In the last year, during the COVID 19 pandemic, I played it safe and only left Chicago (for Palm Springs) once. Otherwise, I spent a great deal of time dreaming about my next culturally significant, historically rich travel destination. Having been to Paris, Venice, Florence, Berlin, Rome, Nice/Monte Carlo – even Lagos multiple times, I wanted something more exotic. Istanbul? Been there. South Africa? Done that. What came to mind? Malta. Why? Known for it’s historic sites related to a succession of rulers including Romans, Moors, Knights of Saint John, French and British it has numerous fortresses, ancient temples older than the pyramids, and a subterranean complex of halls and burial chambers dating to circa 4000 B.C. Add to the mix the surrounding Mediterranean (it is approximately 98 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily) blue skies and an average summer temperature of 88° – it is truly a romantic’s paradise.
Last September I began researching exactly where I wanted to go and how many days would be needed to see a lot of this magical country. I contacted a variety of hotels wanting one with great style and even investigated the best way to get there from Chicago. Being a dispositional optimist, in December, 2020, I scheduled arrangements with a private tour guide and booked a hotel room starting the middle of May, 2021.
May is almost here, but for a variety of reasons I was forced to cancel my plans for this dream holiday. As of April 22, 2021 the U.S. Embassy in Malta released the following statement: DO NOT TRAVEL TO MALTA DUE TO COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice due to a very high level of COVID 19 in Malta. The country currently bans all U.S. citizens from entering due to the virus. So even though it may be a while before I make it there, I thought I would share with you my preliminary itinerary and some of the highlights of this destination that spoke to me (in English).
Day 1. Depart Chicago for Malta via Turkish Air.
There are no direct flights from Chicago to Malta however, Turkish Airlines makes one stop in Istanbul with a short layover. Of course, depending upon who your favorite airline is you can go American, Delta or United but they each make two stops with longer layovers and require the combination of assorted travel partners.
Day 2. Arrive. Check into Hotel Cugó Gran Macina Grand Harbour.
The hotel offers suites ranging from 860 to 1,400 square feet. All rooms are luxuriously furnished and evoke the industrial past of the old harbor building. The finest natural materials and carefully selected design elements provide a modern yet sophisticated interior. The interplay of past and present with design and comfort guarantee a first-class experience.
Day 3. Relax.
Day 4. Rabat and Mdina.
Rabat. This is a place where you can take in the views from the highest point on the island. It is worth visiting just to walk the streets enjoying the buildings, different balconies, stone work, and other uniquities. It all comes with a refreshing Mediterranean breeze.
St Paul’s Catacombs are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Melite (today’s Mdina) because Roman law prohibited burials within the city. Serving as a burial ground from Punic and Roman times, the site represents the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta. I love catacombs. They’re spooky and intriguing. This interconnected underground Roman cemetery covers an area of 21,500 square feet and was used up to the 7th, possibly 8th centuries AD. The main entrance to the complex of St Paul’s Catacombs leads to two large halls with pillars resembling Doric columns.
The complex was abandoned during the Saracenic period (1048 – 1224), when burial customs changed dramatically to suit the practices of the Islamic conquerors. Part of the catacombs were reutilized during the re-Christianization of the Island, around the 13th century, when an open space was re-cut and used as a Christian shrine decorated with murals. Eventually, the catacombs were abandoned and the site fell in disrepair. The site was discovered in 1894 by Dr A. Caruana who was the pioneer of Christian era archaeology in Malta.
The Domus Romana, is a ruined Roman-era house located between Mdina and Rabat. It was built in the 1st century BC as an aristocratic town house within the Roman city of Melite. Gotta love those aristocrats! A Muslim cemetery was established on the remains in the 11th century. Discovered in 1881, archaeological excavations revealed several well-preserved Roman mosaics, statues and other artifacts, as well as tombstones and other remains from the cemetery.
The ancient capitol of Malta, Mdina sits on a scenic hill in the center of the island. It is one of the finest examples of an ancient walled city and an extraordinary mix of medieval and baroque architecture. More than 4,000 years old it was home then and still today to Malta’s noble families. Impressive palaces line its narrow, shady streets.
Both residents and tourists of Mdina remain fascinated by its history, its old houses, palaces, churches, and narrow streets where a magical atmosphere is created by lamplight at night. That explains why it is also the setting for many movies and TV series including Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019), Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Captain Phillips (2013), World War Z (2013), By the Sea (2015) and Assassin’s Creed (2016). Do you know which one is the zombie apocalypse movie starring Brad Pitt?
