Malta was not a destination I gave much thought earlier, at least not before I have visited the Old Town on Rhodes Greece. Not only that it is well kept and still in use, but it was built by – the Maltese knights (or the knights of Rhodes who fled the island after the Ottoman invasion). I am not into “secret societies” or any kind of conspiracy theories and “great orders”, but I am always stunned by such history monuments. Just imagine – the Malta capital wouldn’t be there if things happened differently! All those points of interest with narrow streets of Valletta that separate buildings made of beige stone, various ornaments, Baroque palaces, all of that sprung from the 16th century onward when the knights began their rule on the island.
This travelogue will naturally begin with Valletta, the town we rush to because of its authentic architecture, so many points of interest and the atmosphere of its streets. (We will come to beaches and the sea in one of the upcoming series’ posts.) Still, let me share few significant Malta details so that you can get the picture of the place we came to this time.
Facts about Malta
So, in the middle of the Mediterranean at about 90 km from Sicily and 290 from Africa shores, lies the small archipelago consisting of the main island of Malta, Gozo that is two thirds smaller, and Comino island between the previous two. They stretch over 316 square km (compere it to Belgrade Serbia that covers 360 or Rome Italy with 1,3), and its population is 410.000 (where Belgrade’s is 2 million and Rome’s 2,9). The country has a stunning history, becoming part of the European Union back in 2004.
The first settlers are believed to be from Sicily who came 7,000 years ago. Phoenicians conquered the territory in the 8th century BC, Romans came in the 3rd BC, Byzantine army ruled from the 4th century AD, after them came the Arabs in the 9th century, Europeans in the 11th, knights of the Order of St. John in the 16th, then Napoleon ruled shortly in the 18th century, along came the British, until Malta got its independence in 1964. The fascinating thing is that one is able to see monuments from all of these periods, while Maltese tradition embedded all the influences into one rich culture.
Knights of Order of St. John asked the king Charles V of Spain and the Roman pope in 1523 to buy the island. Instead, in 1530 Malta was given to them. After the Great Siege and the victory over the Ottoman’s army in 1565 where knights played a crucial role, the Order asked their European counterparts to help them build numerous fortifications. Pope Pius V sent his own military architect Francesco Laparelli da Cortona and the first stone was laid in 1566. After the frantic work, the fort was erected with observation towers, followed by official palaces, hospital, residences for all the langues.
The town was named after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valetta, French nobleman who lead the knights during the Great Siege. The knights ruled the island for 268 years during which various other buildings throughout the islands sprung up, fortresses and churches, while the population of 15,000 they found when they landed, rose to 100,000 at the end of the 18th century.
As soon as you approach the Triton Fountain, it’s immediately clear why Valletta is declared the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main paved Republic Street is so vibrant with shops, restaurant and café terraces on both sides, squares, and it goes all the way to the Fort St. Elmo.
You will pass by the National Archaeology Museum, over the Republic Square, St. George Square, next to the Grand Master’s house which now serves as the presidential palace etc.
St. John Co-Cathedral
The one that you cannot afford to miss is the renowned St. John Co-Cathedral, located in the same street at the Great Siege Square. It’s open to public visits until 4 pm and the entrance fee is 10 Euros. They will check your belongings, you should be properly dressed (you are entering a church after all), while audio-guides are available in various languages.
When Marina from Leona Travel (who helped me a lot when visiting Malta and who can organize tours in English, Italian, Serbian etc.) told me that it will take two hours to go around the Cathedral, I was a bit suspicious. It turned out though that I almost twisted my neck looking up into the impressive ceiling and decorative niches of knights langues, went from one room to another, blinded by all those golden ornaments, and that I didn’t even notice that it took me – two hours and a half!
The Cathedral was built in the 16th century, in 1576 to be precise, and represents a true monument of the knights’ Order. The floor is covered with picturesque marble panels that are actually the 400 tombstones of the former grand masters. On both sides of the church there are altars dedicated to different langues and adorned by lavish ornaments, sculptures, gold and many important canvases.
Those of you who are into art will be happy to hear that in the separate part called the Oratory there are two original Caravaggio masterpieces. They say that he even put his name in the painted blood on the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. This canvas is considered to be one of the most important early Baroque work.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is born near Milan in 1571. He worked in Rome where he was forced to escape from in 1606 because he killed a local pimp in a fight. That is when his journey to Naples, Sicily and Malta begins. Here, he became the knight himself, but he was soon kicked out of the Order. The story says that yet in another fight he killed a second man, that he was locked up, but managed to escape and secretly went back to Sicily and Naples. This is where he was caught up by the Maltese when the great artist got seriously wounded and died. The other version says though that he got malaria at the outskirts of Rome, the city he was trying to go back to his whole life.
The Cathedral ceiling was painted by Mattia Preti, along with few side langues’ paintings. Going from one niche to another, I stumbled across an interesting restoration site – the man was working on parts of the wall standing on the small hoist while the statue of one of the slaves holding grand master’s pedestal, was “looking up” straight at him. There are three clocks on the Cathedral façade, showing different times. They say that all the churches in Malta usually have two of those, “in order to confuse the enemy”.
Marina also says that there are 365 churches in Malta, “one for each day”. With such imposing Catholic tradition, no wonder that one can come across another beige Christian temple at almost every corner.
