Cruises and Crosses
The island of Malta is one of the most unique cruise
destinations in the world. It’s a popular stop, sure: but one quite unlike more
or less any other. For a start, it’s the only sovereign country in the world to
have it’s own medal, and letters after its name to prove it. The official
styling of the island country’s name is Malta GC, in recognition of the George
Cross the islanders were collectively awarded during the Second World War.
Malta was a vital base for the British fighting Hitler in North Africa and the
Mediterranean. Nazi Germany pounded it relentlessly, and to this day it remains
the most heavily-bombed place on earth. The George Cross is the UK’s highest
award for civilian bravery, and the Maltese are still proud of it – although
you won’t see it reproduced quite as many times as you see the distinctive
Maltese Cross, the historic symbol of the island.
These days Malta is its own independent republic and a lot
quieter than it was during the war. That’s not to say it’s not still a
tremendously lively place. As your ship docks in the harbor of Valletta you
can’t help but notice the uniqueness of the place. It’s a mass of walls,
churches and gardens which, although substantially rebuilt after the war, looks
as though it has been there a thousand years or so. Of course, it has: there
has been settlement on Malta for centuries, and the name of one of the two main
cathedrals of the island – St Paul’s – commemorates its place in legend as the
place where St Paul was shipwrecked on his journey between Jerusalem and Rome.
If you’re on a cruise the chances are you will only have a day on the island,
so your exploring will probably be confined to having a look around Valletta
itself. That’s hardly a hardship, though, as it’s a quite remarkable capital
city, despite its small size.
The main town was built and brought to significance by the
Knights of St John. The Knights, known as the ‘Hospitallers’, were a military
order founded during the Crusades. They were dedicated to giving relief and
protection to European pilgrims intent on visiting Jerusalem. After Christian
forces were driven out of Palestine, Malta became their base and they ruled the
island for years. After the knights came the British, for whom Malta served as
a major naval base from the eighteenth century until the twentieth.
It’s because of the British influence that English is effectively the first
language of Malta - though the local language, Maltese, is spoken by nearly all
natives and has equal status with English. If you speak English everyone should
understand you and you should understand them – although sometimes the accent
can be a little thick.
One of the first things its worth doing in Valletta is taking
the bus or a cab to the Upper Barracca Gardens on the south side of Valletta’s
huge natural harbor. The gardens are an ornamental, terraced delight, and entry
is entirely free. They afford probably the best view of the city, with a
panorama looking out over the harbor to the Three Cities Area which is the
center of Valletta’s maritime heritage.
Valletta was an attractive base for the original Knights of St
John because its long, narrow harbor was so easy to fortify. Its well worth
taking a tour of the remaining fortifications, which were put up in the
sixteenth century. The funding was provided by the then Pope by way of thanks
for the Knights’ involvement in the ongoing wars against the Turkish Ottoman
Like most things that were build hundreds of years ago, the fortifications are
substantially tougher than most modern architecture and have successfully
survived wind, weather and Nazi bombs with surprisingly little damage.
Organized tours are available, and it’s well worth signing up for one to find
out more about Malta’s unique history.
The one sight in Valletta that absolutely should not be missed
is the cathedral of St John. Valletta has two cathedrals – one Anglican and one
Catholic. St John’s in one of the most fantastic churches in the world. The
outside is plain and even quite dull – it seems to blend in perfectly with the
architecture of the old city and fortifications. But the inside is stunning: it
was one of the first interiors to be built in the European baroque style.
Walking into St John’s is like opening a plain wooden box and finding it full
Valletta is a city full of life and things to see. If you can, try to book a
berth on a cruise ship that stays overnight in the city – it’s a thriving
center for nightlife and eating out. The atmosphere is pleasant and friendly,
and although it can get fearsomely hot in the summer the cool waters of the
Mediterranean are never very far away. Malta is one of those very few places
which have always been remarkable, and always will be.