Look up the phrase ‘crossroads of civilisation’ online – as we did after perusing several Mediterranean cruise brochures this week – and you will quickly find any number of candidates for this most momentous of titles. It crops up again and again in literature, museums and travel guides.
From Persia to Morocco and Cordoba to Istanbul, there are numerous examples of countries, regions and cities that all claim to have been at the centre of various civilising influences of one kind or another.
Funnily enough, Milwaukee in Wisconsin crops up on the first page of a Google search for the term in question, albeit only because it has a new wing of the Milwaukee Public Museum dedicated to this particular subject, bringing together Europe, Asia AND Africa under their new Crossroads of Civilization exhibit just to make sure they cover every conceivable base.
We could also add, that our own back garden has many of the same attributes, at least in terms of our reading this summer, which has been blissfully enhanced by the kind of sit-outdoors-with-a-good-book weather that seemed consigned to the pages of its own history tome (at least until the rain started up against at the weekend).
Of course, whether the likes of The Crusades or the Moorish Invasion of Spain were even vaguely civil in their intent or occupation is a whole different debate, but you get the general idea that the Mediterranean has been at the centre of various vast swings of movement and empire building for more than 5,000 years.
It’s an easy claim to make for large parts of the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, North Africa and various islands in between. But, when it comes to being at the geographical crossroads, there is one island – or archipelago, to be strictly correct – that really tickles our fancy when it comes to paying a visit via our favourite method of transportation (which would be cruising, of course).
Malta’s history includes monumental megalithic temples, invasions by the Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantines (among others), assorted feudal rulers, the Great Siege of 1565 (the Ottoman Empire this time), more than two centuries of rule by the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (aka the Order of St John), French occupation, another siege (this time during World War 2) and, finally, becoming a republic in 1974.
It is a truly astonishing slice of historical exclusivity, virtually matchless in the vast cornucopia of Mediterranean heritage, and one of the reasons we like to highlight this little port of call as a Treadwell and Tenny bastion of all things bright and beautiful in the maritime world – a beacon of cruise quality.
And that’s not just because they have invented a whole range of aromatic drinks – both alcoholic and sans alcohol – that are a joy to discover. Try Bajtra, a liqueur made from prickly pears, Limuncell, a variant on the Italian limoncello, and Kinnie, a carbonated drink made from ginseng, anise and bitter oranges (as well as assorted other herbs). Never let it be said we were afraid to sample anything strange.
Even though we remain staunch G&T devotees, we will never shy away from trying the local libations, which is why we are also keen enthusiasts for Guatemalan rum, South African Amarula and Spanish brandy. It is also why we avoid Jamaican 150-proof rum like the plague, or, more accurately, like an evil liquid that is designed purely to drag your brain cells out one by one and batter them senseless. But we digress…
Just to start with Malta boasts one of the world’s great ports to sail into. Valletta is a Baroque masterpiece, dating back to 1566, and the Grand Harbour is one of the region’s most striking deep-water ports, defended by Fort Saint Elmo and 800-year-old Fort Saint Angelo.
From this epic central arrival port, the whole city is laid out like a giant welcome mat, with wide, straight streets from the City Gate to Fort Saint Elmo, and visitors are invited to wander and discover for themselves. Regular readers will be aware we are not great wanderers, preferring a train, taxi or even a rickshaw to extended trips on Shanks’ Pony (or, more preferably still, a cocktail bar with a great view), but we definitely make an exception for Valletta.
We always start with a trip to The Malta Experience, a multi-media presentation into 7,000 years of history that dazzles with its classic story of the three islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino), as well as the chance to visit La Sacra Infermeria, the 16th-century hospital of the Knights of St John.
Our perambulations also take us along Republic Street and to the National Museum of Archaeology, the Grand Master’s Palace, and Malta at War Museum, as well as St John’s Co-cathedral, a truly breathtaking piece of interior design that is akin to walking into the Tardis in architectural terms – a plain, unprepossessing exterior that hides a multitude of Baroque features for room after room.
A boat tour of the Grand Harbour is another must-do for the full 360-degree perspective on this marvellous location, and a trip to nearby Mdina, ‘The Silent City,’ which reveals more historic gems, like St Paul’s Catacombs, deep underground – very much like walking into an Indiana Jones set.
Having mentioned the drinks, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the fact Malta is also a great place for a foodie experience, with masses of fresh seafood and local specialities such as Lampuki (fish pie), Pastizzi (flaky pastry with ricotta cheese), Kapunata (a variation on Ratatouille), Bragioli (beef olives) and Stuffat tel-Fenek (rabbit stew).
It is a world of the European and African, western and eastern, a genuine cultural melting pot that has simmered for centuries and arrived at a happy modern-day recipe of inclusion and respect. Now THAT could be the ultimate ‘civilising’ experience.
Oops. Did we slip onto our Soapbox there? Our apologies. We didn’t mean to turn our weekly ramblings into a sermon. Let’s just sum it up with a final thought – Malta is one of the most original and welcoming ports of call that we have ever visited. We highly recommend that you do, too. And try a Bajtra or three. You won’t regret it.
Have you visited Malta? What did you think, and what other Mediterranean ports of call appeal to you most? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.