With its rich architectural heritage, the sunny and scenic island of Malta is a history buff’s dream, says Tom Lawrence
Sitting on the shaded roof of a rustic farmhouse sipping a delicious array of crisp whites and sumptuous reds, I peered out into the endless sea of sun-kissed grapevines surrounding me.
The picturesque 19-hectare vineyard could easily have been mistaken for one in Tuscany or even on the fertile grounds of Cape Verde.
But in fact I was sampling my mouth-watering flight of fine wines in the middle of a former RAF airfield on the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Like a number of locations and landmarks on the tiny sun-baked archipelago, the Meridiana Wine Estate has close ties to World War Two and Britain’s 150-year colonial occupation.
However, what many people fail to realise is that the scenic island, nestled 60 miles off the south coast of Sicily, has so much more to offer.
Situated 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 stands just five miles away from the capital Valetta, a fortified city built in the mid-16th century by the Knights of St John – arguably the most influential group to have settled on the island.
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. The Knights remained in Malta until 1798, leaving their legacy etched onto the landscape forever.
My guide Audrey, who like all the Maltese spoke perfect English, led me into Valetta, which is flanked on three sides by the sparkling sea and, with a population of just over 6,000, is Europe’s smallest capital.
The morning sun lit up the ornate facades and enclosed painted balconies of the golden limestone villas which tower over the wide cobbled streets.
And 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 nine World Heritage sites to grace Malta.
It also boasts a host of high-end boutiques, alfresco cafes and restaurants, with a peppering of British post boxes, red phone kiosks and even a branch of Marks and Spencer serving as a reminder of the island’s colonial influences.
Our first port of call was St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Order as its central church.
After passing through the threshold of its imposing exterior, 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 which houses a large collection of historical artefacts.
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 given to the Order as gifts hang in the tapestry room.
After enjoying a frothing cappuccino and ice cream at Caffe Cordina in the shaded confines of Republic Square, we made our way to Upper Barracca Gardens, the highest point of the city walls.
As fountains trickled in the background, 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 the nation 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, which straddle the harbour.
As we took to the blue waters, she reeled off a list of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator, Troy and The Count Of Monte Cristo, which have made use of the harbour’s epic beauty.
A-listers with homes on the island include David Beckham, while billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich apparently has one of his yachts moored in the adjoining Marsamxett harbour.
We arrived in Vittoriosa, the Knights’ original capital, stopping for a lunch of mussels and fresh lampuka – a sweet-tasting local fish – at the idyllic 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.
Touring the medieval walled citadel of Mdina, home to the National Museum of Natural History, palaces of past Grand Masters and the Bishop’s Cathedral, I could see why it is nicknamed “The Silent City”.
With a population of just 200, only the cars of the residents are allowed within its confines, making the streets of the island’s original capital peacefully serene during the day.
I also trod the grand marble staircases and walled gardens of the Palazzo Parisio – described by many as a miniature Versailles – a stately home in the ancient village of Naxxar built in the 1800s.
The mostly rocky island also has a handful of idyllic beaches to the north, with Golden Bay and Gnejna the best on offer.
A greater variety is found on Gozo, Malta’s sister island, only a 20-minute ferry ride away and blessed with stunning natural wonders including Calypso’s Cave which overlooks the red sands of Ramla Bay and the Azure Window, a giant doorway of rock surrounded by deep blue sea.
After experiencing Malta’s rich and varied history, it can truly be said that it’s so much more than just a small Mediterranean island.