With its grand Baroque architecture and pearly beaches infused with sparkling Mediterranean light, it’s easy to see why Malta makes its way into more than a few Instagram feeds. The island has starred in many Hollywood blockbusters, including Troy, The Da Vinci Code and Game of Thrones. But that’s just above ground. Leave the sun-baked piazzas and candy-bright gelateria behind and head down into Malta’s underground kingdoms to discover an atmospheric Oscar-worthy set that’s as fascinating and stunning as the one at street level.
Beneath Malta’s capital is a warren of tunnels, liberally punctuated with small bunkers large enough to house families of four. They were carved out during World War II, providing shelter from a relentless peppering of Italian and German bombs. As with most architectural treasures in Valletta, these are not your standard emergency bunkers. They are surprisingly charming. Beneath the muddy puddles that cover the floors are bright ceramic tiles, with small altars hollowed out from the walls still containing a handful of intriguing personal effects: bowls, bottles, half-burned candles. A wander through these underground Maltese tunnels provides a poignant reminder of the families that huddled here more than 70 years ago.
It’s not all bomb shelters and tunnels beneath Valletta though. Beyond curtains of knotted fig roots trailing down from the street is a vast three-storey-tall cistern. Directly beneath Great Siege Square, the public water tank was carved out in the 16th century by the Knights of Malta. It’s an eerie, atmospheric chamber whose silence echoes with its rich history. Linking numerous residential basements with the national library, St John’s Co-Cathedral and even, supposedly, the presidential palace, the cistern is rarely open to the public apart from during occasional exhibitions.
Paola is a pretty 17th-century urban enclave 5km from Valletta that’s blessed with more than its fair share of beautiful old churches, dappled-shaded gardens and sleepy squares. The real treasure in this little town, though, is its extraordinary Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean limestone temple that dates back to 3300 BCE. Both sanctuary and necropolis, the structure’s intelligent design directs sunlight to illuminate its lower levels, lighting up the rudimentary ochre paintings—the oldest of their kind in Malta—on its underground walls and ceilings.
A stone’s throw from the famous Dingli Cliffs is the town of Rabat, home not only to a stunning church, but also, beneath the hustle of the centre, the Catacombs of St Paul and, opposite them, St Agatha. Harking back to Roman times, the catacombs are said to be where the saint himself stayed following his shipwreck on the island in 60 AD. It’s in these hallowed halls that the first evidence of Christianity in Malta was unearthed. St Agatha’s is the more charismatic of the two, with its genuine human skeletons and faded Byzantine frescoes creating a macabre but compelling visit.