May 31 2012 Flintshire Chronicle
Tom Lawrence finds a history buff’s dream in the Med
SITTING on the shaded roof of a rustic farmhouse sipping a delicious array of crisp whites and sumptuous reds, I peered out at sun-kissed grapevines. The picturesque 19ha vineyard could easily have been mistaken for one in Tuscany or even on the fertile grounds of Cape Verde.
But in fact I was in the middle of a former RAF airfield on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Like other locations on the sun-baked archipelago, the Meridiana Wine Estate has close ties to World War II and Britain’s 150-year colonial occupation.
But what many fail to realise is the scenic island, nestled 60 miles off the south coast of Sicily, has so much more to offer. Within a three-hour flight of the UK, Malta is a vibrant melting pot of history, art and architecture, richly influenced by the many cultures imposed on its rocky shores over the last 7,000 years.
I spent a week based in the bustling town of St Julian’s on the eastern coast, a lively hub of hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and casinos. It’s just five miles from the capital Valetta, a fortified city built in mid-16th century by the Knights of St John.
In 1530, after being chased out of Rhodes by the Ottomans, Charles V of Spain allowed the Knights to base themselves in Malta in return for religious devotion and the generous annual rent of just one falcon.
Three decades later, the Roman Catholic Order successfully staved off another attack from the bloodthirsty Turks during the Siege of Malta, prompting Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette to build the walled citadel of Valetta to protect his people from further invasions.
My guide Audrey, who like all the Maltese spoke perfect English, led me into Valetta, which is flanked on three sides by sea and, with a population of 6,000, is Europe’s smallest capital.
As we snaked our way through the gridded network of roads and open squares, I could immediately see why the tiny country has one of the highest densities of historical sites in the world.
Home to 320 monuments, including grand cathedrals, opulent churches, statues, fountains and palaces, Valetta resembles an open-air museum and is one of Malta’s nine World Heritage sites. It also boasts a host of high-end boutiques, al fresco cafes and restaurants, with a peppering of British post boxes, red phone kiosks and even a branch of Marks and Spencer.
Our first port of call was St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Order as its central church. After passing through the threshold I was met by the breathtaking spectacle of intricately painted vaulted ceilings, gilded walls and a floor covered by 350 marble tombstones of former Knights. “This is our Baroque gem and the most important church in the whole of Malta,” Audrey said proudly.
The cathedral’s guarded oratory houses two original masterpieces by Caravaggio, with his largest-ever work, the spine-tingling Beheading of John the Baptist, the jewel in the crown. The Italian artist came to Malta and painted for free in exchange for his induction into the Knights’ prestigious Order, which today includes the likes of Sir Cliff Richard.
Our next stop was the Grandmaster’s Palace in George’s Square, the distinguished seat of Malta’s president and parliament. The stately chambers are decorated with beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from the Great Siege, while steel suits of armour used by the Knights line the corridors and huge intricately-woven tapestries hang high.
After enjoying a cappuccino at Caffe Cordina in the shaded confines of Republic Square, we made our way to Upper Barracca Gardens, highest point of the city walls. I took in the stunning panoramic views of Malta’s Grand Harbour, the largest natural harbour in the Med which was a Royal Navy base until 1979 when Malta became a republic. Audrey suggested we took a tour in a disa – similar to a gondola – for a closer look at the towering coralline walls of Fort St Angelo and the three cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea. We arrived in Vittoriosa, the Knights’ original capital, stopping for a lunch at waterfront restaurant Riviera della Marina before touring the quiet town.
The rest of my trip was spent exploring the plethora of other historical gems that Malta’s 120 square miles have to offer, like medieval walled citadel of Mdina, home to the National Museum of Natural History, palaces of past Grand Masters and the Bishop’s Cathedra.
The most exhilarating part of my trip came as I whizzed along the cliff tops of Dingli on a Segway, treated to glorious views of the west coast and tiny uninhabited island of Filfla.