Malta is a small island – and Valletta is the smallest capital in the EU. But now the former British colony is getting a planet-sized chunk of attention. Later this month¸ the Duchess of Cambridge will represent the Queen on her first official overseas trip without Prince William (or Prince George) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Maltese independence.Already the island has gone Kate-crazy. People could talk of little else as I travelled around Malta and its neighbour¸ Gozo.
As if that wasn’t enough¸ Brangelina – the newly wed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – have been in Gozo filming By The Sea¸ written by Jolie. The couple took over the secluded pebble beach of Mgarr ix-Xini.
The Duchess will feel at home on Malta¸ where 150 years of British rule have left their mark. The Maltese drive on the left¸ British phone and post boxes are everywhere¸ there’s even a M&S in Valletta – and they still use three-pin electric plugs.
What’s more¸ Malta has been held in great affection by the Queen for nearly 70 years. Between 1949 and 1951¸ as Princess Elizabeth¸ she lived just outside Valletta¸ when Prince Philip was stationed there as a naval officer.
The links were strengthened during the war when the island came under Luftwaffe bombardment. It held out and was awarded the George Cross by George VI as a result.
It’s a pity the Duchess will be there for only two days – there’s so much to see on these small¸ but fascinating islands.
Malta is by far the larger of the two and the more crowded¸ while Gozo is the deserted¸ rural cousin. Do take the regular 25-minute ferry across the channel that separates the islands.
Both are so rich in history that I swam off the golden-red sands of Ramla Bay¸ on northern Gozo¸ without realising its significance. Only later did I discover this was the beach where Odysseus¸ hero of Homer’s Odyssey¸ was washed up¸ clinging on to a timber¸ the last fragment of his shipwrecked boat.
He was given refuge in a nearby cave by Calypso¸ a drop-dead gorgeous nymph. He promptly hopped into bed with her. Calypso’s Cave¸ on the hill overlooking the bay¸ was depressingly short on attractive nymphs.
Back on Malta¸ Valletta was a delight. It’s only a three-hour flight from London¸ but it feels tropical: a former British colony meets Italy meets Arab Africa. Sicily is only 50 miles north; Tunisia 176 miles west. The city is built on a grid¸ like an early Manhattan¸ but there are no skyscrapers and all but essential traffic is banned. At its heart is St John’s Co-Cathedral¸ built by the Knights of Malta from 1573. The knights — from Italy¸ Provence¸ Auvergne and Aragon – competed to produce the most ornate chapels. The result is a blingy series of gilded rooms¸ studded with b