TRAVEL GUIDE: Malta
Reasons to go to Malta? The sun, the sea, the food, the wine, the people and value for money, but, above all, the history.
Three and a half hours’ flying time from Belfast lies seven thousand years of history and you can sample it all in four or five days.
Malta has always been a place of refuge — either that or under siege.
Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Italians, Brits, Germans and a myriad of religious orders have variously settled or sacked the place, each leaving their stamp in one way or another.
The result is a Mediterranean melting pot, quite literally in high summer, with more history packed into its 124 square miles than most large countries.
It was also the most bombed place on the planet for two years between 1940 and 42, withstanding 3,000 German and Italian air raids to play a pivotal role in winning the second world war in the Med and north African theatres.
The resistance of the Maltese population and their British garrison earned the George Cross Island its proudly borne honour for gallantry, the highest the UK monarchy can confer, and the only time it has ever been bestowed on an entire nation.
Now Malta is in the news again, welcoming evacuees from the crisis in Libya.
A safer haven you could not envisage. With a population of just 400,000, Malta has much in common with Northern Ireland in punching above its weight on the world stage. Our affinity goes back generations to wartime service, Royal Navy and Air Force postings, religious pilgrimages, charitable links, such as the Knights of Malta order, and the good, old package holiday.
Northern Ireland people have been going on holiday to Malta since the sunbed was invented, mostly to the resort of St Paul's.
Now you can add the friendly little isle to the list of easily accessible short break destinations available to us, thanks to the advent of a new easyJet service from Belfast International, flying every Tuesday and Saturday.
On a longer stay, take in the adjoining island of Gozo or a day trip to Sicily, by hydrofoil, 60 miles away.
Just go for the sun, if you like, but to visit Malta without delving into its history and culture would be a missed opportunity of epic proportions.
I know, I was that tourist, I realised, standing transfixed before the iconic work of art that is The Beheading Of John The Baptist by the brilliant but criminally insane Italian artist Caravaggio.
View it in wonder in the awesome St John's Cathedral in the centre of the capital Valletta. With its beautifully crafted stone and woodwork and painted ceilings, I found it more inspiring than the Sacre Couer in Paris, the Duomo in Milan or the imposing Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
Learn the history, too ... the story of the knights who ruled ancient Malta and of how they took in the demented Caravaggio, on the run from a murder rap in Italy, only for him to go off the rails again after completing his greatest masterpiece; the only painting on which his signature appears, incidentally — in the Baptist's blood, of course.
I'd been to Malta before, for football, and seen no more than the airport, hotel and stadium.
If I'd looked beyond the floodlights, I'd have noticed the towering ramparts of the magnificent medieval city of Mdina, Malta’s first capital city during the reign of the knights.To walk through its silent, narrow, bending streets, designed so as to disrupt the flight of arrows, was serenity in the late afternoon February sun.
The must-see here is the 15th century Palazzo Falzon residence and its amazing collection of arts and crafts. Then on to the fortifications, from which you can see the whole island and sea beyond.
Here we were shown around just about the most desirable and exclusive boutique hotel imaginable — by none other than the head of the family who own and run the place, the island's High Commissioner Joseph Zammit Tabona.The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux, originally home to Maltese nobility, is now a Mdina landmark and the last word in luxury with 17 individually designed suites, all with panoramic views.
To spoil yourself would cost between 800 and 1,200 euro for a four-night package, depending on season.The Dragonara Westin, where we stayed, at St Julian’s, is a bit closer to the average budget.
Malta is one big battlement, not surprising given the early threat from seaborne invaders, and you can still see where those bastions came back into play as anti-aircraft batteries during the last great global conflict that defined the island's modern day identity.
Where German dive bombers once screamed down, Valletta's regenerated waterfront is now buzzing with bars and restaurants.
If the food is superb, a fusion of Italian and Arab influences, the wine is Malta's best kept secret. They don't make enough to export but the red from the Meridiana vineyard is too good to keep to themselves.
And here is where Malta also scores. Dinner for two, with wine, averages at 60 euro at the top end to half that in brilliant little bistros.
Good beer is 2.80 euro a pint and, when asking what we owed when four of us sat down for coffee in the sun in Valletta's main square, back came the answer: four euro.
As each of us fetched out the amount, we were politely corrected: “That's for all of you.” A journey back in time, indeed.