On Sunday, March 21, we took a small minibus on a guided visit to the south of the island of Malta. What looked like a long lineup and the diminuitive boats didn’t inspire enthusiasm, and we’ve seen other grottos, so we passed on this short trip. We shopped for souvenir tea towels, etc and my camera had brunch.
Folks returning to the dock from their short, Blue Grotto trip
Another group setting out for the Blue Grotto in one of those wee boats.
Our minibus took us SW to the Blue Grotto, E to Marsaxlokk and then back past the airport to Valletta.
Flag of Malta. The George Cross in the top hoist corner was awarded to Malta by George VI in 1942 “for their courage during the war.”
While I was waiting in a surprisingly nice gift shop the owner pointed up over my head to the official Flag of Malta . She said something I remember sort of like:
“You know we have this other flag. It was given to us by the British, having bombed the crap out of us during WW II!”
For more on the history of Malta that explains the above quote and the Arabic influence see the first post on Malta: Sicily and Malta.7
We then motored east to the lovely seaside port of Marsaxlokk, very busy and fascinating on a Sunday. We enjoyed the colour of the buildings and shopped at the large, pleasant market that stretched for quite a distance along the shore selling everything under the formidable Maltese sun.
Painted doors in the lovely little town of Marsaxlokk
Locals and visitors at Marsaxlokk’s Sunday market.
Getting close enough to pay for a delicious tangerine 🙂
Mass was being celebrated at the Church of Our Lady of Pompei in Marsaxlokk.
The homily praised Saint Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, canonized a week earlier on Oct. 14.
At the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii a homily was being preached about Archbishop Oscar Romero of Salvador, canonized a week earlier. Being out of touch but remembering this martyred hero very well, my first thought was “Is Liberation Theology alive and well here in Malta?” Research done at home later dismissed that hopeful idea.
It seems to have required an Argentinian, Pope Francis, to finally beatify in 2015 and recently canonize Saint Oscar Romero, murdered by a right-wing death squad on March 24, 1980 while celebrating mass. Bombs outside the Cathedral in San Salvador also killed between 27 and 40 others and wounded over 200. (See above link.)
Now to stroll back and wait for our tour’s minibus.
Anita and Shay (sitting) wait for our minibus to collect us.
Sunday 5 PM activity at this charming little play area near our hotel.
But back to our story… We sauntered back to a corner where our minibus would pick us up before noon, still enjoying the place and chatting at the corner with our fellow Sicily/Malta traveller, Shay.
Then our little group returned, past many dwellings not far from the airport that have been built to house refugees, safely to our hotel. For the last time, we took the #14 bus to Valletta, where we ate in an interesting restaurant. Our table was beside a Bullfighting poster from 1996.
While “14-ing” back into Valletta for a last visit and meal I snapped this woman relaxing by the road.
Stairway, yep, nice, wide stairway.
A charming view before we headed down into town.
Sunday afternoon near the fountain, this young woman was, shhh, milking the cow.
This leant a certain style to the place. Fortunately, all we saw were stacked cows where we were.
We were transferred to the airport once again, one of the things that Insight Vacations includes in the price of its tours. Our route home was Valletta > Catania > Frankfurt > Toronto.
Taxiing before takeoff from Catania, Sicily’s Mungibeddu (Beautiful Mountain), and its godlike namesake nymph, Aetna, gave us a special farewell blessing:
Our time in Sicily and Malta was full of history, art, fun – and a little luck.
We were picked up at the Radisson Blu Hotel at 9:30 AM. Marlene drove us to Rabat. With us also were the ‘patriarch,” Frank, and Francesca, Marlene’s daughter. Our friend, Canadian Friar Ed, had introduced us to Frank on the phone before we left Canada. They showed us great kindness and had a treasure chest of knowledge to share.
