Malta is an archipelago of three islands situated in the eastern Mediterranean; its location between Sicily and the African coast has made it a strategically important territory for centuries. The islands were once part of the Roman Empire and St Paul is said to have converted its inhabitants while shipwrecked here.
In 1530, the King of Spain gave Malta to the Knights- Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, a religio – military order that cared for pilgrims in that city from the 11th century. They had their headquarters in Rhodes but were ousted from there by an ottoman invasion in the year 1522
In 1565, Knights of St John withstood another siege by the Turks but this time they held the enemy at bay. Control of the island passed to the British Empire in 1814. Malta served as a Naval base in WW2 suffering through a blockade and five months of bombing raids. King George recognized the bravery of the Maltese people by awarding the George cross to the island; the cross is eight pointed and can be seen on the islands flag. Malta became an independent democratic republic in 1974.
Today’s port Valletta is the country’s capital. It is named after a heroic knight who successfully led resistance against the ottoman fleet.
Valletta contains superb architecture and fortifications and interestingly the town’s layout was designed to allow natural breezes to waft through it. One of the unique aspects of this town is the fact that at the end of almost every Valletta Street or Side Street, there is a glimpse of bright blue water eloquently framed in golden stone. To savor this town to the full wander its streets, squares and gardens. Everywhere you walk, you can’t help but absorb its historic atmosphere, beginning of course with the encircled honey coloured wall fortifications.
We walked from the port to the town. There are many taxi touts waiting to whisk you to the center but we always feel we can acclimatize ourselves by walking. The narrow sidewalks and the steep climb to the town gave us quite a work out but we enjoyed seeing the ancient buildings along the quayside. Many of the buildings were being used as small workshops, wine bars, storage, and cafés. The area is gritty and shabby. Most of the doors are small but the crumbing stone facades give the place character certainly one can feel the areas history. It took about thirty minutes of negotiating the steep sloping streets before we reached Merchants street where a daily flea market was in progress. We didn’t linger at the packed market and continued to stroll.
As we were climbing more steep steps we met a friendly Maltese gentleman who greeted us in English, in the course of conversation, he advised us to check out the gold in the jewelers and cautioned us to buy only from the accredited shops. Up to that point, we did not intend to buy, but on our walk, we peered in windows and saw some exquisite filigreed work and some beautifully crafted chains. We ended up buying two 22k gold necklaces, one medallion and a pair of earrings for a fraction of North American prices. They accepted Amex. I must add we never buy costly jewelry when abroad but this stuff was a steal; our subsequent Canadian appraisals bore this out.
The cities main shopping area is Republic Street it is also the historic center. The central area is the only place that is flat - a respite from climbing. We stopped at one of the many cafes for a coffee and pastry, browsed for souvenirs for our grandchildren then continued along to St Johns Square to visit St Johns Co Cathedral definitely Valetta’s jeweled centerpiece.
The plain unremarkable façade belies its outstanding interior and if like us you only have the time to visit one church, I strongly recommend this one. Those people who may not relish the ornamentation of ecclesiastical buildings will find it impossible not to admire the craftsmanship and artistry. The cathedral was built between 1573-1577, some additions were made into the 18th century but the ceiling painted in 1661 by Mattia Preti an Italian artist is a masterpiece depicting the life of John the Baptist.
The sense of contrast with its plain façade is definitely overwhelming. Arabesque intricate carving covers every inch of the wall space. The floor studded with inlaid marble tombstones in green, red, and yellow gleam and shine. Each stone is imprinted with the coat of arms of the person beneath and inscription of their valor. There are many side chapels dedicated to each of the seven nations. National sections of the order had their own chapels in which they prayed and heard mass all the chapels are masterpieces of art. Twelve of the grand masters are entombed in the crypt.
In the cathedral’s museum, you will find Carravaggio’s painting of Saint John the Baptist. The colours of the painting and the expressions on the faces are awesome; most chilling is the young girl waiting with outstretched arms holding a bowl for the head of the saint. Also in the museum are beautiful Flemish tapestries and exquisitely illustrated manuscripts.
We left the cathedral reluctantly, there is too much to see in this cathedral the mind and spirit are overwhelmed. But time was pressing on and we walked back to the ship via the city gates. We didn’t have time to wander the lovely gardens to the right of the gates but we hope to remedy that on our next trip. Valetta is an easy port to explore independently and the Grand Harbour is simply awesome; do get up early in order to experience its majesty from the sea.
Cathedral St John: admission. One Maltese Lira. Open 9:30-12:30. -1:30pm-4: 30pm Mon- Fri. Sat.9am: -2pm
Tourist Info. Freedom Square. Open. 09:00-17:00 Mon- Fri. Sat.-09:00-1700. Sun 09:00-12:30. Phone. 21 2377 47.
Bus Station. Located outside City gates. Visit Malta bus tours the island and costs in the region of two Maltese Lira.
Ships Tours: Mosta & Rabat half day tour$40
Malta Panoramic tour half day $39
Fernandes 6hour cruise along the coastline on a Turkish Gullet. $90