I recently watched my 14 year-old nieces prepare for a World Geography quiz by filling in a blank map with country names and capitals. This particular unit was testing their knowledge of Southeast Asia, which was already pretty extensive. It made me wonder if I had ever been put through such paces when I was in Junior High School. I remember a similar exercise with a US map, where I had to fill in all 50 states and their capitals, but I don’t think I developed any proficiency in World Geography until I started traveling in my 20’s. And it was with this haphazard cluelessness that I arrived by ship to one of my all time favorite destinations: Valletta, Malta.
I LOVE Malta! Where is Malta? Malta is a 7- island archipelago and independent republic located in the Mediterranean, southwest of Italy and northeast of Africa. Only the three largest islands – Malta, Gozo, and Comino – are inhabited. Because of this strategic location, Malta has been inhabited since 5000 B.C. and colonized by the Phoenicians in 1000 B.C. Then the islands went in turn to the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish, the Knights of the Order of St. John, the French and Great Britain until they were granted independence in 1974.
Remnants of this diverse and turbulent history are visible throughout the islands, but most dramatically in its capital, Valletta, which looks imposingly over the harbor, where the cruise ships dock. Sailing into Malta’s Grand Harbor is like stepping onto the pages of a High Fantasy novel; once you are in the protected harbor of Valletta, it feels as though modern civilization has disappeared. This is why the unique landscape and architecture of Malta have been used as the location for epic films such as Troy, Gladiator, Maltese Falcon and Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. Beyond the historical backdrop, the islands’ astonishing natural beauty, imposing cliffs, glittering hidden coves and thrilling diving opportunities entice many a cruise ship Day Traveler to return for an extended visit.
Valletta is one of those grand old cities that delights in surprising its visitors with objects of grandeur around every corner…’Oh-it’s a fortress!’ ‘Oh-it’s a Palace!’ ‘Oh-it’s an overlook with a commanding view of the harbor! If mobility is not an issue, the best way to explore this venerable municipality is on foot.
I retraced many of the steps I took on my first visit here a few years back, with my sister in tow (minus the anaphylactic episode she had in town that landed her back in the ship’s infirmary), up the 1-mile winding incline that leads from the Malta’s spectacular waterfront to Fort St. Elmo and the Old Town, marveling at the azure water and sky against the cream and whitewashed architecture. I swear Malta’s atmosphere produces its own proprietary shade of blue!
I passed the outdoor flea markets along the antiquated narrow back streets before reaching the main thoroughfare (and open-air museum) of Republic Street. My favorite artisan complex specializing in Maltese (Gozo) hand-blown glass was closed, the building undergoing some sort of restoration, but the rest of the Old Town remained virtually unchanged since my last visit two years ago. Like so many of these ancient cities, Valletta’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such, none of the historic buildings or even the city’s layout can be altered.
Meandering through these ancient cities touches me at my core in a way that modern counterparts never will! There is something primeval about walking a path traversed throughout millennia. It leaves you feeling less special, more human.
For more information, visit: http://www.visitmalta.com/en/attractions
For cruise ship itineraries that include Malta, visit:http://www.cruisecritic.com/cruiseto/cruiseitineraries.cfm?portofcall=145&sort=shipname