Malta is included on next year’s series of Mediterranean sailings aboard the new Silversea liner Silver Muse. A nine-day voyage from Piraeus (Athens) to Civitavecchia (Rome) departs June 15 and includes an overnight stay in Valletta. More: 1300 306 872; silversea.com. IF WALLS COULD TALK: The walled citadel of Mdina was the former capital and feels like a movie set, perfect for swords-and-sandals epics. Did someone mention Gladiator? I spend many hours wandering along paved defiles in this so-called Silent City, photographing heavy doors with polished brass knockers and often bright colours that pop out of the otherwise golden streetscapes. Even the cats appear to be colour-coded — a ginger tom here, a slinky Abyssinian there. St Paul’s Cathedral features a rainbow array of marble and ornate frescoes but the attraction that takes my fancy is Palazzo Falson, a house-museum with 13th-16th century origins that displays the possessions, in room-by-room tableaux, of its last owner, Olof Frederick Gollcher. His collections of armoury, silverware and art pieces are extraordinary but the library, its ceiling-high shelves stacked with more than 4500 books and manuscripts, is the piece de resistance. More: palazzofalson.com.
During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Mdina was the base of the Order of St John’s cavalry, which made occasional sorties on the invading Ottomans. Even today there is a sure sense of enclosure within its walls and it is absolutely eerie after nightfall when the tour buses have departed. Take an open-top sightseeing double-decker from Sliema along the northern (blue-designated) route of the island and hop off at Mdina; allow at least a few hours before joining the hop-on-and-off bus to continue the circle journey, which has about 15 stops, including Mosta and Rabat. Such flexible bus tours also operate on the outlying island of Gozo, reached by a 30-minute ferry trip from the harbour terminal at Cirkewwa on Malta’s northwest tip. More: maltainfoguide.com.
Secret tip: stay overnight in Mdina at Xara Palace Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux gem, perched atop the bastions with just 17 guestrooms and suites, some built into the city walls, and a restaurant helmed by chef de cuisine Kevin Bonello; packages include fantastic sightseeing options and all guests have access to nearby Xara Lodge and its garden pool. More: xarapalace.com.mt.
CARAVAGGIO WAS HERE: Two Caravaggio paintings, all dramatic shadows and beams of l light, are held in the oratory at St John’s Co-Cathedral, a 16th-century Gothic masterpiece in St John’s Square, central Valletta, off Republic Street. The Beheading of St John the Baptist, Caravaggio’s largest and only signed work, is displayed opposite his dramatic depiction of St Jerome. The master of chiaroscuro fled to Malta from Rome in 1607, where he was wanted for killing a man during a duel, and found refuge with the Knights of St John and later a pardon by the Pope. But a year later the hellraising Renaissance painter was imprisoned in Malta’s Fort St Angelo after a brawl with a highly ranked member of the Knights, escaped to Sicily and remained on the lam until his death two years later. If it sounds like the stuff of a B-grade movie, then the mystery has deepened with the release of a new book based on secret archives at the Vatican that suggests he was murdered by papal envoys in 1610, his body tossed into the sea. Meantime he’d painted another huge canvas, Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, which was stolen, supposedly by the mafia, from the oratory at St Lorenzo in Palermo. The theft is routinely mentioned as one of the top international art heists and a copy now hangs in its original spot. To set the scene, it’s worth looking for the Derek Jarman movie Caravaggio (1986) with Nigel Terry in the lead role and screen debuts by Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean. More: visitmalta.com; stjohnscocathedral.com.
BUNNY BUSINESS: Malta had its stuffing knocked out during German and Italian air raids in World WarW II. Meagre rations meant rabbit became the dish of necessity and it still appears on many menus. I am not a bunny fancier but am told it’s delicious served as a slow-cooked stew, generously laced with red wine. On a previous visit I lunched with friends at the small but atmospheric Ambrosia on Archbishop Street, Valletta, and they proclaimed the rabbit delicious. Others with good reputations for the dish include Guze Bistro, in a handsomely restored 16th-century Valletta building, where rabbit is served in croquettes, as leg or loin, and with trimmings such as red onion chutney and leek and cabbage stuffing. More: vallettarestaurant.com; guzevalletta.com.