The year is AD 60 and St. Paul, a prisoner on his way to Rome to appeal his case, is onboard a ship encountering a violent storm. For several weeks, the little ship is tossed and blown off course, eventually running aground within sight of an island. Hanging on to whatever floating debris they can find, all 276 passengers and crew abandon ship and miraculously make their way unscathed toward land. The island is Malta.
St. Paul will stay on Malta for three months during which time he heals the father of the governor of the island, among others. Christianity has come to the island of Malta. According to tradition, the Roman governor, Publius, became their first bishop, following his conversion.
A little less than 2,000 years later, our Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul lands quietly and safely on the runway of Malta International Airport. Unlike St. Paul, we faced no storms, no cruel winds battered our wings. All passengers and crew happily make their way to collect luggage and disperse throughout the island. We had come to visit and learn about this country that is small in size yet rich in history, culture and faith.
A little smaller than the city of Philadelphia, PA, yet larger than Tampa, FL, Malta is an independent country, an archipelago south of Sicily with three major inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino.
The Maltese are Roman Catholics; over 90 per cent of the population profess the faith. As a result, whenever you visit Malta, there is bound to be a patronal feast going on somewhere in the country. In fact, there are about 365 churches on the Maltese islands, one for every day of the year. We were able to visit a variety of churches during our stay, some small and simple, others quite spectacular, each with its own particular beauty and history. Although many of the churches contain beautiful and historically significant religious artifacts, they are not museums, but living, active centres of worship. The Maltese are a devout people whose deep, abiding faith is lived out in their day-to-day lives.
Visiting Malta is like seeing the history of civilization up close, in an area where anywhere is only 20 minutes from anywhere else. People have lived on the island for more than 7,000 years. You can leave your ultramodern five-star hotel (and there are dozens in Malta), and in less than half an hour, you can travel back in time at one of many of Malta’s impeccable archaeological sites. The Megalithic Temples of Malta are among the most ancient religious structures in the world — older than Stonehenge, yet more intact. Recognized in 1992 as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, these amazing structures are a must for any visitor. We visited Hagar Qim and Mnjadra temples, but if you have time, there are others just as spectacular.
Jumping millennia, new people came to Malta — Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans. It is during the Roman occupation of Malta that St. Paul visited the island. In the town of Rabat, you will find St. Paul’s Church and Grotto. Built in the 16th century to honour St. Paul, the building sits atop a rock-hewn grotto dedicated to St. Paul as well. We were also able to visit the adjacent Catacombs from the Roman times where we discovered tombs of Christians, pagans, and Jews side by side. St. Agatha, the martyr, is said to have hidden here during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Decius in AD 249. During the Second World War, the Catacombs were expanded to provide bomb shelters for the island’s inhabitants.
Next to Rabat is the walled medieval town of Mdina. Located near the centre of the island and on a natural ridge, Mdina was once the capital of Malta. Nicknamed “the Silent City,” no cars or trucks are allowed in Mdina during the day, and in the evening, only the few cars belonging to the town’s 400 inhabitants are allowed. For the tourist, this is a blessing, and it makes walking around the narrow medieval cobblestone streets a joy. This is fortunate, for there is much to see and do in Mdina: excellent restaurants, several museums, churches, shops — the works. Mdina Cathedral offers an impressive interior and perhaps a place to rest, reflect and pray during your busy visit. Like most churches in Malta, mass is said daily here.
Malta’s bustling capital is Valetta. Of Valletta, UNESCO’s World Heritage website says, “The capital of Malta is inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of St John of Jerusalem. It was ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St John. Valletta’s 320 monuments, all within an area of 55 ha (136 acres), make it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.” To learn more about the Knights of St. John, we toured the Grand Master’s Palace.
Perhaps the high point for some of us, however, was our visit to St. John’s Co-Cathedral and chance to view up close two great original works by Carravaggio: The Beheading of St. John (his largest painting and only signed work), and St. Jerome. In addition, the Cathedral Museum houses an amazing set of 29 Flemish tapestries (1697-1700), the largest such complete set in the world. But the cathedral itself is a magnificent work of art, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the order.
Visiting the sites certainly proved to be enjoyable and rewarding, but we also found that Valletta began to really sink in for us as we wandered the streets, taking in the sights and sounds and smells of this amazing place that has for the most part been undisturbed during the past 200 years, with some of its buildings dating back 500 years. Although Maltese is the first language, Malta had been under control of the British until 1974 when it achieved independence, so you will hear English spoken everywhere as well. Because of its central location in the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has always been a trading port, so most Maltese speak other languages as well, such as Italian. Another way we got to know Valletta was by taking a short cruise of the Grand Harbour. From our small boat no larger than a gondola, we could get a better glimpse of bustling harbour life and the massive city walls.
A meal at one of the harbour’s many restaurants is a must. In fact, we found all of Malta’s restaurants to be excellent, from the simplest places to some of the tonier, well-known establishments. Maltese cuisine, reflects the country’s geographic location and its history. You will find influences from Italy, France and Spain, as well as North Africa and the Middle East.
Frequent visitors to Gozo, the north island, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were vacationing there during our visit. We thought we should check out the north island to find out why they love it so. This gave us the opportunity to drive through some of the more rural parts of Malta before taking the ferry to Gozo. British influence still exists to some extent because one drives on the left throughout the country. On the way to the ferry, we passed the set of Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye, which has been turned into a theme park. In fact, a number of films have been shot in Malta, from epics like Alexander and Troy to The Da Vinci Code. Filmmakers like the fact that they don’t have to worry about rain for most of the year. International Living calls Malta’s climate the best in the world.
People on Gozo will tell you that here you will find the true Maltese. Gozo is the more rural, laid back island of Malta. Its beaches are spectacular. Scuba divers and snorkelers come from around the world to view the fish and rock formations. Like the larger island to the south, Gozo also has its share of beautiful churches, medieval fortresses, lovely towns and excellent hotels in all price ranges. No wonder Odysseus is said to have stayed here for seven years, according to Homer’s Odyssey.
Like the inhabitants of the southern island, the people of Gozo are people of great faith. In many towns, there are no house numbers. Instead, the people name their homes, displayed on ceramic plaques. Many of the names are of a religious nature: Ave Maria, John 3:16, and Praise God, to name a few. Some very important churches are to be found on Gozo, perhaps the most significant being the Shrine of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu. Although the ancient origins of the site have been lost in time, more recent history tells of the miracles associated with this pilgrimage site. In May of 1990, Pope John Paul II came and prayed here and celebrated mass in the forecourt. Twenty years later, Pope Benedict XVI visited Malta and said, “I am aware of the particular devotion of the Maltese people to the Mother of God, expressed with great fervour to our Lady of Ta’ Pinu and so I am pleased to have the opportunity to pray before her image. . . .”
Visiting a country where the people live out their Catholic faith each day strengthens one’s own belief. We are grateful for all we were able to see and do on this first visit to Malta, this blessed country.
Mancino is president of Regina Tours (http://www.regina-tours.com/).