I chose Malta as my wedding venue! Yes, I chose the entire island where early Christian catacombs and Byzantine walls, Muslim streets and Norman towers, megalithic temples and Knights’ forts defined the world history for thousands of years. When D. and I started to plan our wedding, we considered a few options, however, it didn’t take us long to settle on Malta as it had everything we wished for and even more (and of course, D’s great-grandma was Maltese-born).
Malta isn’t just another European island. Its history goes back to the 5000 B.C. blending together the cultures of ancient Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans etc. It is home to one of the oldest European Christian military orders – Maltese Order of Hospitallers of St. John the Baptist (dating back to 1023), three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and seven Megalithic Temples, which are considered to be the world’s oldest free-standing structures (way before the Egyptian Pyramids). Island’s rich history, beautiful sea, incredible archeological sites, authentic food and traditions as well as compact size (27 kms by 14 kms) made it a perfect vacation destination as well.
Literature and information sources:
- Lonely Planet Malta & Gozo
- “My Maltese Guide” app (both –iTunes and Google Apps)
- A Concise History of Malta by Carmel Cassar
- Malta: Pre-History and Temples by David H. Trump
- Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman by A. Bonanno
- Malta: The Medieval Millenium by Charles Dalli and Daniel Cilia
- Malta: The Order of St. John by Thomas Freller
- The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford
- Fortress Malta: An Island under Siege 1940-1943 by James Holland
- The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat
- 5000 years of architecture of Malta by Leonard Mahoney
History. Tiny islands of Malta (which include Malta, Gozo and Comino) are treasure troves of historical events and prehistoric sights. The earliest evidence of human occupation here goes back to 5200 B.C. mainly by stone age hunters or farmers who had arrived, allegedly, from the Italian island of Sicily, possibly the Sicani (assumption is based on similar pottery designs found on both islands). A culture of megalithic temple builders arose from this early period. Around 3500 to 2500 B.C., these people built some of the most sophisticated, oldest existing, free-standing structures in the world in the form of the megalithic Ġgantija temples on Gozo and Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta. It was a seemingly peaceful era, perhaps due to the islands’ then geographical isolation, as no evidence of defensive structures remain. The temples have distinctive architecture, typically a complex trefoil design, and assumed to be used from 4000 to 2500 B.C. Another interesting archaeological feature of the Maltese islands often attributed to these ancient builders, are equidistant uniform grooves dubbed “cart ruts” which can be found in several locations throughout the islands with the most prominent being those found in an area named “Clapham Junction“. These may have been caused by wooden-wheeled carts eroding soft limestone. It is a mystery why the population died out: some theories are drought and famine, an epidemic or an attack from overseas – or perhaps a combination of these afflictions. Whatever the reason, mysterious “temple builders” disappeared from the Maltese islands around 2500 B.C. The temples fell into disrepair, and the Bronze Age culture that followed was completely different, including its practices (ex. cremation rather than burial), and artwork.
Sea travel put Malta back on the map as it was impossible for ancient vessels to sail overnight or attempt long, continuous trips. Hence Malta was the ideal place to stop on a journey between mainland Europe, Eastern Mediterranean and Africa. From around 800 to 218 B.C. Malta was ruled by the Phoenicians and by Carthage, Phoenicia’s principal North African colony. Phoenicians inhabited the area now known as Mdina and Rabat which they called Maleth (“haven” or “port”). The direct legacy of that period is visible in contemporary Malta – islands’ colorful fishing boats (called luzzu or kajjik), which little changed from the Phoenician trading vessels, are decorated with watchful eyes painted on the prow.
