The smallest state of the European Union expands across a small archipelago of six islands – the main ones being Malta, Gozo and Comino – a hundred kilometres south of the Sicilian coast, between the western and eastern Mediterranean. A strategic position that over the centuries has attracted Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Byzantines, as well as French and English civilizations. Their passage has left an indelible mark on the language – which from the harsh sounds of Arabic easily switches to the harmony of Latin languages – and on architecture, which houses megalithic temples a millennium older than the pyramids of Giza, baroque chapels, neo-Gothic churches and medieval basilicas.
The starting point of the Smart Way is Valletta, the capital city of Malta, whose name is linked to Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller, who founded the city in 1566. Fortified city whose walls seem to contain it by force, the centre occupies the tip of a peninsula, a long finger extending between il-Port il-Kbir and Marsamxett Harbour.
Just walk along the intertwining streets to admire the three hundred and twenty buildings and monuments recognised as World Heritage Site by UNESCO: among them, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, symbol of the wealth and power of the Knights Hospitaller. In Auberge de Provence (1571), the National Museum of Archaeology re-traces the origins of the island. The ground floor is dedicated to the Neolithic period, with vestiges from the era of the Great Temples, including the famous statuette of the Venus of Malta found in the site of Ħaġar Qim; the first floor is dedicated to the Bronze Age with the Phoenician-Punic, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim periods. In front of Valletta there are three villages whose names are full of history: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, a defensive trio whose walls plunge into the sea, with haughty buildings and steep roads. Abandoned after the war, they were reborn with the redevelopment of the port. Behind the docks, Città Vittoriosa offers extraordinary views of Valletta. At its head, Fort St. Angelo was built by the Arabs on the site of an ancient Phoenician temple in 870. Afterwards, the fort was enlarged with the arrival of the knights between 1530 and 1574 and became the seat of the Grand Master. Located on a narrow promontory overlooking the harbour, Senglea was founded in 1551 by the Grand Master Claude de la Sengle and represented a resting place for the knights. Thanks to the heroic resistance during the Great Siege, the city was given the honorary title of Unconquered City. Inhabited since Neolithic times, the port of Cospicua dates back to the 1722.
From the southern entrance, the city’s fortifications (the Santa Margherita Lines and the Cottonera Lines) give you an idea of the extent of the Maltese defence system of the XVII and XVIII centuries.
For ancient history enthusiasts, a visit to the south-eastern area of the island is fundamental, where main Maltese archaeological sites are located (Tarxien, Ħal Saflieni, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra): megalithic temples testifying to the architectural talent of a mysterious population of builders. Guided tours are organized by Heritage Malta upon reservation. The Tarxien temples are particularly interesting for their carving details ranging from pets carved in relief to altars and screens decorated with spiral designs.
The arid, low and straight coast draws a line of bays carved in the rock to the east; there is no itinerary that follows the coast, the narrow streets bordered by low walls lead to picturesque villages and colourful harbours, such as Marsaxlokk, towards the southern cliffs. In this bay, now denaturalised by the port and tourism infrastructures, the Phoenicians established their emporiums in the VIII century BC. In 1565, the Ottoman fleet settled here, during the Great Siege of Malta. Among the boats in the port, you will find the luzzu: a traditional boat in bright colours, with Horus eye on the bow recalling the Phoenician boats. This area offers beautiful beaches such as the so-called St. Peter’s Pool, east of Marsaxlokk, or the bay of Qala it-Tawwalija. You can walk or swim towards Kalanka tal-Gidien, a beautiful cove with rocks shaped by ancient salt pans.
Heading north from Valletta, the journey through time leads to the town of Naxxar, along narrow streets limited by dry stone walls and wavy hills. Along the main artery of the centre, Palazzo Parisio is worth a visit: built in 1733 by Portuguese Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, the palace was acquired by Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna in 1898, who decided to completely and magnificently restore this noble rural residence surrounded by a beautiful garden.
The tour ends in Mellieha. We are in the Northern Region of Malta, famous for hosting some of the most beautiful and crystalline beaches of the island: Għadira Bay, Armier Bay, the Għadira Nature Reserve and Popeye Village. The caves around the city have hosted local population until the beginning of the Middle Ages, but remains of temples, caves, tombs and tools dating from the Neolithic era have been found in the area.
From Valletta, heading west, the road passes through several villages, once rural areas, today part of a seamless and densely populated urban strucrure. In this part of the island, made up of baroque chapels, terraces and a cobalt blue sea, which is less touristy, Malta partly regains its authenticity, both along the coast and inland. Following the route, you reach Mdina (Medina in the Italianized form), and Rabat, two cities separated by ramparts and moats, once united in Melita, the ancient capital city of Malta, the “honey city” of Carthaginians and Romans. Mdina, which dominates the island from the top of its promontory, earned the name of “city of silence”: a few hundred people now live in its cobbled medieval streets, but it preserves the vestiges of a past both ancient and glorious. Mdina, together with Valletta, is a Maltese glass production centre characterized by a decoration with intense colours typical of the Mediterranean area; some businesses let you assist to the creation of objects with glass-blowing technique. Rabat, for its part, has a rhythm of life different form the one of Mdina. Although it is rather small in size – the word rabat has Arabic origin and means suburb – the town is rich in history: Christian tradition considers it the place where St. Paul stayed in Malta, founder of the first Christian community on the island. After a visit to the Wignacourt Museum, the Domus Romana and Bernard House, you should taste a pastizz before leaving, a traditional Maltese pastry filled either with ricotta cheese or mushy peas: Rabat is one of the best places to enjoy it.