Travel: Malta

View from Upper Barracca Gardens
View from Upper Barracca Gardens
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Sitting on the shaded roof of a rustic farmhouse sipping a delicious array of crisp whites and sumptuous reds, I peered out into the endless sea of sun-kissed grapevines.

Sitting on the shaded roof of a rustic farmhouse sipping a delicious array of crisp whites and sumptuous reds, I peered out into the endless sea of sun-kissed grapevines.

The Azure Window on the Gozo coast

The Azure Window on the Gozo coast

The picturesque 19-hectare vineyard could easily have been mistaken for Tuscany, but in fact I was sampling my mouth-watering flight of fine wines in the middle of a former RAF airfield on the island of Malta.

Like a number of locations and landmarks on the tiny sun-baked archipelago, the Meridiana Wine Estate has close ties to World War Two and Britain’s 150-year colonial occupation.

However, many people fail to realise that the scenic island, nestled 60 miles off the south coast of Sicily, has so much more to offer. A three-hour flight from the UK, Malta is a vibrant melting pot of history, art and architecture, richly influenced by many cultures over the last 7000 years.

I spent a week based in the bustling town of St Julian’s on the eastern coast, a lively hub of hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and casinos. It stands just five miles from the capital Valetta, a fortified city built in the mid-16th century by the Knights of St John.

In 1530, after being chased out of Rhodes by the Ottomans, Charles V of Spain allowed the Knights to base themselves in Malta in return for religious devotion and the annual rent of one falcon. Three decades later, the Roman Catholic Order successfully staved off another attack from the Turks during the Siege of Malta, prompting Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette to build the walled citadel of Valetta to protect his people from further invasions. The Knights remained in Malta until 1798, leaving their legacy etched onto the landscape forever.

My guide Audrey, who like all Maltese spoke perfect English, led me into Valetta, which is flanked on three sides by the sparkling sea and, with a population of just over 6000, is Europe’s smallest capital.

And as we snaked through the network of roads and squares, I could see why the tiny country has one of the highest densities of historical sites in the world.

Home to 320 monuments, including grand cathedrals, opulent churches, statues, fountains and palaces, Valetta resembles an open-air museum and is one of nine World Heritage sites to grace Malta.

It also boasts a host of high-end boutiques, alfresco cafes and restaurants, with a peppering of British post boxes, red phone kiosks and even a branch of Marks and Spencer.

Our first port of call was St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Order as its central church.

After passing through the threshold of its imposing exterior, I was met by the breathtaking spectacle of painted vaulted ceilings, gilded walls and a floor covered by 350 marble tombstones of former Knights.

“This is our Baroque gem and the most important church in the whole of Malta,” Audrey said proudly.

The cathedral’s guarded oratory houses two original masterpieces by Caravaggio, with his largest-ever work, the spine-tingling Beheading of John the Baptist, the jewel in the crown.

Our next stop was the Grandmaster’s Palace in George’s Square, the distinguished seat of Malta’s president and parliament, which houses a large collection of historical artefacts.

The stately chambers are decorated with beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from the Great Siege, while steel suits of armour used by the Knights line the corridors and huge intricately-woven tapestries given to the Order as gifts hang in the tapestry room.

After enjoying a cappuccino and ice cream at Caffe Cordina in the shaded Republic Square, we made our way to Upper Barracca Gardens, the highest point of the city walls with stunning panoramic views of Malta’s Grand Harbour, the largest natural harbour in the Med, which was a Royal Navy base until 1979 when the nation became a republic.

Audrey suggested we took a tour in a disa - similar to a gondola - for a closer look at the towering coralline walls of Fort St Angelo and the three cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, which straddle the harbour.

As we took to the blue waters, she reeled off a list of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator, Troy and The Count Of Monte Cristo, which have made use of the harbour’s epic beauty.

A-listers with homes on the island include David Beckham, while billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich apparently has one of his yachts moored in the adjoining Marsamxett harbour.

We arrived in Vittoriosa, the Knights’ original capital, stopping for a lunch of mussels and fresh lampuka - a sweet-tasting local fish - at the idyllic waterfront restaurant Riviera della Marina, before touring the quiet town.

The rest of my trip was spent exploring the other historical gems that Malta’s 120 square miles have to offer.

Touring the medieval walled citadel of Mdina, home to the National Museum of Natural History, palaces of past Grand Masters and the Bishop’s Cathedral, I could see why it is nicknamed The Silent City.

With a population of just 200, only the cars of the residents are allowed within its confines, making the streets of the island’s original capital peacefully serene during the day.

I also trod the grand marble staircases and walled gardens of the Palazzo Parisio - described by many as a miniature Versailles - a stately home in the ancient village of Naxxar built in the 1800s.

The most exhilarating part of my trip came as I whizzed along the cliff tops of Dingli on a Segway - one of the best ways to see the island’s countryside.

Hurtling along, I was treated to glorious views of the west coast and the tiny uninhabited island of Filfla, used for target practice by the RAF bombers.

The mostly rocky island also has a handful of idyllic beaches to the north, with Golden Bay and Gnejna the best on offer.

A greater variety is found on Gozo, Malta’s sister island, only a 20-minute ferry ride away and blessed with stunning natural wonders including Calypso’s Cave which overlooks the red sands of Ramla Bay and the Azure Window, a giant doorway of rock surrounded by deep blue sea.

The rustic Hotel Ta’ Cenc on Gozo is a popular retreat for celebrities including Sir Sean Connery and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Malta truly is so much more than just a small Mediterranean island.

BEST FOR: Fascinating history.

TIME TO GO: September/October - the searing mid-summer heat has cooled to a more bearable mid-20s.

DON’T MISS: St John’s Co-Cathedral.

NEED TO KNOW: Malta is the fifth most densely populated place in the world, so avoid roads in rush hour.

• Malta Direct offers seven nights’ B&B in late May with deluxe marina view at The Hilton, St Julian’s, from £654, including Easyjet flights ex-Gatwick, transfers, free mini guide and entrance to a Malta attraction. Regional departures include Glasgow with Thomas Cook from £754.

Malta Direct reservations: 0845 365 3410 or {http:// www.maltadirect.com|www.maltadirect.com|www.maltadirect.com}. The operator flies from 13 airports with easyJet, Thomas Cook, Thomson, bmibaby and Air Malta.