We expected little of Malta.
All I knew about the island could be written on a postcard. I had a vague idea that it was in the middle of the Mediterranean; that British tourists liked it because it had three-pin plugs and red phone boxes, as well as sunshine; and that it currently holds the European Union Presidency.
How wrong could I be. It is not an island, but an archipelago. There are three inhabited islands: the largest is Malta, then Gozo and tiny Comino.
It is only 50 miles south of Sicily (40 minutes or less on Ryanair from Sicily); its history encompasses not only the British, but Stone Age settlers, Ancient Greeks, Ottomans, the French, Spaniards, Barbary pirates, the Knights of St John, and more.
And its walled capital Valletta, built after the great siege of Malta in 1565, when the Knights of St John held off an invasion by the Ottoman Empire, is one of the most stunning cities in Europe.
It is also very, very small – only 1 km by 600 metres, and you could easily explore it, on foot, in a day. And boy, is it worth exploring.
There is history round every corner and at the end of every narrow 16th century street. Its main church, St John’s Cathedral, is home to a stunning painting of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
Everywhere there are reminders of Malta’s battle-scarred past, and of course its seafaring history.
Its port, the Grand Harbour, has been used since pre-historic times and was the site of many naval battles. It is now a safe haven for those enormous cruise liners that criss-cross the world’s seas on a seemingly endless loop.
There was no safe haven for the thousands of Maltese who were slaughtered during the Second World War.
The islands’ strategic location made it the perfect base for Allied forces.
It also made it a sitting target for German and Italian bombers.
The statistics are appalling:
- 3,343 air raids registered throughout the war over Malta
- 15,000 tonnes of bombs dropped on the Maltese
- 1,581 civilians killed
- 7,500 military and merchant navy personnel killed
- 10,761 buildings destroyed or extensively damaged
It is impossible to imagine the horror of those years, in particular the second great siege of Malta in 1942, when from April to August, Stuka bombers tried to pound the people into submission by starving or killing them.
They were rescued just in time, by an Allied supply convoy, on Saturday 15th August, which fittingly for this Catholic community, was also the Feast Day of the Virgin Mary.
Later the whole population was awarded the George Cross for its bravery by the UK. And US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s words in December 1943 sum up why we should all be grateful to tiny Malta:
“Malta’s bright story of human fortitude and courage will be read by posterity with wonder and gratitude through all the ages.
“What was done in this island maintains the highest traditions of gallant men and women who from the beginning of time have lived and died to preserve civilization for all mankind.”
We were only in Valetta for 48 hours, en route to Gozo to meet up with friends who have been renting a house there since last September, but long enough to know that we would like to return.
We didn’t take the van to Malta, flying instead by Ryanair for less than €50 euros return and we stayed in a delightful Airbnb apartment in the heart of Valletta for two nights.
We left the Hymer in Catania, at Medicamp, to get her leaking boiler fixed. Happy to recommend them for motorhome repairs in Sicily, or even if you are looking to buy a second hand van.
- Read more about the Malta and the Second World War here
- The islands’ official tourism site is Visit Malta
- I am about to read the The Kapillan of Malta by Nicholas Monserrat which tells the story of the WW2 siege through the eyes of priest (kapillan).
Next up: Trainspotting in Gozo