And now for something completely different! We sailed into Valletta, the capital of the island (really archipelago) nation of Malta, just after sunrise on Easter Sunday, March 31. Malta has been inhabited for more than 6,000 years. The people speak a language that is Semitic in origin, but is written with Roman lettering (with lots of k’s & x’s & apostrophes). It is a very Christian country, filled with impressive churches & cathedrals.
In the early 16th Century Malta was given to the Knights of St. John by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who built the eyesore palace in the Alhambra) when the Turks drove them from their previous headquarters on Rhodes. The Knights, also known as the Knights Hospitalers, were an international religious order organized during the Crusades. One story is that they originated as an order of monks dedicated to providing medical care in a Jerusalem hospital dedicated to St. John the Baptist, who expanded into military activity when they began accompanying pilgrims through the area. I have read elsewhere, though, that they were a group of crusading knights who were assigned to billet in a hospital named for St. John after Jerusalem was captured by the Christians during the First Crusade. (Similarly, the Knights Templars derived their name from having been billeted in a temple in Jerusalem). I don’t know for sure which is correct; perhaps the order developed from an amalgamation of hospital monks with the military group that was stationed there. It certainly cannot be denied that the order continued to be dedicated to caring for the sick, in addition to its martial activities. Indeed, in their hospital in Valletta (see below) they cared for the sick without regard to religion and the patients ate from silver plates & were often attended by the knights themselves, & sometimes even by the Grand Master, the head of the order.
Charles V gave Malta to the Knights in exchange for a Maltese Pergrine falcon to be provided to him each year. So this much of the story of “The Maltese Falcon” is historically accurate (the rest, not so much, even though there is a plaque in San Francisco commemorating the spot where Bridget O’Shaunessy shot Miles Archer). The Knights were from noble families throughout Europe, and consisted of 8 national groups called “Langues.” They apparently earned their living partly by preying on ships in the area, and in the 1560’s the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent decided to seize the islands and drive the Knights out. This led to “The Great Siege of 1565,” during which the Turks tried, but failed, to take Malta. The Knights ruled Malta until 1798 when Napoleon drove them out (Napoleon decided to invade only after the Knights refused his request to land and re-provision his troops on the way to Egypt). The Maltese asked the British to help them get rid of the French a couple of years later; the British responded and remained in control until 1964. Be careful what you ask for!
During World Ware II Malta was situated in a strategic spot controlling sea lanes the Germans needed to supply their troops in North Africa. They subjected Malta to relentless bombing and made it difficult for the Allies to resupply the islands. But the Maltese (and the British military) held out, an inspiring story during the war. King George presented them with a medal & 50 years later Queen Elizabeth built a monument with a large “siege bell” in commemoration. We watched a movie about this called “The Malta Story” starring Alec Guinness before coming on the cruise. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was interesting because it was filmed in Malta & gives an idea of the privations & terror bombing endured during this siege.
The sail in early in the morning was quite impressive (although unfortunately another cruise ship went in ahead of us). Valletta & the cities across the harbor are heavily fortified, with walls that are about 30 feet thick in some places. The buildings in the harbor & throughout the island are made of an off-white colored stone that gives it all an unusually homogeneous appearance. And the early morning sun gave a warm glow to the whole scene.
Before exploring Valletta we decided to take a HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) bus to Mdina (em-dee’-nuh), which was the old capital before the Knights arrived. HOHO buses are garishly painted open top double decker tourist buses that are available in a number of European cities. You pay one price for the full day, they drive through a set route (in this case the northern part of the island of Malta), and you can get off to visit any sites you want & then get back on the next HOHO bus (15-30 minute intervals) to continue the route. They also have narration in multiple languages through earphones. Altogether, its a pretty good deal if it is going where you want. Anyway, we got to Mdina early in the day, so it wasn’t very crowded yet. As we were leaving we saw many worshipers dressed in their church clothes departing Easter morning services. Mdina is an old city with very narrow streets that retains much of its medieval charm. It is built on a hill & has great views from its walls, where you can see Valletta & other towns in the area. It also has a large cathedral that can be seen from far away.
There is a lot of public statuary in Mdina on churches, walls & elsewhere. Mdina is also known for its variety of elaborate door knockers.
As I mentioned before, the view from the walls was spectacular.
Two more views of the red-roofed cathedral from Inside & outside the walls & then we returned to Valletta.
Holland America had carefully planned our visit to Valletta for one day on Easter Sunday when most places are closed in this very Christian city. To emphasize this stupidity they distributed a newsletter saying that the one thing not to miss in Malta is St. John’s Co-Cathedral, even though it was closed to the public on the one day we were to be there. So, on Sunday we visited what was open & walked around the walls of the city. But when we returned to the ship we learned that because the weather would prevent our anchoring & tendering in Gozo (another island of Malta that was to be our next stop) we would spend a second day in Valletta. We were sorry to miss Gozo, but on balance this was an improvement since it enabled us to visit this spectacular cathedral, among other things. We could have used our time to better effect if we had known in advance that we would have two days in Valletta, but we were happy with what we were given. Anyway, from here on I will depart from strict chronology so that each site can be fully treated in a single section.
There are three main buildings in Valletta I will cover in some depth. The first (which we toured on Sunday) is the Grand Master’s Palace. The Grand Master was the head of the Knights & seems to have had quite a lot of authority. The palace was occupied by the British governor until 1964 and is now the home of the Maltese legislature & also houses the President’s offices.
The hallways inside have marble inlay floors, elaborately painted walls & ceilings, & are lined with suits of armor (the knights left a lot of armor, much of which is in the museum).