The first place we visited was St. Paul’s Collegiate Church in Rabat known as the “Knight’s Church.” The Knights Hospitaller settled in Malta in 1530 after being driven from Rhodes by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1522. The Knights’ symbol is an 8-pointed cross, the symbolism of which, some say, is that the points represent the eight European langues of the Hospitallers: Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castille&Portugal, Italy, Germany, and the British Isles. Looks a bit like a stretch to me, but it makes it pretty clear that Arabic was not one of their original tongues…
Valletta, the “new” Maltese capital, was named after Jean Parisot de la Vallette, who fought bravely in Rhodes against the Ottomans and, as Grand Master, successfully defended Malta against them during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. De la Valette laid the first stone of Valletta in 1566, but did not live to see it finished.
Some photos from St. Paul’s in Rabat:
Statue of St. Paul
Frank, Anita, Marlene and I (taken by Francesca)
John baptizes Jesus
Mary, her mother, Ann and Jesus
Pope John Paul II plaque honouring his visit to the Grotto of St. Paul
Then we exited the main Knights’ Church and visited St. Paul’s Grotto in an adjacent underground area where St. Paul stayed while successfully converting Publius, the Romans’ chief person on Malta, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Catacombs are a major part of this neighbourhood. There is also a large section that houses a museum to the Knights of Malta. Our hosts took us there. It contains portraits, statues and furniture related to the Knights.
Sign for the Grotto and Catacombs
Frank, Francesca, Marlene and Anita begin our descent
A shrine and statue in St. Pauls Grotto
One of many catacomb alcoves
Lovely rendition of Mother and Son
Inlaid ivory in dark ebony wood. Frank was accomplished at this before he went to university.
Portraits of some of the Knights
We were treated to a delicious lunch by our gracious hosts, after which they showed us Mdina.
Bridge to Mdina
Gardens outside Mdina’s walls
Carriage entering Mdina
Francesca, Frank, Anita and Marlene
Lovely narrow street
View from Mdina wall
Arabic a clear influence on street names and towns all over Malta
Children near a cannon
Tea garden area
Horse and wagon
Our wonderful hosts returned us faithfully to our Pembroke Radisson Blu shortly before 5 PM, and then we “#14ed” into Valletta for supper and a little shopping, returning home after an early tropical sunset.
An iconic British shop
A pipe, anyone?
Good ol’ #14
Twilight October 20
On Sunday we planned to visit the Blue Grotto and Marsaxlokk on a tour bus that Anne set up for us on Friday. That will be my last post on our Sicily and Malta 2018 tour.
Sicily was fabulous (see posts 1 to 6) and we were looking forward to Malta because we had Maltese people there who would show us Rabat and Mdina. Our long-time friend and pastor, a Franciscan friar whom I had worked very closely with liturgically and musically at a local Brampton Ontario parish beginning in 1976, has Maltese roots. Relatives of his would pick us up at our hotel on Saturday morning, October 20 and show us their town of Rabat, where the Grotto of St. Paul is located and next to Mdina, the main ancient Arabic city on Malta.
And a cousin of mine, Mary, and her friend, Cathy, were by coincidence in Malta. They were going to arrive a few hours after us and were staying closeby in Valletta at the Grand Harbour Hotel. Our hotel, the Radisson Blu in Pembroke, less than 3 km from Valletta as the gull flies, was nevertheless 30 to 40 minutes by public bus northwest of Valletta – since it stopped often and followed the squiggly, attractive coast.
Malta has an excellent public transit system around the island and, as the next photos will show, public transit is well patronized. We used the #14 bus more than once every day.
Valetta Bus #14, Sat., Oct. 19
Pembroke to Valetta
Valetta Bus #14, Mon., Oct. 21
We were part of a Group of Seven who added Malta to Insight Vacations’ Sicily tour. We each did our own things in Malta. Our loose “Group” was picked up at the airport by someone named Anne who explained what Insight, our tour company, had available for us in the way of optional activities and processed us in a nice big area at the Radisson Blu after our airport bus dropped us off. She showed us where to take the #14 bus. Pembroke was near the start of the #14’s route into Valletta, so getting a seat was never a problem.
