The perfect destination for a post-Lockdown city break.
I have to confess to being a history nerd. After reading Roger Crowley’s excellent Empires of the Sea – with its breath-taking description of The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 – it seemed only right to walk in the footsteps of Jean de Valette and the Knights Hospitalier. Malta’s history is ignored by most tourists who flock to the island’s coastal resorts – maybe they are not as nerdy as me.
Valletta was virtually flattened during the second siege of Malta in World War II, but the restoration has been so beautifully realised that the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is incredibly compact, making it the perfect place to wander between palaces, museums, cathedrals and restaurants. We visited during April, which the locals described as unseasonably cool, although with temperatures in the low twenties, it was definitely pleasant enough for us northern Europeans.
The seventeen century St John’s Co-Cathedral was the only place where we experienced crowds of tourists – it seems to be on the itinerary for the major cruise ships. This Baroque gem is beautifully ornate and includes works by Caravaggio – he was on the run when he visited the island, after killing a man in a fight in Rome.
Elsewhere in the city it was easy to dodge the crowds. Our meanderings took us to The Grandmasters Palace, which was Malta’s seat of government and is now home to a permanent collection of weaponry and other ephemera from the era of the Knights of Malta.
Fort St Elmo plays a leading role in Crowley’s description of the Great Siege, when a gallant band of knights defended the rocky outcrop to the last man. The museum housed with the fort provides an excellent introduction to the history of an island that has probably been invaded more times than anywhere else in Europe.
One highlight of our trip was Casa Rocca Piccola, which is the only privately owned palace open to the public in the city. It combines amazing antiques and art with the lived-in feel of a house that is still occupied by the de Piro family. We even met the current Marquis with his pet parrot. You also get the chance to experience life during WWII by visiting the network of tunnels cut out from the rock under the palace which were used as bomb shelters.
The three cities can be reached by a short, scenic ferry ride across the Grand Harbour from the main city. The three peninsulas of Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea and Cospicua were the original centre of the city before the new town of Valetta was constructed in the sixteenth century. Once again you can experience a wonderful mix of palaces, museums, churches and seafront restaurants, all within easy walking distance and generally free of the tourist crowds. Birgu is the most popular, and also the one boasting most attractions, such as the Maritime Museum, the Malta at War Museum the Inquisitor’s Palace and the beautifully restored Fort St, Angelo.
Malta is less than 3.5 hours from the UK. We flew with Air Malta from Heathrow. Mr & Mrs Smith offer a good selection of boutique hotels. We stayed at the Ursulino Valletta – the inner courtyard rooms are a bit gloomy but the roof terrace overlooking the Grand Harbour is stunning.