Malteser of an entry

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Thursday, June 1, 2006

Well, what a bizarrely wonderful place - a melange of sights and culture unlike anything I've seen on this trip so far!

For those who are only vaguely familiar, Malta is a low-lying lump of honey coloured rock located just south of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean. To get here I took a three hour ride on a fast catamaran (built by Austral in Western Australia I might add, nice one lads), arriving in the Grand Habour of Valletta - the capital of these fair isles since the Knights of St John made it their base after the fall of Rhodes to the Turks in the early 16th century.

It was late by then but I still got a taste of the immensity of the place by the mood lighting on the enormous walls as I walked into the central part of town. What the Knights did in the way of defenses in Rhodes over many kilometres, they did in a more concentrated area here - building higher and stronger with layers of redundant defenses - making this one of the most difficult places to attack ever devised. Enclosed within the walls is a strange place and an inward-looking populace, which is to be expected given the uniquely colourful history of this isolated nation. More on that later.

Valletta is a hard place to picture and imagine. Everything is built with the warm yellow limestone of the island and it's all on a large scale. Think grand cathedrals, statues, cannon and steep, thick walls of castle battlements. It's flanked on both sides by large harbours, setting the jewel of the city on an azure background. It's quite hilly as well so some streets that criss-cross it are like big dippers falling through deep caverns on a particularly hairy roller coaster ride.

However when you look at the details the jewel loses its lustre somewhat. It's like a timewarp back to the 50s here, with old red phone boxes, rattly yellow buses and signage for defunct brands like HMV, Polaroid and Savoy. A Coke costs 35 cents. Buildings look frayed and a large number of crazy old cars still get about on rampantly potholed streets. The effect is like an old, once-rich mining town gone to seed - unable to adequately maintain its grand facades long after the last seam of big money ran out.

The people make up for the sometimes ghostly air however. Mashing Italian and English with a bit of north African Arabic and Turk, you get an amazing linguistic concoction called Malti, which in the end sounds very much like a sing-song Welsh (and definitely as incomprehensible). They're friendly enough too, even in the countryside (after usually giving you a bleak eye of suspicion first up), and most will happily help with a smile and some directions in straight English if asked. If you get really lost, as I have done, they'll even get their car, come find you to drive you out of trouble!

As you would expect there are may examples of grand architecture from the times when Malta was the last Mediterranean outpost of the Church in its ongoing war with the Ottoman Turks. These include Grand Palaces, the 'Auberges' (or headquarters) of the eight nations that made up the Order of the Knights of St John, as well as churches, gardens and defensive positions that ring the city. The eight-pointed Cross of St John features prominently on most, as does the 'For Valour' flag denoting the city's award of the George Cross for its resistance to starvation point during a five month siege by the Germans during WWII.

I only went inside a couple but I was glad I did. The St John's Co-Cathedral is without doubt the most beautiful church I have been in and despite having to pay each time, I would visit again and again. Built in the centre of a newly founded capital after the Great Siege of 1565, in which much of the island was laid to waste by the Turks, this cathedral was the centrepiece of their worship and the beneficiary of donations from many of the aristocratic families of Europe over time.

It was completed in 1577 and not a square inch of the place is unadorned in some manner, mainly with religious paintings or heavily gilt carved panels. The floor is extraordinary too, covered with thousands of colourful and intricate marble tombstones marking the resting places of generations of Knights. It also houses tapestries and two works by Caravaggio. One of them, The Beheading of St John, was his largest piece and the only one he signed.

Geoff will love this one. Attached to the Grand Master's (of the Order) Palace is the Armoury - two giant halls of amour and weapons covering periods from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century and most of which belonged to actual Knights. The engraving on many pieces is exquisite and some pieces show evidence of testing (like musket shot dents on breastplates) or actual conflict. Without doubt the best presented armoury I have seen and since they throw in the audio guide for free with the ticket, it's pretty good value as well.

What else can I say about this place? For a start, the Maltese are very proud of their bravery and heritage - you see the word 'Heritage' a lot. Also at 98.5% Catholic the population is very religious, evidence of which can also be seen all over town as many of the buildings have religious iconography mounted onto their street-facing corners. You actually see people using the churches here, at all times of the day and night. But that doesn't stop them gambling or having a few beers or local wines. And it doesn't stop the strange game of bocce I saw on the waterfront one evening - it's played with a pea-sized jack, gold ball-sized balls and also large cylinder shaped rocks that can be used to steam-roll other balls out of the way. Hilarious!

If you come you should also get out at night. It's pretty dead by about 8pm but the lights are on most buildings and the crowds and cars are down making for some nice night photography opportunities. I did miss a few things here but there is a bunch of other stuff in the countryside and also the island of Gozo to enjoy, so better get cracking on that.

Catch you soon,

Next entry -> on the crazy buses, exploring around Malta

Freak of the Week

I met Dougie in Catania and after giving me some handy travelling advice and a Rough Guide to Sicily he was gone.

I didn't even know he was a preacher until his pamphlet fell out of the book, so he definitely wasn't one of the annoying, ear-bashing born again Christians you usually get. Basically he was a soccer hooligan in early life, ended up in a handful of prisons, saw the light and is now preaching (quietly) around the world - making it to more than 35 countries so far.

Now I doubt that the bible says things like 'It is not possible to find God personally by following Hinduism, Freemasonry, Islam, Buddhism, Worshipping Mary, Occult, New Age Movements, Mormonism or Hare Krishna', as I doubt most of them were invented when the bible was put together, but somehow
he has made it to Africa, central Asia and Europe so there might be something to his method of funding future travels...

Maybe I can invent a beer drinking religion, get every beer drinker in the world to donate 10 cents and then travel the world preaching the word of beer. Hmmm...
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