Malta has an extraordinary 7000-year history beginning with the arrival of a little-known people from Sicily who became the creators of Malta’s unique Neolithic temples. Older than the Great Pyramids and the famous standing stones at Stonehenge, Malta’s temples were built between 3600 and 2500 bc – they are megalithic architecture constructed a millennium before Mycenae.
All the temples are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as is the unique Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the extraordinary triple-layered tomb complex cut from solid rock where the ‘Temple People’ buried their dead. The complex was recently restored and re-opened to the public.
And this is just the start of the story. Malta, with its perfect natural harbours, was desired by every trading or invading nation in the Mediterranean from the Phoenicians and Romans to both sides in the Second World War. Each occupier has left its mark from Roman-Byzantine catacombs to British red letter boxes.
The Knights of St John Hospitaller, commonly referred to as ‘The Knights of Malta’ have, of course, left the greatest impression. Ousted from Jerusalem and then Rhodes, this order of maritime warrior monks arrived in Malta in 1530 and ruled until 1798. After nearly losing the country to the Ottoman Turks in The Great Siege of 1565, the Knights built a near-impregnable new city on a rocky peninsula between two harbours: Malta’s delightful diminutive capital, Valletta.
Despite the ravages of the Second World War, Valletta remains fundamentally the Knights’ city although one area has just received a very twenty–first century makeover. Badly bombed and minimally restored, the City Gate area has been redesigned by the architect of the Pompidou Centre and the London Shard, Renzo Piano.
Valletta. Fly at c. 10.45am from London Heathrow to Malta. Drive to Valletta, a peninsula flanked by fine natural harbours and once the most strongly fortified city in Christendom. Here, survey the massive fortifications protecting the landward approach and view the Grand Harbour from the ramparts.
Qrendi, Marsaxlokk, Dingli. Drive through attractive countryside to the prehistoric temples overlooking the sea, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. After some free time for lunch in the picturesque, traditional fishing village on Marsaxlokk, see the ancient track works, Clapham Junction cart ruts, in Dingli.
Valletta. The morning is spent in the National Museum of Archaeology, home of the unique ‘Fat Ladies of Malta’ and other original carvings from the Neolithic Temples. Visit the charming Manoel Theatre, a rare survival of the early 18th century, and the Co-Cathedral of St John, one of the most interesting of Baroque buildings, which has lavish carved wall decoration, ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti, magnificently carved tombs and two paintings by Caravaggio. Finally, a private visit of the Casa Rocca Piccola, providing unique historical insight into the customs and traditions of the Maltese nobility over the last 400 years.
Paola, Valletta. In Paola, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. The Tarxien Temples site is the most complex in Malta and would have been the most decorative. It was rediscovered by accident in 1902 and is the source of outstanding carved reliefs and statues. The afternoon is free in Valletta.
Gozo. A 30-minute ferry crossing to the island of Gozo, which is more rural and less populated than Malta. See the temple of Ggantija, one of the oldest of Malta’s prehistoric monuments. The chief town is Victoria, with its cathedral, museum and medieval Citadel. A naturally defensible, flat-topped hill in the middle of Gozo, the Citadel was first fortified in the Bronze Age and has been the centre of Gozitan life for at least 3,500 years.
Mdina, Rabat. Mdina, Malta’s ancient capital, is an unspoilt citadel of great beauty, centre of the indigenous aristocracy, with mediaeval walls, grand palazzos and Baroque cathedral. Spreading below is the town of Rabat, with Early Christian catacombs.
Vittoriosa. Visit Fort St Elmo and the National War Museum before crossing the Grand Harbour by dghajsa (traditional water taxi), to see churches, forts, and the Knights’ auberges in Vittoriosa. Fly to London Heathrow arriving at c. 7.30pm.
Award–winning journalist, writer and broadcaster with a particular interest in the history of Malta. She studied History of Art at Cambridge and is the author of the Bradt Guide: Malta and Gozo. Her career in journalism has involved working for the BBC and writing for British national newspapers, magazines and online media. Twitter: @julietrix1
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,080 or £2,890 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,680 or £3,490 without flights.
World Heritage Malta and Civilisations of Sicily combined
Two sharing: £8,220 or £8,020 without the tour flights. Single occupancy: £9,990 or £9,790 without the tour flights. This includes accommodation in Valletta (2 nights), one-way flight Catania to Malta and airport transfers. These arrangements are pre-booked but unescorted.
Air travel (economy class) with scheduled Air Malta flights (Airbus 320, Airbus 319); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; admissions to museums and sites; gratuities for waiters, drivers and local guides; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guide.
Hotel Phoenicia, Valletta: a 5-star hotel in Valletta, recently refurbished and furnished with style and character, the best in Valletta and just outside the city gates. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is a lot of walking on this tour, some of it over the rough ground of sites. Valletta is relatively hilly so you will need to be comfortable with everyday walking and stair climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 15 miles.
Between 10 and 20 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'The lecturer was first class. Her in depth knowledge of the island and her enthusiasm and friendly interaction with the group really made this holiday.'
'An excellent, well planned and enjoyable insight into the history and architecture of the island.'
'This was the first time I had travelled with MRT and I thoroughly enjoyed this holiday.'