This was, altogether, a fabulous building and would have been the highlight in most cities, but not in Valletta. As everyone had said (including Holland America), it was outshone by St. Johns Co-Cathedral, which was really over-the-top (Co-Cathedral means, as I understand it, that it shares the status of Cathedral of Malta with the one in Mdina). The Cathedral is relatively plain on the outside, and apparently it was rather unadorned on the inside as well when built by the Knights after they moved their headquarters from Vittoriosa across the harbor to Valletta after the Great Siege.
Later, however, they made it over inside in high Gothic style, with every inch covered in some kind of fabulous decoration: statuary, painting, inlaid marble, gold and silver. The effect upon entry is stunning.
The floor of the cathedral is made entirely of inlaid marble. It comprises the tombs of more than 400 of the Knights, with writing in the languages of the countries from which the knights came & dramatic pictures that often reflect death. Unfortunately, most of these tombs are covered with carpets & chairs for worshippers. I guess the carpets will help preserve them from the feet of all the visitors (high heels are not permitted inside).
As you can tell, I really liked these. I wish more of them had been uncovered and visible. There are eight side chapels in the cathedral, one for each of the “Langues,” or regional groups of Knights. They were extremely elaborate, with beautiful paintings, reliefs, sculpture & gilded decoration. My favorite was (I think) the chapel of the Langue of Aragon, with a painting of St. James in the center. I am no longer sure whether all these pictures are from that chapel or not, but they give you an idea of how elaborate they are.
Finally, the Cathedral has an Oratory that contains two of the most famous paintings by Caravaggio, “St. Jerome” & “The Beheading Of St. John,” the only painting he ever signed. Caravaggio was, to say the least, not a nice guy. When he came to Malta in 1608 he was on the lam, having killed a man in a street brawl in Italy. He was assigned to paint a portrait of the Grand Master & then was inducted into the Knights. It wasn’t long, however, before he lost his legendary temper once again & stabbed another knight. He was imprisoned, then escaped, & they drummed him out of the order. He died shortly thereafter. These two paintings are extraordinary (really, to me most of his work is), but no pictures can be taken in the Oratory so you won’t see them here. However, in the main part of the Cathedral there is a cross with a painting of Jesus on it by Carvaggio, so I will show you that instead (although it isn’t really a fair substitution).
In a place of honor right between these two magnificent buildings is the Biblioteka Nazzionali (national library). The Knights were forbidden to destroy any of their papers, so there is a huge archive of the order’s records in this library (also an original copy of the letter in which Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church in England, which must have shaken up the knights who were from English noble families). There was too much paperwork to gain admittance, but the outside of the building was a treat.
For the rest of the afternoon we strolled around the walls of the city. Even some of the ordinary houses we saw on the streets of Valletta & in some of the other towns as we drove by in the HOHO bus were interesting & unlike what we have seen elsewhere. Most of them come right up to the street; I don’t know whether there are courtyards inside, but it would be nice to think there are.
Fort St. Elmo is at the tip of the harbor on the Valletta side. It was captured by the Turks in 1565, but looks awfully secure to me. It is not open to the public although they are working on restoration of it.
Fort St. Anselm, on the other side of the harbor entrance, took the brunt of the Turkish attack after Ft. St. Elmo fell, but the Turks couldn’t capture it.
We also visited the Lower Barracca Gardens, which commanded fine views across the harbor (I am running out of adjectives).
By the time we got back, & found out we would have another day here, we were exhausted. So we didn’t go into town that night, as many people did. We had been scheduled to sail away at 6:00 the next morning, which would have given great views of the city lighted up at night (trust me, I have seen some pictures). But we went out on deck after dinner & there were some nice lighted views in the harbor.
I mentioned at the beginning that Malta has been inhabited for about 6,000 years, and on Monday we took a HOHO bus to visit two of the sites where archeologists are excavating neolithic settlements. Unfortunately (for us) the best items recovered from these sites are in a museum in Valletta we didn’t have time to visit, and they have been replaced at the sites with reproductions. But the reproductions are pretty good (we had a hard time distinguishing the real from the reproduced), and visiting the sites gives you a feel for their context that a museum visit would not. The bus goes all around the southern portion of the island, so we saw some other interesting sites as well.
The first neolithic site we visited is the Tarxien Temples in a town celled Paola We walked and walked through the neighborhood of the relevant bus stop following the signs for “Neolithic Temples,” only to find it finally about half way back to the bus stop after we had given up. It was mostly rocky holes in the ground, but there were some interesting round chambers & some (probably reproduced) decorative items, including the legs of a statue & some stones decorated with a spiral design.
Our bus took us through Vittoriosa on the other side of the harbor from Valletta, the city where the Knights first settled.
We also drove through the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. The fishing boats have eyes painted near the bow in the yellow sections to ward off the evil eye. We saw a fellow with a Maltese Falcon on his arm at the harbor here, but I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture before the bus pulled out (d’oh!),
We stopped at the Blue Grotto, a lovely place on the water, but we didn’t have time to leave the bus to explore.
Finally, we came to the other Neolithic site, Hagar Qim, where we left the bus to visit. This site has been dated to about 3,600 BC. These sites are all called “temples,” but we have very little idea of what they were used for.
We returned to Valletta & visited the Cathedral which you have already seen, then headed back to the ship. Here are a picture of the fountain outside the main gate of Valletta (the gate is undergoing restoration, so I couldn’t photograph it) & of Republic street, the main street of Valletta, which was a busy pedestrian walkway on Monday. And you can tell that the Maltese are civilized by the way they treat their stray animals (although supporting feral cats doesn’t seem like good policy to me).
As we sailed out of the harbor about 5:00 PM the Maltese fired a six gun salute from their guns atop the walls. This was pretty cool. And after this extra-long post (which I hope is justified by the glories of Malta I have tried to depict here) I will save the fruit & towel art for the next time. On to Crete!