During the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) Rome took control of Malta before finally crashing Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.). Since then, Malta became Foederata Civitas, a designation that meant it was exempt from paying tribute and fell within the jurisdiction of the province of Sicily. However, Malta retained a strong Punic influence by speaking Punic language and minting coins with Punic motives and inscriptions in Ancient Greek. During the 1st century B.C. the island was mentioned by Pliny the elder and Diodorus Siculus: the latter praised its harbours, the wealth of its inhabitants, its lavishly decorated houses and the quality of its textile products. In 2nd century, Emperor Hadrian upgraded the status of Malta to municipium or free town: the island local affairs were administered by four magistrates and a municipal senate, while a Roman procurator, living in Mdina, represented the proconsul of Sicily. In 58 AD, Paul the Apostle was washed up on the islands together with Luke the Evangelist after their ship was wrecked on the islands. Paul remained on the islands for three months, preaching the Christian faith, which has since thrived on Malta. The islands seem to have prospered under the Roman rule. The Phoenician Maleth became a main Roman town Melita (modern Mdina), where excavated remains of town houses (ex. Domus Romana), villas, farms and baths suggest that the inhabitants enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and occupied themselves with the production of olives, wheat, honey and grapes.
In 395, after the last division of Roman Empire, Malta fell under the control of the Western Roman Empire, however in 533 Belisarius, on his way to conquer the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, reunited the islands under Imperial Byzantine rule, where it remained until 870. The rapid expansion of Islam in the 7th to 9th centuries saw an Arab empire extend from Spain to India. The Muslim chronicler and geographer al-Himyari recounts that in 870, following a violent struggle against the occupying Byzantines, the Muslim invaders, first led by Halaf al-Hadim, and later by Sawada ibn Muhammad, looted and pillaged Maltese islands, destroying the most important buildings, and leaving them practically uninhabited until they were re-colonized by the Muslims from Sicily in 1048–1049. The Arab rulers tolerated the Christian population who were allowed freedom of religion; they had to pay jizya, a tax for non-Muslims, but were exempt from the tax that Muslims paid (zakat). The Muslims introduced new irrigation, some fruits and cotton and the Siculo-Arabic language which would eventually evolve into the Maltese language. Apart from the names Malta and Gozo which are thought to have Latin roots, most Maltese place names date from Arab time.
In 1091 Normans captured Malta, as a part of their conquest of Sicily and for 400 years the histories of Maltese islands and Sicily were linked. Myth says that the Norman leader, Roger I of Sicily, was welcomed by the native Christians and reportedly tore off a portion of his checkered red-and-white banner and presented it to the Maltese – forming the basis of the modern flag of Malta in gratitude for having fought on his behalf. Despite the succession of powerful rulers (Normans, Angevins, Aragonese and Castilians) Malta remained a European backwater where small population of downtrodden islanders paid their taxes by trading, slaving and piracy and were re-paid in kind by the marauding Turks and barbary corsairs. This was the reality when the Knights of St. John arrived in 1530, having been given the islands (much to the islanders’ dismay) by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; the Knights were to rule the islands until the arrival of the French in the 18th century.
In 1479 the marriage of Fernando II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile unified Spain thus Malta became part of the vast Spanish Empire. When their grandson, Charles V, came to power, one of the Europe’s greatest threats was the expanding Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent. Sultan had already driven the Knights of St. John from their island stronghold of Rhodes (1522-1523). When the “homeless” Knights begged European leaders to find them a new home, Charles V offered them Malta along with the governship of Tripoli (Libya), hoping that they might help to contain the Turkish naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean. The nominal rent for this perpetual lease was to be two Maltese Falcons a year – one to the emperor and one for the viceroy of Sicily. 25 years later, in 1565 Malta will become a place of one of the mightiest battle between East and West, speaking of which Voltaire said, “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.”
