Episode 218 – Maltese Knights (but no cats or falcons)

March 9, 2022. 55°F/13°C


Once again the history and geography surrounding us are both overwhelming. Malta is not just an island, but is the largest island in an archipelago(island chain) that goes by the same collective name, located in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa. There is physical evidence here, in buildings both above and below ground (burial chambers going back to 4000 BC) of periods of rule by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John (Knights Hospitaller), the French under Napoleon, and the British. No wonder the city of Valletta is so well fortified!

We’d been told that entering Valletta’s Grand Harbour would be an experience not to be missed, and those who told us were right. This harbour has been in use since Roman times. Cruising in alongside the stone walks, dotted with towers, was breathtaking.

As was the case in Sardinia, limestone is abundant here and is the prevalent construction medium.

Bottom: Fort Saint Angelo

Prior to arriving, everyone on board had to complete their EUdPLF (EU passenger tracking form), and also ensure that we had vaccine QR codes compatible with the EU system. This is the first time we’ve been actively asked to show them, and happily they scanned as they should.

Our afternoon tour took us through the city of Valletta, Malta’s capital, focussing on the old town centre.

We got off the bus at independence square, at one end of which is the Independence statue (top) and at the other end of which is the war memorial
We passed the imposing recently refurbished Triton Fountain, in the lovely square that once was used as the bus terminal.

We entered through the modernized main gates (below), the originals having been destroyed in World War II.

The juxtaposition of old and new, having Malta’s native limestone in common, is very pleasing to look at.

We strolled past the auberges (inns) built in the 1500s to house the Knights of the Order of St. John. Each auberge also had its own church, where mass was said in the knights’ native language. We saw the Spanish and Italian auberges, on streets lined with so much glorious architecture.

Top to bottom: 1. the ruins of the city’s theatre, destroyed in WWII. 2. Shops now occupy the ground floor of the auberges. 3. Typical architecture in the city. 4. Detail of balcony supports that are either bat or dragon wings.

Our guide kept telling us to “look up”.

The former St. Francis Convent building.

St. John’s Cathedral was built by the Knights as their communal church, in which each country’s knights also had their own side chapel, imbued with images and iconography specific to their own nationality.

We have, hands down, NEVER seen anything like St. John’s. There is not one single surface that is not adorned with colour, sculpture, gilding, or art. It is impossible to describe the sheer magnificence; hopefully when we look back, Ted’s pictures will remind us of how awed we were by it all.

Our first glimpse.
The ENTIRE floor is covered with multicoloured marble panels, each one covering the final resting place of a Knight of Malta. There are nearly 400 of these tombstones.
The entire ceiling is adorned with paintings, carvings, and gilding.
The Italian Chapel.
The magnificent chapel of Aragon, Catalonia, and Navarre (Spain)
More from the Spanish chapel.
The chapel of Auvergne with its stunning gold and turquoise colour scheme and twisted pillars.
The Portuguese chapel.
The German chapel.
The lectern from which bible readings would have been done.
There is a set of pipes from the organ on either side of the altar.
Top: the main altar. Bottom: a zoomed-in closeup of the sculpture of John baptizing Jesus, which is directly behind the altar.
The Oratorio, with its huge depiction of John the Baptist’s beheading.
It’s a CARAVAGGIO !! The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist hangs in the Oratorio of St. John’s Cathedral, which is constructed in the high baroque style.
ANOTHER Caravaggio, this time a depiction of St. Jerome writing. This is the painting that was cut from its frame and stolen in 1984, and not recovered for 2 years. It now hangs in a back hallway of the co-cathedral, displayed under glass.
There was just so much more.
This crucifixion sculpture was particularly moving.

We emerged from the cathedral into bright sunlight, feeling a bit blinded by all we’d seen, and walked with our guide to the gardens that overlook the harbour. These are 20th century; the Knights of Malta did not believe in wasting precious water resources on flowers.

Wikipedia says: The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, officially the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, commonly known as the Order of Malta, Malta Order or Knights of Malta, is a Catholic lay religious order, traditionally of a military, chivalric and noble nature.

That’s a lot to take in, so the last portion of our tour was meeting a present-day Knight and learning about both the order’s history and its present day activities from him. He explained that being a “sovereign” order gives them real autonomy, although they do obey canon law “on religious matters”. True to their history as hospitallers all the way back to the 11th century, most of their work revolves around health initiatives worldwide. They’re a small but mighty group, even acting as observers at the UN and UNESCO.

It’s a life of giving rather than taking, but our Knight reiterated that he was glad he had “said yes to the dress” ! Did you know that the 8 points on the star used by the Knights represent the eight beatitudes that Jesus pronounced in the Sermon on the Mount, and the 4 “leaves” represent the 4 virtues?

In the evening, we attended a concert at the Mdina Cathedral (St. Paul’s Cathedral): the ultimate “destination performance” provided to all the Viking Star passengers at no extra cost.

The cathedral was founded in the 12th century, supposedly on the site where St. Paul met the Roman Governor Publius after his (St. Paul’s) ship was wrecked on Malta. Legend has it that St. Paul cured Publius’ father of an illness.

It was very romantic approaching the cathedral at night, led by torch-bearers.

In 1693 the original cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake, so the baroque cathedral visited was built, and opened in 1702. Interestingly, it is actually a Co-Cathedral, which is a term I’d never heard before. It means that St. Paul’s in Mdina and St. John’s in Valetta share the duty of being the seat of the Archdiocese of Malta. (Mdina was the old capital city; Valletta is the current one.) St. Paul’s is lovely, but after seeing St. John’s all else pales in comparison. We’ll hopefully have pictures when we tour Mdina tomorrow, since we didn’t take any during the concert.

We saw lots of cats today, but no Maltese (grey) ones – although I suppose all the cats on Malta are Maltese by default.

About the falcons though…. apparently when Spain gave the island to the Knights of Malta, the only payment that King Carlos V asked for was a falcon each year.


  1. It was the painting of St Jerome that was stolen. We literally just saw a PBS (Secrets of the Dead series) show on the whole caper a few days ago. So interesting. It was damaged quite a bit from the thieves rolling it. The thieves were caught but both died before they were convicted.

    Wish we had seen it when we were there in 2017.


  2. Wow💕 And you’re so lucky to be there when it’s so empty! During Round One of the pandemic we were shut down there for 4 months (and it was empty to be sure, though under less favorable conditions). Having a Maltese balcony in our apartment kinda made up for it though!


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