Juliet Rix, The Daily Telegraph, October 09, 2014
St John’s Co-Cathedral
The Knights of Malta’s main church, this extraordinary place of worship is up there with the most important Baroque buildings in Europe. The outside is plain, even severe in style, having been designed by the military architects who built Valletta as the Knights’ citadel capital in the 1570s. Inside, however, is dazzling, every inch covered in gold, marble or paint. Even the floor is a sea of tombs in coloured marble. Each language group of the Knights had a chapel here and they competed for the greatest and most sumptuous decoration. Recent restoration has only served to brighten the place further. The audio guide is worth using and points up the highlights amongst the visual mêlée. Don’t miss the oratory which is home to Caravaggio’s largest (and only signed) painting, the superb Beheading of St John.
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Valletta fortifications walk
Valletta was built by the Knights of St John (the Knights of Malta) after they nearly lost the islands to the Ottoman Turks in the Great Siege of 1565. The city was constructed on a barren, rocky peninsula with water all around except on a narrow landward side. It was state-of-the-art military architecture, intended to be impregnable. And so it was: for 200 years nobody even dared attempt invasion. The fortifications are still impressive today. My favourite way to see them is to walk a circuit around the edge of the city on top of the walls (or as close as possible) looking down on the two harbours that flank the capital. The walk is circular so you can start anywhere, but I would start at City Gate - the main entrance to the City. Valletta is only 1km long so it isn’t too hefty a walk. At the tip of the peninsula, the far end from City Gate, stands Fort St Elmo, the only building here that predates Valletta and a key player in the Great Siege.
Grand Harbour boat tour
The famous Grand Harbour is at the heart of much of Malta’s history (and some of Europe’s). Site of the Great Siege of 1565 in which the Knights of St John just managed to hold off the invading Ottoman Turks, as well as the centre of significant events of World War Two, the harbour was home to the British Royal Navy in the Med until the 1970s. Having seen the view from the Upper Barracca Gardens, in clement weather it is well worth getting out on the water. My favourite way to do this is on a tour in a traditional dghajsa. There used to be hundreds of these colourful little wooden boats ferrying sailors between ship and shore. Now there are only a few and their single oar (used rather like that of a gondola) is supplemented with a motor, but I think they are still the most evocative way to get around the Grand Harbour. Do not encourage your boatman to take you beyond the harbour walls; these boats are not designed for the open sea. A&S Water Taxis offer half-hour tours, six passengers to a boat, leaving from Customs House, next to the Valletta Waterfront, or from Birgu/Vittoriosa waterfront on the other side of the harbour.
Contact: 00356 21806921; mob: 00356 98129802; maltesewatertaxis.com
Admission: €10 per person for 30-minute tour
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Malta at War Museum
This is not only a museum about Malta’s Second World War but – for me more interestingly – it offers tours of the vast World War Two shelter below ground. Don a hard hat, pass through the (reproduction) gas curtain and descend into the world of the Maltese during the worst of the war. Malta was the target of some of the most concentrated bombing anywhere and this area, home of the Grand Harbour dockyards doing crucial ship repair work, was hardest hit. Hundreds of people spent days and nights down in these hand-cut rock tunnels with only smoky little oil lamps for light. The guides here are exceptionally well informed and really bring the place to life (in English). In summer, bring a sweatshirt as it can be cold by comparison with outside.
Contact: 00356 21896617; maltaatwarmuseum.com
Lascaris War Rooms
Deep inside the bastion walls of Valletta, these tunnels were once the slave quarters of the Order of St John. In the Second World War they became the secret headquarters of the British and Allied Mediterranean forces, and it was from here that General Eisenhower commanded Operation Husky, the successful invasion of Sicily in 1943. You can still see ops rooms complete with maps, phones and plotting tables, as well as ancient-looking – yet inventive – communication systems. There is an audioguide in English as well as human guides full of additional facts and stories about Malta’s crucial role in the war. The Lascaris War Rooms are underneath the Upper Barracca Gardens so it is easy to visit both on the same outing.
