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Stronghold of the knights is now a modern getaway

"Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone but unafraid in the center of the sea, one tiny, bright flame in the darkness"

_ Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 7, 1943.

The islands of Malta have been inhabited since before 4000 B.C. The residents owe their faith to the Apostle Paul, their language to the Arabs and the British, and their culture to the Knights of St. John. This mix has created a unique people, architecture and culture.

Because the Maltese islands _ Malta, Gozo and Comino _ are strategically located in the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Sicily, the nation has constantly been sought by one invading force or another.

In 1530, after being driven from Rhodes by the Turks, the Knights of the Order of St. John made their way to Malta. This multinational religious force left massive fortifications, rich architecture and the capital city of Valletta.

The Knights of the Order built seven auberges, or inns, in Valletta between 1571 and 1590, each reflecting the different origins of the Knights. Four of the originals still stand.

The Auberge de Provence was the hostel of the knights from Provence, France. Begun in 1571, this structure occupies a city block and now houses the National Museum of Archaeology. It contains collections from prehistoric sites on Malta and includes exhibitions of pottery, terra cotta statuettes from Neolithic times, and coins gathered from temple sites.

While its deep and sheltered Grand Harbor allows large cruise liners to enter, the walled city of Valletta itself is small, and thus ideal to explore on foot. At the arch of the City Gate begins mile-long Republic Street. The knights conducted horse races along its length, to celebrate St. John the Baptist. It is now the main shopping street and during evening is closed to motor vehicles.

Dominating St. John's Square, along Republic Street, is the austere St. John's Co-Cathedral. Built in 1578, it was once the church of the knights. Dedicated to St. John, it became a co-cathedral with the city of Mdina, in central Malta, in 1822. Chapels along its sides were given to each house, or group, of knights, who decorated it in their own national tastes.

Pinto Gate in the Palace Square is the entrance to the Palace of Grand Masters, built around two courtyards. This vast building has been altered extensively through the years. Initially a house for the grand master, or ruler, today it houses the president's office and Parliament.

Within its Red Room, also known as the Hall of Ambassadors, are remarkable tapestries, paintings and an armory displaying equipment related to the Knights of Malta.

Fort St. Elmo, built by the knights to defend the harbor, is located at the seaward end of Republic Street. This fort is fronted by granaries _ deep pits in the ground with stone lids in which grain was stored. The fort was destroyed in 1565 during a siege by Turkish forces, but it has been rebuilt by succeeding military leaders. Inside the fort is the War Museum, featuring exhibits from 1798 through World War II.

The easiest way to travel throughout Malta is by the distinctive, bright green buses, each customized by its owner/driver and including a shrine dedicated to his saint.

The main bus station is at the top of Republic Street, and from here buses leave for all parts of the island. Taking the buses is an inexpensive way to travel throughout the islands.

About 700 feet above sea level and seven miles inland from Valletta is the walled city of Mdina. Known as the Silent City due to the encircling walls, it seems a world of its own. Until the coming of the knights, Mdina was Malta's capital. The knights shifted the capital to Valletta, where they mainly stayed, so that Mdina was little affected beyond its change in status.

An impressive gate dating to the 18th century is the main entrance to Mdina. The streets are short and narrow _ and deliberately crooked, so that arrows could not be aimed down them. There are extensive views over the island from the ramparts, especially from the walls in the north of the town.

Many Maltese believe Mdina is where Publius received and entertained St. Paul after he was shipwrecked. Thus, the cathedral here faces on St. Paul's Square, and painted on the cathedral brickwork is a magnificent fresco of St. Paul's shipwreck.

Not far from Mdina is a bargain hunter's delight _ Ta Qali. Converted World War II airfields are full of glass-blowers, weavers, potters, leather-workers and jewelry-makers.

In and around Sliema Bay just northwest of Valletta are gleaming salt pans. The salt is raked into white hillocks and is placed on the market in its natural state due to its quality.

Reachable by boat along the south coast of Malta is the Blue Grotto, along the rocky coastal inlet of Wield iz-Zurrieq. Actually a series of tiny, sheltered coves, they are best visited in the early morning, when sunlight brings out the beauty of the colors beneath the waters. Phosphorescent marine life color the water its distinctive hue.

Northwest of Malta, across the Fliegu Channel, is the island of Gozo, a great day trip. The nation's second largest island is a simple place, devoted to agriculture. But Victoria, the island's main city, is a steep-sided town on high bluffs of the northern side of the island. It has numerous attractive cafes and bars around the main square.

A short distance to the south is the fishing village of Xlendi Bay, a quaint place of considerable charm. Near Xlendi Bay are paths leading to cliff tops, which offer a hidden pool and picturesque views. The brightly colored luzzu (fishing boats) with the eye of Osiris can be traced back to the Phoenicians. The fishermen believe it brings them safely back home.

Comino is the smallest of Malta's three islands. Once the land of pirates, it now has two hotels _ and no cars. Worshiped by snorkelers and beach-goers, it's an ideal getaway for peace and relaxation. Boat trips from Malta are operated during the summer months.

These islands offer year-round delight and are among the least expensive holiday destinations left in Europe.

Dawn Renee Levesque is a freelance writer living in Europe.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from North America to Malta, but there are numerous flights of Air Malta and major international carriers each week from various European gateways, such as London and Rome. There is a high-speed catamaran service between Sicily and Malta, and ships between Italy and Malta. The islands of Malta and Gozo are linked by passenger and car ferries. Comino has scheduled boat service from Malta.

GETTING AROUND: U.S. citizens need a valid passport but not a visa, for stays of less than three months. The current population of about 370,000 is a mixture of Arab, Sicilian, Norman, Spanish, Italian and English ethnic groups. English and Maltese are the official languages, and Italian is widely spoken.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the National Tourism Organization of Malta, 249 E 35th St., New York, NY 10016; phone (212) 213-6686.

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