Malta is the smallest member state in the European Union. It is also the fastest growing economically and, since the Arab Spring scared tourists away from North Africa, has recently doubled its tourism from around one million to two million per year. Not bad for a country with about 430,000 inhabitants.
Most people come for beach vacations (people sometimes swim even in January) or on cruise ships. We started thinking about Malta when we lived in Belgium, a wonderful place with consistently dreary weather. Having sampled Spain and Morocco for our sunshine fix, Malta seemed like a beach destination with an exotic twist, we didn't know anyone who had been there and the lore of the Knights of Malta made it intriguing. In that 30 years, Malta has undoubtedly changed quite a lot, but so have we.
History buffs know Malta as the European bastion against the Ottoman Empire in the days when the Turks laid siege to Vienna (as well as Malta) and as the home of that Order of Knights of The Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), otherwise known as the Knights of Malta (phew).
Indeed, this weekly In Guardia performance in Fort St. Elmo draws a good crowd (almost everyone sat in the shade on our side of the parade ground, carting chairs over from the sunny side). It was close by the apartment we rented for a week in the heart of the 16th century capital of Valletta.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Malta and of this fort - Fort Saint Angelo - to the discouragement of the Ottomans, for it was the redoubt that saved the Knights from complete disaster in1565 and put a dent in the Ottoman reputation for invincibility. But, it's not in Valletta.
Sparing you too much detail, this painting in the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta provides some idea of the lay of the strategic land figuring in that Great Siege. It depicts where the Ottoman forces were arrayed at some point in the siege. Valletta is at the tip of that peninsula separating two big harbors. It's where the Knights should have built their fortress and where they did build it after their close call with the Ottomans. That harbor on the right is the Grand Harbor and it's the biggest natural harbor in the Mediterranean.
Not all of the harbors in Malta are enormous. Some are really quaint and charming, like this one at Marsaxlokk, a fishing village of about 3,500 people. Your intrepid travelers got there by the local bus, which is the way we went everywhere on the main island of Malta (except across those enormous harbors in the painting).
We started our exploration in Mdina, the inland Maltese capital before the Knights arrived in 1530 after they were chased out of Rhodes.
As a medieval citadel it has quite a view over the land it commanded. In the distance is St. Paul's Bay, as in where he had his famous shipwreck.
It's quiet inside Mdina. Only about 500 people live there now and it's popular with tourists.
St. Paul's cathedral reminds us that it was here that Paul converted the Roman governor Publius and healed Publius' father. Publius is supposed to be buried under the altar. The floor, of course, consists of the mosaic overlay over tombs filling the sanctuary, a common sight.
To find a bite to eat, we went outside the walls of Mdina to Rabat and followed GPS through a maze of streets. If "Rabat" seems like Arabic, it is. It's the word for a suburb outside a citadel. The Maltese language is the only Semitic language written with a Roman alphabet. It has incorporated lots of Italian and a smattering of other languages.
From Mdina, we headed to the coast on the opposite side of the island from Valletta and deep back into time
To two Neolithic temple sites - Hagar Qim and Mnajdra - that overlook the sea.
Dating from 3600-3200 BC, Malta's Neolithic temples are the world's oldest freestanding stone structures, significantly older than places like Stonehenge or the Pyramids.
For us, this was one of those "who knew?" moments. The holes in the curved walls seem to have been for astronomical observation, something like Stonehenge.
This is a motif repeated frequently in the temple complexes
Along with the recurring theme of what they refer to as the "Fat Lady," although that tends to minimize the achievements of these people who did not have metal tools, but relied on different stones and bones for the arsenal of tools to shape their world.
Meanwhile, back in Valletta to the Armoury at the Grand Master's Palace and a time when metal was all the rage. Here we can see that the Ottoman troops at the time of the Great Siege were fairly lightly armored.
The Christian troops wore much heavier armor. This better protected them, but also made them less agile.
Clearly, the armor was for a lot more than protection. The decoration was really quite beautiful.
And then there were the innovations that never caught on, such as this 16th century German sword-gun.
The rapier is probably better known from swashbuckling tales than from military merit.
Visits are also permitted to some of the Palace rooms.
Although it's somewhat limited because the Palace also houses the Office of the President of Malta, so parts may be off bounds for visitors that might normally be open.
Nearby (although Valletta is so small that everything is nearby) is the unassuming (on the outside) St. John's Co-Cathedral, built in the 1570s.
Not wanting to be outdone in opulence by the Pope, the Knights decided to remodel in the 17th century
Resulting in the baroque-iest baroque interior we've ever seen.
After a while it becomes overwhelming.
