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By Jane Cassie
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

"I've got an umbrella in case it rains," Anna Grech Sant, reassures, when meeting us. "Malta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is like an open-air museum. You won't want to miss anything."

Our tour guide is clearly passionate about her job. For forty-four years she's been educating visitors about this Mediterranean island, the largest of three that comprise the Maltese archipelago, south of Sicily and north of Africa.

Because of its strategic location, we discover that Malta has had a line-up of rulers; Romans, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French. And, based on which side of the road we're driving on, clearly the British.

By the time we reach Barracca Gardens, the clouds have magically dispersed and we're bathed in sun. Overlooking Grand Harbour, we're privvy to stunning views of the city's bastion walls and sapphire waters beyond. Adjacent, are colonnaded gardens that originally date back to 1661. We walk in the footsteps of Roosevelt, Churchill and other greats when strolling around the central fountain.

Just beyond the park's entrance is old town Valletta, a labyrinth of cobble-stone streets where golden-hued churches and baroque buildings rise in juxtaposition with more modern architecture.

We pose in front of Triton Fountain and Auberge De Castille, where the current Prime Minister hangs his work hat, then check out the many retail outlets along Republic Street. Minutes away is our next cultural magnet, the National Museum of Archaeology.

"These amazing artifacts showcase our history," Anna informs, as we meander through the impressive venue. Beneath preserving glass are tools that date back to 5200 BC and prehistoric figurines. We gaze at the recumbent Sleeping Lady and the headless Venus de Malta, aka Goddess of Fertility who is about ten centimetres tall. Phoenician amulets, ancient boulders, temple replicas—so beautifully frozen in stone for all to view.

"At our next stop you'll see where some of these originated from," Anna assures. "But first you'll get a bird's eye view of the Blue Grotto."

From our cliff-top stop we have the perfect photo-op of these limestone caves, clear emerald waters and magnificent wave-eroded arch far below.

Also boasting an unparalleled panorama are the nearby megalithic temples of ?a?ar Qim. The 4D presentation (complete with rain droplets) is a good prep to these well-preserved structures. But nothing compares to the real thing. Beneath the protected canopy, we wander in awe along interconnected pathways that lead past oval chambers and twenty-ton boulders. It's hard to fathom how these pillars were erected back in prehistoric times.

Our next stop takes us even further back in time. Although the Hypogeum is unassuming from its exterior, after descending into this subterranean grotto, it's anything but. "It dates back 5,000 years to the Bronze Age," Anna announces with pride, "and is believed to be the oldest prehistoric underground temple in the world."

For good reason, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is kept preserved, protected and free of photographers by limiting admission to ten visitors at a time. Booking six months in advance is a must and is well worth the pre-planning.

With audio sets glued to our ear we stroll along a scaffolding-like ramp through a labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors to carved out chambers where skeletal bones and heaps of the dead lay until this discovery in 1902. Vaulted domes, archways and okra paintings decorate the more important rooms like the Holy Of Holy and the reverberating Oracle Chamber. We're informed by our audio guide that acoustics come alive here with any sounds. Although I have a yearning to test out my vocal chords, I'm silenced by the awestruck effect from this underground graveyard.

The same overwhelming sensation hits me again when we enter our final attraction, St John's Cathedral. This 16th Century Baroque beauty in the heart of Valletta escaped destruction from the Second World War and is one of the most stunning cathedrals in Europe. Every inch of the impressive interiors is adorned with either gold, silver, marble or colourful paintings. And eight glitzy chapels represent different Orders Of The Knights which now rest in peace beneath patterned gravestones in the central naive. From the balcony the view is literally brilliant!

An old-time Valletta icon, the Caffe Cordina, is a perfect place to wrap up our day with Anna. And while enjoying healthy salads and fruit-infused smoothies, we commend our guide—while also sending a quiet thanks to the weather gods for a sunny day on amazing Malta!


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Photos by Jane & Brent Cassie

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