Knight watch

Gail Simmons glimpses the island's turbulent past through a Caravaggio masterpiece, old forts and tunnels.

Deep in the heart of old Valletta is the great Co-Cathedral of St John, built in the 1570s for the Knights Hospitaller of Malta. Designed by a military engineer, the fortress-like exterior offers no clues to what's hidden within.

It's only when I step inside and find myself enclosed by walls and ceilings sheathed in 24-carat gold that I know I'm in one of Europe's most sumptuous Baroque churches.

It's not simply the gilding that takes my breath away. In the oratory, I stand transfixed before Caravaggio's largest canvas, his graphic and gruesome Beheading of St John the Baptist.

Painted at a time when the Catholic church was under threat from the Turks, who besieged the Maltese capital in 1565, and encroaching Protestantism, this picture must have sent a potent message to the faithful.

Caravaggio's paintings were the soap operas of their day and justified his popularity with the authorities despite the artist's drinking and fighting, gambling and gambolling. He had fled to Valletta after a fatal stabbing in Rome and agreed to paint for the church in the hope of a pardon, which came just after his own untimely death.

I step from the chiaroscuro melodrama of the cathedral into the cheerful daylight of St George's Square. Until recently, this was a municipal car park; today, toddlers play in the fountains that spring from this space, now pedestrianised like most of Valletta. The jets of water dance to classical music.

Along with the various languages spoken by fellow visitors, I can detect the ancient, mysterious Maltese dialect derived, some say, from the Phoenicians who settled here in the first millennium BC and called the island Maleth, "safe haven". They were closely followed by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans, though it was the arrival of the Knights Hospitaller in 1530 that stamped this island with its most permanent mark.

I wander across town to Fort St Elmo, the great 16th-century bastion where the National War Museum is housed. In a small display case almost hidden among the faded documents and tattered photographs, I spy the George Cross awarded to the island in 1942.

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It's touching to see this little medal that encapsulates so much suffering. But even more stirring are the Lascaris War Rooms, tunnelled deep under the Upper Barrakka (barrack).

A mustachioed Scotsman tells us how the British and Maltese planned their defence of the island, and shows us the booths where British spies worked on German ciphers.

Later, to escape the cruise-ship crowds, I take the bus to Mdina, Malta's abandoned capital.

Alone on its hilltop, Mdina seems a theatre set crafted in stone. I stroll its paved streets, the hush broken by the sound of hooves from horse-drawn carriages and the echo of my own footsteps. It's clear why this jewel of 280 inhabitants is known as "the silent city".

But I'm back in time for the six o'clock Angelus, reminding me that even though it's almost 500 years since Valletta's heyday, Malta is still deeply rooted in its religious past.

The crowds have ebbed, the cruise ships have slipped away and yachts glide into the harbour. A deep calm settles over the Baroque roofscape of domes and spires, and the mournful clang of evening bells seems to reclaim the city for its citizens.

Swiss International Air Lines has a fare to Valletta from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2440 low-season return including tax. Fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong (about 9hr), then to Zurich (about 13hr), then Valletta (2hr 20min, codeshare with Air Malta); see swiss.com. This fare allows you to fly via a number of Asian cities and back from another European city.

- Telegraph, London

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