Contact: 00356 21234717; lascariswarrooms.com
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Malta’s first citadel capital, Mdina has been inhabited and fortified since the Bronze Age and was the Roman centre of Malta. What we see today began with the Arabs, continued through the medieval Christian period and slowly declined in importance after the arrival of the Knights in the 16th century. Still inhabited, it is something of a living museum. Malta’s noble families have their ancestral homes here and its tiny, labyrinthine streets are a delight to explore. I like to start at the main gate and follow Villegaignon Street up past the cathedral to Bastion Square before zig-zagging my way back. Bastion Square offers panoramic views over the island. Daytime is the only time to see the sights of Mdina, but I like to return in the evening when the tour groups have gone and the sun is setting, to wander the atmospheric alleys in peace before settling down to a good dinner in one of Mdina’s excellent restaurants.
Contact: Mdina tourist office 00356 21454480
Mdina Cathedral and Museum
The diocese of Malta has two cathedrals. Mdina cathedral was the only one until in 1816 the Pope made St John’s in Valletta another (hence St John’s Co-cathedral). St John’s was the church of the Knights of St John (the Knights of Malta); Mdina’s St Paul’s was the island’s own cathedral. It is the most impressive church interior after St John’s, and you can usually see more of the colourful inlaid marble floor tombs here than in Valletta where they are often protected by covers. The Baroque building we see today was completed in 1702, incorporating small parts of the earlier church destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. The Cathedral Museum has an impressive collection of church silver, illuminated religious tracts, grand masters’ swords and 50 woodcuts and copperplates by Albrecht Dürer. Tickets must be purchased in the museum before entering the cathedral through the side door.
Contact: 00356 21454697; mdinacathedral.com
Admission: combined ticket to the cathedral and museum: €5
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Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
This must-see sight is quite extraordinary. It is a burial complex cut into solid rock by the same people who built Malta’s unique prehistoric temples between 3600BC and 2500BC. Like the temples, the Hypogeum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For conservation reasons only ten people per hour can visit, so book as far in advance as possible. Visits start with a short film before you descend into the underworld in an accompanied group with a very good audio guide. The complex consists of three layers (the deeper the more recent) each with multiple rooms. It is estimated that it once held some 7,000 bodies, deposited down here over a period of nearly 1000 years. The most impressive room, the 'Holy of Holies’, is a carved copy of the above-ground temples cut into the rock. Being underground, it has been far better preserved than the actual temples. I never tire of this remarkable place. If you have failed to book before arriving in Malta, tickets for two tours per day (noon and 4pm) are sold at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta the day before. Also note that while older children are likely to find this place enthralling, kids under six are not admitted.
Contact: 00356 21805019; heritagemalta.org
Admission: €30; no children under 6
Mnajdra and Hagar Qim
Malta’s prehistoric temples are amongst the very oldest stone buildings in the world and all are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Built between 3600BC and 2500BC, they are much older than Stonehenge and significantly more sophisticated. They have multiple rooms, flooring, roofs, monumental doorways, stone furniture and statuary. Mnajdra and Hagar Qim are my favourite temple sites and in my view the best temples to visit first. The two temple complexes here sit 500m apart in attractive landscape closer to that in which they would have been built than any of the other temples on Malta. At Mnajdra, there are three temples next to each other and the largest is quite typical in construction and layout. Hagar Qim (closer to the entrance) is interesting precisely because it is atypical. There is a useful introductory exhibition in the visitor centre and an audio guide to both sites.
Contact: 00356 21424231; heritagemalta.org/index.php/museums-sites
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Malta has some of the best diving in the Mediterranean, and 50,000 people a year come to this country to dive. There are dive centres all over the island offering everything from beginners’ courses to equipment hire for experienced divers. Diving in Malta is less about vast numbers of colourful fish (though there is plenty of sea life) and more about extraordinary underwater landscapes and wrecks (some deliberately scuttled for the purpose). There is a good choice of dives both from the shore and reachable by short boat trips. Day trips to Comino and Gozo with yet more dive sites are also easy to organise. The dive centre whose details are listed here, Dive Deep Blue, is an example of a well-established dive centre approved by BSAC, PADI and TDI. Run by British diving instructor Jonathan and his Maltese wife Catherine, it has been going for 16 years, has plenty of facilities and offers courses from beginner to advanced/specialist, as well as guided diving. Always check your chosen centre is licensed: if it is, it will be listed at visitmalta.com . Malta dive schools accredited to the BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) are listed at bsac.com .
Contact: 00356 21583946; mob: 00356 99868957; divedeepblue.com
Admission: with Dive Deep Blue, six dives over three days costs €168, including transport and gas, excluding equipment
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