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PREHISTORY AND HISTORY IN MALTA

Our October 2014 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Valletta
  • Outside Valletta
  • More Valleta
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    "Geographically speaking, Malta is at the very edge of Europe. Historically, it is at the centre."

    Guide in Valletta

    Since 2006, Roger and his sister Silvia (two years younger) have established an annual tradition of taking a short holiday together without their spouses. For our eighth such venture, we chose the island of Malta - somewhere neither of us had been before (for Roger, this was his 66th country at the age of 66). It was a short, organised tour with Voyages Jules Verne [click here].

    The strategic location of the five islands in the middle of the Mediterranean means that Malta has been invaded over and over again throughout its history. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moorish, Normans, Sicilians, Habsburg Spain, Knights of St. John, French and the British (for almost two centuries) have all successively ruled the islands.

    Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. Today It is a nation of just 410,000, the smallest state in the European Union, which it joined in 2004, and one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world. The native language is called Malti and most linguists consider this to be related to the Arabic dialects of western North Africa.

    VALLETTA

    On a Thursday afternoon, our flight from London Gatwick to Malta's Luqa Airport on a British Airways Airbus A319 took 2 hours 50 minutes. We stayed at the Hotel Osborne [click here] which was conveniently located inside the oldest part of the capital Valletta. It was towards 10 pm when we reached the hotel but we still went out for a quick orientation and refreshment walk of an hour and a half. On the main pedestrianised thoroughfare of Republic Street, we found a little restaurant where Silvia had a large glass of red wine and Roger gorged himself on the sweetest cake he had ever come across, a Sicilian delicacy called cassatella.


    One of the steep streets in old Valletta
    - this one round the corner from our hotel

    Friday morning was a walking tour of Valletta with an excellent guide named Audrey-Marie Bartolo (there were only six of us in the group). Even the guide book describes Valletta as "Malta's Lilliputian capital" since it measures a mere 600 metres by 1000 metres which, of course, makes it eminently walkable.

    Starting at 9 am, our first stop was - logically enough - the National Museum of Archaeology [click here]. Here it was explained to us that Maltese history starts almost seven millennia ago with the arrival on the island of the first inhabitants (probably from Sicily) in 5200 BC. The Ggantija Temples date back to 3600 BC which makes them the oldest free-standing buildings in the world (for comparison, Stonehenge in England dates from 2600 BC). The most outstanding exhibit in this fascinating museum is the so-called 'Sleeping Lady', a red terracotta carving of great detail that goes back to 3200 BC.


    The 'Sleeping Lady' - around 5,000 years old

    Next stop was St John's Co-Cathedral [click here] which our guide insisted was "one of the most beautiful churches in the world". It was built between 1573-1578 by the Order of the Knights of St John who ruled Malta from 1530-1798 and the 'co' in the title stands for 'continuation' since it was actually the second cathedral to be built on the island. As well as an imposing central altar, there are eight elaborately-decorated chapels - four on each side. The pride of the cathedral is found in the Oratory: two huge paintings by Caravaggio, the Italian expert in chiaroscuro: 'The beheading of John the Baptist' and 'Saint Jerome writing'.


    Interior of St John's Co-Cathedral

    After a half-hour refreshment break in Piazza Regina, the tour continue with a visit to the 16th century Grand Master's Palace [click here], historically the home of the leader of the Order of the Knights of Malta (there were 28 in all, most of them French). We viewed the Tapestry Room, the Dining Room, the Grand Council Chamber and other ornate rooms. Currently the Maltese Parliament of 69 members meets in the Grand Master's Palace but a new parliament building of controversial design is close to being completed.


    View through window of
    Grand Master's Palace

    Our guide Audrey and her
    knight in shining armour

    Finally we were taken to the Upper Barrakka Gardens [click here], originally created in the late 16th century, for splendid views if the Grand Harbour of Valletta. The weather was hot and there was not a cloud in the azure sky, so it all looked magnificent. Our guide left us at 12.40 pm.


    Railing at Gardens

    Valletta's Grand Harbour


    Silvia & Roger at Gardens

    In fact, as we enjoyed our tour with Audrey-Marie, we learned a bit about her. She is actually from the island of Gozo where around 30,000 of Malta's 410,000 citizens live. Surprisingly people of Gozo speak a version of Malti which is hardly intelligible to other Maltese. Audrey-Marie has been an extra in a number of Hollywood movies shot locally including "World War Z" and she showed us a group photograph of her with the film's lead actor Brad Pitt (in fact, Pitt and Angelina Jolie were in Gozo at the time of our holiday filming their latest movie "By The Sea").

