My 2nd blog way back in January, 2011, was a 2 paragraph reminiscence of a just completed trip in which I said, “We loved Malta and I’ll write more about it in the coming days.” That never happened.
I mentioned in that blog that while in Malta Ruth & I went everywhere on eccentric, old busses. These were phased out 7 months later and replaced by a modern fleet. This makes sense but is equal to San Francisco getting rid of its cable cars, in my opinion.
I was reminded of Malta this past weekend when The New York Times published an article by Elisabeth Eaves about this island nation south of Sicily. Called “When Knights Were Bold”, it focused on Malta’s history, especially the Hospitaller Knights of St. John. Formed during the Crusades, this organization eventually settled on Malta and was a power until the end of the 18th century. I was surprised to learn, as was Ms Eaves, that the Knights of Malta still exist. But that’s her story.
Both Ruth and I found Malta to be a 5 Compass destination with many 5 Compass attractions–St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Marsaxlokk, Sliema, Hypogeum, and Mdina among them. This is a far from complete list of its great attractions.
St. John’s, a 16th century cathedral built for The Knights, is in the very center of Valletta, Malta’s capital city, and remains the most beautiful church I’ve been in–ever–including St. Peter’s, Sacre Coeur, etc. It simply dazzles. Among its treasures are 2 Caravaggios. St. John’s historically shared official religious duties with St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, hence the Co-. In my opinion, St. Paul’s is a dark, musty chapel compared with St. John’s.
Marsaxlokk, pronounced marsa sclock, is a time-warp fishing village that specialized, at least when we were there, in harvesting octopi. The boats pictured above bobbed colorfully in its harbor.
Sliema, especially around St. Julian’s and Paceville, is the shopping, entertainment, power center, etc. of Malta. Kind of an anti-Gozo, Malta’s 1/3 the size sister island, Sliema abounds in 5 star hotels, restaurants, and shops that reminded me of a slightly less $$$$ Monaco but definitely as much fun.
Hypogeum, a well-preserved and kind of creepy underground necropolis discovered accidentally about 110 years ago, is one of Malta’s prehistoric sites. Book way in advance to see it. Because of it age and fragile nature, only a few people are allowed in on carefully controlled tours that are really popular. On the December day Ruth and I visited, the staff was turning away very disappointed international travelers.
I wasn’t especially enjoying Mdina, Malta’s castle-like citadel/town that dates from the Phoenicians, until we got to Palazzo Falson. I found this walled town almost too restored, too perfect until we entered Olof Gollcher’s medieval but personalized palazzo.
Traveling around Malta is not like being in Italy. It’s a world apart–strangely Middle Eastern, occasionally British, culturally singular. Living in an independent nation since only 1976, the Maltese had been under others’ thumbs since pre-history but were clearly embracing their ancient, native tongue, a Semitic language belonging to the same group as Hebrew and Arabic, when we walked its streets.