May 2, 2016 – Tiny Malta is one of the world’s smallest countries, a little island in the Mediterranean Sea tucked away between the southern tip of Italy and the coast of northern Africa.
Before our stop there today, I knew virtually nothing about it except the Maltese spoke English and the country was part of the European Union.
It’s a charmingly beautiful place, as we discovered, with main city Valletta holding the distinction of being the smallest capital city in all of Europe, its population hovering at only about 8,000 people.
The now independent republic, which joined the European Union in 2004, has a colourful and checkered past littered with battles, wars, conquerors, and occupiers. The Phoenicians came first several thousand years ago, but the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French and British have all had their turn ruling the country.
The Knights of St John, also known as the Order of St John or Order of Malta, dominate the more recent history and infrastructure of the country, constructing forts, bastions, watch towers, aqueducts, palaces, churches and cathedrals during their 250-year rule that started in the 16th century.
Their emblem of the Knights Cross – also known as the Maltese Cross – is an eight-pointed cross that is widely seen on buildings across the island, and is also on the country’s flag.
The British were the last foreign rulers to leave when Malta gained its independence in 1964, but have left their mark with left-side driving and English as one of the two official languages and main language of the country’s educational system.
According to our guide Laura, both taxes and unemployment are low, and tourism is one of the main pillars of the economy. Security problems northern African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have caused cruise ships like ours to adjust their itineraries and many have now added Valletta as a port of call.
A key challenge for the Maltese is the availability of water, or rather, lack thereof. This is a theme we heard a couple of days ago in Mallorca too, but the Maltese have chosen a different route than the Spanish. Instead of bringing in drinking water from the main land, Malta has established several desalination plants that turn the Mediterranean into a secure source of much-needed water.
There is very little natural rain fall, and until 20 years ago when the first desalination plan was installed, there were next to no gardens on Malta, whether public or private. Today, there are three officially established in Valletta in an effort to “beautify” the city, as well as growing numbers of flowerbeds in squares, along road sides and in other public places, where plants are kept alive with pre-installed irrigation systems.
After a short tour of Valletta’s narrow streets that included the famous St. John’s Co-Cathedral, an elaborately decorated gem of Baroque architecture and home to the world’s largest Caravaggio painting Beheading of St John the Baptist¸ we also visited Mdina.
A short drive from the capital, Mdina is an ancient fortified city that served as the Maltese capital from antiquity until the Knights of St John built the new capital city at Valletta in the 1500s. Today, it is one of the finest examples of a walled city in all of Europe – and welcomes thousands of tourists to its impressive palaces, cobblestone streets, and small artisanal shops selling locally made glass, jewellery and pottery every year.
There’s much more to explore here than could be covered by a half day shore excursion – a bit off the beaten tourist path but definitely worth a visit!