Visitors leave their mark on Malta
The remarkable thing about Malta isn't that it has some of the oldest structures in the world, five World Heritage sites or more stunning architecture than is possibly good for one country. It's that for most of the past 7000 years, this tiny archipelago has been ruled by everyone but the Maltese.
As far back as 700BC, the Greeks came across, whacked the natives and helped themselves to large chunks of land. They were followed by the Romans, Arabs, Sicilians, the Knights of St John and the Brits. Even Napoleon swung by on his way to conquer Egypt. And each occupation has left its mark: the earliest settlers built megalithic temples, the Knights bequeathed palaces, fortresses and the glorious capital, Valletta, the Italians left pasta and wine while the last rulers, the British, provided red telephone boxes, right-hand driving and a predilection for tea.
Valletta feels very much like an Italian city – if you can imagine an Italian city with branches of Marks & Spencer and corner pubs. As our taxi driver tells us: "We have Arab and Sicilian blood, which makes us fiery. But then the British came along and taught us how to queue."
At only three hours' flying time from the United Kingdom, it's no surprise the majority of visitors are Brits, but thankfully not the lagered-up stag-night types. Malta tends to attract families and those who want a side order of history with their holiday. Valletta is a history geek's paradise: the European Union's smallest capital was built in the 16th century by the noble Knights of St John (now the Knights of Malta) after giving the marauding Ottoman Turks a good seeing to.
The Knights were also dab hands at project management, drafting in thousands of slave workers to construct the 100-metre-high fortifications aimed at repelling further invasion. Our eyebrows spend more time at the tops of our head at the Knights' main church, St John's Co-Cathedral, the ridiculously ornate behemoth in Republic Square that houses two paintings by Caravaggio, including his spine-tingling masterpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, believed by many art historians to be the best painting of the 17th century.
The Knights also built the nearby Grand Master's Palace, now the seat of Malta's parliament, also full of sumptuous decor.
With such a remarkable heritage, it's not surprising Malta is in high demand as a backdrop for films. What is surprising is that this tiny speck of limestone makes more films per head of population each year than Los Angeles. The locals are justifiably proud that movies such as Gladiator, Troy, Midnight Express and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were filmed here. Brad Pitt aside, one of the most famous actors to film here was the late Oliver Reed. We raise a glass of the excellent local beer, Cisk, to him at a tiny bar known simply as The Pub. It's where the infamous Reed enjoyed his last ever pint and the walls are, accordingly, covered with photos of him and Reed memorabilia.
My mother always advised against drinking on an empty stomach so we stumble into one of the many hole-in-the-wall cafes that line the cobbled streets of Valletta. As Sicily is only a 90-minute boat ride away, it's no surprise Italy and Malta tick many of the same culinary boxes. There are, however, some local specialties, including pastizzi - traditional breakfast puff pastries filled with ricotta or spicy mushy peas - and fenaka, rabbit and wine stew, that the cafe owner insists I try. But scenes from my favourite childhood film, Watership Down, swim before my eyes and I politely decline.
All thoughts of the rabbit forgotten when I discover traditional Maltese bones cakes, which are pretty much the love child of lemon drizzle cake and almond paste. I scoff so many I begin to think of elasticated trousers in a good way.
Suitably sated, we dip our toes back into the historic pool with a trip to the island's former capital, the medieval city of Mdina to explore its alleyways woven around Baroque palazzos, ornate churches and fine sandstone buildings. By now the heat - and the tourists - are starting to grate, so we seek the shaded narrow, pedestrianised streets for the short walk to nearby Rabat. This tiny town boasts some of the most important Christian sites in Malta, including St Paul's Grotto. Legend has it the saint was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta in AD60 and spent some time living here. As the name suggests, St Paul's Catacombs are a maze of Roman tombs with underground rock dining areas for funerary meals; kind of creepy but fascinating.
By now our history levees are in serious danger of being breached, so we take the ferry out to the nearby island of Gozo. Malta's little sister is only 43 square kilometres, but it's big enough to be interesting and small enough to be easy. There is, in fact, very little to do, but that's sort of the point. We eat fresh fish at cafes with the Mediterranean sea lapping at our feet, take leisurely walks along the limestone cliffs and drink the local tipple to try to forget about the near death experience we had on the way here.
Malta has the worst driving record in Europe and when even the taxi driver boasts that "here we drive on the left, on the right and on the footpath" (while taking his hands off the steering wheel to emphasise the point), you know that you're in for some white-knuckle moments. Fortunately, we make it to Gozo - and back - in one piece and with a better appreciation of New Zealand drivers.
The Dominion Post