Story and Photos by Cheryl Levitan

T

here are more than 200 islands in the Mediterranean, but 90 percent of tourists stay on just 10 percent of them.
File Malta into that “lesser-visited” group. Situated close to Sicily and east of Tunisia, this country is an archipelago composed of one major and two minor islands. Together, they form one of Europe’s smallest countries with a population of 500,000 in a land mass equal to the state of New Mexico. Despite its diminutive size, it’s a powerhouse of a destination, one more compelling than well-known travel spots far larger. At the crossroads of all the Mediterranean cultures, it has some of the most varied archeologic and historic sites in Europe with a density greater than anywhere else in the world.

A destination is much more than just sites, though, otherwise journeys could take place virtually from your couch. It’s experiencing the culture and life of the people that makes a place come alive. Checking out the local shops and cafes; seeing what the people make, sell and eat — that’s the way to fuel yourself for long days of touring. What makes Malta an exceptional destination is its fascinating and complex past, one represented in the places to be seen but also in its way of life. To understand this country, an abridged version of World History 101 is necessary to make sense of what seems like a jumble of architecture, flavors and language.

Evidence of the first people on Malta comes from the late Stone Age period in excavated caves near Marsaxlokk. More impressive are the megalithic complexes built slightly later, most just a few miles from Malta’s capital of Valletta. Among the oldest surviving buildings on Earth, 30 have been found and six are open to the public. Most predate the Pyramids and are also more spectacular than Stonehenge.

The Ancient Era (3000 B.C. to 400 A.D.) saw early settlements that left “cart-ruts.” These mysterious long parallel channels cut into the surface of the rock (often in completely straight lines) have a purpose that is still unknown. A sequential revolving door of empires ruled after that: Phoenicians followed by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and finally the Byzantines in 395 A.D. (when the Romans split their empire into western and eastern branches. All had the same motivation — to dominate Mediterranean exploration and trade.

The Middle Ages found Malta in relative obscurity until the Arabs’ arrival in 870 A.D. Ruling for just 200 years, they continued to have an influential presence afterward. By 1100 A.D., the Normans had arrived and brought Catholicism with them. Arab Muslims and Christian Catholics coexisted as Malta became little more than an extension of Sicily. By the 1400s, Sicilian dominance brought Malta under the rule of the Spanish Empire. As the rival Ottoman Empire grew, Christian control of Europe was threatened. To protect Rome from Turkish incursion from the south, the Spanish king handed control of Malta over to the Order of St. John Knights Hospitaller in 1530. Knights were men from noble European families (often second-born sons without an inheritance) who served a lord in order to obtain land holdings. The St. John Knights were much more. A Catholic military order, their mission was to provide care to those in need. When they came to Malta, they not only brought military and medical skills, but a good deal of wealth acquired during the Crusades.

For the next 275 years, the knights (led by a grand master) built Europe’s first planned city, now Valletta. They introduced a national monetary system and built fortifications throughout the country as well as palaces, hospitals, churches and gardens. Finally, they brought the arts to the country, successfully held back an invasion from the Ottomans and changed the country’s official language to Italian.

Their reign came to an abrupt end in 1798 during the Renaissance when Napoleon’s forces took control over the knights (who were waning both in numbers and popularity). In short order, French replaced Italian as the official language, new municipalities were formed, courts were established and a public education system was begun. The honeymoon didn’t last long, however, since the French also began closing convents and seizing church treasures. After failed attempts by the citizenry to take back Valletta, the British were asked for their assistance. After a successful blockade led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, the country voluntarily became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1800. Never expecting to stay long-term, the British soon found this country’s harbors a great asset and developed Malta into a military fortress and headquarters for the British Mediterranean fleet. By the late 1950s, the decrease in strategic importance of Malta’s harbors led Britain to declare independence for this country in 1964.

