Malta is a reasonably little known country situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea some 200-odd kilometres from the soccer ball island of Sicily. An archipelago consisting of a number of islands, only the largest three, Malta, Gozo and Camino, are inhabited. With an area of 316 square kilometres, the country is only slightly larger than Great Barrier Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, however, it has a population close to 500,000 compared to Great Barrier’s 900! This high population density makes it the 6th most densely populated country in the world, if you strip out special administrative regions and dependencies such as Hong Kong and Gibraltar.
We’re spending our first couple of days in the capital city of Valletta. Our first impressions are consistent with a heavily populated area. Lots of traffic, little in the way of parking and throngs of people. Although, to be fair, most of those throngs are tourists, of which some 2.6 million visited in 2018. This is up 50% from only four years previously, no doubt helped by a number of Maltese spots featuring on the popular TV series Game of Thrones.
Valletta is closely linked to the Knights of the Order of St. John (better known as the Order of Malta) and due to its amazing geographical location has a wide network of fortifications and bastions which has aided it through the years in its defence against foreign attacks. In fact, it is probably its repelling of outside invaders that Malta might best be known for. From the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Knights Hospitaller (our old friends from earlier travels) defeated an Ottoman army four times its size, to the 1940-42 Siege of Malta and eventual Allied victory against the Axis powers of Italy and Germany.
As cities go, Valletta is hard to warm to and its sandstone building architecture has a sameness to it, but its history, churches and fortifications more than make up for this making it a good spot to spend a couple of days.
As we were staying across Marsamxett Harbour in Sliema, rather than in Valletta proper, we took the regular (every half hour) five minute ferry ride to the capital. This was a cheap way of getting a harbour cruise, albeit without seeing all the really cool stuff in the Grand Harbour. Instead, we got good views of Manoel Island, which was named after a Portuguese Grand Master who built the fort on the island in the 1720s. Nowadays, the island is connected by a causeway and houses a yacht yard and yacht marina.
Our first stop after the ferry ride required a short walk up the hill to The Fortress Builders Fortifications Interpretation Centre. This free and impressive museum spread out over three floors showcases a range of Maltese defensive structures across the ages. We spent over an hour pouring over the different interactive displays including drawbridges, models of different bastions and castles across Malta and old stone cannonballs that would’ve been used in warfare. Annabelle and I could’ve spent longer, but the rest of Team Sowerby were keen to get going and more importantly find a cup of coffee. You can find more information on this super cool attraction here.
Walking round Saint Elmo Bay takes you past the scuttled British Destroyer the HMS Maori, which was sunk by German aircraft in 1942. We skipped visiting Fort Elmo, which coincidentally is named after the Patron saint of sailors rather than the slightly more famous muppet, and its accompanying Museum, instead heading towards the Siege Bell War Memorial which overlooks the entrance to the Grand Harbour. Built in 1992, 50 years after Malta was awarded The George Cross by King George VI, the memorial honours the more than 7,000 people who lost their lives in the World War II Siege. Up close the bell is seriously impressive and thankfully we weren’t there for the daily 12 noon ringing, which, given how loud it’s supposed to be, probably wasn’t a bad thing.
A staircase the other side of the bell tower leads to another pedestal on which a soldier rests, symbolizing those killed in the war. To get a great appreciation of the size of the entire memorial it is best to view from the adjacent Lower Barrakka Gardens.
The War Memorial also affords superb views of Fort Ricasoli across the Grand Harbour.
The Lower Barrakka Gardens were a real gem of a find. Not exactly a secret as they are recommended as one of the things to do in Valletta, they are however, much less visited than the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which were heaving by the time we reached them. Positively tranquil by comparison, the Lower Gardens were one of our favourite places to visit on the day and well recommended to sit down on one of the benches while supping on your daily (or in my case 5-daily) Cup of Joe.
It being time for lunch we grabbed some inexpensive and extremely good food at Caffe Piadina. Given this is pretty much in the heart of Valletta, this was another great find, especially for those on a budget! The Café was situated right beside the innocuous entrance to the Church of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck. Considered by many to be the spiritual father of the Maltese, the Apostle Saint Paul’s boat was described in Acts as having been shipwrecked on Malta. Founded in 1570 the church holds a number of amazing paintings, as well as the important relics of the right wrist-bone of Saint Paul, and part of the column on which the saint was beheaded in Rome and from whence his head is said to have bounced three times from where fountains miraculously sprang up at each place where it touched the ground.
