By Paul Harris
COULD Prince Harry and Meghan Markle honeymoon in Malta? The odds are on an African safari (Harry’s likely choice) when they tie the knot next May.
But his fiancee fell in love with the former British possession on a three-day visit less than three years ago.
She has also revealed that her great-great grandmother Mary was born in Malta in 1862, and Meghan was surprised to find locals with her own facial features.
The future royal joins her grandmother-in-law, the Queen, as listing Malta as her favourite destination.
The Queen spent her early married years on the island, where Prince Philip served as a naval officer.
She has described it as the happiest time of her life when she could wander freely without being recognised.
Meghan’s description of her visit could serve almost as a commercial for Maltese tourism: “The people have been so kind, the food is amazing and the culture.
“I think everyone should come here. I can’t wait to come back, it’s too short a time.”
Could that be for her honeymoon?
But she went further, adding that it would be great to have property in Malta as it really felt like a home away from home.
“Everything is picturesque,” she said. “It is a great destination, really special.
“It has exceeded any expectation I may have had. As soon as possible I’ll come back and really explore all of her.
“It’s this Maltese hospitality that is really special to the place.”
Meghan loved the fresh goat’s milk cheeses. And she waxed lyrical about pastizz, a pastry filled with peas and ricotta, that she enjoyed for breakfast — “Oh my goodness they’re delicious”.
She revealed that she had filled her suitcase with local delicacies to take home.
My guide, Clive Cortis, who also escorted the future royal round Mdina, Valletta and Gozo, recalled her as “very down to earth”.
Meghan said: “Before I came, people were telling me, ‘When you go to Malta, everyone will look like you’, and I started to say, ‘Oh my gosh I do sort of blend in’, and it’s the loveliest feeling’.
“People have been so kind, the food’s amazing and the culture.”
It is the latter which has seen Malta’s capital, Valletta, designated European Capital of Culture 2018.
Unlike other cities which have received the honour, Valletta will share the citation with all parts of Malta and Gozo. Events are launched on Sunday, with the opening ceremony on Saturday, January 20.
British visitors will feel immediately at home with cars still driven on the left, power sockets the same as at home and traditional red post boxes and telephone kiosks which are still in use.
Look carefully and you can still spot iconic blue lights at some police stations.
Although most of the country’s 430,000 population speak English, Maltese is the native language, deriving mainly from Latin.
The crime rate is low, particularly on Gozo, to the extent that older residents of the islands still leave their homes unlocked . . . with the keys in the locks.
Much has changed in the 12 years since I last set foot on Malta, the island just below Sicily, and just across the Med from Tunisia.
Today there are traffic lights. Previously there were only roundabouts and stop signs.
Speed limits vary between 50 and 80 kph, so those who buy high-performance cars take them across to Italy’s autostrada to put them through their paces.
During my three-week visit that ended last week, road-building sent Google maps and Waze haywire. At the start of my trip I despaired of the traffic congestion. Roadworks appeared to be everywhere.
Within days they disappeared and new roads suddenly opened just before Xmas.
But GPS failed to recognise the new layouts, resulting in a few journeys which literally sent me round in circles.
Malta is a near-unique blend of most of the world’s greatest civilisations which either settled on the islands over 7,000 years or passed through, leaving their mark.
As I was told: “Never judge a country by its size. Geographically, Malta is at the edge of Europe, but internationally it’s at the centre.”
The first settlers arrived around 5000 BCE and some amazing architectural feats were witnessed over history, including the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Ggantija and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.
The Phoenecians arrived in 870 BCE before Malta fell under the control of Cathage, becoming part of the Roman Empire, a period of great prosperity.
History records that the first Jew on Malta was Paul the apostle when he was shipwrecked in 62CE and proceeded to convert the locals to Christianity.
Next came the Arabs and many of Malta’s place names remain from that period.
In 1091, Malta came under Norman rule and the walled city of Mdina reflects both influences.
The islands eventually became part of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
In 1530, with the Ottoman Empire at its peak, Charles V, fearing that it might conquer Rome, among other parts of Europe, ceded the islands to the Knights of St John, homeless since being driven out of Rhodes in 1522.
The peaceful Knights were forced to take up arms successfully to defend Malta in 1565 from the Ottomans during the Great Siege.