Here, I will go into more details because the Great Siege of 1565 and presence of the Knights of St. John on Malta, shaped not only the destiny of the Maltese nation and islands’ topography, but also the future of European history (“The Great Siege: Malta 1565” by Earnle Bradford is a page-turning account on this topic). Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam (1530-1534) of the Knights of St. John was not particularly impressed by the gift of the Maltese islands, which were barren, waterless and poorly defended. Equally unimpressed were the 12,000 or so locals, who were given no say in the matter; likewise the aristocracy, who remained aloof in their palazzi in Mdina. However, determined to make the best of a bad job and hoping one day to return to Rhodes, in 1530 the Knights settled not in the heart of the island but in the fishing village of Birgu (now Vittoriosa) on the south side of the Grand Harbour and set about fortifying their defences. While in Rhodes, the Knights had been a constant thorn in the side of the Ottoman Turks. In Malta their greatest adversary was the Turkish admiral Dragut Reis, who invaded Gozo in 1551 and carried off almost the entire population of 5,000 into slavery. Later, in 1559, the Knights lost half of their galleys in a disastrous attack on Dragut’s lair on the island of Djerba (Tunisia). With the power of the Knights at a low ebb, Suleiman the Magnificent saw an opportunity to polish off this troublesome Order, while at the same time capture Malta as a base for the invasion of Europe.
Jean Parisot de Valette, Grand Master between 1557 and 1568, was a stern disciplinarian and an experienced soldier. He foresaw the threat of a Turkish siege and prepared for it as well as he could, renewing Fort St. Angelo and building Fort St. Michael and Fort St. Elmo. The Knights’ galley fleet was hidden in a creek below Birgu, and a great chain was stretched across the harbour entrance between Fort St. Angelo and Fort St. Michael to keep out enemy vessels. Food, water and arms were stockpiled, and de Valette sent urgent requests for aid to the emperor, the pope and the viceroy of Sicily. No help came (even though many Knights of St. John from all over Europe came to his call, they got stranded in Sicily when its viceroy failed to provide with transportation). In May 1565, when an Ottoman fleet carrying more than 30,000 men (some accounts say it was almost 100,000 men) arrived to lay siege to the islands, de Valette was 70 years old and commanded a force of only 700 Knights and around 8,000 Maltese irregulars and mercenary troops. Turkish forces made three fatal mistakes:
- they were jointly led by two very ambitions men with two different strategies and agendas – Admiral Piali, an experienced sailor and soldier and Mustafa Pasha, a son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent.
- instead of going straight to the Grand Harbour and attacking the main forts, they chose to drop anchor in the south of the island, by the Bay of Marsaxlokk, hence delaying the attack.
- they attacked Fort of St. Elmo first, it was the newest and the weakest of all Knights’ forts but it stood to the last soldier thus hindering Turkish plans on fast and speedy victory. It is important to remember that no ship could be at sea in the fall, as it was a dangerous season of sirocco.
Before the Turkish soldiers set up camps on the plain of Marsa near the Bay of Marsaxlokk, the entire population of Malta took refuge within the walls of Birgu, Isla and Mdina, taking their livestock with them and poisoning the wells and cisterns they left behind. The Turks began their campaign with an attack on Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the entrance to both Grand and Marsamxett Harbours. The fort was small, holding a garrison of only 60 Knights and a few hundred solders – Pasha was confident that it would fall in less than a week. However, despite continuous bombardment and repeated mass assaults on its walls, Fort St. Elmo held out for over four weeks and cost the lives of 8,000 Turks before it was taken. When the fort finally fell, Mustafa had the surviving knights decapitated and their bodies floated across the bay on mock crucifixes. In response, de Valette beheaded all his Turkish prisoners, loaded their heads into the cannons and fired them into the Turkish camp (according to the historical evidence, he regretted of doing it for the rest of his life).