A nice treat, however, were two magnificent Caravaggio paintings in the Oratory (no photos allowed). The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is considered to be one of his masterpieces. It's a very large painting and the only one he actually signed. It is displayed in the space for which he painted it. Of course, Caravaggio ended up as a prisoner after he became involved in a deadly fight with a prominent Knight.
The Knights weren't those fellows with the pikes or crossbows. They were from the aristocracy across Europe and as a religious order had tremendous wealth at their disposal.
So, with the labor of 5,000 Turkish slaves, they hurriedly built Valletta (named after the Grand Master at the time of the Siege) on the high ground of the peninsula overlooking both harbors, creating the only city we know where walking to any destination within the city is uphill and returning is even more uphill.
But, time for another bus ride. This one is out to the Tarxien Temples, four Neolithic temples in close proximity under a big protective tent. Again, they date from 3600 to 3000 BC. One of the mysteries of these temples is that all trace of whoever made them disappears at around 2500 BC. The Bronze Age people who show up next in the pre-historical record are unrelated.
That artifacts such as these temple sites should have survived is, to us, remarkable.
Even more remarkable is a nearby site from the same epoch. Rather than being constructed of stone slabs hewn from the earth, it was carved from the rock itself as an underworld realm for the dead. It is the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, Hypogeum being derived from Greek for "underground."
Dating from 3300 to 3000 BC, it is a re-creation of the above ground temples we'd already seen. It has convinced archeologists that, for instance, the Neolithic temples had roofs. The difference is that the placement of door openings allowed for a significant depth of human bones to accumulate within each room of the Hypogeum as the builders gradually worked their way to ever deeper levels to accommodate their dead.
The survival within this protected environment of some decorative elements using ochre also provides some insight into how the above ground temples might have been decorated. As it is, all that remains for us are elements made of stone. All else is gone.
Steeped in enough prehistory to last for a while, we boarded a ferry and sailed past the tiny island of Comino
To the sister island of Gozo, where the Maltese go to relax and enjoy a slower pace of life and lots of tourists go for the beach.
Before picking up our rental car, we headed up to the citadel in Victoria (also known as Rabat, naturally) to get the lay of the land of this Manhattan-sized island that's less than 9 miles across in its largest dimension.
It's significantly more rural than Malta Island with lots of small tractors on the roads running between fields.
It's where people from the larger island come to relax, away from the hustle, bustle, and overcrowding of the main island.
And the location for some film work. The famous Azure Window, an enormous natural rock window and the backdrop for the wedding scene of Daenerys to the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in the first episode of Game of Thrones, has unfortunately tumbled into the sea after a severe storm in March 2017.
Still with us since Roman times are the salt pans
Used by local residents to process sea salt.
In this wildly primal setting
Just outside Marsalforn, the island's largest beach resort, where we took a swim on a warm late October day.
(Maybe you've noticed the marsa in Marsaxlokk and Marsalforn and, indeed, Marseille, Arabic for "harbor.")
While you hold that thought, Gozo is also the site of more of those Stone Age temples.
The Ggigantija Temples were the most famous of the temple sites and were on the grand tour for many in the 18th and early 19th centuries and were depicted in a number of paintings. Unfortunately, they were destroyed by thoughtlessness by 1840 and archeologists have had to use those paintings to reconstruct what the Temples looked like.
However, Ggigantija has a wonderful museum with a treasure trove of Neolithic art from the site and nearby ones.
We were impressed with the artistry and skill of the craftsmen working in stone and clay
And cow toe bones (these are really very small).
Having held that thought about harbors, you'll recall that Valletta is on a peninsula between two natural harbors (very large ones), the Grand Harbor and Marsamxett.
Across the Marsamxett is the resort town of Sliema and all of the outfits happy to take you out for a cruise in the waters around Malta.
Across the Grand Harbor
Are lots of history
And ship building, ship repair, and waterways clogged with every manner of ship.
But, as everywhere, it's the people now living in a place that make it unique and give you a lasting impression. The shop assistant drawn to work in Valletta by the opportunity of work, but missing her home in Catania, Sicily. The retired banker on his way home after a break from hectic and stressful Malta on Gozo. The Gozo man who loves his life there but also relies on the ferry to see his doctor. And, the sobering reminder in the car bomb murder of a Maltese journalist that the world we value is a fragile one and that it takes courage to resist the temptation to acquiesce in the silence that protects greed and corruption. That's also the lesson earlier related to us by someone in Sicily who told us of his change of heart in deciding not to leave Sicily after all when the people determined to take the streets back from the mafia. The world is a tumultuous place. We can only hope to find more beauty than not in it and to contribute a bit of that beauty ourselves.