Malta mystery tour

Maltese markets reflect the island itself: they have everything. By Annie Caulfield
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The Independent Travel
You could be hotter. Lying out in the Sahara on a strip of Bacofoil could top Malta, I'm sure. But I felt pretty much at the limits of my heat experience in midsummer here. It's to do with it being an island - the sun's rays reflect off the sea and concentrate themselves on Malta. In fact, being an island seems to cause Malta untold trouble. For one thing, there isn't a lot of land to spare for residents who fancy constructing a new house or chain of hotels, so much of the place looks like a building site.

So why come here at all? Well, if you didn't you'd miss the spectacular buses for a start. They're sturdy, 1950s-style vehicles, customised with bright coloured paintings, festoons of plastic flowers and driven by fearless, singing men. A bus journey could take you to the elegant capital, Valletta. But don't think that because you've fallen out of a crowded oven of a vehicle you're entitled to run about the sights half naked. Malta is extremely Catholic. Local ladies wear a range of black, below the knee, up to the neck and draped over their heads.

In Valletta, provided you're properly garbed and don't have to be pulled to one side and given a piece of old curtain to drape over your shoulders as I was, you can see the ornate Italian baroque Gesu Church or grand Saint John Cathedral. I fared better than a male companion in shorts who was given a length of sumptuous red velvet curtain to wear as a sort of evening skirt as he viewed the splendours of the cathedral: enormous barrel vaults painted with a life of John the Baptist; walls aleap with reliefs and sparkling with gilt; and a huge Knickerbocker Glory of silver, marble and lapis lazuli as a high altar.

The oratory, next door to the cathedral, contains Caravaggio's Beheading of John The Baptist. The story goes that Caravaggio left the island in disgrace after brawling with one of the Knights of Saint John who commissioned him.

Swinging punches at one of the Knights of Saint John was an unwise career move in Malta. The Knights of St John were an order founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century, primarily to care for the sick - hence the St John's Ambulance Service we still have today. They had to defend their hospitals from Turkish invasions and they took to their task of fighting the infidel in the name of Christianity with increasing gusto. Well-positioned in the Mediterranean, Malta became the base of their Grand Master.

The Knights were predominantly British and they ruled Malta for two centuries. They are responsible for the grandeur of Valletta's public buildings. With Napoleon creating a modicum of nuisance in his day, Malta remained very British in allegiance. At the start of the Second World War, the British commanders decided the island was too close to Italy and German North Africa to be worth trying to save. The Maltese fought the Germans and Italians ferociously, in near-starvation conditions, until the Allies, feeling a little ashamed of themselves, finally came in to reinforce them.

Independence from Britain in 1964 was enthusiastically received, but the British didn't really leave. By the 1970s the Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, was able to stir up enough rage among the Maltese about the phoneyness of their freedom that even British with holiday homes on the island were expelled. However, this anti-British spirit has since died down considerably and tourists are greeted warmly.

Yet they'll find a rather muted welcome at the historic citadel of Mdina, Malta's great architectural beauty. It was the original capital of the island, dating back to pre-Roman times, and is now known as the "silent city". Certainly there's an air of desertion and mystery behind its large gates. Several of Malta's aristocratic families still live here in enclosed palaces. You can't buy any of the elegant, ivy-covered properties unless you are descended from one of the Mdina families.

Dipping further into the past, Malta has an intriguing prehistory. There are temples dating back to 3000BC and at Tarxien, in the centre of the island, are the remains of a pre-bronze age cult to a fertility goddess known as the fat lady - her figurines suggest she was no Kate Moss. Tarxien has remarkable carvings and constructions unique to Malta, belonging to a people who seemed to have disappeared - drought, starvation, religious hysteria or mass suicide are put forward by guides as theories.

After mystery and scary stories, we felt entitled to the frivolity of a trip round the island that included a stop at Popeye Village. Created for the film, the set is a fun place to lark about, taking pictures of yourself in Olive Oil's front room, singing Popeye songs and twitching your biceps. And there are plenty of toy Popeyes to buy - I find one can never have too many.

Having given us a taste for shopping, the Popeye experience led us to investigate Malta's street markets. These are all over Valletta, selling everything - puppies, rosaries, antiques, clothes, flowers, fresh fish, lace... And that's just on the first stall.

Marsaxlokk on the south-east coast has a daily market that's a bit of a tourist trap but this is also a great place to see colourfully painted boats bringing in fish. You also provide a local service if you go to Marsaxlokk, making bus drivers laugh happily as you try to pronounce the name. Of course, the bus driver will be driving on the left and will probably, like most Maltese, speak English with a cockney accent, but somehow that doesn't make Malta's Britishness overwhelm the enigmatic feel of the island. And as they say in here: "There ain't many places 'otter mate"n

Malta facts

Getting there: Air Malta (0181-785 3177) flies from five UK airports to Malta. Sample fares from Gatwick and Heathrow for the first week in July start at pounds 209 for night flights, pounds 217 for day services, including tax; departures from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow are slightly more expensive. You may find lower fares through an Air Malta subsidiary, Malta Direct (0181-785 3233); this company also organises package holidays.

GB Airways, an affiliate of British Airways (0345 222111), operates daily from Gatwick.

Malta Tourist Office, 36-38 Piccadilly, London W1V 0PP (0171-292 4900).