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Cathedrals, Castles and a hidden world below water: The Maltese Islands

N. Buket Cengiz

When Malta is mentioned some think of vast beaches carressed by bright blue waves and a multicolored world stretching away beneath the sea. Others have visions of colorful boats bedecking the shores of fishing villages, while still others imagine one of the most picturesque scenes provided by history—churches and knightly castles that seem to have leapt from cartoon films. Some dream of a journey down the corridors of time with monuments dating back to the Stone Age, while others conjure up a refuge bestowed by bounteous nature. And there are some who in their mind’s eye see a variegated night life. Unless you actually see Malta, it’s impossible to understand how it can be all of this at once, and more...

In the course of their seven thousand year history, from the Neolithic Age to the present day, just think of the civilizations the Maltese Islands have hosted. Phoenicia, Carthage, Rome, Byzantium, the Arabs, the Ottomans.... The list goes on and on.

If you start your time travel on Malta with the Stone Age, it will be easier for you to grasp how today these tiny islands have become a world class holiday destination. For the temples at Ggantija on the Maltese island of Gozo have great significance as the “oldest monuments able to stand on their own.” The Hypogeum at Malta’s Paola is among the surviving remains most worth seeing, a marvel created by the hand of man and one for which tourists may have to make reservations weeks in advance. These ruins, this prehistoric engineering wonder, is in fact an underground temple (the only one of its kind) with chambers and labyrinthine passages hollowed out of rock. Steeped in that extraordinary atmosphere of history, that otherworldliness, the Hypogeum is a place one leaves feeling he or she has been on a spiritual journey...

Malta boasts Stone Age landmark sites such as Mnajdra, Hagar Qim and Tarxien, where it is possible to feel the breath of prehistoric rituals. The Goddess of Fertility in particular has always had great importance for the island. Scholars point out these ruins in support of their theories that Malta was a “Sacred Island” to which people came from a number of different places to perform their rites.

Today too, this spirituality is evident in the churches you see wherever you look on Malta. Indeed, the element that stands out most in the island skyline are the churches, each vying with the other for beauty. They say that on the island of Malta, counting the small chapels it is possible to worship in a different church every day of the year.

Visitors to the island make sure to stop at the star church, St. John’s Cathedral, but don’t be deceived by the simplicity of its exterior, for inside it is embellished according to the Baroque aesthetic. St. John’s Cathedral stands in the island’s capital, Valetta. With steep streets reaching to the sea and lined with splendid buildings; the bustling, cobblestoned avenue that is Republic Street (closed to traffic like Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi); boasting the major elements of Malta’s cultural, artistic, shopping and sightseeing life, so much that you wonder how it can all fit in such a small city; such is beautiful Valetta, where Carmelita Church, St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and the St. Andrew Church are only a few of the numerous churches on view. Just walking down Valetta Avenue you may unexpectedly confront, for example, Ave Maria Church and be so taken by the spellbinding hymns rising from within that you find yourself at mass with Malta’s Hispanics. Or sitting on a bench between the towers of St. Publius Church to contemplate that marvelous statue you may suddenly realize once again that you haven’t budged for almost an hour.

The island’s Museum of Archeology is also on this avenue. When you enter the museum to roam among its historical remains, you will once more realize how important the Goddess of Fertility has been in the island’s history.

Moving from the main avenue into the back streets, you pass between buildings that are all works of art in their own right to enter the Baraka gardens through that modest gate, suddenly perhaps feeling that you are one with the spirit of Alice in her Wonderland... As an overwhelming urge seizes you to take hundreds of shots of the splendid Malta view which is a background to the noble presence of that pool and its roses...

Contemplating the magnificent library building in Regina Square, all of a sudden you may recall the words of the 19th-century English literary figure Benjamin Disraeli, who said that Valetta’s elegant architecture was second to that of no European capital, comparing this city to Venice and Palladio; and you may feel that you agree with him.

Even if you only have a few days to spend on Malta, there is one place which having seen it once you will want to see again before leaving the island, whatever you do; and that is Mdina. First settled in the 5th millennium B.C., this town was surrounded by a Phoenician citadel in 700 B.C. Before you even set foot inside the citadel, Mdina’s fairytale atmosphere grips you on the bridge in front of the gateway. This bridge seems to materialize between reality and the surreal world within Mdina...Mdina is one of the highest points on the island and in its narrow streets, which are closed to traffic, Norman and Baroque architecture come together in a surprising fashion. Each vying with the other in loveliness, the stone buildings and cathedral stand in peaceful silence, on the one hand proud and magnificent, and on the other hand delicately elegant, making for an idescribably picturesque town of dreams...

Being so near to Sicily, Malta naturally resembles the Italian culture in many ways. You can understand this from the marvelous varieties of pasta available in the restaurants, for example, or from the beauty of the chic, well-groomed women you will see at all hours of the day. From Valetta to St. Julians, wherever you go in Malta you will meet with stores the windows of which offer the latest in fashionable clothing. The superminis worn by girls on the street are a nice sign of the relaxed, pleasant holiday atmosphere in Malta, as well as of how much people respect each other here. The Maltese people have that well-known Mediterranean sincerity and hospitality, and when you add the fact that everybody on the island speaks English it’s not hard to guess how easy and relaxed it is to be a tourist here. One can also say that a British flavor has seeped into every part of Malta. Smelling fish&chips on the street, just like in London, you sometimes stop and ask yourself where you are!

Even today the Maltese feel evident pride for the heroic defense they put up against the might of the Ottomans in a campaign led by Turgut Reis (Dragut). But don’t think that because of it they have any negative ideas concerning the Turks; on the contrary, you can feel that spirit of Mediterranean brotherhood every time you mention that you’re Turkish...

On Malta, St. Julians especially is famous for its nightlife, and there you see young people whooping it up in front of the clubs, which stay open till morning. Lucky students come from all over the world to Malta, where they want to enjoy that luck to the full. The mothers and fathers probably think these students spend most of their time on lessons. But if the parents saw how they sit on benches holding their English grammar books, sunning themselves while they study, they might be persuaded that a little tolerance can’t hurt...

The Maltese people like to have fun, and in summer each town holds its own festival. These festivals are the pride of their towns; whichever town holds the most colorful festival that summer is correspondingly happy for the rest of the year, and it’s up to the rest to think of fresh ideas that will make them the star next time around. The fireworks shows in particular, given by the municipalites, are a sign of how generous and ambitious the Maltese are when it comes to entertainment.

There’s just so much to do in Malta. If you like you can walk along the shore, or discover a great range of restaurants where you can try different cuisines from around the world. If you choose, wander through lush greenery on Gozo Island, or gaze at the submarine world in the turquoise waters of those inlets which are Comino’s best-kept secret...This article is too short to list all the things which visitors to Malta simply must do and see before they go home. And it falls far short of providing a summary, however brief, of the historical, cultural and natural beauties on the Maltese Islands. Rather this article merely consists of personal observations and brief anecdotes recounted excitedly by someone who has come back, telling what she saw in a few short days. The island’s history, the many things to see and do, can also be found on the pages of this website. Reading these lines, as the humble travel memoirs of someone who fell in love with the island in a few days there, if you have felt, even just a little bit, the spirit of Malta, how happy it will make the author...

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