We visited the amazing, opulent, St. John’s Co-Cathedral first. It boasts two Caravaggios and a ceiling that took the magnificent Italian, Mattia Preti, six years to complete. Caravaggio, by then a fugitive, was befriended by the Knights of St. John who were/are wealthy and powerful. I hunt down Caravaggio paintings wherever I go. I’m fascinated by his crazy life and his chiaroscuro style. He was one of the first artists who painted people who looked like you and me. “Caravaggio,” whose actual name was Michelangelo Merisi, signed only one of his many paintings, The Beheading of John the Baptist, ca. 1608. His other work in St. John’s is St. Jerome Writing.
Mattia Preti ceiling
Mattia Preti’s St. George
The Beheading of John the Baptist
St. Jerome Writing
Malta, tiny yet complex, has been the recipient of much interference for hundreds of years. Its history of sacrifice and resilience is the stuff of legend. Here are a few highlights:
In the 8th C. many Phoenicians arrived in Malta, displaced perhaps by rivalries in the Eastern Mediterranean following the birth of Islam. Those folks founded the beautiful city of Mdina. the Maltese language is closely related to Arabic. English is the other official language of Malta.
The Knights Hospitaller settled in Malta in 1530, where they met a people who spoke a form of Arabic. The Knights had been driven from their “home” on the island of Rhodes eight years earlier by the Ottoman Turks led by Süleyman the Magnificent.
In 1560 the Ottomans returned and destroyed the Spanish and allied Christian ships off Tunisia. Malta was ripe for the taking but the Turks didn’t come back to take over the Mediterranean until 1565. During the interim a much larger Spanish fleet had been prepared. The Ottomans captured St. Elmo, at the tip of Valletta, but did not take the island.
During WW II Malta was bombed by Hitler and Britain, being a key strategic port for allied navies to use in order to control the Mediterranean. Axis-controlled Sicily, a vital target for our allies, was nearby. Like the Sicilians, the Maltese ducked into the nearest catacombs and tunnels when the serious shit came down.
This and so many more events and experiences are described in an audio-visual presentation called The Malta Experience.
After viewing the amazing show there, we met Mary and Cathy at their hotel. The nearby Helen’s Kitchen, where we had enjoyed a delicious lunch, was closed for supper, but we found an acceptable place to eat and had a great time.
We finally spot the Malta Experience
The theatre was filled by a cruse ship group. Lucky we were first in line!
The Ticket. Buy one; this is a must see.
Bob, Anita, Cousin Mary and Cathy
Triton Fountain on our way to the bus terminus.
Friday’s last photo is of the Triton Fountain, recently restored. It is beautiful at night.
Best preserved Greek Temple on the Planet. Agrigento, Sicily
Walkers near Mount Aetna on a cloudy day.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta
The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio in Valletta, Malta
Entrance to Mdina, Malta
We returned from a holiday in Sicily and Malta on October 22.
It had started on October 8, dreadfully stress-loaded, with a 2.5 hour Toronto delay on the tarmac in Air Canada 890, followed by an Air Canada “welcomer” in Rome October 9 who commanded us to “Run!” to our replacement flight – an impossible and dangerous marathon pre-destined to fail epically. We “ran” for 25 minutes…
Though we were both almost 74, no motorized transportation was offered. In fact, when requested, it was denied. We missed that replacement flight and, at one point, my wife and I were so breathless that I was worried that one of us would have a serious medical incident at FCO.
We went to about 4 disinterested, misinformed Alitalia desks/gates until we finally found a veteran Alitalia supervisor who knew exactly how to solve our problem in about 10 minutes. He and his super efficient staff got us and our bags on Flight 1741 to Catania that left at 3 PM, 2.5 hours after our original Alitalia flight 1711 had been scheduled to depart.
Our destination was Siracusa, that ancient, sacred place that was once more important than Corinth or Athens. We easily found the Interbus kiosk at Catania Airport that sold tickets to Siracusa for €5.70 pp and arrived at Maison Ortigia in the dark. Emanuele was waiting for us and for a few other patrons of his B&B who had also been delayed in their travels.
The beauty of what we experienced in these two ancient, war-torn lands more than made up for the stress we went through on October 8th and 9th in getting there.