As the late afternoon sun cast warm stretches of light across the streets of Valletta, I turned around slowly to take in the effect. Maltese gallery windows blanketed their drowsy shadows over cobbled lanes, their worn-yet-sturdy wooden corners generating a mesmerizing chiaroscuro effect. I had stepped into a European city where the architecture of the past dominated yet captivated like no other place I’d been.
Within the Maltese gallerias, the handpainted shop signs, heavy doors, intricate iron knockers and oddly small windows all fit in place like a Baroque and neoclassical puzzle. The grandeur from the 16th century lives on through magnificent churches, sculpted squares, and sophisticated public buildings built during the time of the Knights of St. John, a Catholic order that ruled here. I passed them as I followed wide stone paths and sloped streets that stretched to the harbour.
They led me to the city gardens on the upper tier of St. Peter and Paul Bastion. The fragrant Barrakka Gardens spread out under centuries-old arched stones, a magnificent sturdy frame to Valletta’s scenic Grand Harbour. I passed under one set of arches to peer out at the vast harbour, upon waters that knew a time when the people of Valletta needed a bulwark of thick defensive walls for survival.
As I explored the island, a pageant of rich history unfolded before me. At some point before or after an era of knights and citadels, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the English laid their influence here, making this tiny Mediterranean island one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world today.
Beyond Malta’s capital, I find more layers of history surrounded by natural beauty.
A car and a ferry ride brought me to the other end of the Maltese archipelago, to an island called Gozo. There, basking in the morning sun, a cool sea lapped stiffly against mammoth rocks as if nothing monumental had stood there weeks prior. Just a month earlier, my sights would have been locked on a stunning 28-metre-tall natural limestone arch over the water — known as the Azure Window. It tumbled into the sea during an unsettling and windy winter, closing out an era of its grand existence.
The arch had been gracing glossy travel brochures since tourism began in Malta, and it came to represent the beauty of the country itself. Until recently, adventure travellers tossed themselves off it to make thrilling videos, and countless travellers posed there for selfies and group shots. Even with its loss, the natural beauty of Dwejra Bay can’t be denied.
Known for its flora and fauna, Dwejra cradles an inland lagoon of seawater where boat rides take guests through the Dwejra Cave, an 80-metre tunnel that seems to rise like a Gothic cathedral as the journey progresses, passing smaller caves and fantastic coral before entering the open sea. Nearby, divers head to a 10-metre-wide inland-sea pool known as the Blue Hole, which is 25 metres in depth, also known as a “vertical chimney.”
I discovered more natural arches on the Maltese coasts, including the Wied il-Mielah Window, which protrudes from the coast of northwestern Gozo. Then from a viewing platform off a road, I followed a short paved path to where some tourists were snapping photos, protected by a waist-high fence. I looked down and saw a corner of the island curving into the sea, a massive arch with caves, called the Blue Grotto.
Malta’s natural beauties kept unfolding. After the dust settled around me following a bumpy car ride down a rural south Maltese valley road, I continued on a 10-minute walk through wildflower-peppered slopes to the first of many natural swimming pools off Malta’s shores. I stood before St. Peter’s Pool, a swirl of turquoise shades where shelves of white, flattened rocks created the perfect sunbathing platforms, with no place to hide from the summer sun.
Waters sparkled just as playfully around the shadows of a tranquil cave called Ghar Lapsi, set on the edge of Siġġiewi village. Scuba divers gathered in front of the village’s brightly painted boat-house garages, ready to head out to discover reefs stretching 200 metres.
Another stretch of natural beauty known as the Blue Lagoon lay on the tiny Maltese isle of Comino. Boats rocked gently over their shadows in the azure sea, a tranquil presence over the aqua clear waters that held down a sheet of thick white sand. Hugged by limestone cliffs and caves, the Blue Lagoon was once the perfect hideout for pirates. Now it is a modern-day escape on a traffic-free island.
Later in the day, I found myself at the Mnajdra Temples, which are poised against a backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea. On this patch of the archipelago, a hilly field and valley embrace the massive stones, which tell stories dating back 3,600 years. Without a modern building in sight, the world’s oldest freestanding temples, made of massive limestone rocks, have looked over the same natural backdrop since their inception. They form a structure serving a special purpose during a mysterious time when a curvy deity, now referred to as the Fat Lady or the Lady of Malta, was worshipped.
With the sun high overhead, I slowly set foot between the rocks. As I meandered through the various structures, whose behemoth stones are intricately positioned to stay in place, I realized how important their construction must have been. The stones were cut and situated into the ground during a time said to have lacked technology, advanced tools, and the written word. A doorway was sliced somehow from a single slab, while thoughtful corbelled roofing and sturdy alters gripped their places. All worn, but standing steadfast, and part of a tremendous human effort to create what seemed for me a heavy, dreamlike sanctuary to worship the goddess. This goddess-worshipping culture would vanish for reasons still unknown, leaving its modern-day visitors to simply wonder.
Mdina – beyond the silent city
After pondering the prehistoric, a horse trotted past me, drawing a carriage, and I again wondered about life during an era of knights. I half expected to find the locals in medieval attire, but instead saw a wide-eyed visitor like me, eager to discover what was beyond the fortified walls of an arched footbridge, sculpted in regal detail. What was once the old gateway has remained the modern gateway to Mdina. As the sun set, I followed more horse-drawn carriages through the entrance. I stepped into yet another world.
Once the capital of Malta, Mdina surrounds a hilltop located far from the sea. It was the chosen centre for Maltese nobility and religious authorities, its air of grandeur and elegance stands intact today. Narrow, immaculate pathways weave between stately buildings of Norman and Baroque architecture, which are now private homes, drenched with bougainvilleas. Heavy wooden doors painted in shocks of bright colours, iron door-knockers in the shape of a hand or a lion’s head, chiselled marble balconies, charming shuttered windows, and columned entrances stand like a cast of characters in Mdina’s warren of lanes. The 17th-century Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul and its impressive towering facades and dome rise over Mdina’s main square.
Inside its massive walls, Mdina’s peaceful, shady streets slowed their rhythm in the disappearing sunlight. As evening settled, Mdina lived up to its nickname, the Silent City. The soft, golden tone from the street lights cast a peaceful amber hue on the town. All remained subtly dark and perfectly quiet.
As I drove out of town, I stopped the car off the main road and got out to take take a photo from afar. As I looked back at the gentle, refined presence of the town, I appreciated the perfected uniqueness of Malta’s villages, sculpted by the beauty of every era they have met. Beyond the walls of the villages, Malta’s natural treasures have been explored and admired countless times — the coveted prize of invaders and conquests.
Today, this tiny archipelago remains proud of its diverse, beguiling mix of history, a cultural diversity enhanced by the natural glow of each day and the tantalizing effect of each night.
Text by Marissa Tejada