Created | Updated Apr 10, 2003
The Republic of Malta is an island community in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, due south of Sicily, and due north of Libya. It consists of three islands - Malta, Gozo and Comino.
It is most famous for two landings and one attempted landing on its shores. The famous landing was by the Apostle Paul when he was shipwrecked on his way to Rome after he was arrested in Jerusalem. A snake jumped at him out of the fire soon after the crew and fellow prisoners landed. He suffered no ill effects, so the islanders where prepared to listen to him.
Having ransacked Jerusalem, the Knights Templar returned from the first Crusade via Cyprus and Malta.
The failed attempt at landing came in the Second World War, when the Germans tried to invade the island as it had key strategic significance being in the middle of the Mediterranean. However, the allied forces and Maltese were tough opposition and stood firm in the face of heavy bombardment. The result was that the people of Malta were the first of only two groups of people to be awarded the George Cross for Gallantry.
With all the various influences on Malta's history, it's surprising to find they still have a unique language. Maltese is the only Semitic language in Europe. However, English is also understood by the whole population, and the location of the islands means that Italian and Arabic are widely spoken although not official languages. In fact, to attend the University of Malta you must have English plus either Italian or Arabic at GCSE level1 before you can enter.
Getting to Malta
Luqa airport is an old Air Force base and thus one of the longest domestic runways in commercial use in the world. The runway is so long because the heavy supply planes in the Second World War needed plenty of room to slow down. Alternatively there is a ferry or Sea Cat service from Sicily right into Valletta harbour.
Getting Around Malta
This, to say the least, is an experience. The Maltese themselves joke that their Highway Code is the shortest book in the world. The contents:
He who beeps loudest has the right of way.
So be warned if you decide to drive the roads of Malta. Far safer, yet equally exhilarating, are the local buses. They don't look like much because they are old buses from the United Kingdom from the 1940s and '50s, but they are cheap, reliable and all have a character of their own. With Malta being such a religious country, many of the drivers have little shrines either to the Madonna, St Christopher or some other saint on the dashboard. The banter and atmosphere of mixing with the locals at close quarters add to the trip. All buses terminate at the city gates of Valletta, so you can find your way around easily enough.
Getting to the Other Islands
To get to the other islands, you have to go by ferry from Malta. For Gozo, this means going to the extreme north west of the island and getting the ferry.
Malta has a mixture of rocky and sandy bays so here are the best beaches.
Golden Bay, on the west coast of the island, has a beautiful long white sand beach. The Golden Sands hotel is at one end so you can almost roll out of bed on to the beach.
Mellieha is the next bay over from St Paul's Bay and has one of the finest beaches in the whole of the Mediterranean. It has a very gentle slope and no whiptide. However, the tide never seems to move very far so a parasol placed close to the sea remains there the entire day.
Malta is overflowing with history for a place that is so small and easy to traverse. It has been the colony of Carthage, Rome, Aragon, the Arabs, the Normans, the Ottomans, the French, the Phoenicians and the British. The Turks and Germans both tried to take it and failed. There are also Neolithic, Copper and Bronze Age sites on the islands.
The walled port and city of Valletta is still largely pedestrianised and the old cobbled and stepped streets make this city a joy to explore. St John's Co-Cathedral is one of the highlights of this historic city, and is one of many majestic buildings and churches dotted around the island. Also, the Hospital of the Knights of St John with its many tapestries, armoury and exotic courtyard is a must to visit. The harbour itself is impressive. The two bays either side of the headland on which Valletta sits have breath-taking vistas. The fortifications all around are evidence of how often this headland was fought over through the years as well as how highly prized this island was.
The old capital of Malta sits on the highest ground and oversees most of the island. It is heavily fortified and has many narrow cobbled streets. The cathedral suddenly comes into view as you enter a smallish square, and the interior is very impressive.
Close by Mdina is another historic town, that of Rabat. During Roman times, the Procouncil of Melita2 lived here. Paul was taken here after the miracle on the sands on what is now St Paul's Bay. He stayed in a series of catacombs under the town and preached to the people from here until a fresh ship could come on the spring tides to take him to Rome.
The Dome of Mosta
Only St Paul's, London, England and St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican rival the dome of the Church at Mosta in size. However, it is fortuitous that it is still standing today. During World War II a German bomb hit the dome during a service. It came through the roof and hit the mosaic floor and slid to a halt at the feet of the priest. No one was hurt. The British garrison on the Island came to defuse the bomb, the shell of which still sits in the Church as a symbol of God's grace.
Of Knights and Crosses
The Knights of Malta are actually the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. They were appointed by Emperor Charles V, King of Spain in 1530, to administer the islands. This they did for 268 years until the Napoleonic invasion. They still are based on the island and are an integral part of Maltese history and tradition.
The Maltese Cross, so boldly emblazoned on the national flag, is actually the George Cross. This was awarded to the people of Malta for their bravery in the Second World War when they staved off heavy bombardments from German airplanes.