Is Malta the stuff dream vacations are made of?

Valletta, the capital of Malta, in early morning. Valletta has been designated as Europe's "city of culture" for 2018. Many of its buildings are nearly 500 years old.
Valletta, the capital of Malta, in early morning. Valletta has been designated as Europe's "city of culture" for 2018. Many of its buildings are nearly 500 years old. Getty Images/iStockphoto

MALTA — When Valletta, capital of this sun-kissed island smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, assumes the mantle of Europe's "city of culture" in 2018, it will be the culmination of more than 7,000 years of island history — much of it tempestuous and tumultuous.

Malta's moment on the world stage has been a long time coming, but the tiny nation (at 122 square miles, it covers about half the area of Lexington, and it sometimes isn't even identified on maps) is gearing up to celebrate in giant fashion.

As someone who watches Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon every time TCM airs it, I have always wanted to visit Malta. I longed to uncover the secret of the fabulous golden bird, a treasure so rich that it drove men (and in the case of the movie, women) to mayhem and murder.

When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it, and I discovered that fictional fabled falcon aside, Malta is quite a place.

The Maltese archipelago, consisting of three main islands — Malta, Gozo and Comino — has a rich culture shaped by a variety of nations unable to keep their hands off such a strategic prize.

First settled by the ancient Phoenicians, it was conquered in succession by Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards. One conquering nation had barely planted its flag before the next conqueror hauled it down. It must have made for some turbulent times, but what resulted was a fascinating mix of cultures still visible today.

The Middle Ages ushered in a period of stability when the fabulously rich Knights of St. John of Jerusalem acquired Malta from Charles V of Spain and ruled for 268 years before falling to Napoleon in 1798. He didn't keep it long; the British took possession two years later and retained control of the islands until they were granted independence in 1964.

Today, Malta remains a member of the Commonwealth; driving is on the left side of the road, and English is one of the two official languages (the other, Maltese, is derived from Arabic and is spoken nowhere else).

A rich mosaic of cultures

The islands are a mosaic woven from the colorful threads of antiquity, history, scenery and legend. In terms of antiquity, the Ggantija temples on Gozo are thought to be the world's oldest. Built 5,800 years ago, they predate Egypt's Great Pyramids and England's Stonehenge.

Male visitors might be forgiven for feeling a bit cowed here. According to legend, the temple was built in a single day by a female giant (the name Ggantija means "giant's grotto"). The giant must have been quite the multi-tasker, as she was allegedly nursing a baby at the same time she erected the temples.

To continue the female motif, Ggantija is dedicated to the great Earth Mother and boasts numerous statues of full-figured goddesses.

As for history, St. Paul was shipwrecked here in 60 A.D. on his way to trial in Rome, and during the time he spent on the island, he Christianized many of the inhabitants.

Scenery doesn't come any better than the Azure Window, a natural arch on Gozo, and the Blue Grotto on Malta, less famous than the one on Italy's Isle of Capri but equally beautiful.

Finally, if you want legend, it was supposedly on Gozo that the wandering Odysseus was held captive by Calypso for seven years, or at least that's the story he told Penelope, his long-suffering wife, when he got back to Greece.

A legacy of the knights

Nothing, however, has shaped the character of Malta as much as the tenure of the Knights of St. John. Originally charged with administering to Christian pilgrims wounded in the Crusades, hence their other name, Knights Hospitaller, they arrived in Malta in 1530.

Later, becoming Holy Warriors themselves, they quelled the Turks for good in 1565 and turned their attention away from war and toward the fruits of peace. Coming from the richest families in Europe, they could afford to employ the best artisans and architects to fashion their new capital.

Valletta's palaces, cathedrals and museums led 19th-century novelist Sir Walter Scott to describe it as a "city built by gentlemen for gentlemen." Still, Valletta's fortified walls and labyrinth of underground tunnels were a reminder that not all who came calling were gentlemen. A less-than-gentlemanly Napoleon Bonaparte dubbed it "the most fortified city in the world."

Today, those fortifications, along with a bevy of Baroque buildings, remain intact, and the entire town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors will find much to occupy their time — the Upper Barrakka Gardens, with a panoramic view of the Grand Harbor; the Fort of St. Elmo; and the auberges, or palaces, that once housed the Knights — but the city's main jewel is the spectacular St. John's Co-Cathedral.

Dominating St. John's Square, the cathedral's austere exterior belies its sumptuous interior, where marble tombs and statuary, frescoes and treasure-filled chapels attest to the wealth of the order. In the adjoining oratory, visitors stop in their tracks upon first seeing the wall-sized painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by the Italian artist Caravaggio, who was himself briefly a Knight of St. John. Caravaggio was sheltered by the Knights after fleeing Rome for killing a man over a disputed score in a game of court tennis.

Valletta is not a city to be rushed through. Some modern touches are being added to its Baroque architecture in preparation for 2018, such as the new Parliament building designed by Renzo Piano, but it remains a city of ancient treasures. They demand careful inspection and introspection, the latter perhaps best achieved over a cup of thick black coffee at one of the numerous alfresco cafés.

The silent city of Mdina

In sharp contrast to Valletta's Baroque style is Arab-influenced Mdina (pronounced M-deena), Malta's original capital. The sun-baked buildings, narrow alleyways and small squares remind visitors just how close they are to North Africa. Known as the "silent city," Mdina's history is almost as old and checkered as that of the island itself, dating back more than 4,000 years.

Mdina is also a city best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Start at the impressive Main Gate and let your feet and your imagination take flight. Follow a back alley that the Roman orator Cicero and poet Livy surely trod. See why the Maltese nobility considered the city a refuge, and find out why as Valletta flourished, Mdina declined.

Don't worry about getting lost in the maze of alleys. Eventually you'll find your way back to Archbishop's Square and its imposing palace. To better understand why it's known as the "silent city," take an evening stroll. When the lanterns are lit and the streets are eerily quiet, the sheer romance of it will envelop you.

The Arab influence can also be seen on Gozo. Here, on the island's highest hill, they built the Citadel in 870 A.D. to protect the populace from constant raids by pirates. Stroll the steep, cobbled streets; walk along the fortified wall, and by all means, stop for lunch at one of the cafés to sample fresh bread and goat cheese, olives and local wine.

Despite its fabled past, Malta isn't just a history lesson. It's a boat ride to the Blue Grotto and a stop at the Blue (Azure) Window, near the Inland Sea, where it's said that if one looks through it, he's promised seven years of good luck.

It's a visit to the colorful fishing village of Marsaxlokk, where the boats are painted with an eye symbol to guard against evil spirits. It's a freshly caught seafood lunch at a café overlooking Xlendi Bay. It's an evening at one of the village festas that celebrate religious holidays.

And who knows? It might even be a chance to stumble upon that elusive falcon.