Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Maltese Memories

It's easiest for me to write about an experience shortly afterwards. Unfortunately life got busy and I'm about a month after the fact. Hence the title "Maltese Memories" - some are clear and others are a bit fuzzy. I apologize for any misinformation. 

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
George Cross

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.

comfortable bunks?
one family's "room"

would you like to give birth underground?
Birgu harbor

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.

wall detail


Maltese cross on chapel altar
ceiling detail includes Maltese cross

Valletta street at sunset
Christmas decorations were still hanging, of course. English is spoken here making it a very easy travel destination (whether or not for Christmas).

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

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). 

palace courtyard

floor detail

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!
We didn't get the weather we hoped for on this trip. Since Malta is much farther south, we expected milder temperatures and sunshine. (Switzerland can be very gray at our elevation from November through March.) We got a little sunshine, but not warmth. We were told it was the coldest it had been in 25 years and they had their first hail in 20 years! I wished I had brought a winter jacket instead of my raincoat. Layers and gloves helped, but it was cold. However, weather does not stand between some people and gelato! I only had it once, but the twenty-somethings probably had it every day. 

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?
Gozo is another of the Maltese islands. As part of a group, we took a 20 minute ferry ride over to Gozo and from the dock toured the island traveling by bus from one spot to another. 

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

The Ggantija Temple dates from 3600-3200 BC. Obviously no one knows everything about it, but the fact that it predates Stonehenge is pretty cool.

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!

entering Mdina

inside walls

St. Paul's Cathedral  (the other co-cathedral)

Bacchus interior

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. 

Alicia and Nicole were on their own for making plans to celebrate New Year's Eve. They got dressed up for the event and allowed some photos before they went out.

tunnel of Valletta waterfront - site of their party
Tom and I didn't look for a restaurant for ourselves before we arrived in Malta - there just was no time. That wasn't the best plan because we didn't find anything with an opening in our general area. So we bought ourselves some nice wine and ordered room service! How's that for a quiet evening? And lucky for us, the food was very good.

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.

Mnajdra Temples

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

Finally it was time to head to the airport and fly back to Zurich. As always, we had to go through security. My small carry-on bag was pulled aside and had to be unloaded. The threatening object was the shoe horn I bought for Tom. The handle telescopes and should be very helpful the next time he has back pain - putting on shoes can be a real challenge then. Obviously, the person examining my bag's contents on a screen thought it looked menacing. They let me keep it and go on my way after they unloaded everything - of course it was on the bottom. Thank you, Air Malta. I feel so much safer now.

(additional photo credit to Tom and Alicia)