Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea was for centuries one of the most fortified centers of the Christianity. We heard years ago, in Rhodes, the story of the knights of St John who took over that island converting it in one of the furthest eastern bastion of Christianity in their permanent fight against the Infidels. A narrative of this impressive part of history we put in a video about Rhodes Town & Rhodes Island. Eventually the knights were defeated by the overwhelming Ottoman forces but in spite of their adamant opposition were not executed but offered safe passage. They boarded their two main vessels and sailed away eventually establishing their new home in Malta, and the best years of the order were just to begin. I found this story fascinating especially after I lost myself in the magnificent palace of the Grand Master in Rhodes and all the other buildings the knights built during their stay there, a place that oozes the air of medieval Europe. Fast forwarding 15 years, we landed in Malta airport with the story almost forgotten but it did not take long to discover that Malta is mainly about the knights and their endeavors.
Malta is yellow. The honey colored stones used to build the city give a very pleasant look and feel of the medieval streets. A European Union country part of the common currency, Malta got its independence in 1964 from the Brits who kept its fleet tucked away in its nooks and cranes till 1979. The Brits were a reluctant occupier being called to protect the Maltese against the Napoleon forces who in 1798 conquered Malta and banned the Knights’ order. They eventually stayed and the relationship is still warm after so many years of occupation. The Maltese language is Semitic that sounds more like Hebrew with some Portuguese and Italian influences, however everybody speaks English fluently in a country deeply Catholic that has more than 1000 churches, one for each 5000 of its inhabitants.
The British heritage of driving on “the wrong side” of the road made us plan to visit the island by bus. But it turned out that is way more difficult if you stay close to Sliema-St Julian area, the hip area near Valletta because the buses are completely full and do not stop. After waiting and being aggravated for 30m minutes by buses that refused to stop, we decided that we will change routes and took a bus to the middle of the island to Mdina, the old capital of Malta.
Mdina, actually Medina, derives from the tradition sprouted by the Arab occupation till 800 AD. It left lots of influences in the language but little else can be seen as derived from there after several hundred years of Inquisitorial rule of the island where apostasy to Islam was one of the most punishable offenses. Mdina is also named “the silent city” its serene atmosphere untouched by car traffic. It is a completely fortified city with a baroque gate and heavy yellow walls, thicker than in many other fortresses I saw and a large moat converted currently in a park. It is a treat to walk its quiet streets, winding through old yellow medieval houses whose walls are crawled by bougainvillea and through old gun deposits converted recently in theaters and tourist offices, way too many for the needs of the town. The cathedral, covered inside in red brocade, had its mass where people were walking on floor tombs covered with astounding decorated marbles in various colors and motives, a show-off of the descendants of the entombed luminaries. Lots of churches and statues of saints adorn the winding streets paced by picturesque horse drawn carriages way more at home here than in Central Park. Museums are hosted in private mansions occupied still by their old owners most of them descendants of the knights.
I walked out Mdina’s gate and walked 5 minutes to Rabat, its sister city where in its middle is the cathedral of St Paul. According to tradition St Paul boarded a boat and landed in Malta around 60AD and meditated and preached in a cave in the middle of the island in Rabat. That cave was decreed to be holy by the knights and their successors and they built a large church and embellished chapel on top of the cave. Close to it are the catacombs of St Paul, dug deep tunnels and nooks underground built mainly by the Romans to bury their dead and used like in many other parts of the world by early Christians to pray and hide during the dawn days of Christianity. Catacombs are more or less all the same but some of these were developed during the Second World War and used as bunkers during the bombing. It was not enough time to dig deeper in Rabat and I did just a quick visit to the closed out catacomb of St Agatha and returned to Valletta to figure out how to get tickets for the Hypogeum and do a little walk before dinner. Luckily I found the Museum of Fine Arts where the last minutes tickets for the Hopened and I got all the needed information, walked the streets of Valletta to and fro and returned to the bus station to take the bus to Sliema. The line was huge in front of an accident where a woman was laying on the ground in front of a bus and the morning story repeated itself the bus not stopping on the way being full, way too many people waiting at the bus stops. In Sliema we had a great dinner of Maltese Food in Ta-Kris, one of the hidden places out of the main drag lined up with pizza places and bars on the sea shore.