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Isle of Knights

Neil Clark

Malta is a wonderful place. With its crystal-clear waters, its wealth of museums, churches and other sites of historic interest, an average daytime temperature of 68infinityF in November and the English Sunday newspapers available on the morning of publication, it is the ideal shorthaul destination for those planning a preChristmas winter break. But a word of warning. Don't expect to fall in love at first sight.

Our first impression of Malta, as we drove through the night from the airport, was that we had booked a holiday on one large building site with a landscape what little of it there was as barren as the moon. We had read that the island, with a population of 398,000 packed into 95 square miles, was the fourth most densely populated country in the world. Surely there was some end to the urban sprawl?

'Malta is a sod of a place, ' wrote David Niven what if he was right?

Next morning, we thankfully awoke to a far more enticing picture. The wide mouth of Mellieha Bay, where Napoleon's invasion force had landed over 200 years earlier and, if some academics are to be believed, St Paul 1,800 years before that stretched out before us, every bit as attractive as the hotel's website and our holiday guide had claimed. Our holiday could begin.

After a day spent swimming, lounging on sunbeds and playing 'Spot who's reading The Da Vinci Code', we felt refreshed enough to venture out from our hotel and catch a bus to Valletta. Founded a mere 400 years ago, Valletta is one of the newest capitals in Europe. A small-scale composite of Venice, Havana, and Damascus with a dash of Chester circa 1968 it's also one of the most charming. Although there are McDonald's and Burger Kings, the city is largely unsullied by global chains, and its backstreets, with their neighbourhood cafis, family bakeries and other small shops, are, in spite of their steepness, a delight to wander through.

Valletta owes its existence to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. This mediaeval chivalric order first came to Malta in 1530 as invitees of Charles V of Spain and, in return for the annual payment of a peregrine falcon to the Spanish monarch on All Saints Day, managed to stay in charge for the next 260 years. The Knights were, according to Gibbon, men 'who neglected to live, but were prepared to die in the service of Christ'. But whatever you think of their morals, there is no doubting the magnificence of their greatest architectural legacy Valletta's stunning 16thcentury St John's Co-Cathedral.

From the 364 marble tombstones which cover the floor to Mattia Preti's intricately carved stone walls, to the splendour of the side chapels, there is, as Evelyn Waugh recorded, 'no single spot where the eye can rest for one moment which is not ablaze with decoration'. The church and its museum are home to some of Europe's finest art treasures, including a remarkable set of three cycles of Gobelin tapestries, all modelled on paintings by Rubens. Then there's Preti's vaulted ceiling depicting the life of St John, and Caravaggio's masterpiece 'The Beheading of John the Baptist', aptly described by critics as the picture of the 17th century.

If St John's Co-Cathedral was all Valletta had to offer, it would be enough.

But there's much more. The story of Malta's remarkable contribution to the Allied cause in the second world war is told in the National War Museum, part of the Fort St Elmo complex which overlooks the impressive Grand Harbour.

Malta endured 157 consecutive days of bombing in 1942 (compared with 57 for London in the Blitz and 78 for Yugoslavia in 1999) and the incredible stoicism shown by the near-starving population remains one of the most stirring episodes of 20thcentury history. The original George Cross, awarded to the island by King George VI 'to bear witness to a heroism and a devotion that will long be famous in history', is the museum's most famous exhibit.

We were based in the far north of the island, so for our next excursion we decided to take a bus to the nearby ferry terminal of Cirkewwa and from there a boat to Malta's sister island of Gozo. Although only 26 square miles in size, the island, like Malta itself, manages to squeeze a lot into a small space: dramatic cliffs, prehistoric temples, picturesque village squares and, in its Lilliputian capital Victoria, one of the beststocked tobacconists you'll ever come across. We spent a pleasurable time ambling up to the top of Victoria's Citadel, from where there are terrific views of the whole island. There are five museums in the Citadel, the most fascinating of which is the Natural Science Museum, which chronicles the only dark side of Maltese culture:

the locals' predilection for slaughtering migratory birds. Once peregrines nested in the cliffs round Gozo; now, if you want to see a Maltese falcon, you have to make do with the splendid specimen in the museum, or rent a copy of the John Huston movie in the local video store.

Our days in Valletta and Gozo were great but the highlight of our holiday was yet to come. On arriving back at our hotel, we were asked by our travel representative if we would be interested in going on an excursion to see a traditional village festa.

We said yes and prepared ourselves for a evening of laid-on-for-the-tourists kitsch.

But once again Malta delivered far more than we expected. Picture an illuminated baroque church in a mediaeval town square;

fairy lights adorning every lamppost and balcony, and multicoloured flags flying from the rooftops; thronging streets of locals, young and old, all dressed up in their Sunday best; a procession led by the local clergy carrying a statue of John the Baptist followed by an enthusiastic brass band, and an atmosphere with the combined bonhomie of VE Night and New Year's Eve but without the inebriation and you're almost there. The sense of goodwill was overwhelming, but we also felt sad that back home, thanks to the inroads of atheistic consumerism, such joyful demonstrations of religiosity are distant memories.

All too quickly our week on Malta was over. Although we had seen plenty in addition to Valletta and Gozo we also spent an idyllic day bathing in Comino's spectacular Blue Lagoon there was still more we missed: the Grand Master's Palace, the prehistoric Tarxien Temples, the walled city of Mdina. But we'll be back. David Niven may have been a wonderful actor, but never look to him for travel advice.

The Spectator September 24, 2005

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