VALLETTA, Malta — Although you half expect to find knights in battered armor still stalking its ramparts, there's more to Malta than a legendary past.
This mid-Mediterranean island is that hard-to-find mecca of the off-season traveler, a great place to go when the rest of Europe is still--or already--freezing.
It's perfectly true that 5,000 years of history evidenced in architecture, art and archeology would be wasted on a mindless tanning champion. And there always will be certain tourists who never leave the beaches long enough to see, for example, the panoramic painting in the Throne Room of the Grand Master's Palace that depicts the central event of the island's long history, the Great Siege by the Turks in the 16th Century.
A few others don't bother to look at the immense and priceless Caravaggio portraying the beheading of John the Baptist, even though it hangs inside a gorgeously baroque cathedral whose floor entombs the bodies of 400 Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Later known as Knights of Malta, each of the celibate noblemen rests beneath his own heraldic coat of arms, emblazoned in varicolored marble.
Tree of Life
And some visitors fly home to England or Scandinavia without having so much as glimpsed the Tree of Life that was etched in red ocher sometime during the 4th Century BC on the echoing ceiling of an Oracle Chamber. Littered, to this day, with burned human bones, the room lies deep within a subterranean temple known as the Hypogeum.
Nevertheless, Malta and her little sister island, Gozo, are attractive to vacationers whose interests may be somewhat athletic as well as cerebral.
The Maltese crossroad lies halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria in one direction and continental Italy and Africa in the other. A bonus of this commanding position, one from which the knights were able to repel the armada of Islam in its apparently inexorable movement northward, is a subtropical climate that is free of frost all year.
You don't have to be Swedish to enjoy spring and fall swimming here. In both May and October air and sea temperatures average in the 70s. An even longer season is possible for golf, tennis, sailing, windsurfing in Mellieha Bay and scuba diving in waters of great clarity.
The narrow step-streets of the capital, Valletta, are safe to stroll, even late at night. It's possible to explore the 8 by 16 miles of Malta or the 4 by 8 miles of Gozo without sighting a slum or encountering a single beggar, drunk or drug addict.
Nearly all of the 320,000 well-educated citizens speak English almost as fluently as that sibilant blend of Arabic and Italian, written in a Roman alphabet that is known as Maltese.
The ambiance of North Africa colors are first impressions here. Whirring ceiling fans and iron lace window grills cool the blocky, sandstone Air Malta terminal. Shadows of cypress and palm fronds dapple the road to the seaside hotels of suburban St. Julian.
En route, the stony, flattish view is punctuated by the high domes of Catholic churches. Whether by design or coincidence there are 365 of them, one for every day of the year.
Purple bougainvillea spills from every other balcony, and in each green cove a fleet of fishing caiques, striped in red, blue and yellow, rides at anchor. Their high-prowed design has been virtually unchanged since the time of the Phoenicians.
Expelled from Rhodes by Sulieman the Magnificent, the Knights of St. John hurriedly threw up a phalanx of 13 watchtowers (several are still standing), against the bloody re-engagement they knew would come.
On one promontory, Senglea, the knights lived. On the other, Vittoriosa (then called Birgu), they built massive Ft. St. Angelo. In the small channel between, their fleet was protected by an underwater chain linking the two peninsulas.
Heads as Cannonballs
Once Sulieman's fleet captured Ft. St. Elmo (the year was 1565), the Turks floated the decapitated and crucified bodies of its defenders across the Grand Harbor to Ft. St. Angelo. In retaliation the knights used the heads of their Turkish prisoners as cannonballs.
Although outnumbered four to one, the knights managed to hold out all summer until reinforcements from Sicily helped them bring about a rout of the Turks.
Valletta's plazas and grid-patterned streets are still graced with magnificent Renaissance palaces, modestly referred to as auberges , or inns, by the ecclesiastical soldiers who spoke their native tongues of France, Italy, Spain, England and Germany.
Entered on foot or by horse-drawn, curtained surreys called karrozzin across a moat now filled with fragrant orange trees, and then through a baroque arch, it has always been known as the Silent City. Here, as everywhere on Malta, a 1 to 4 p.m. siesta shuts down the many shops offering good buys in handblown Medina glass, Gozo lace and brass door knockers.