“We have more than 365 churches in our country; by visiting one a day you can become a saint in a year,” tells my humorous guide Victoria as we stand in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in the walled city of Mdina in Malta.
No need to doubt the high number she quotes because wherever I go in this Mediterranean destination and whichever direction I gaze, a church dome invariably bulges in front of me.
Located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Malta is an archipelago, consisting of three main inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino.
Malta island is the largest and home to capital Valletta and other tourist-throbbed settlements like ancient Mdina, Rabat, the famous Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua) and the international airport. Gozo and Comino are just a short ferry ride from its shores.
The total land area of the country is only 316sq km, smaller than the size of Langkawi Island. This makes it easy to explore with no corner more than an hour and a half drive.
The Maltese are among the oldest Christians in the world. In 60AD, apostle St Paul introduced Christianity to the land. “Though the religion is headquartered in the Vatican, its practised more ardently in Malta,” claims a local Christian. Every parish has a church, some more than one, and many chapels.
Amazingly, the construction of some of these newer parish churches was funded by the devoted residents, most of whom work as volunteers to maintain the church and keep it tidy.
While many of them look pretty impressive, a few from the lot are regarded as “must-visit” for historical significance, architectural grandeur and interior artwork, Mdina’s 17th century St Paul’s Cathedral is one of them. It’s a great example of baroque design, this style of architecture brought in by the Knights of St John who dominates the history books of Malta.
The land’s history spans across 7,000 years. After a golden Neolithic period, the land in succession has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and the Normans who were replaced in the 16th century by the Knights of St John. They were followed by the French and the British from whom Malta received full independence in 1964.
During their 268-year tenure, the Knights crushed the invading Ottomans away in 1565 in a battle, famously known as the “Great Seize”; moved capital from Mdina to Valletta and studded landscape with architectural feats – forts, gates cathedrals and mansions – some of which express the best of baroque tint in the world. Perhaps the best sample is St John’s Co-Cathedral, the nation’s most iconic monument.
From outside it doesn’t appear too exceptional, but the interior is so sumptuously decorated with paintings and artworks that it can be easily mistaken as a museum. The famous piece of art there is a masterpiece by Caravaggio titled “The Beheading Of John The Baptist”.
Others that command attention is the Gojo Cathedral, Carmelite Church in Valletta synonymous with the city-skyline and the parish Church of Santa Maria in Mosta which is crowned by a large dome claimed to be the world’s fourth largest.
Besides shrines, Malta offers visitors a perfect mix of relaxation, discovery, and adventure. The islands are bathed in sunshine nearly every day, so intimate encounter with the Mediterranean waters is a major attraction.
The destination is history intensive, so Malta Experience, an audio-visual show in Valletta provides deep insight into the past and glorifies the knight’s contributions which built most of the things we see today – the array of military architecture is one of them.
Wherever we go, massive fortifications welcome us. Fort St Elmo in Valletta, Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa and the Citadel in Gozo are the highlighters.
No disappointment for art lovers either. There are museums of different types to quench their thirst – the National Museum of Archaeology, National Museum of Fine Arts and Casa Rocca Piccola – all in Valletta – are the top pops.
For something different like tasting fresh seafood and to see the decorative “eye” painted boats called “Luzzu” which bear Phoenician influences, a visit to the fishing town of Marsaxlokk is worthy.
With its densely packed limestone architecture, Malta at first sight can be mistaken as anything from Jerusalem to Fez in Morocco.
Even like ancient Rome, Istanbul or 19th century Marseilles, particularly when viewing the Valletta Harbour embraced by soaring fortification and when wandering through the labyrinth of honey-coloured and narrow cobbled streets of Mdina and nearby Rabat.
“Because it can take the guise of different places, Malta regularly appears in blockbuster movies, dramas and documentaries,” says Victoria, showing me various locations in Mdina where season one of TV series Game Of Thrones was filmed.
Mdina was staged as “Kings’ Landing”, the capital of the fictitious country of Seven Kingdoms in the show. Today, many visit Malta to bring alive scenes from the hit show which was also shot in and around Valletta and Gozo.