Malta is a very small nation in the Mediterranean and because of its long and varied history, an interesting place to visit. It has temples that pre-date Stonehenge, St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta, there are forts built during the days of the knights and it also was an important player in World War 2. Throughout the centuries, everyone wanted control of Malta because of its location.
Alicia was in Europe to celebrate Christmas with us and also get in some traveling. Berlin was our pre-Christmas destination and December 27 we were back at the airport on our way to Malta. Alicia's friend, Nicole, flew to Zurich in order to join us on this trip. We got off to a bumpy start: Nicole's suitcase didn't make it to Malta. Since she is only about 5 feet tall (and therefore many inches shorter than Alicia) clothes sharing wasn't an option. Luckily we arrived before the 10pm closing time of the nearby mall. First stop: buy a change of clothes.
In the flight magazine, we read about a re-enactment that was going to take place the very next day. We headed there for our first taste of Malta. The event re-enacts the inspection of Fort St. Elmo by the Grand Bailiff in charge of military affairs in order to ensure that the fort is in good condition to defend the Valletta peninsula and the two harbors on either side of it. (I particularly like the name St. Elmo since Elmo was always my favorite Sesame Street character.)
|ready to watch - on a windy day|
During the re-enactment, the soldiers and knights of the fort's garrison are all in uniform and perform their military drill demonstrating to the Grand Bailiff their state of readiness. It is clearly for tourists and takes place on a smaller "stage" than we expected. We still enjoyed the costumes, sword fighting and military displays.
|fort where re-enactment occurred|
|view from the fort|
Malta was a British protectorate during WW2 and was known as the unsinkable aircraft carrier. Visiting the Malta at War Museum, we learned that the people of Malta earned the George Cross award "to bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people during the great siege it underwent in the early parts of World War 2". The cross was made a permanent part of the Maltese flag.
|Malta at war|
The Malta at War Museum clearly demonstrates the suffering Malta experienced during the war. The museum is housed in an old air raid shelter - most of the museum is underground.
|one family's "room"|
|would you like to give birth underground?|
|Fort St Angelo - sadly closed for renovation|
Malta has some picturesque views and beautiful buildings, but overall it did not strike me as a pretty place. There were many buildings in need of some TLC and they can't blame it on WW2 anymore. There was also a lot of trash on the street. Coming from my postcard home, it was very noticeable.
We walked around Valletta, the capital of Malta, on a couple of different occasions but unfortunately kept arriving at the cathedral when it was closed. Tom and I persevered and eventually got inside. Alicia and Nicole gave up.
St John's Co-Cathedral facade was being renovated, but they had a screen hanging to show what it should look like. Below is a postcard with the exterior view. Notice the Maltese cross on the roof's peak directly above the door. We saw this cross everywhere. It is called the co-cathedral because it shares cathedral status with the cathedral in Mdina.
I'm glad were persistent and finally got inside. The beautiful Baroque interior was much more impressive than the exterior and definitely worth the wait.
|Maltese cross on chapel altar|
|ceiling detail includes Maltese cross|
|Valletta street at sunset|
|decorations on palm trees|
|St. Paul's Shipwreck Church|
The narrow streets of Valletta definitely make it a challenge to take a picture of the exterior of this church. It sits in the middle of the block with buildings on both sides - I couldn't get far enough back.
|baby Jesus on the altar|
|St. Paul may be standing there to help visitors find the church dedicated to him|
|view seen while walking around Valletta|
The Grand Master's Palace dates from the late 1500's and was designed by the same architect as the Co-Cathedral. For over 200 years, it was the home of the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John. The Belgian tapestries hanging inside reminded us of our former home. (but photos of them were not allowed).
Nicole definitely needs to work on her fierce look. She does not look intimidating at all.
The Palace included an armory with special parade armor.
|parade armor has etched pattern|
|even the horse's headpiece and the shield have etchings|
|Wilhelm Tell would like these|
|so many choices!|
The Malta Experience was a perfect way to get out of the cold rain. Besides being warm and dry, it has a 45 minute film introduction to Malta. Afterwards, we were able to tour the Knight's Hospital which is in the same building.
