On the third day of our visit I was back in Valetta prepared for more adventure. The city with its rustic 16th century buildings just oozes a vibrant charm in a magnificent panorama of history. Hundreds of monuments celebrate religious, military, civil and artistic enterprises from the past. Ed and I were aware of enormous building projects within the precincts of the city and we peeped through wooden fences to assess progress of major undertakings.
Today I had a mission and that was to enjoy some world heritage and find my way to the Malta Experience. I walked leisurely down to the lower street levels and meandered along the harbour roads which gave way to the sea in a sheer drop. I was looking for the Historic Experience and was richly rewarded as I encountered several other Malta experiences on my way.
At one point of the road, stretched out on the concrete, were three young ladies lying on beach towels and clad in bikinis. Oblivious to the world and chatting idly, they were enjoying their own Malta experience. I wondered how this random act would be treated by Health and Safety in the UK particularly as there was no visible protective barrier between road and water. How incredibly brazen!
A few yards further on I found several fishermen committed to their own Malta Experience throwing out their lines into the placid waters. They were busy plying their fishermen’s trade with the usual patience necessary for this particular enterprise.
When I brought out my camera to capture the special moment an elderly fisherman viewed me with some suspicion.
Perhaps he had grown tired of posing as a local curiosity for the many visitors who wandered into the area. Perhaps he was irritated by the invasion of his private space. I took the hint and moved away as quietly as I could.
Eventually I arrived at the Malta Experience performance. What a great Experience this was – certainly living up to its advert of an Audio Visual Spectacular.
I took my place in a small theatre equipped with headphones to allow for the different language commentaries and settled back filled with expectations for my hour long journey into the mists of time.
Like most folk, I love a story; more so if the story is a real one portraying a pageant of people who actually lived and worked on this extraordinary island.
The time travel was inspirational; from the breath-taking dawn of prehistory and the age of great temples to Malta’s modern day inclusion as a fully responsible independent member of the EU, I sat enchanted.
Forgive me if I indulge in the tapestry of time which slowly unravelled for me in the Malta Experience.
In the embrace of the highly civilized Phoenician people from 800 BC and then under the rule of their Carthaginian city until 218 BC Malta must have flourished in a golden age of order, trade and strategic importance.
Malta was conquered by the Romans in 218 BC and evidence of their impact can be found at the Roman Villa in Rabat as well as at the various baths and catacombs around the island.
Perhaps the most important event at this time was that in 60 AD Paul was shipwrecked on the island. According to tradition, the Apostle took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat.
He was welcomed by the inhabitants of the island and when, after being bitten by a poisonous snake, he remained unscathed, a great awe and respect built up around him. He converted Publius, the Roman ruler, to Christianity. Gradually the rest of the Maltese followed. By the 3rd century AD most of the people were Christians.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see much of Rabat, although we enjoyed a welcome cup of coffee there before venturing into the old capital, Medina. However I followed with great interest what the guide books had to tell about its importance to the island.
In 395 AD, following the division of the Roman Empire, Malta was taken over by the Byzantines.
In 870 AD Malta was conquered by the Arabs. They ruled the island for more than 200 years and in that time the Maltese were heavily influenced by their civilization. In particular the Maltese language was largely shaped by the Arabic language. During the Middle Ages the Arabs were defeated by the Normans and a series of rulers manifested themselves until the powerful Spanish Empire handed the island over to the Knights of St John.
Who were the Knights of St John? During the time of the Crusades an order of monks arose whose sole purpose was the care of sick pilgrims. In support of the Christian armies they began to fight against the Muslims and came to be known as the Knights of St John.
The greatest impact of any group of people on the island of Malta must certainly have come from the Knights of St John. They set about fortifying the island, building hospitals and churches and creating a centre of art and culture. They endured the Great Siege of 1565 when with enormous courage 600 knights stood against an attacking force of over 30 000 Turks. The wonderful city of Valetta was to rise from the ashes. French occupation under Napoleon followed with eventual handover to the British.
During the 2nd World War Malta was a strategically important island. Axis forces were resolved to bomb or starve the Maltese people into submission and it became one of the most intensely bombed areas of the war.
Having endured terrible deprivation and untold suffering during the devastating Luftwaffe air raids of 1940 – 1942, the bravery of the Maltese people was recognised with the George Cross. The prestigious award is only given for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.
This picture from Wikimedia shows the profound devastation of the city.
I am busy reading THE KAPPILLAN OF MALTA by Nicholas Monsarrat and this little excerpt is indicative of the impact war was to bring. – ‘Father Salvatore was never to forget that moment, nor the sound, nor the sick dismay which seized hold of him as the first strident note split the air. Though he was to hear hundreds and thousands more alarms with a promise – a guarantee of slaughter not imaginable, it was always this baptismal one he heard…for him it marked the division between heaven and hell; the heaven of peaceful calm, the hell of wanton death’.
Malta became independent in 1964 with entry into the European Union in 2004.
