As a region, the Mediterranean has played a vastly important role in world history. Having seen the rise (and fall) of everyone from the early Greeks and Romans, to the Crusaders, Ottomans and Venetians, it’s no coincidence that many of its most tranquil tourism destinations today actually have long, storied pasts.
Owing to its millennia of history, tiny Malta boasts 3 major UNESCO sites: its Renaissance-era capital, Valetta, the ancient Hypogeum of Saflieni, and its 6,000 year old monolithic temples.
Monoliths of Malta
Spread across the neighbouring islands of Malta and Gozo, the 7 individual monolithic temples were constructed over 1,000 years and are some of the oldest stone structures on earth.
Masterpiece of Neolithic-era craftsmanship, they are adorned with extensive carvings on interlocking walls supporting huge crossbeams that are marvels of early engineering. Previously neglected, since their UNESCO inscription in 1980 substantial conservation efforts have made them some of modern Europe’s most significant ancient sites.
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
Situated in an unassuming hillside above Valetta, the stunning 6,000 year old Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was hidden from the world until being accidentally discovered in 1902.
The hypogeum (“underground chamber”) may have been an ancient sanctuary for Malta’s earliest inhabitants, before becoming a burial chamber around 4,000BC. Estimated to be at least 6,000 years old, it was built using only basic bone and stone tools, carved to resemble the aboveground monolithic temples.
Today, the Hypogeum is one of the world’s best-preserved Neolithic sites, yielding up artifacts of immeasurable value, including the famed “Sleeping Lady” statue.
The City of Valetta
Founded by the Phoenecians around 800BC, Malta’s capital Valetta has seen every major Mediterranean civilization since. Home to 320 historic monuments, Valetta owes its huge cache of exquisite Renaissance architecture to the Knights of St. John, who rebuilt the city following the Siege of Malta in 1565.
Conceived on a single, uniform grid by the most famous architects of the era, Valetta’s compact design integrates a vast array of religious, municipal and military structures into an area that’s a fifth the size of Singapore’s CBD.
While many individual homes are themselves monuments, some of Valetta’s most significant public sites include the Palace of the Grand Master, the churches of Our Lady of Victory and St. Catherine, and the vast Manoel Theatre.
Thanks to its strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus has been a meeting place for all the great cultures of antiquity for millennia, leaving it with a wealth of historic sites.
Dating from Cyprus’s ancient Mycenaean era, the UNESCO-listed ruins of Paphos are a sprawling, open air museum.
Situated on Cyprus’s southwest coast, “Old Paphos” was dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite, centred on “Aphrodite’s Rock”, the mythical birthplace of the goddess.
The sprawling site encompasses Nea Paphos (Aphrodite’s Sacred City) and the necropolis of Tafoi ton Vasileon (“Tombs of the Kings”), and includes amphitheatres, palaces and tombs, comprising one of the most extensive ancient sites in the world.
Built in stages from 1,200BC, Paphos encompasses the Mycenaean, Greco-Roman and medieval Byzantine periods. Cited by scholars to be among the most beautiful mosaics in the world, Paphos’s most significant structure is the House of Dionysos (ca. 300AD), which has over 500sq.m. of vibrant mosaics depicting daily life alongside mythological scenes. Other sites include the vast Villa of Theseus, with over 100 rooms, and frescoes depicting Achilles and the Minotaur, alongside ruins of the Byzantine-era Castle of Forty Columns.
Located inland from the famous beaches of Larnaka, the abandoned village of Choirokoitia dates back nearly 9,000 years, and is now regarded as one of the most important archeological sites in the Mediterranean.
Choirokoitia‘s well-preserved hilltop ruins were originally part of ancient mud brick fortifications, enclosing homes and burial pits. While excavations are still in their infancy, a vast number of tools, carved idols and funerary goods are shedding entirely new light on early civilization in the region, which as UNESCO states, “has few known parallels”.
Painted Churches in the Troodos Region
The soaring Troodos Mountains in central Cyprus are home to the island’s most historic churches.
Dating from the 11th century, Troodos’s 10 UNESCO-listed “painted churches” range from small village chapels like St. Nicholas of the Roof in Kakopetria, to the comparatively vast Monastery of St. John Lampadistis, and exemplify the classical Byzantine iconographic art style with their exquisitely detailed murals.
Depicting scenes from the life of Christ and various saints, the paintings juxtapose the exquisite skill and grand style of the artwork, against the often-humble architecture of the churches themselves. Created over centuries, later murals seamlessly incorporate both classical “Eastern” (Byzantine), and later Italian Renaissance techniques.
Thanks to their remote location, the churches of Troodos survived the island’s various upheavals over the centuries, as well as the large-scale looting of religious artwork in northern Cyprus since the Turkish invasion in 1974.
Corsica was once an epicenter of exploration and conquest, under native sons like Napoleon, and, as many Corsicans claim, Christopher Colombus. Corsica’s culture is a mélange of French and Italian (thanks to its Genoese past), alongside aspects of Africa – as seen on its “Moor’s head” flag.
Much of inland Corsica is mountainous; it’s home to Europe’s toughest hiking route, the 15-day GR20.
Located in the mountains, the historic town of Corte oozes traditional charm. The one-time capital of the former Corsican Republic, in many ways Corte seems frozen in time, from its towering 15th century citadel (known as “The Eagle’s Nest”), to its winding, narrow streets.
The substantial student body of Corte’s historic University of Corsica Pasquale Paoli gives the town a vibrant nightlife and café culture, in addition to the bustling outdoor scene, centred on stunning Restonica Valley (where the GR20 hiking route runs), making Corte a magnet for hikers and mountaineers.
Situated at the foot of Cap Corse, the geographic finger that juts from the tip of the island, Bastia is where Corsica’s high peaks tumble down to the sea.
Centred on its historic harbour, Bastia is divided into “old” and “new”, namely the districts of Terra Vecchia and Terra Nova, although even new is relative in the 15th century neighbourhood surrounding the city’s picturesque citadel, guarding the entrance to Marina di Cardo.
Meanwhile, along the city’s undulating waterfront, the narrow alleys of the medieval Terra Vecchia give Bastia a lived-in feel that makes it both historic, but present.
By comparison to Bastia, Ajaccio’s sun-kissed coast emanates classic Mediterranean glamour. Birthplace of Napoleon, its brightly painted houses give it a historic charm.
The city’s most famous son still looms large, from Napoleon Bonaparte Airport, to Maison Bonaparte (his childhood home), to grand statues like the one donned in imperial Roman garb flanked by lions on the palm-lined Place du Maréchal-Joffre.
While yachts and traditional fishing boats moor along its waterfront, the mountains of Ajaccio’s backcountry are where things get interesting, where you can go kayaking in spring and mountain biking in summer.