Make sure to take a walk along numerous side streets in Valletta. Mine took me all the way down the Republic Street, where I bought the traditional pastizz pastry (available with cheese or pees and chicken – I even had a Kinder pastizzi in Gozo, I’ll tell you all about it when we get there in the series). This pastry is more than affordable – two of those with a small bottle of water were two Euros. If you want to have a lunch or a coffee, there is a variety of places to choose from in surrounding streets (the Merchant Street being one), offering some delicious sea food. At the beginning of the Republic Street you can also indulge in Lebanese falafels. When it comes to photographs, the medieval arches of the Old Theater Street will be the inexhaustible site of inspiration.
On the outer Valletta walls facing the Three Cities there are two gardens with magnificent views. The Lower Barrakka Garden is near the Fort St. Elmo and it overlooks the entrance to the Great Harbor. You will see numerous benches, a small Greek temple, various arches and the watch tower with a huge bell that rings every day at noon.
It’s not far to take a walk towards the Upper Barrakka Garden. They say that this is where one of the most impressive harbor views anywhere in Mediterranean is to be seen. You can appreciate the Three Cities and the Fort St. Angelo. The Phoenician temple is believed to be there at the same spot the fortress occupies now, while the place was the Grand Master’s main headquarters during the Great Siege.
(All of you GOT fans, listen up – the Fort St. Angelo is the place where the scene with Arya chasing cats through Red Keep’s dark corridors and overhearing secret conversation was filmed. I will include other filming locations in Malta when we get to those places in the blog series, so try not to miss it!)
Beneath the balcony there are 19th-century guns that are firing every day at noon. Over at one side you can see the small restaurant terrace overlooking the reddish dome of the Notre Dame de Liesse church. If you came on foot along the wall towards this garden, you are actually walking above the waterfront where the fish market and craftsmen shops once were.
Coming out of the garden, I made the full circle and ended up at the Triton Fountain again. Make sure to notice the palace with few steps and two cannons in front of it and here is why. The knights used to be organized in eight langues according to their languages. Each of them had its own hostel or auberge. Seven of them were in Valletta and its possible to see five nowadays. The auberge of Provence is, for instance, housing the Archaeology Museum. Still, the most impressive one is the auberge of Castile that we are looking at. This is where the Malta prime minister’s office is today.
Just behind the corner is the so-called Palazzo Pariso, another lush building. Napoleon Bonaparte spent a week here when the French took over the city. The Maltese Foreign Ministry uses these premises today.
I bought a guide book right at the Republic Street (it’s always a great souvenir) and I remembered that Marina mentioned the Great Harbor Cruise. There’s no better way to see all those stunning fortifications, even though you can’t really tell the difference at first. The boat takes off from Sliema district and you can take the bus to get there. It’s possible to have something to eat while waiting to go on board. And then you will hear interesting stories about these heavy beige walls that go by. (The Fort Manoel terrace was the place where the dramatic GOT scene of beheading Eddard Stark was filmed.)
For instance, they say that marsa in Maltese means harbor. Given the similar historical roots, one can notice that there is an Italian port called Marsala or the Franch one – Marseille. The second largest catamaran in the world is to be seen here, the one that only need 90 minutes to get to Sicily. Great cruisers that accommodate 4,000 people sail into the Great Harbor every week. They are ridiculously huge, much taller than the city walls, while our small boat couldn’t even reach its line of the first underfloor storage windows. Such a silly clash of contemporary life and history heritage.
Malta public transport, oh my!
This is where few sentences should be added related to the public transport which is a huge thing in Malta. I was offered at the Supreme Travel to take the open bus that covers the whole island in two lines, costs 20 Euros per line and I can hop on and off as much as I want to. Buses go every 30 minutes from all the stations. (I have also heard that the other open bus company is not so reliable.) Still, given the fact that I travel a lot and love to immerse myself into local life as much as I can, it seemed more interesting to take the public transport ticket for seven days (Tallinja Explore card, 21 Euro). Why would I waste time on waiting for open buses for half an hour, right? Wrong!
Here is what happened. Little did I know that even though the public transport buses are air-conditioned and fairly new, with tickets being checked at or bought from the driver (1,5 or 2 Euros during summer per single ride), that there is the machine telling you which station you are at, the mobile app and the specific timetable at every station – it only works in theory! None of the buses is on time and they go every 20, 30 and 60 minutes, so you can forget about that timetable. If you come to the bus station 10 minutes before the bus should (that goes every 60 minutes), and it passed by five minutes earlier, you are going to be stuck here for more than an hour. Also, if the driver decides that there are enough passengers inside, the bus will not stop any more stations on the way until few people come out. (Just imagine waiting for the bus for an hour and it just goes by!)
One more thing! The bus doesn’t stop either if someone doesn’t press stop button inside which signalizes the driver that people want to get off. Also, if no one is getting off at the specific station, then people waiting for the bus have to wave to the driver. Otherwise, he will just drive away.
Should I tell you that I was waiting for the bus at the very airport when I landed – for the whole hour, because I didn’t know I was supposed to wave while being at the station; or that one day I wasted more than three hours just waiting for different buses and trying to tour the island! I even went on foot once, when it turned out that the bus went earlier than it was scheduled and it was the last one, it didn’t go after 8 pm. I managed to get near my airBnB in San Gwann (Marina was my host), but then I got totally confused. Luckily, an older Maltese gentleman was kind enough to drive me the rest of the way.
So, for all of you planning a trip to Malta who don’t want to take taxis all the time or rent a car (and try your skills in driving the left side), my warm recommendation is to take that open bus for tourist tours – at least you won’t wait more than 30 minutes. Never the less, as much as it’s true that I wasted hours in waiting for public buses while being in Malta for five days, the fact is that every time somebody asked me last week “how was Malta”, the second thing I said started with: “And you should see their public transport, oh my!”
Next: MDINA, THE SILENT CITY
The full MALTA series