Looking across at the looming bulk of Fort St. Angelo from the smoke and rubble of St. Elmo, Pasha is said to have muttered, “Allah! If a small son has cost us so dear, what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?” Then he began the final assault on the strongholds of Birgu and Isla, but each time, Turks were beaten back. Morale of the Ottoman army was drained by the long hot summer, their increasing casualties, and the impending possibility of having to spend the entire winter in Malta. The ferocity of their attacks decreased. On 7 September, the Knights’ long-promised relief force from Sicily finally arrived – 28 ships carrying some 8,000 men landed at Mellieha Bay and took command of the high ground around Naxxar as the Turks scrambled to embark their troops and guns at Marsamxett. However, seeing the unexpectedly small size of the relief force, Pasha ordered some of the troops to land at St. Paul’s Bay, while the rest marched towards Naxxar from Marsamxett. Instead, tired and demoralized Turkish soldiers ran for their galleys anchored in St. Paul’s Bay. Thousands were hacked to pieces in the shallow waters of the bay as they tried to escape. That night the banner of the Order of St. John few once again over the battered ruins of St. Elmo. Once you visit Fort St. Elmo in Valetta, remember the heroism of its defenders who for four weeks held Turks at bay and with their lives changed the course of European history.
The part played in the Great Siege by the ordinary people of Malta is often overlooked, but their courage and resilience was a deciding factor in the Turkish defeat. Besides the 5,000 or so strong defence force made up of Maltese soldiers, the local women and children contributed by repairing walls, supplying food and ammunition and tending the wounded. The date of the end of the siege, 8 September, is still commemorated in Malta as the Victory Day public holiday.
The period following the Great Siege was one of building – not only massive new fortifications and watchtowers (the Wignacourt, Lascaris and De Redin towers), but also churches, palaces and auberges. The military engineer Francesco Laparelli was sent to Malta by the pope to design the new defences of Valletta (a new city named after the hero de Valette and current capital of Malta), and Italian artists arrived to decorate its churches, chapels and palazzi. A pious Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere (1572-1581) oversaw the construction of the Order’s new hospital, the Sacra Infermeria, and the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral. However, in later years, with the Turkish threat removed, the Knights occupied themselves less with militarism and monasticism, and more with piracy, commerce, drinking and duelling.
By the late 18th century around 3/4th of the Order’s income came from the Knights of the French langue; when, after the French Revolution, authorities confiscated all of the Order’s properties and estates in France, the Order was left in dire financial straits. In 1798 Napoleon arrived in Malta aboard his flagship L’Orient at the head of the French Navy, on his way to Egypt. After Knights refused Napoleon to dock his ships in the Grand Harbour, the French landed and captured the island with hardly a fight. On 11 June 1798 the Order surrendered to the French. Napoleon stayed in Malta for only six days (in the Palazzo de Parisio in Valetta), but when he left, L’Orient was weighed down with silver, gold, paintings and tapestries looted from the Order’s churches, auberges and infirmary. Most of this treasure went to the bottom of the sea a few months later when the Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. The French also abolished the Maltese aristocracy, defaced coats of arms and closed down monasteries. Napoleon left behind a garrison of 4,000 men but very soon they were taken unaware by a spontaneous uprising of the Maltese and had to retreat within the walls of Valletta. With a help of British naval blockade, the French finally capitulated in September 1800 – and the British government, having taken Malta, was somewhat unsure what to do with it.
The Treaty of Amiens (March 1802) provided for the return of Malta to the Order of St. John, but the Maltese, fed up with lazy and troublemaking Knights, petitioned the British to stay. A new war between France and Britain forced the British government to change its mind regarding the potential usefulness of Malta and with the Treaty of Paris of 1814, the island was formally recognized as a Crown Colony of the British Empire and was used as a shipping way-station and fleet headquarters. After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Malta’s position halfway between the Strait of Gibraltar and Egypt proved to be its main asset, and it was considered an important stop on the way to India, a central trade route for the British.