It was inspiring. This miraculous journey through time, showing the whole history of the island, was spectacular. I lived entranced through every generation of people, every invasion, and every contribution each civilization had made. If you visit Malta this should really be your starting point.
That evening Ed and I had supper at Bugibba at a quaint restaurant filled with hundreds of photos of a personal and historical nature. Obviously this little tavern was a place of veneration for Princess Diana because there was a virtual shrine to her at the entrance.
Ed had his favourite fish and chips while I started off with a fluffy duck cocktail – Bacardi, Advokaat, Contreau, orange and cream followed by a marinara pizza. Ed and I were becoming quite comfortable with bus travel and we made our way back to the hotel without any trouble. I had now to plan for Day 4 of our adventures and spent my time pouring over the tourist guides and checking the internet. Medina had to be our next port of call. And so to bed! All in all a delightful end to the day!
Medina, the old capital of Malta, was our destiny for the next adventure.
How were we to know that this was the day that crowd marchers in Valetta would block all avenues of traffic and bring everything to a standstill? We stood waiting anxiously for a bus to appear, but time passed slowly by and no transport arrived. We were stranded.
And then a gift from heaven – a taxi stopped and asked if we needed a lift. He quoted €25 for the ride to Medina and Ed said no, too expensive.
Obligingly he dropped the price to €20 and ignoring Ed, I immediately accepted his offer.
What good luck; we got there in no time at all and began to explore the wonderful medieval city
Medina is a fascinating old city and has its origins dating back as far back as four thousand years ago.
What a magnificent gateway to the city! The original gate was closed and this new one built by the Knights of St John.
Medina, the original capital of Malta, became the haven of medieval nobility, descendants of a Norman, Sicilian and Spanish hierarchy. Even when the capital was moved to Valetta the city retained its ancient splendour. An earthquake in 1693 destroyed part of Medina but it was rebuilt by the Knights of St John.
Today the city only has a population of just under 300 people; very few vehicles are allowed within the premises. That only adds to its charm – quiet, peaceful, eloquent with the chronicles of the past – the whole city crying out to be explored, enjoyed and eulogized.
Ed and I were intent on doing just that, and where best to start – with some more story-telling of course. We were about to immerse ourselves in the Medina Experience.
We just loved this medieval building where we had coffee and became acquainted with the staff in the museum. Once again ensconced in a little theatre we donned our headphones and prepared to learn more about the city and the Knights in the documentary of the Medina Experience. A tour through the museum allowed Ed to meet up with some of the knights. They all looked serious and dedicated to their cause.
It is easy to traverse the streets of the old city. Everything is neatly arrayed; everything is in pristine order, where great care has been taken to preserve the quality and history of the walkways and buildings. Please take careful note of the two clocks on the Cathedral. Most churches in Malta bore this strange insignia. The clocks record different times to confuse Satan. He would not know the exact hour of Holy Mass celebration and thus his trickery would have no impact on the worshipping
Sadly the Cathedral was locked for the short time we were there, but that didn’t prevent me from investigating its beautiful interior through the many tourist books which are available. Wikipedia also allowed me the pictures.
What great pride the Maltese people take in their religious sanctuaries. I visited several churches and cathedrals during that week and each in its own way was awe-inspiring. The Cathedral of St Paul is apparently founded on the site where Publius, the Roman Governor met St Paul who had been shipwrecked on the island of Malta. The catastrophic earthquake of 1693 led to the rebuilding of the church in an elevating Baroque style and it is richly embellished with paintings and frescoes.
This picture from Wikipedia shows frescoes painted in the dome depicting the life of St Paul. If you are planning a visit make sure you get to Medina when the Cathedral is open.
DAY 5 WAS OUR ADVENTURE IN GOZO.
The day’s outing cost us £110, but the experience was well worth the outlay. A tour bus picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the little harbour where our sparkling ferry was waiting to convey us to the intriguing island of Gozo. The crossing takes about 20 minutes and it is a pleasurable experience of blue skies and gently lapping blue water.
In Gozo we boarded another tour bus with our first port of call being the Shrine of Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu.
This impressive Basilica occupies a dominant position on the island and is built on the site of a small chapel. A woman who had been gravely ill was enticed by the Virgin Mary to enter the sanctuary.
Whatever her malady, a cure was affected and the miracle drew thousands of pilgrims. This beautiful church now stands in place of the chapel and rooms are adorned with the photos of those who have been miraculously healed.
History and mythology go hand-in-hand in Gozo. This is thought to be the island home of Calypso. Homer tells the story of how the nymph Calypso, possessed with supernatural powers, is in love with Odysseus and holds him captive for a number of years.
Every day Odysseus seats himself on a rock and gazes across the seas longing for his beloved Penelope. Finally Calypso releases him and allows Odysseus to build a craft with which he can sail from the island.
Of course the gods don’t allow escape to run smoothly and Poseidon sends a violent storm to overthrow the little boat. Brave Odysseus survives the onslaught and eventually reaches safety.
