The Knights of Malta Live On
Every city should have a knight in shining armor. Just look at lovely Valetta, the capital city of Malta: In 1565, the Knights of St. John came to Valetta's rescue against the invading Turks. The religious order dressed local men, women, and children in uniforms and propped them atop the wall, fooling the enemy into thinking they were overpowered. The Turks backed off, Grand Master Jean de la Valette had a city named after him, and, most important, some of Europe's finest antiquaries were saved from pilfering fingers.
Today, the city is as chockablock with art and artifacts as Florence, though more condensed, and with 360-degree views of the water. Case in point: St. John's Co-Cathedral is an opulent Baroque affair filled from ceiling to crypt with frescoes, gifts from the knights, and a high altar bedecked in semiprecious stones. An adjoining museum, near the cemetery where many knights are interred, displays Flemish tapestries and Caravaggio's famed painting, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Other don't-miss sights include the Grand Master's Palace, where you can view de la Valette's half-suit of armor, and the Upper Barracca Gardens, where the Priest's Revolt was plotted.
Sadly, though, the knights eventually lost their fighting spirit, and when Napoleon stopped by for fresh water supplies in 1798, he left with some the island's finest treasures, including Malta itself.
Practically Speaking To reach the inner sanctum of Valetta, hop on any bus outside the City Gate and head away from the sea. If you are coming from the Sliema/St. Julian's area, take the five-minute Marsamxett Ferry, which deposits you by a water polo pitch. The city is laid out on a tidy grid, with most of the 320 monuments sandwiched between Fort St. Elmo and Triton Fountain, and the two harbors. Pick up a free city map at the tour office at 1 Freedom Square. You can see most of the sights in a day (if you walk briskly and don't mind art overload), or can spend the night at one of many enchanting hotels enveloped by history.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication