Malta: A Haven of Treasures
Strategically located, Malta enjoys an enviable position ideal as a naval base, proven through centuries past by an array of settlers—from the ancient Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and the Byzantines—and by the global powers of the Spanish, the French, and the British.
Its golden age was primarily attributed to a Roman Catholic unit known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. Approximately 250 years of prosperity and bounty between the 17th and 18th centuries enhanced the lives of the Maltese, subsequently creating pockets of Renaissance and Baroque communities with ornate cathedrals and churches, majestic palaces, and picturesque plazas.
Skipping both the rural island of Gozo—known for agriculture and fishing, tourism and crafts— and the smallest of them all, Camino—which is mostly uninhabited—we visited the island of Malta, with the capital Valleta. Alone, it has over 300 ceremonial memorials and imaginative monuments in a 55-hectare area and rightfully earned its World Heritage Site citation.
My travelling buddies and I took inspiration to retrace the route of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, officially known as the Valletta Commonwealth Walkway, inaugurated by the Monarch of United Kingdom herself during a visit in 2015, marked by bronze plaques bearing her majestic cypher—EIIR.
We assembled by the City Gate, and ambled through Fort Saint Elmo and the Malta Siege Bell Memorial, then took a leisurely paseo at the Upper Barraka Gardens—with its terraced arches built in the mid-17th century—towering trees and bushy shrubs, and rows of blooming flower beds.
Interspersed were several sculptures of prominent leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill and a replica of the statue of Les Gavroches, a masterpiece which represents three street children who roam the streets of Paris, inspired by the Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.
We rested at the highest point of the St. Peter and St. Paul Bastion, hugged by fortified walls and guarded by the now-silent sentry cannons, as we marvelled at the breathtaking view of the sweeping Grand Harbour and the predominantly honey-coloured rooftops below.
The austere, insignificant exterior of the St. John’s Co-Cathedral did not prepare any of us for what we saw once inside—a visual explosion. Our eyes feasted on every detail. No space was left unadorned. We gasped in awe, and our hearts skipped a beat or two.
Standing on the impeccable marble floors—each slab with meticulously crafted inlay designs—we were genuinely mesmerised. Intricately carved patterns on gilded walls, vaulted high ceilings filled with frescoes, and a golden Grand Altar draped in lapis lazuli lay before us.
It was a sight never to be forgotten and, without a doubt, one of the grandest and most opulent places of worship I have ever been to.
And as if all that was not enough, we were gently advised not to miss the Oratory. There you will find two acclaimed masterpieces by the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio): Saint Jerome’s Writings and The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The latter is his only signed work and is considered “one of the most important works in Western painting.” We wondered—was he not pleased with his other obras? It seems we will never know.
While we continued to stare, bewitched and bewildered, a self-proclaimed in-house tour guide appeared telling us that the masterpiece actually marked the beginning of the chiaroscuro style in painting, which is characterised by a circular light that illuminates the entire scenario.
From there we drove to the Megalithic Temple Complex, concentrating on the Hal Tarxien Prehistoric Temples, one of the oldest freestanding structures on the planet and deserving of the UNESCO World Heritage Site proclamation in 1992.
We stood on elevated and reinforced wooden planks under the tents for a better appreciation of its decorative blocks of heavy stones and boulders. Reliefs including slices of daily life, carvings of domesticated animals, cauldrons, and kitchen utensils were on display. A crowd favourite was the stone statue of an oversized woman, horizontally sliced in half, which represented all the blessings of Mother Earth.
Moving right along, we made a brief stop at an artisanal shop showcasing traditional Vallettan glassware managed by a family of artists, before proceeding to lunch. It was a delightful meal of the freshest catch-of-the-day served by a sterling wait staff at a restaurant nestled on top of a cliff, overlooking the fabled Golden Bay with its gorgeous beaches.
Our final destination for the day was Medina (or as some would call it, Mdina), the fortified medieval enclosure and once-upon-a-time capital of Malta, akin to our very own Intramuros.
Dramatically perched on a plateau, this jewel of a town of only 300 permanent residents is often known as the Silent City. Here, no vehicles are allowed, save for some rare exceptions. So walk we did. And walk some more. We admired the facades of aristocratic palaces, sauntered down narrow twisted alleys lined with cafés serving home-baked delicacies, slithered through serpentine lanes filled with souvenir stalls and charming shops, and stopped to pray by chiselled stone arches at a number of churches and chapels. All these wide zigzag paths eventually brought us to the Baroque-style Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Paul.
The day fully maximised—the sun began to set, giving way to the blanket of stars over the towns of Medina and Valletta. With hesitation in our hearts, we headed back to port where our ocean cruise liner, Rhapsody of the Seas, was docked. We would forever safeguard the treasures of Malta in our cherished memories.