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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE -

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.

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