During WWI Malta served as a military hospital, providing 25,000 beds for casualties from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. But prices and taxes soared during the war and the economy slumped, causing riots and death of four Maltese citizens, shot by panicking British soldiers. In response, the British government gave the Maltese a greater say in the running of Malta, by creating a diarchic system of government, with a Maltese assembly presiding over local affairs and a British imperial government controlling foreign policy and defence. The Fascist threat of WWII was remote until the fall of France in June 1940. Thus Malta was unprepared and undefended when on 11 June, the day after Mussolini entered the war, Italian bombers attacked Grand Harbour. The only aircraft available on the islands at this time were three Gloster Gladiator biplanes – named Faith, Hope and Charity – whose pilots fought with such tenacity that Italian pilots estimated the strength of the Maltese squadron to be at least 25 aircrafts. It is mind boggling that those three planes battled on alone for three weeks before fleet of modern Hurricane fighters arrived to bolster the islands air defences. The remains of the sole surviving Gladiator – Faith, can be seen at Valletta’s National War Museum located in Fort St. Elmo.
Malta’s greatest ordeal came in 1942, when the country came close to starvation and surrender. It suffered 154 days and nights of non-stop bombing and in April alone some 6700 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Grand Harbour and the surrounding areas. On 15 April, King George VI awarded the George Cross – Britain’s highest award for civilian bravery – to the entire population. Just as Malta’s importance to the Allies lay in disrupting enemy supply lines, so its major weakness was the difficulty of getting the supplies to the island. At the height of the siege in the summer of 1942 the governor made an inventory of remaining food and fuel, and informed London that Malta could only withstand until August. A huge relief convoy known as Operation Pedestal, consisting of 14 supply ships escorted by 3 aircrafts carriers, 2 battleships, 7 cruisers and 24 destroyers, was dispatched to run the gauntlet of enemy bombers and submarines. It suffered massive attacks, and only 5 ships made it into Grand Harbour – the crippled oil tanker Ohio, with its precious cargo of fuel, limped in on 15 August, lashed between two warships as it no longer could float on its own.
In July 1943 Malta served as the operational headquarters and air support base for Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the Italian Navy finally surrendered, to the Allies on 8 September. Fortress Malta is a fantastic account of the lives and deaths of the Maltese people during the WWII. As a Belarusian, whose country suffered enormous losses and buried every 4th of its citizens in WWII, I was surprised and inspired to learn about the importance of this small island for the Allies and the immense heroism shown by the Maltese people.
WWII left the islands with 35,000 homes destroyed and the population on the brink of starvation, the economic slump called for either closer integration with Britain or for island’s independence. Maltese chose the second and in 1964 became an independent republic. In 1980 they adopted a policy of neutrality and in 1989 Malta hosted a summit between US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, their first face-to-face encounter, which signaled the end of the Cold War.
Equipped with all this historical information, get ready to explore the Maltese islands. They are indeed small but don’t let the size fool you, as it is impossible to see them all in just a few days! Oh wait, perhaps it is possible if you get in touch with Stephen Place at My Maltese Guide. While panning the destination wedding and hoping to provide our guests with the most comprehensive Maltese experience, I reached out to Stephen and he has been an invaluable source of information and help. I might even admit that he has done more for me than my own wedding planner, who got generously paid for her services! Stephen came up (and fully organized) with two unique itineraries for Malta and Gozo and managed to accommodate the requests of all 35+ people who joined those tours. To complicate the situation, everything had to be done in two languages – English and Russian – but even this didn’t stop Stephen, he personally led the English group and found a fantastic tour-guide Anna to take over the Russian-speaking guests. I bow my head to you, Stephen, and after all you’ve done for me and D, I am happy to call you my new friend!
Another good and economical way to see the islands is to take one of Malta Sightseeing buses. They run two routes in Malta (North in blue and South in red) and one in Gozo and cover many of Malta’s sights. They start in Sliema, cost €20 each and take about 3 hours to complete, but you can hop on and off anytime you want. I did it on my last day of the trip, as even after 3 weeks in Malta, I still felt that I haven’t covered/seen it all. I found the routes to be very well planned and the audio guide very helpful in learning about the island.