The hospital wing for the nobility:
beds lined the wall with a private "toilet" in each archway to help reduce the spread of disease. Below is a model of what the wing would have looked like in use. The different colors signify the patient's illness.
Below the nobles' wing of the hospital was the hospital for the poor. Now the space can be rented for functions and decorated accordingly.
This is the only remaining fresco visible on the hospital wall.
|serious or silly?|
|arriving in Gozo|
The rock formation, known as the Azure Window, was a beautiful sight and lucky for us the rain stopped while we were there. I'm especially glad we were able to see it because we were told that since it cannot be protected from the elements, it is expected to collapse in another 20+ years.
Not surprisingly, people prayed in this cathedral. What is unique is giving the cathedral mementos of what was prayed about. (births, healing from illness or accidents, etc.) There were several walls full!
This pose originated during our trip to Milan in 2013 and is now a tradition. Why this pose? Why not?
|the rain came back|
|stations of the cross on the trail|
|we lined up in height order intentionally|
On our way to the ferry station to leave Gozo, we saw what I have labeled a farewell rainbow. This also happened when we left Hawaii several years ago - a very nice touch. Aloha, Gozo.
Dinner at the Blue Elephant Thai Restaurant. When asked if you want something, a common response among American young people is: "I'm good." The Maltese people were very confused and did not realize it meant "no thanks." They just smiled and then repeated the question.
To visit Mdina, a medieval walled town, we had to take an hour bus ride from Valletta. Malta is small, but Mdina seemed farther away than it really is. There are few cars inside which is a very good thing since the alleys are so narrow and winding. It was still cold, but at least the sun was shining!
|St. Paul's Cathedral (the other co-cathedral)|
We started out our trip to Mdina in two pairs, but by chance we arrived at Bacchus for lunch shortly before Alicia and Nicole. We had no idea they were coming to the same restaurant. Luckily, we were able to move to a larger table so we could eat together. Then we went our separate ways again.
|another pretty church|
St. Paul is the most important saint of Malta, but St. Agatha matters too. According to legend, the beautiful Sicilian girl, Agatha, caught the eye of the Roman governor. She refused him and fled to Malta. (circa 250AD) She prayed in an underground cave in Rabat (outside the walls of Mdina) and later a chapel was built there in her honor. She was eventually captured, tortured and killed.
Whether or not all that is true, we visited the catacombs dedicated to her.
|skeletons in the museum|
We were able to tour the catacombs, but no photos were allowed. (The only two pictures here were scanned from the brochure.) The frescoes of saints painted during the 1200's and 1400's were later literally defaced when the Muslims controlled Malta. Muslims discourage the use of humans and animals in their art.
|altar in crypt|
We were able to see this fresco in an underground chapel although only a small portion of the catacombs is open to the public. It's just as well we couldn't stay down there long and tour it all because Tom had very few spots where he could stand up straight.
|tunnel of Valletta waterfront - site of their party|
Not surprisingly, everything was closed on January 1. Nature can't be closed so we expected to go walking to take in some natural sights. We didn't plan on the wind and rain. We did go outside anyway for only about an hour. The wind was blowing the water around like crazy in the small harbors and in some places coming up onto the street. Afterwards, we retreated back to our hotel room to spend the rest of the day inside reading.
|model of Hagar Qim Temples|
January 2 brought a return of sunshine, but we had to leave Malta. We took the morning hours before our flight to do some last minute exploring. We hired a driver to take us out to see some temples on the island of Malta.
|build your own temple|
|Hagar Qim protected from the elements|
|"port hole" doorway|
|design looks Celtic to me|
During the summer solstice, the sun shines through the hole in the rock below.
|this geometric shape is on some of the Maltese coins|
Alicia definitely knows how to have fun!
|travel companions at temple entrance|
With a little time remaining, we made one more stop at the little fishing village of Marsaskala. We had already seen some of the traditional Maltese fishing boats (called Luzzu), but here there were many more. Their design dates back to the Phoenicians who arrived in Malta around 800 BC. They are painted in bright colors and have the "eye of Osiris" on the prow to ward off evil and bring good luck.
|cute statue on the waterfront|
(additional photo credit to Tom and Alicia)