carolbuckles (carolbuckles) wrote,

New Newport News News: Malta edition

 We arrived at Malta around 7 AM, as we finished breakfast. Entering Grand Harbor is amazing! Most of the castle works are late Medieval, even 17-18th century, but there is a fairy tale quality about the glowing buff limestone that enthralls the eye, and the camera.
     The giant cruise ship slipped through a mousehole entrance that seemed impossible. The modern ships have computer assisted navigation, but we still took on a pilot, and we could clearly see him and the captain watching from the flying bridge. We slowly sailed past rampart, after wall, after arch, after church, until slowing to station-keeping parallel to Old Sea Wall, where we moved laterally to the quay. Incredible how delicately such an enormous ship can move! The side thrusters kicked up mud from the bottom of the harbor, showing us that there was not a lot of fathoms to spare.
     While we watched, the tour busses were pulling up and a brass band showed up to welcome us ashore. They struck up as the first passengers disembarked, playing “Yellow Submarine” and “Anchors Aweigh.”
     We hit the quay about 8 am and, distaining the cabs and local bus, we hiked past the old shipping offices, now restaurants and boutiques, charmingly restored and with brightly painted doors. Following Ron’s brain-map [he is amazing. Must be half bird, as he can tell N-S-E-W by the earth’s magnetic field] and a very few but strategic signs, we walked up the steep hill into Valletta. The wind was kicking up and cold, but we had worn our coats etc, and the climb soon warmed us up.
     Valletta is named for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta [aka Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem] who defended Malta from the Turks in 1565. There were 9000 knights against 40,000 Turks, under the reign of Suleiman the Great. This siege stopped the Turkish-Moslem conquest of the Mediterranean, as the victory at Vienna held them out of Western Europe. [Cynical note—they’re still coming.]
Valletta is a charming fortified town built on a peak of rock. The walls themselves are set on the limestone bedrock; as the walls and bedrock are the same color, the walls look Herculean, even Cyclopean, to mix Classical references. Most of the broad passenger walks are stepped, while the narrow streets rival those in San Francisco for grade angle. Shops line the streets, with all manner of goods, food, CTC [=cheap tourist crap] and churches are thick on the ground.
     Right at the top of the hill is the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. A co-cathedral is a bishop’s seat that shares the bishop with another diocese. Not one that has 2 battling bishops, though that would be more interesting, imo. [ Just picture the archbishop saying, “Now, men, you must learn to share. Remember God says to love your neighbor.”]
     I have never seen a more decorated church—and I’ve been to Prague. The Knights were divided into “Langues” [meaning languages, but they really meant what we now call nationalities.] Each Langue had its own chapel and they obviously vied with each other to leave no square inch unadorned. The décor is 18th century, since Napoleon stole absolutely everything when he was in Malta. Oddly the Knights did not even try to defend their island against Napoleon, as they did against the Turks. I’m sure they regretted that bit of faith.
     I was absolutely thrilled to find the 2 Caravaggio paintings were at home and receiving guests. :-p to Amanda. “The Beheading of John the Baptist” and “St. Jerome” are wonderful pieces and well displayed. They have been removed from the Langue chapel where they had been hung to a room of their own that is climate controlled. Both are hung low enough for me to really see them well, but no photos. Best bet is to Google.
While we were buying the postcards, we discovered that Maltese Euros have the cross on the “tails” side. Bah, Amanda. The clerks there helped me pronounce a few Maltese words. Maltese appears to be a Semitic language, which historians think was originally Phoenician.
     Making our way across the square in front of the cathedral to take photos, we found a handicrafts store; it seemed to be a co-op run by the crafters. Still acting on the caution that we could not carry much home, we studied everything. The prices were amazingly low for such quality items and Ron bought a pot. Not pot, but A pot.
     Right outside this store was a lovely outdoor restaurant, where we sat enjoying Cokes [no ice].
Thus fortified, we followed signs to St. Paul’s Church, which turned out to be named “St. Paul’s Shipwrecked Church.” Honest. It was a small storefront, with Paul waving hello over the door. We entered and were rather stunned to find a church almost as big as the cathedral. Again, no photos, so you have to take my word for the things we saw there:
1. a nearly life-sized statue of Paul on a platform that can be—and is—carried about in the streets on his feast day.
2. an arm-shaped silver reliquary holding a chip of Paul’s wrist bone.
3. half of the column that Paul was beheaded on, given to the church by the Pope, who retained the other half
4. on this column a gold head representing Paul, lavishly wrapped in silver draperies.
5. a little old lady at the gift counter that looked old enough to have heard Paul’s sermon.
6. who told us that the church was built on the spot where Paul preached to the citizens of the then-called Melita. [ref Acts]
Other than the reliquary, everything looked Baroque, ref Napoleon above.
     Back up the hill, we headed toward the formal entry gate to the city, where Amanda wanted to go shopping. But, we couldn’t find the Archaeological Museum!! We surely couldn’t have walked right past it?! But we had indeed, as we were walking, while staring the McDonald’s directly across the street. Thus chagrinned, we went into museum. As they had no café, we went back out to the street to the Coffee Garden that I had spotted as we looked for the museum. There we had the best latte ever, no doubt because it was made with maltese milk. Then we ate local treats such as meat and peas wrapped in rice and baked; ditto cheese; one divine and one semi-divine almond cookie.
     The museum is a treasure trove! Thought the streets outside were getting crowded, the museum was deserted, but for one other couple and the staff. I do not understand people.
     We bought a guidebook and made our way around the 5000 year old cups, figurines, tools, pots—but no weapons! Malta apparently lived a very peaceful life in the Bronze Age, centering on the worship of enormous reclining fat ladies and tiny penises, carved from the native limestone. But the best thing there was a hot-tub sized stone cistern on which the maker had carved a handle. It looks exactly like a coffee cup, but is 4500 years old.
     We exited the old town by the formal gate and walked down, down, down through a very nice park. There, we passed the wonderful cathouses featured in my “Feral Cats of the Med” slideshow.
    Tired, we went back to the ship. We got Coke and Ron checked his email in the library. We turned in our passports for Greece. Then before most of the others had returned from shore, we went to the hot tub for a pleasant half hour. Then more Coke, more computer and onto our balcony to watch the departure.
The ship made a 180 degree turn without any forward motion! Quite amazing. The sun popped out as we left, making for wonderful photos. Then we went through the mousehole between the fortified harbor; I simply cannot believe our ship fit through this opening, but we have photos to prove it. As we cleared the harbor, we were treated to a rainbow. It does not get better than this.

[12-14-09] for photos, visit
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