a place to sit and watch the world go by. And there are plenty of places to do that too.

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Bravery and baroque on the sunny isle

John Fahey takes a trip to the beautiful Mediterranean island of Malta and is surprised by the rich history, ornate buildings and fascinating heritage he discovers there.