    We had the afternoon free and Roger & Silvia started with a salad lunch on Merchants Street. Then we walked down to something called "The Malta Experience" [click here]. This is an audio-visual show accessible in no less than 16 languages which takes just 40 minutes to cover the 7,000 years of Maltese history. It was very informative, but Roger was disappointed that it did not find time to mention the Norman King Roger who arrived in Malta in 1127.

    After the "Experience", we had a tour of the nearby Holy Infirmary [click here] with a guide called Anna Giusti. This hospital, run by the Order of St John, admitted its first patients in 1574 and the main ward, which is 155 metres long, could accommodate up to 330 beds. It was remarkably modern for its time - disinfected instruments, rapid amputations, toilets in the wards - and the survival rate of patients was an impressive 72%. One of the illnesses treated was syphilis for which the sufferer was administered mercury which cured the illness but paralysed the patient. As Anna put it: "One night with Venus and a lifetime with mercury".

    Anna - like Audrey-Marie - was immensely proud of her country's history. She told us: "Geographically speaking, Malta is at the very edge of Europe. Historically, it is at the centre."

    In the evening, Roger & Silvia went out for dinner and chose a restaurant called the "King's Own Band Club" located on the main thoroughfare of the city, Republic Street, but it turned out to be less than a total success. Silvia ordered spaghetti alle vongole (clams) and, as the young waiter was about to place it in front of her, he managed to tip the plate so that hot oil spilt over her top and jeans. Roger chose Malta's favourite national dish which is 'fenek' (rabbit), but it was very boney, the salad came a quarter of an hour after the meat, and the chips came a quarter of an hour after the salad. When we found that we could not pay the bill by credit card, our exasperation finally burst through and the waiter gave us complimentary liqueur drinks of limoncello.

    OUTSIDE VALLETTA

    Saturday was another brilliant day weather-wise and equally successful from a sightseeing point of view. The whole day was occupied by a tour of locations outside Valletta with the same guide Audrey-Marie Bartolo using a minivan for the eight British tourists.

    Leaving at 9 am, first we drove to the town of Mosta (population 19,000) to see the Parish Church of Santa Maria [click here] which is better known as the Mosta Dome. This was built between 1833-1860 using funds raised by the local people. Its most notable feature is the great dome which rises externally to 61 metres and is one of the largest unsupported domes in the world. Audrey-Marie told us the story of 'The miracle of Mosta'. This occurred on 9 April 1942 when 300 parishioners were waiting to hear Mass and Italian aircraft dropped three bombs over the dome. Two bounced off and landed in the square without exploding, while one pierced the dome, smashed off a wall, and rolled across the floor, failing to detonate. A replica of the bomb is on display in the church sacristy.


    The church's altar

    The church's dome

    We had a short break in Mosta and Roger & Silvia had cappuccino with a Welsh couple called Tony & Non. We then drove to the town of Rabat (population 11,400) where we toured Casa Bernard [click here], a gorgeous 16th century home of a Maltese noble family of French origin. These days it is still privately owned by a wealthy Maltese couple, Georges & Josette Magri, who often take tourists round themselves. On our visit, they were away, so a neighbour showed us round and she displayed immense knowledge of, and affection for, the house and its contents of paintings, furniture, silver and china, and various objets d'art.


    Beautiful window at Casa Bernard

    Ornate door at Casa Bernard


    Courtyard at Casa Bernard

    Next door to Rabat is the walled citadel of Mdina (population now a mere 240). This was fortified as long ago as 1000 BC by the Phoenicians and in medieval times it was effectively the capital, but today it is known as the Silent City because of its peaceful, shady streets and few inhabitants. We saw St Paul's Cathedral which was built between 1697-1702, making it the first cathedral in Malta so that the one in Valletta is called the Co-Cathedral.

    Again we had a break and this time Roger & Vee ate a Greek salad in the company of a British couple called Rex & Sally.