While it would’ve made more sense to visit the very close St John’s Co-cathedral from here, we ended up doing a zig-zag and visited the Upper Barrakka Gardens first. As mentioned, after the relative solitude of the Lower Barrakka Gardens, these where disappointing in comparison, although most people usually consider them to be a highlight of a trip to Valletta.
After ten minutes in the gardens, we hightailed our way out past the impressive Malta Stock Exchange and Central Bank of Malta, both of whom unfortunately didn’t have any funds management roles for currently unemployed New Zealand specialists and thence onto the superlative Saint John’s Co-Cathedral.
In case you were sleeping through Bible Studies and you’re wondering what a Co-Cathedral is, it’s simply a cathedral church which shares the function of being a bishop's seat, or cathedra, with another cathedral, often in another city (thanks again, Wikipedia). Originally, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina was the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta, but since the 19th century this function was shared with St John’s Co-Cathedral, which was originally known as the Convent Church of St. John the Baptist.
More knowledgeable in what a co-cathedral is now, we entered Saint John’s after each paying our 10 Euro entrance fee (kids free). This included an extremely good audio guide which explained all of the main features in this massive cathedral. Totally worth the entrance fee, if there’s one thing you must do when coming to Valletta, it is to visit this cathedral.
All the chapels in the cathedral held amazing works of art, often with their own alters, sarcophagi, sculptures and paintings, which meant exploring the whole cathedral took over one and a half hours.
My favourite room was the Oratory which was built between 1602 and 1605 as a place of devotion for the young novices. The Grand Master of the time, Alof de Wignacourt, wanted to glam up the conventual church with a painting for the young novices to meditate on and thought one of the Order’s Patron Saint, John would be most fitting. Enter the famous Italian painter Caravaggio. Having earlier been given a death sentence in 1606 for murder in a brawl, he fled from Rome to Naples painting almost on the run, before travelling to Malta in 1607. Here, Caravaggio hoped that the patronage of the Grand Master might secure him a pardon for the murder he’d earlier committed.
In Malta Caravaggio painted his largest work and the only painting which has his signature on, the magnificent Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which now hangs as an altarpiece in the Oratory. The realism and dramatic use of lighting are breathtaking to see.
Among other pieces that Caravaggio painted during his time in Malta, was Saint Jerome Writing, which depicts Saint Jerome translating the bible from Greek to Latin, which was donated to St John’s Church in 1624. Seemingly straight out of a Dan Brown novel, the painting was stolen from the Co-Cathedral in 1984 and was only recovered two years later after a lower negotiated ransom price of 250,000 Maltese Lira (approximately US$1 million), was promised to the thieves. At the exchange, however, the thieves were nabbed although they were never sentenced, due to their claim that the police illegally used wire-tapping. Both thieves died before the case was completed, the first suspiciously from a possibly accidental overdose. As for the painting, due to damage it required restoration before being put back on display for us to enjoy.
In exchange for his commissioned work, Caravaggio was knighted by the Knights of St. John. Unfortunately, in mid 1608, he was arrested and imprisoned once again after yet another brawl when an aristocratic knight was seriously wounded. Somehow managing to escape, Caravaggio was subsequently expelled from the Order "as a foul and rotten member".
From Sicily Caravaggio heard that negotiations with the Pope had been successful and that he would finally get a pardon in exchange for his artwork. Unfortunately for him, however, he never made it back to Rome. Instead he died on the way back, possibly as a result of lead poisoning that was present in the paint with which he worked with and which might go some way to explaining his highly erratic behaviour. Regardless, his mark on the painting world and most especially St John’s Co-Cathedral has lasted many centuries and hopefully, will last many more.
After my new love affair with Caravaggio, we wandered down to the Triton Fountain, which contained three bronze Tritons holding up a large basin. Situated near the bus terminus, this also signalled the end of our day tour to Valletta.
There’s plenty more still to do in Valletta, but for us it is now time to vacate and head to the much less crowded island of Gozo. We’ll see you there.