Sailing into Valletta, Malta, is akin to stepping into the pages of a J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy; once you are in the protected harbor, it feels as though modern civilization has disappeared. Oh, you can see a car or two driving on the winding streets amid the limestone battlements, crenellated castles and hillside structures, but they seem terribly out of place and unexpected.
Never mind that Malta, which owns 7,000 years of intriguing history, is fully modernized and contemporary. What you see when entering Valletta Harbor are the formidable defensive stone battlements of forts pockmarked by war guarding the strategic waterway. Cream-colored buildings and ancient church steeples grow out of the twisting streets and hillsides. In the bay and channels, Malta's colorful luzzo boats, fishing craft resembling an elf's shoe, ply the waters in the wake of modern giant cruise ships and tankers.
Valletta was built by the Knights of St. John as a place to take care of wounded soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the 16th century. Its unique landscape and ancient buildings have appeared in films such as "Troy," "Gladiator," "Captain Phillips" and "World War Z." This tiny Mediterranean country is part of an archipelago of five islands, only three of which are inhabited. Cruise ships visit the island of Malta and the port of Valletta (designed by a colleague of Michelangelo).
Malta has been inhabited since 5000 B.C. and was colonized by the Phoenicians in 1000 B.C. Then, the islands went in turn to the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish, who handed them over to the Knights of the Order of St. John in a "perpetual lease" in 1533; this lasted until Napoleon seized control in 1798. The Maltese did not like the French, however, and rebelled by seeking aid from Great Britain; Malta became a British protectorate in 1800 and a part of the British Empire in 1814. Later, it shook off the British, as well, and was granted independence in 1964. Since 1974, Malta is a republic under the British Commonwealth.
The influence of all of these cultures is evident in Malta, with the Roman period seemingly taking precedence.