With this historical context, the country’s architecture makes sense; many ruling cultures left their mark. Valletta’s walkability and unique medieval character (along with many of Malta’s buildings and art) are thanks to the planning and building of the Knights of St. John. The country’s two official languages — English (from British rule) and Maltese (derived from Arabic but deeply influenced by European Romance languages) — are vestiges of the revolving door of governance. The preponderance of coastal fortification makes sense in a country used as a strategic outpost for most of its history. And despite its proximity to Tunisia and past Arab rule, Malta’s written language has always been in Latin script (read left to right), not Arabic script (read right to left). This readability of everything from menus to signs is due to the Spanish Empire’s dominance over the Arabs in the Middle Ages and the knights’ perseverance over the Ottomans centuries later. Meanwhile, the British are to “thank” when an attempt to cross the street generates a horn blast since visitors invariably look the “wrong” way before stepping off the curb. British rule left this country driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Maltese cuisine is a history lesson as well … just one on a plate. Successive waves of cultures each left a bit of their traditions, spices and flavors behind. The confines of an island allowed these vestiges of prior cultures to simmer together like a gustatory incubator. The result is an eclectic mix of food that focuses on the sea and locally produced products. Fish is a staple, and a trip to the Marsaxlokk Harbor’s fish market (just outside Valletta, near the prehistoric caves) attests to the seasonality and variety of the catch. It’s also the spot to see colorful boats with painted eyes (known as Maltese Luzzi), which hark back to the age of Phoenician rule. Those eyes are a talisman for good health and protection at sea.

What’s on the menu:

  • Cooked rabbit is an inexpensive, abundant source of lean protein for much of the world. Stiffly regulated by the Knights of St. John (who reserved hunting for themselves), public access to rabbit ceased to exist. Within decades of British rule, however, fresh game found its way back to the table. The British love for hunting firmly took hold and is now a part of Maltese rural life. Cooked with vegetables in a stew (Fenek Stuffat) or with wine and onions (coniglio alla maltese), rabbit is Malta’s national dish.
  • Lampuki is the Maltese name for the fish called dorado or mahi-mahi elsewhere. Migrating past the island during late summer through December, it’s most often cooked surrounded by crust. Savory pies are a British staple, but lampuki sports Arabic flavors (mint, lemon peel and raisins) as well as an Italian twist (tomatoes, olives and capers). Although we associate tomatoes with Italy, Malta was actually the first country in Europe to eat them. The wealth of the knights allowed for imports from the New World, where they were indigenous.
  • Bigilla dip consists of dried beans cooked and mashed with anchovies, garlic and hot pepper and is a popular appetizer with galletti (water crackers).
  • Kunserva is a sweet tomato paste used in many dishes and spread on crusty bread topped with capers, tuna, anchovies and olives, and then drizzled with olive oil like a cheese-less pizza.
  • Pastizzi are small savory puff pastries filled with ricotta and/or curried pea mash. Inexpensive, they are found on every corner and eaten any time of the day.
  • Ftira is a round flatbread with a hole in the middle. Served in curved sections like a sandwich (hobz biz-zejt), it’s often filled with tuna, tomato paste, olives and capers or as a crust for pizza (often one with unexpected toppings).
  • Imqaret are sweet fig cakes. Inexpensive and widely available, they’re often served with ice cream and a drop of anise liqueur.
  • Gbejniet is a small, round cheese processed plain or with garlic, pepper or sun-dried tomatoes and found only in Malta.
  • Maltese Platter is a sampler plate most commonly with sun-dried tomatoes, gbejniet and Maltese sausage.
  • Cisk is a local beer. Once only found in Malta, it’s slowly becoming available in other countries.
  • Kinnie is a soft drink only found in Malta. Made from bitter oranges, it’s an acquired taste … one that I didn’t acquire!

With a wonderful climate, old character homes with colorful enclosed balconies, beautiful Baroque palaces, lovely gardens and a church on every corner, Malta’s coast is never farther than 20 minutes. With so much to see, walking off those calories is a breeze!