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Marvellous Malta; The beautiful island won a medal for gallantry in World War II and it won over RACHAEL BLETCHLY too.

WHEN the Hospitaller Knights of Malta asked Caravaggio to paint their patron saint for a cathedral altarpiece they expected a classic image of John baptising Jesus.

Imagine their shock when, in 1608, the rebellious artist unveiled his massive canvas - showing St John getting his head hacked off in bloody, graphic detail.

Four centuries later, that very same painting made the hairs on the back of my own neck stand up as I stood transfixed before it in stunning St John's Co-Cathedral, in Valletta.

I'd spent the previous few days getting to know magnificent Malta's three main beautiful islands, but this was the moment when I lost my head, and heart, to the country.

Tearing myself away from Caravaggio's masterpiece, I left the Baroque cathedral, with its 24-carat gilded walls, and strolled through streets of pale stone palazzos glinting just as brightly as the cathedral gold in the Mediterranean sunlight.

Malta, Gozo and Comino may have a combined population just the size of Bristol, but they have more monuments and natural treasures per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

And exploring them is like journeying through 5,500 years of history - visiting Neolithic monuments even older than Stonehenge, medieval citadels and Baroque cathedrals.

Then there are the Second World War shelters where the Maltese people endured 154 days of German bombing and won the George Cross - the highest civilian gallantry award - for the island.

Lying 55 miles from Sicily and 160 miles north of Africa, Malta has been conquered by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans and Arabs, who have all left their mark.

Napoleon tried too, in 1798, but the French were booted out two years later - with our help - thereby ushering in 164 years of British rule.

Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. But 450,000 British tourists still invade every year, enjoying the warm welcome, common language, perfect beaches and wide array of water sports just a three-hour flight away.

Malta still values our special relationship, but the old colonial ties are becoming less noticeable.

I visited the gorgeous fishing villages of Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga, and beauty spots such as the Blue Grotto and Azure Window on Gozo - just a 25-minute ferry trip away. The scenery is idyllic. Scores of movies and TV series have been filmed on scenic Malta - including Midnight Express, Gladiator and Captain Phillips.

Our guide, Audrey Bartolo, was an extra in many of them - and proudly boasts of being a Dothraki in TV fantasy favourite Game of Thrones.

The citadel of Mdina was Malta's first capital city, and its panoramic views and labyrinthine medieval streets are a delight. On Gozo you can relax on the sandy beach of Ramla Bay before visiting the Ggantija Temples, the oldest structures in the world, dating from around 3500 BC.

But there's so much to see in the modern capital, Valletta.

The Grandmaster's Palace has a magnificent armoury and there are museums of archaeology, art, and war and the fascinating Casa Rocca Piccola, an 1850s palazzo still lived in by a modern knight.

There's no need to hire a car in Malta - use the buses and ferries. And take a traditional "dghajsa" water taxi across the Grand Harbour to the historic cities of Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa.

There's a huge choice of accommodation, from farmhouses and apartments right up to luxury hotels. We stayed at the fabulous five-star Corinthia San Gorg Hotel in St Julian's, which has stunning, panoramic views and is a great base for water sports and diving, as well as for those wanting some pampering in its Apollo Spa.

Maltese food is delicious. Try the cheeses, fish and sea food and rabbit, cooked in wine and served with spaghetti.

We ate at some excellent restaurants, Tarragon in St Paul's Bay, Rubino in Valletta and Nenu, an artisan bakery specialising in local pizza-like ftiras.

Valletta is to be European Capital of Culture in 2018 and investment is now pouring into tourism and culture. In June it hosts its eighth Isle of MTV event - past performers have included Lady Gaga and Rita Ora - and it has a buzzing nightlife and hundreds of clubs and bars.

Strait Street - the old red light district once known as 'The Gut' by soldiers and sailors who sampled its dubious delights - has also been completely revamped. But I shuddered when someone suggested Malta could become "the new Ibiza". It's perfect as it is.

On my last day I stood in the Upper Barrakka Gardens, looking out across the Grand Harbour and the Saluting Battery where guns still fire at noon and 4pm, as they did throughout British rule.

Wartime songs were blasting out through the loudspeakers including Dame Vera Lynn's classic We'll Meet Again.

Oh we will, Malta - one sunny day, and very, very soon.

FACTFILE | RACHAEL BLETCHLY visited Malta as a guest of British Airways, who offer three nights B&B at the five-star Corinthia St George's Bay in St Julian's, Malta, from PS339 per person in May, including flights from Gatwick. Go to or cal 0844 493 0758.


| Comino, Malta

| St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta

| Rachael Bletchly at Gozo's Azure Window
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EXML
Date:May 17, 2014
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