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.
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 entered through the modernized main gates (below), the originals having been destroyed in World War II.
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.
Our guide kept telling us to “look up”.
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.
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.
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.
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.