The Cathedral of St. Paul is a Baroque cathedral designed by Lorenzo Gafà. The spacious interior features a dome allowing natural daylight to flood the sanctuary. The opulent decor features marble inlay floors, gilded detailing, pink marble columns, and breathtaking ceiling paintings. What is always such a marvel to me is trying to imagine the amount of artisans and laborers required to construct an environment like this. Whether you are religious or not, you cannot help but be amazed by these elaborate cathedrals that are hundreds of years old.
Palazzo Falson is the second oldest building in Mdina. It was a medieval town house that has been turned into a museum. Built as a family residence by Maltese nobility this spot enables one to travel back in time and discover the island’s history. Visitors can explore this beautiful building and admire the silver, art, armour and book collections. The Museum Café shop, open during museum hours, offers a selection of light snacks, home-made cakes as well as hot and cold beverages.
Day 5. Valletta
Valletta is the UNESCO-listed capital of Malta. Situated on one of Europe’s grandest harbors it is surrounded by some of the mightiest fortifications in the world. The city’s history is tied to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, an 11th-century order that provided shelter for pilgrims in the Holy Land and faught to defend Christianity. In 1530, the Spanish King, Charles V, gave Malta to the Knights.
Thirteen towers were built on mainland Malta having an identical design. Eight of these survive today. Once Valletta became the new military fortress of the Order of Saint John, the knights began to create a capital city equal to Europe’s finest. The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights’ stature as aristocrats from the noblest European families. Valletta is referred to as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen.”
Built on Valletta’s highest point the picturesque Upper Barrakka Gardens encircle part of the city’s old fortifications. The tranquil gardens include beautiful fountains, flower beds, rows of archways, and statues of prominent historical figures including Winston Churchill. There are multiple viewpoints from different outlooks around the garden, offering awe-inspiring panoramas of the Grand Harbor. It’s possible to see across to the towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, and Kalkara.
Our Lady of Victory Church is the first building and the first church of Valletta. Jean Parisot De La Valette, Grand Master of the Order of Knight of Malta, dedicated it to Blessed Virgin after his victory over the Ottoman invader at the lifting of the Graet Siege on the eve of 8 September 1565, annual feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. When he died in 1568, La Valette was buried in the crypt below the church. In 1617, the Order made ‘Our Lady of Victory’ its Parish Church, continuing to endow it with important monuments and paintings.
Saint John’s Co-Cathedral is a perfect example of the wealth and importance of the Knights of Malta, who protected Europe and the Catholic faith from attacks by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. This cathedral, with its opulent, Baroque interior, was built as a symbol of the Knights’ success. The nave features ostentatiously gilded walls and gorgeous ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti, Malta’s most famous painter. The most renowned artwork in the church is The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
The National Museum of Archeology is housed in the historic residence of the knights originating from the Provence region in France. The building dates to 1571 and is another wonderful example of Baroque architecture. I want to know how the knights didn’t go broke being so Baroque.
The museum is known for its amazing collection of artifacts from the Maltese Islands’ megalithic temples. These Neolithic-era archaeological finds include 6,000- to 7,000-year-old pottery, ornaments, altars, limestone statuettes, terra cotta bowls, and cult utensils. One room contains models of the five best-preserved temples. The headless “Fat” statues of the Tarxien Temples are displayed here.
St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church. One of Valletta’s oldest churches is hidden in one of the city’s steep and narrow streets. In Malta’s long history of people who have washed up on its shores, the most famous is St. Paul the Apostle. For that reason, the church attracts many Christian pilgrims for it houses St. Paul’ relics. The church has a rich history and beautiful interiors with many statues, paintings, historical artifacts and art objects.
Day 6. Continue to explore Valetta.
Casa Rocca Piccola is the home built for Don Pietro La Rocca, one of the Knights of Malta. The current owners , the 9th Marquis and Marchioness de Piro, still live here. A guided tour allows visitors to see the palace’s elegant interior, including two dining rooms, a bedroom, salons, and small family chapel.
The Manoel Theater is one of the oldest in Europe. This magnificent little theater was commissioned in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena to meet the local demand for operas, pageants, and theatrical performances. The lavishly decorated auditorium features gilded box seats and plush velvet chairs.
