To the romantic, Malta smells of thyme and fig; to the cynic, tar and goat – but, whatever a traveller’s disposition, he can’t deny that the country’s place in Mediterranean history is unique. Malta’s past is bold and bloody. In 1530 the emperor Charles V gave the Knights of St John their home after they had been forced out of Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent. The knights used Malta to raid the Ottoman fleets, sending gold and silver back to their protector, and in 1565 Suleiman finally tired of this and set out to destroy the ‘Monks of War’; and so began the Great Siege.
For months the attackers pitted themselves against the walls of modern-day Valletta. They succeeded in storming Fort St Elmo, where the mostly French knights fought with extraordinary heroism. In the final assault, the exhausted, wounded nobles were too weak to stand and were strapped into chairs, wielding their great swords as the Turks poured through the breaches in the walls. Not one knight survived as the fort fell, but the jubilant janizaries could not take the city itself. Ultimately, the Turks left dispirited and defeated, so heralding the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Yet long before the Knights of St John, or even the Romans, inhabited it, Malta had a long-established religious tradition – it has the highest concentration of neolithic temples in the world. First, there is the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni. It is advisable to book a tour as the temple has some idiosyncratic opening times. The Hypogeum is situated in the appropriately named Burials Street and was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, when a reservoir was being dug.