There’s a lot of reasons tourists come to Malta by the boatful. In addition to the above factors, there’s also the weather. Malta residents don’t even have central heating as the Mediterranean nation is only a stone’s throw from north Africa.
I arrived here the other day not knowing quite what to expect. But I was wowed by ancient temples and fabulous, rich churches and great food and wine and the fun city of Valletta and the cool, golden yellow streets of the hillside town of Mdina.
Mdina is the original capital and has a strong Arab influence. It sits high on a hill and is surrounded by stone walls of creamy yellow-gold. The main cathedral has soaring ceilings and beautiful, ornate paintings, and there are great places to shop and simply wander about. We found a lovely café with great cakes (ours had chocolate cake, chocolate icing, whipped cream, strawberries and toffee) and great views of the island.
The island is extremely arid but they’ve learned to desalinate sea water, which means they’re finally free to plant gardens and beautify their surroundings in ways they simply couldn’t dream of before. A friend of mine on my cruise ship, the Silversea Silver Spirit, said he returned to Malta this week and couldn’t believe the garden on the top of the hill near the port.
“There are flowers and palm trees and a fountain and everything,” he said in amazement. They’ve also built a towering elevator that whisks folks from the flat lands near the port to the top of the hill; a quick ride that rises probably 100 metres.
Valletta is a walled city with graceful buildings and old “auberges” built by the Knights of St. John, who were given Malta by the Pope in the 16th century to keep out Muslim invaders. Which they did.
It’s a real multicultural island that has been ruled by Arabs, the Spanish, the French and the English. They say “grazie” to express thanks and often refer to God as “Allah,” I was told by my Silverseas tour guide. They also have British-style red telephone booths.
Malta became independent in 1964 and is now a part of the European Union. The Maltese economy is fairly strong but they’re having trouble coping with the large number of African immigrants who arrive in boats seeking a better life.
Valletta has many beautiful sights, but the main attraction is the Co-Cathedral of St. John, which might be the prettiest church I’ve ever seen. Gold is everywhere and the chapels are filled with enormous marble carvings of former “grand masters” of Malta.
“The Catholic Church wasn’t happy with the cathedral because they said it was too beautiful and nobody listened to the mass,” Lara tells me.
The church also has a precious and hugely impressive Caravaggio painting called “The Beheading of the Baptist,” which shows the decapitation of St. John.
Lara tells the story of Caravaggio, who was a big party guy and drinker and once killed a man. He had to skedaddle out of Italy, but the Grand Master of Malta wanted great artists so made Caravaggio a member of the order of Knights of St. John and gave him protection.
He also commissioned the painting of St. John’s beheading, the only painting Caravaggio ever signed. But he did it near a pool of blood at the bottom of the photo, allegedly as a sign of disrespect to a Catholic Church who didn’t like his work and didn’t like how he painted prostitutes to look like The Madonna.
Fascinating history in a stark but beautiful country with cool cities and great cafes and lots more.
Onward and upward as my cruise continues to Messina, Sicily and then Sorrento…