October 2022: Malta is a small country but one packed with lots and lots of history. Its location in the middle of the Mediterranean just off the shore of Sicily, Italy and Tunisa have made it very strategically important throughout history and almost every empire in the region has known this and has left it mark on the small island. For some reason, Malta waited to be my last Mediterranean country to visit, and I only had two days to visit it, but I planned to make the most out of my short visit.

About Malta

When the Roman ship that had the Apostle Paul detained on it shipwrecked off of the rigged northwestern coast of Malta 2000 years ago, the survivors of the crew expected the barren island of Malta to be uninhabited. In truth it wasn’t. It had already been inhabited for thousands of years at that point by an ancient culture the world knows very little about that left temples and burial mounds throughout the island. Then the Phoenicians came to the island, later the Romans, and Muslim Arabs only for the island to be conquered by the Normans before finally ending up in the hands of the British. The island was a focal point of the Crimean War and later World War II when it was relentlessly bombed by the Nazis.  In recent years it has become a tourist magnet and in the summer its numbers swell in tourists well passed the population of its citizens. This why I chose to go in October during its shoulder season when the weather is still nice and there are few tourists.

Map of Malta

My wife, mother-in-law and I arrived late at night in Malta on a flight from Sicily. We quickly checked out our rental car, a compact stick shift vehicle. As always, I had to quickly adapt to a new style of driving on the left side of the road and my favorite multiple lanes round abouts. Then we drove an hour across the island to the village of St Paul’s Bay, where we checked in to our guesthouse, a small 1930’s era apartment building.  We caught up on some sleep but early the next morning, we set off on a long day of trying to see as much as possible. 

Abandoned Building

I woke up before everyone else and took advantage of the opportunity to walk the neighborhood and observe some of the old early 1900s era buildings, some in a state of serious decay.

We started by having breakfast on the Xemxija Bay. It was here that I realized you never have to go far in Malta to find history. In Malta homeowners have discovered tunnels networks built my medieval crusaders when digging in their backyards. History is literally all around you in Malta. Even at our breakfast cafe, I started to see nearby tunnels on the side of cliffs, so I followed a trail into the brush beneath the cafe that led to a series of man-made caves in the cliff. I am not sure if these were old tombs, or cave shelters built for protection in World War II but some of them were sealed shut while others could be easily entered because the doors falling apart. The interior consisted of a few rooms carved out of the mountain with some scattered debris but there wasn’t much left to help identify the purpose of the caves.

From Ximanjaga Bay we set off the far western side of the island. Even though Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, there surprisingly is a lot of nature and remote parts of the island with no people. These were some of the places I chose to go. From St. Paul’s Bay we set off the far western side of the island. Even though Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, there surprisingly is a lot of nature and remote parts of the island with no people. These were some of the places I chose to go.

St. Pauls Bay

Man Made Cave Entrances on the Side of the Cliff

We visited the Chapel of Immaculate Conception, a chapel dedicated to a Saint that saved a capsized fisherman’s life off of the rough sea cliffs below it and then we hiked to the coral lagoon, a cave in the coral that opens to sea that under normal conditions would be an incredible place to swim.  The wind was howling, and the idyllic Mediterranean Sea was rough and churned up.

Coral Lagoon

Cliffs on Far West of Malta Island/Rough Windy Seas

Then we drove to Fort Campbell, an isolated abandoned World War II era British fort on the end of the remote Selmun Peninsula. Aside from the fort, the peninsula is exciting to explore for other historical buildings, ruins, sea cliffs and nature.

Fort Campbell/British World War II Era Fort

We had the fort to ourselves. It wasn’t a tourist site. The fort is completely abandoned with ruined military buildings and tunnels scattered about. In some tunnels there are munition boxes and I’m sure of you dig deep enough there are other World War II era military treasures waiting to be found. Malta was a very strategically important island to the British in World War II and the island was under siege and viciously bombed during the war and Campbell fort would not have been spared. The fort was designed with reinforced concrete to absorb the impact of the explosions with underground tunnels and bunkers. Many of the underground tunnels have collapsed and do not lead far anymore. If there are some, I couldn’t find them at least.