    Silvia & Roger at lunch in Mdina

    Before leaving Mdina, we were taken round a 17th century Carmelite Priory [click here], a home of the Order of the Brothers of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and the only one in Malta open to the public. The highlight of the Baroque building is the beautifully-decorated refectory. It is clear that Malta remains a deeply Roman Catholic country and that there is no problem finding new priests, monks and nuns.


    Two views of the refectory ceiling ...

    ... at the Carmelite Priory in Mdina


    Shadows at the Priory

    Our final destination was a place called Paula which is home to one of Malta's most important prehistoric sites. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum [click here] is a subterranean necropolis which is thought to date back to somewhere between 3600-3000 BC and was only discovered by accident in 1902. Over three levels, halls, chambers and passages have been hewn out of the limestone rock and then an estimated 7,000 bodies were interred there. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is carefully protected: only ten visitors are allowed at a time so entry must be booked in advance (we were four British and six French) and carbon dioxide is removed from the air. We know so little about the people who created this huge underground structure or about the culture that led to so many bodies being stored where so few could see them, but it was an awesome experience to share the same space for a while.

    We were dropped off back at our hotel shortly after 4 pm to complete seven fascinating hours exploring more faces of Malta.

    After the experience of last night, this evening Roger & Silvia decided to move up-market for dinner and found a place nearby called "Trattoria Campanella" which worked out really well. Silvia had a main course of king prawns, while Roger went for pork fillets. After dessert plus wine and coffee, we decided to try out a local liqueur and we were recommended something called bajtra which we were advised was made from prickly pears - it was pink, sweet and delicious.

    MORE VALLETTA

    Sunday - the hottest day yet - was utterly different from Friday and Saturday because it was a totally free day with nothing organised by Voyages Jules Verne. Roger & Silvia were soon reminded of the downside of a day alone in an unfamiliar location.

    Having so enjoyed the visit to Casa Bernard in Rabat, we were keen to visit another 16th century palazzo - Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta - only to find that it was not open on a Sunday. So we walked all the way down Republic Street to locate the War Museum, which includes one of the three Gloster Gladiator aircraft that successfully defended the island against the Italians in 1940, but discovered that a few weeks previously it closed permanently, preparatory to being relocated. So we just spent the day strolling, talking, shopping, drinking and eating.


    Two examples of enclosed balconies ...

    ... so characteristic of old Malta

    Roger had arranged that we would meet in the evening with a Czech doctor whom he first knew 25 years ago as a young child. Silvia had met him a couple of times over the years. Today Vojta is 32 and married with a family. His passion is sailing and he was in Malta to prepare for participation in the next week's Rolex Middle Sea race around the island of Sicily. He came round to our hotel from the boat that he will be sailing with a Czech crew and, after a drink and chat, we strolled down to Republic Street. Outside McDonald's the place was heaving with Maltese youth; clearly this is what counts for excitement in downtown Valletta on a Sunday evening. We had dinner at a place called "Ranieri" where we all ate silver bream fish cooked in foil before moving on to tasty ice creams and limoncello liqueur.


    Vojta & Roger at dinner

    Roger & Silvia returned home on Monday and we were collected for the drive to the airport at 11.45 am. However, we were determined to use the short morning to see one more place and so at 10 am we were at the 16th century palazzo Casa Rocca Piccola [click here] for the first tour of the day. The building is now the home of the ninth Marquis & Marchioness de Piro and he made an appearance in the courtyard with his colourful parrot Vulcan before we were shown round by a very pretty and knowledgeable masters student in the history of art. All the rooms are adorned with antique furniture, china & silver, and objets d'art and there are lots of paintings. It was a fitting end to a short holiday centred around a long history.


    Our guide & the Marquis with Vulcan


    Dining room at Casa Rocca Piccola

    Window at Casa Rocca Piccola

    CONCLUSION

    A few weeks before our visit. Malta celebrated 50 years of independence from Britain. However, the British have been welcome in Malta ever since they were invited to throw out Napoleon's French troops over 200 years ago and in turn the British love Malta because everyone speaks English, they drive on the left, the telephone kiosks and pillar boxes are red, and the weather is so much better that at home.

    The more we saw of Malta though, the more we realised that this tiny nation has an incredibly long history - around 7,000 years. So it is no wonder that it attracts so many (mainly European) tourists, especially now that formerly attractive locations in North Africa and the Middle East are no longer suitable for tourists and that so many cruise ships are ploughing the Mediterranean.

    Link: Maltese History & Heritage click here


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