Monday 5 December 2016

Put your faith in the miracle isle of Malta

Following in the footsteps of the early Christians, Barry Egan becomes this Mediterranean jewel's latest convert

Published 14/03/2010 | 05:00

Malta is an intriguing blend of eye-catching splendour and ancient history
Malta is an intriguing blend of eye-catching splendour and ancient history

'NOTHING is better known than the siege of Malta," wrote Voltaire some years after the battle in 1565, when the might of the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, and was bloodily seen off by the Knights of Saint John.

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Tonight it is a siege of sorts to get to the bar on the 22nd floor of the Portomaso Business Tower in St Julian's Bay. I had to fight my way past all the terrible trendies holding a vigorously youthful court at the rooftop bar. Rising to almost 100 metres, the tower is the tallest building on Malta. From up here, you can see right across this mesmerising Mediterranean isle.

In the aptly named Club 22, the impeccably clad Maltese (Maltesers? If only) bopped to hip Noughties disco music high above the Portomaso waterfront. I stayed up until 4am looking out at the view and drinking in the grand history of the country.

Earlier in the night, I had taken a walk around Valetta, Malta's extraordinary capital, and its almost Pirates Of The Caribbean-like port. This was once a strategic port for the Allies during the Second World War. I was reliably informed by an old man I met in a bar in the port that, courtesy of Hitler and Mussolini, no other Mediterranean country was bombed as much as Malta.

South of Italy, east of Tunisia and north of Libya, Malta is an intriguing blend of eye-catching splendour and culture, ancient history and modern life.

Breakfast on my first morning in Malta -- in the gourmet gorgeousness of the Hilton Hotel's Oceana restaurant -- set me up to visit The Blue Grotto, near Zurrieq. It is as stunning a piece of scenery as you are likely to see. The sea was too choppy to take a boat so I just stood high on the rocks and looked down; the ocean appeared a magical cobalt colour and the sun reflected off the white-sand bottom.

You can drive across the island in about 45 minutes. My curiosity often leads me to surprising places and I went to St Paul's Bay where, according to the New Testament, the apostle Paul was shipwrecked in 60AD. He was originally headed to Rome, to await trial for his beliefs. It was around here that St Paul is said to have been bitten by a poisonous viper and survived.

A guide told me that St Paul was received by Publius, the Roman governor of Malta, and cured Publius' father of dysentery, which was considered a miracle. Publius converted to Christianity and became the first bishop of Malta, while St Paul was executed as a martyr after his arrival in Rome. Legend has it that Publius was thrown to the lions for his Christian preachings. It is difficult not to get some strong sense of faith when you hear this story in the place where it happened. If a Roman governor converted to Christianity he must have felt something pretty powerful when he met St Paul because he probably knew he was going to meet a particularly grisly end for the sake of the new faith.

It was time for lunch in Mdina, Malta's first capital city during the time of the Knights of Malta. It has an otherworldly prettiness to it. The little restaurant where I had lunch, Ciapetti, offered sleepy charm and pasta that was a delight, and worth the 50-minute wait. Patience can be a virtue on Malta.

En route back to my beautiful base in St Julian's, I passed through the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. Although Malta normally has warm weather and sun practically all year round, there was a storm brewing in this picturesque harbour. The green and blue boats on the sea were bobbing up and down furiously and the sea was spilling over the side of the promenade where the fishermen were selling their catch to locals.

Back in the Zen-calm of the five-star Hilton Hotel, I had a swim in the refreshing quiet of the indoor pool (the hotel also has four outdoor pools) before a long session in the state-of-the-art gym to burn off the calories from the 80,000-calorie brekkie earlier that day.

My spell on the treadmill over, I retired to my ninth-floor suite which had a giant balcony where, once the storm had died down, I was able to sit out on and merrily while away an hour or so reading Martin Amis's latest novel. The bathroom had one of those stand-alone marble baths in the middle of the floor that was divine to soak in with the bathroom lights dimmed down low and a view of the sea crashing outside on the rocks below. (I'm sure the image of me in the tub is one that many of our lady readers will treasure into their old age.)

Before dinner, I had a leisurely stroll around St Julian's Bay. It is full of fashionable bars and clubs. The following morning, I was up early for another 80,000-calorie breakfast before going back to Valetta to do some shopping. I was in Malta 10 years ago and I have to say it has come on dramatically since then.

I headed back to the Hilton to have my final meal in Malta. Trust me when I tell you that you haven't truly lived until you have had an eight-course meal in the Hilton's Blue Elephant, an authentic Thai restaurant. There were dozens of fish swimming in the giant pond next to my seat. I think I ate a few that night. No, really.

The manager of the restaurant appeared to have been on a mission to make me try every dish they had.

Unlike St Paul, the only thing I'm a martyr to is the good life.

Sunday Independent

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