Harbor cruise. The best ways to see the beautiful attractions of the the Grand Harbour is a harbour cruise. In about two hours the boat visits Marsamxetto Harbour and then goes out in the open sea to arrive in the Grand Harbour. Magnificent views that can only be had from a boat will be hard to forget.
Day 7. Shopping. Enjoy the sun, Mediterranean and/or pool. OR…
No vacation is complete without a day of shopping. It is always fun to come home with a trinket or two that end up collecting dust on a bookshelf unless you frame it and hang it on a wall or buy some scarfs to make beautiful pillows out of. Seeing how we do not have space on our walls for one more work of art we will probably visit the Lascaris War Rooms. Underneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens is an underground tunnel complex where visitors can see the original fighter control rooms used during WWII operations against the Germans and Italians.
Day 8. Megalithic Temples of Malta
Ħaġar Qim is a megalithic temple complex found on the Mediterranean island of Malta, dating from 3600 BC – 2500 BC. The Megalithic Temples of Malta are among the most ancient religious sites on Earth, described by the World Heritage Sites committee as “a unique architectural masterpiece.”
Features of temple architecture reveal possible associations with fertility rituals, including corpulent figurines and statuary, together with solar alignments and a megalith which it has been argued is phallic. The presence of an altar with a concave top indicated a possible use for sacrifices. It has also been suggested that screened doorways at the heart of the complex point towards possible use by oracles.
Blue Grotto Boat Tour. The Blue Grotto is a complex of seven caves found along the southern coast of the main island. The place actually got its name in the 1950s, when a British soldier visiting the area compared it to Capri’s famous Grotta Azzura, which basically means ‘Blue Grotto’, because of its amazing clear, bright blue waters.
Birgu, is another fortified city on the south side of the Grand Harbour in the South Eastern Region of Malta. The city occupies a large mass of land that projects over the sea with Fort Saint Angelo at its head and the city of Cospicua at its base. This is where the Knights Hospitallers originally started. I want to go on a walking tour through the Collachio, the exclusive residential area of the Knights, past the Inquisitor’s Palace, on to the main square, St. Lawrence’s Church and finishing at the marina.
The Inquisitor’s Palace is one of the very few surviving buildings of its kind which, in the early modern period, could be found all over Europe and South America. Many of these palaces succumbed to the ravages of time or anti-reactionary power. Throughout its five centuries of history, the Maltese Inquisitor’s Palace, hosted high-ranking officials representing the main powers on the island. The palace also survived the bombings of World War II and the threats of modern development.
Being the only Inquisitor’s Palace which is nowadays accessible to the general public, this architectural gem presents an exclusive experience. Visitors can explore the historic reconstructions of the domestic kitchen area, the sophisticated ambience of the piano nobile (which has little to nothing to do with music), the private quarters, the austere setting of the Holy Office Tribunal, the prison complex and the torture chamber. Remember the Vincent Price movie The Pit and the Pendulum?
St. Lawrence’s Church is one of the largest churches in Malta and the most noticeable one in Birgu.
It is believed to date back to the 11-12th centuries. And it is known for sure the Church of San Lorenzo a Mare was located there in the 15th century, almost 100 years before the Knights Hospitaller arrived to Malta. Upon their arrival, the religious building had been used as the main church of the Order for almost half a century. Church services were held there even during the Great Siege of Malta, when the Order of Saint John fought off the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to capture the island.
The church draws attention by its distinctive Baroque design with the niches, statues, coats of arms, pilasters, commemorative plaques and other picturesque elements, which are quite typical for Maltese architecture of the period. The interior is impressive, featuring pink marble and gilding, wood carvings and outstanding paintings. They include works of the famous Italian and Maltese artists Mattia Preti and Stefano Erardi.
Day 9. Depart for home or stay and feel at home.
There are so many other sites to see. The island of Gozo is the second-largest of the seven-island chain. More rural than the larger island of Malta, Gozo’s population is 31,000. It is home to some of the oldest religious structures in the world including the fascinating Ggantija temples believed to be the second oldest in the world perhaps built by extra terrestials . I love that part! The island offers dramatic orange-red sands and perfect snorkeling waters. Rickety buses traveling Gozo’s primitive roads, can make getting around the island an exciting part of your trip.
As the Dalai Lama said, “Once a year, go someplace you have never been before.” The joy of life comes from our new experiences.