Napoleon seized the islands in 1798 and expelled the Knights, but two years later began 164 years of British rule until Malta was granted independence, becoming ba republic in 1974.
At St Paul’s, outside the walls of Rabat, are menorah-decorated catacombs from the fourth and fifth centuries
The Jewish population peaked in the Middle Ages with 500 on the mainland and 350 on Gozo.
They were mostly farmers or worked as merchants. Avraham Abulafia, a famous mystic, lived on Comino from 1285 until he died in the 1290s.
In 1479 Malta and Sicily came under Aragonese rule and the 1492 Edict of Expulsion forced all Jews to leave the country.
Because they made up such a large portion of the island's population the Spanish Crown compelled them to pay compensation for the losses caused by their expulsion.
Some Maltese Jews converted to Christianity and there are surnames today which appear to be of Jewish origin. Before the Second World War, many Jews fleeing Nazism arrived in Malta.
It was the only European country not to require visas. Numerous Maltese Jews fought in the British army during the war.
In 2000, a new synagogue was built with donations from America and Britain. The Jewish Foundation of Malta now manages it along with a Jewish centre.
The Malta Experience, housed in what was once the Sacra Infermia of the Knights of St John (www.themaltaexperience.com), includes a 45-minute audio-visual presentation.
Nearby, visitors can see the longest hospital ward in Europe — 155 metres, accommodating 247 beds.
The Knights completed it in 1574 after 23 years work, and revolutionary treatments included the use of honey for wounds.
Surgeons could remove a small kidney stone in two-and-a-half minutes.
Food was served on silver plates which helped prevent the spread of bacteria, although there is some doubt as to whether the Knights were aware of that benefit.
Medical instruments were also made of silver.
Paying patients benefited from their own toilets in an alcove next to their beds with drainage to the sea, and windows opening on to the kitchen garden with its citrus trees and aromatic herbs.
A hanging tapestry afforded privacy. The colour of canopies over each bed signified the ailment of the patient.
A ward on a lower level for those who couldn’t pay saw three patients sharing each bed and each toilet.
Both wards are now used as massive banqueting suites for corporate events or even for sitting exams, with little of the original ceilings or floors remaining.
And on what was once the kitchen garden now stands a large theatre where American President George H Bush and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a treaty in 1989 to end the Cold War.
I’m not ashamed to admit that a highlight of my trip to Malta was a visit to Popeye Village (popeyemalta.com), the set of the 1980 film.
I was entranced. The 19 wooden structures, built specially for the film, remain at Anchor Bay, around which, weather permitting, tourists can enjoy a boat ride.
You can enter the buildings, even watch the entire film, starring a very young Robin Williams and spot Popeye himself, Olive Oyl and Bluto wandering around.
Malta includes also the islands of Gozo and Comino where the films, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Swept Away, starring a young Madonna, were shot.
Comino’s sole occupants are an elderly family of three.
There’s a regular 25-minute ferry service to Gozo, with its imposing citadel, including drive-on, drive off (to book, telephone 00365 2210 9000).
It enjoys a far quieter and slower pace of life and is much greener than the mainland.
According to legend, the temptress nymph lured Odysseus to Gozo, imprisoning him for seven years.
From her legendary home, you can see the red sands of Ramla Bay. The neolithic temple on Gozo is said to be the oldest free-standing monument in the world.
After the war, Britain offered Gozans the opportunity to emigrate to Canada, America or Australia, with an inducement of £10 per person.
Thousands left, but those who eventually returned, and their descendants, display symbols like kangaroos and maple leaves outside their homes, attesting to their family history.
A tradition that remains is hand-knitted garments, using cheline, a fine wool, a skill passed from mother to daughter over centuries. Many also still make beautiful lace items.
Sadly, the famous Azure Window, the landmark limestone arch that once featured in Clash of the Titans and Game of Thrones, collapsed into the sea last March, following years of erosion. Even Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, described it as “heartbreaking”.
On the mainland, Paceville is the clubbing centre and there are plenty of venues to suit most musical tastes throughout the islands, as well as a variety of good restaurants. It’s good for diving with an average sea temperature of 18c.
In Mdina, the Domus Romana, a lavish Roman townhouse, is one of many fine residences open to the public throughout Malta.