Bunker Tunnels

Guard Tower

Paula inside one of the underground military buildings

Cambell Fort would be a great place to camp and explore at night. Even though Malta is small, I noticed there are plenty of wild places available for camping and there was plenty of evidence that people had camped at Campbell Fort before. From Campbell Fort we could see the statue of the Apostle Paul, constructed in the early 1800’s on a small island adjacent to Campbell Fort where it is believed St. Paul shipwrecked on a Roman vessel that was delivering him to a prison in Rome. St. Paul went on to convert the majority of the population of Malta to Christianity, a religion that has maintained its grip on the people of Malta to this day.

Island of St Paul/Island Believed to be Where the Apostle Paul Shipwrecked

I love abandoned buildings and there is no shortage in Malta. Selmun Palace was built in the 1600’s and is now abandoned next to an abandoned hotel. The beautiful old building was once used by the crusading knights of S. John as a place for relaxation when they weren’t fighting the Muslim Ottomans.

Selmund Palace

Manoel Island

Manoel Fort Entrance

Manoel Island overlooking the old city of Valletta from across the bay was exactly the kind of place I came to Malta to visit. Like all places in Malta there are overlapping levels of history. Manoel Fort that sits at the end of the island was initially built in the 1600’s by the Crusading Knights of St. John. 

The knights built an extensive underground network of tunnels to help them fight off the invading Arab armies. The British then used the fort in the Crimean War and gain later in World War II. Military buildings sprung up around the fort on the island over the centuries including a hospital that was used to quarantine thousands of condemned victims of various plagues. The fort suffered a tremendous amount of damage during World War II from Nazi bombings. The British utilized the tunnel network underground, and the tunnels are said to run between the fort and hospital. Currently the military buildings are abandoned, and the fort is closed. The island is private property but open to the public. Aside from one security guard at the entrance of the island, there are no other guards and visitors can walk freely among the ruins and the fort. There are fences erected to ward of intruders from entering the most unstable buildings and the giant moat that surrounded the fort was pretty effective at keeping me out. My main goal was to find the underground tunnels built by the Knights of St. John. I brought flashlights and was prepared to explore them. I knew there were random entrances to these tunnels near the fort and I found them but sadly they were either sealed shut with rocks or metal bars.

Even though I couldn’t access the tunnels like I hoped, it was a lot of fun exploring the island. The highlight was relaxing at the islands end near the fort entrance in a small pool dug out of the rock that formed an artificial pool where the water from the bay filled in. We sat in the pool cooling off while admiring the views of the old city of Valletta across the bay. I swam along the bay passed the abandoned Lazzaretto Hospital and entered the hospital through a tunnel only accessible from the water. I swam back about 50 feet into the tunnel before the tunnel came to an end. I imagined what the hospital must have been like during plague times when it was full of condemned quarantine patients. There is an eerie presence to the place and given its tragic past, there have been many reports of supernatural encounters. One such ghost is that of a dark knight who has been known to stand and watch from the distance.

I am glad I was able to see the island before it is developed by the private company that now owns it. Modern apartment complexes and a parking ramp are planned for the island. Even though the fort and hospital will be preserved, the island will be reshaped forever and lose its magic once the new development is complete.

Manoel Fort

British World War II Houses

British World War II Houses

Swimming in the man made pool on the bay overlooking Valletta Old Town

Paula Looking at Valletta Old Town

On our last day on Malta, we woke up early to drive to Rabat, one of the oldest cities of Malta, a walled fortress city on top of a hill. The city has been around since Roman times and was used by the Knights of St. John. For me what interested me the most were the underground catacombs used by early Christians to bury their dead almost 2 thousand years ago.

Walking the alleys of the old city

Walking the alleys of old cities 

Catacombs

Catacombs

Near the catacombs was a cave that now has a church built on top of it. The cave is believed to be where the Apostle Paul sheltered during the winter that he shipwrecked in Malta and where he was bitten by a venemous snake in the presence of the Romans. He became instantly revered when he quickly healed from the snake bite and went on to heal the father of the Roman governor. 

St. John’s Grotto

Our last stop of the island was to the cliffs of Dingli before catching our flight in the afternoon to Zurich, Switzerland.

Dingli Cliffs

9 + 2 =

error: Content is protected !!