There are a lot of destinations that will boast they’ve got hidden gems. But there are some countries that are entirely hidden gems, and Malta is one of them. Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world, and yet it’s packed full of surprises. Let me show you some of my hidden gems of Malta.
Because of its strategic location just 50 miles south of Sicily, Malta was conquered by one world power after another, from the Romans to the British. Over the centuries, each empire brought its own traditions, including food, art, and religion—all of which you can still find across the islands.
Even though it’s just a tiny dot in the Mediterranean, Malta had its fair share of surprises. There are 365 Roman Catholic Churches. That’s one for every day of the year, and more Roman Catholic Churches per capita than any other country in the world.
One of many you can visit is Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. The church was built in the late 16th century by the knights of Malta, a Catholic military order dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
Cynthia de Giorgio, the Curator and CEO of St. John’s Co-Cathedral explains how it feels when you step inside. “It is absolutely overwhelming, simply because of the amount of gold leaf that was applied to the surfaces. All the surfaces are carved in situ and then covered with 24-karat gold leaf.”
Once you’re inside, take your time. You’re surrounded by more than 400 years of real history. Look up, look out, look left, look right–every square inch of space is taken up by a piece of art that tells a story. But always look down. The ornately inlaid pieces of marble also tell a story because they represent the final resting spaces of 400 Knights of Malta.
Cynthia de Giorgio explains: “The floor is certainly one of the most beautiful, unique floors in the world, because it’s covered by 400 inlaid marble tombstones. And they’re also decorated with some of the most beautiful baroque symbols that you can imagine. The next surprise is the Caravaggio of course, in the oratory. The painting, the beheading of the patron saint, saint John the Baptist, is the largest and one of his most important paintings–if not the most important painting that he ever produced.”
Caravaggio was hired to create the painting in Malta—while on the run from murder charges in Rome. The overseers of St. John’s Co-Cathedral knew a master artist when they saw one—even if he happened to be a murder suspect. But that’s just one story from within a church that’s full of thousands of them.
Those stories continue outside, and extend far beyond Malta’s main island. If you really want to see Malta a different way, come to the most northern part of the island, in Mellieha Bay.
Gozo is the second largest of Malta’s seven islands. But with fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, it has a small town feel.
The spectacualr limestone formation was created after two sea caves collapsed, leaving a massive arch that rises nearly 100 feet in the air. It’s been featured in movies and TV shows, including The Count of Monte Cristo and Game of Thrones.
But there’s much more to Gozo than its famed blue window. One of the great secrets of Malta is one of the wineries.
Gozo’s dry, hot climate and steady breeze are the perfect conditions for cultivating olives. Just ask Joseph Spiteri—he’s been doing it for years. But he uses just a small portion of the oil he extracts. “We get 10 to 12 percent only. If you say this in front of, for example, large producers, they will say it’s a waste. But if you want to get the real extra virgin olive oil, that’s how the yield should be.”
The oil from Spiteri’s farm is so pure, you can pour yourself a glass, warm it up, and drink it down. “When you taste it, if it’s the real thing, it’s very pleasant on the palate. I mean you taste it as you taste wine, you know.”
But of course, the best way to experience the oil is to cook with it. Just ask George Borg, chef and author of The Gozo Table. He’s an expert on Maltese cuisine, and whether it’s rabbit or fish, he loves cooking with olive oil.
One of the great things about Malta is its size. At about 120 square miles, the island’s rich heritage is always just a short ride away. If you’re looking to find history in Malta, there’s one really cool way to do it in style—in a 1948 Jaguar convertible.
I took a ride in one with Alfred Pisani, the Chairman of Corinthia Hotels, who grew up on the island and is passionate about old cars. Together we headed up north to Mdina.
Once the capital of Malta, this ancient walled city is home to just a hundred people. It’s often called the “Silent City.”
Pisani explains one reason why the city is so quiet: “The majority of the houses are very big, and so there are very few people living here. So there’s a lot of space taken up by big mansions, which probably are inhabited by a family of four.”
For centuries, Malta has been fought over, and settled by almost every world power. In Mdina, and all across the country, you can see that history around every corner.
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By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com