Imagine my disappointment when we arrived at Djewra Bay to find that the Azure Window, which must surely have been a part of Calypso’s beautiful coastline, had fallen down a few months before our visit and now lies at the bottom of the ocean.
Divers apparently take great pleasure in exploring the ruins of the ancient limestone arch. In its time it served as a majestic backdrop for many historical films as well the more modern Game of Thrones.
My disappointment receded a little as we arrived at the Inland Sea of Djewra Bay. What an amazing phenomenon. This quiet gently lapping lagoon of sea water is fed from the ocean through a narrow tunnel in the cliffs. It is shallow enough for swimming although it is rather pebbly and would be uncomfortable for bare feet; it is possible to explore the cave with little boats that travel through the hole in the wall to emerge into a rugged seascape beyond the cliffs.
Then we were whisked away to a delightful craft shop full of original home-made articles and tasty food, wine and liquors. I had to make a purchase of the tantalising cactus nectar.
Next was a splendid self-service lunch (eat as much as you want) with a generous glass of chilled white wine. I sampled just about everything and tried to remember exactly what each dish was, but details were forgotten in the excitement of the day. Of course there was delicious dessert as well.
Our mode of transport changed as we drove into Victoria – the capital. Tour buses are too cumbersome to negotiate their way around this ancient city. We had a while off to explore on our own before meeting up for a further adventure to the Citadel.
This ancient fortress dates back to the Bronze Age. It was converted into a castle and the suburb which grew up around it is now the core of historic Victoria. Ed and I tried to take videos at the top of the Citadel. What an utter disaster! Couldn’t work the camera properly – and then the wind was blowing too strongly to hear any commentary! It was sad because the views from the top were breath-taking. Last stop was a beautiful church which I think was Xewkija and is famous for its link to the Knights of St John. All I know was that Ed grabbed the camera and took an endless number of photos of which I have only copied a few.
Such a stunning church! I have read that Gozo has 22 major churches and chapels. One cannot but admire the staunch Catholic faith of the devout Gozitans and the beauty which enriches their sanctuaries. A wonderful end to our visit as we headed for our return ferry trip home!
Last adventure day – and this could only be in Valetta! One more chance to savour the crisp November air of the bastioned city and gaze with rapture at the brilliant blue waters of the harbour, peaceful, tranquil – one more chance to walk the narrow streets and enjoy the unconventional shopping – one more chance to amble through the concourse and relish the unique characteristics which showcase Valetta.
Have you heard of a street called Strait Street, more commonly known as The Gut? If it is possible for this wonderful island to have a seedy side, it could be found right in the middle of Valetta. It was the district which entertained the armed forces from 1800 to 1964. But its history goes back even further boasting small bars, taverns, entertainers and perhaps even several brothels. Now it lies quietly with old sign posts dangling and the images of time ghosting the derelict street.
Beautiful Valetta, what a web of magic you have woven! I shall return and once more become captive to your spell!
There is one more pleasurable task before I depart and that is to visit the wonderful Cathedral of St John! So much has been said about this remarkable church that to leave without experiencing its treasures would be to deny myself another measure of Malta’s quintessence and incredible history.
The outside of the Cathedral is simple and quite austere. The inside is incredible opulence. To say that I was speechless would be a supreme understatement. For some overwhelming moments I stood enraptured and silent. In spite of many visits to beautiful cathedrals and churches I had never surveyed such splendour.
Thank goodness for the audio-guide which helped me to focus on where I had to go and what I had to see! All the walls, ceilings and chapels carry their own story. Dedicated Knights used this commemorative sanctuary to extol the lives of Grand Masters, and their pursuits are woven into the fabric of time.
It is unbelievable, but every rectangular marble inset which decorates the floor of the cathedral is a tombstone. 400 knights of the Order of St John, as well as rich and famous people from Malta’s historic tableau over the last five centuries, lie safely resting beneath your feet.
Mattia Preti painted the ceiling of the Cathedral with pictures depicting the life of St John the Baptist. He adorned the church with many of his beautiful paintings and was finally accepted into the Order of St John.
He was an imaginative and prolific artist and the Grand Masters used his talents to richly decorate their church.
My audio-guide told the tale of French conquest by Napoleon Bonaparte. He set about with reforms based on French Revolutionary principles and dismantled the institution of the Knights of St John; and their glorious age came to an end.
When church property was looted to pay for his military exploits there was an uprising amongst the people. I was intrigued to learn that they painted the silver gate black so that Napoleon was not tempted to melt it down into bullion. This picture from Wikipedia shows the success of the deception.
Without doubt, the most famous painting in the Cathedral is Carvaggio’s Beheading of John the Baptist. This masterpiece is housed in the Oratory and can be viewed for a small fee –and it is well worth the charge.
We have seen so much, made so many friends and experienced such pleasure that the memories of Malta will always hold a special place in our lives. Now it is time to step out of this fascinating tableau and return to the more placid life of home – that is, until I prepare for my next adventure.