The islands have a very well connected network of public buses that take you to pretty much any place in the country, but if you need a taxi, use only www.ecabs.com.mt. To our sad amusement we realized that many taxi drivers (who must be called in) didn’t speak English and didn’t even know the island well, add a not-so-friendly attitude and you’ve get a pretty unattractive experience. So, follow my advice and book an ecab (with a notice)!
I won’t be talking about my trip to Malta in chronological order, as I usually prefer to do, but in geographical one, simply because many of our 15 days in Malta we spent organizing the wedding: visiting the venues, arranging pre-wedding drinks, activities, etc. So I have separated our experience by locations and events and would like to start with one of the most touristic parts of the island – Paceville (reads “Pacheville), St. Julians and Sliema. Those three towns, flanking the eastern coast of Malta, despite their lack of interesting things to see or any major beach to speak of (except for a small St. George’s bay beach) – are the bustling area to stay, promenade, eat, drink, shop and party on the island. St. Julians is home to two best hotels in Malta – Hilton and The Westin Dragonara Resort, where we chose to spend part of our time on the island.
Prior to its transformation, the Dragonara Hotel served other purposes. Originally it was the summer residence of Malta’s wealthiest banker, Marquis Emanuel Scicluna, known as ic-Cisk. In times of war, the palace was converted into a military hospital and headquarters of voluntary services. It was redeveloped as a casino, and since the 1990s run as a Resort by Westin Hotels. Located on its own peninsular, it offers several safe water entrances (note that most of Malta’s coast is rocky), 3 pools and plenty of unique coves to seclude yourself from the crowds.
We’ve fully enjoyed all the facilities at the hotel, including its Executive lounge, the ORVM lounge and Piano bar where we hosted our pre-wedding reception, Palio’s restaurant and the Bedouin bar, where our wedding guests relocated for the after-hours.
Once you leave the gates of the Dragonara, you are in a world of shopping malls, discos and restaurants. If you forgot your bathing suit, need a Maltese sim card or simply want to join a party – head to the streets of St. Julians. We tried two wonderful eateries there – Gozitan (try a local rabbit dish) and Il Lokalino that serves simple yet delicious food and excellent fresh-squeezed juices. Paranga Restaurant on the beach was nice too, it was conveniently located between Paceville and St. Julians, right on St. George’s beach.
The best way to get a feel of this place is to walk, as I did the day before my wedding when I got totally fed up with the planning. I packed my sunblock, loaded my camera and walked along the Mediterranean Sea waterfront from The Westin Dragonara to Valletta – a beautiful 8+ km walk. On this scenic route, you will see the beautiful green-blue bays and bare rocky beaches, lavish lidos (private pools with sun lounges, bars and water sports) and old watchtowers, churches and shopping centers, tourists and locals, but if you are lucky or if it is really hot outside – no tourists at all. None of the towns have clearly defined boarders, or so it seems; so Paceville slowly becomes St. Julians and the latter eventually grows into Sliema. However, Sliema has a more exclusive and sophisticated feel than others, and has been long associated with the Maltese upper class. Its elegant backstreets remain largely residential and the busy waterfront is dotted by some exceptional eateries.
Tigné Point, a promontory east of Sliema was one of the sites where the Turkish commander Dragut Reis ranged his cannons to pound Fort St. Elmo into submission during the Great Siege in 1565. The tip of the Tigné peninsula is still known as Dragut Point and it is home to the previously neglected Tigné Fort, built in 1792 by the Knights of st. John. Right in this area we decided to host our pre-wedding dinner at The Chophouse restaurant that served great food and offered one of the most fantastic views of the Marsamxett Harbour and Valletta.
I also got to stay for one night at Le Meridien in Sliema and even though many locals advised me not, claiming that the hotel was outdated and not as good as it used to be, I really enjoyed it. First of all, as a Platinum SPG member I’ve got one of the largest suites I’ve ever stayed at, but also the hotel was located in a very picturesque Il-Balluta Bay where you can swim into the sea straight from the staircase and of course, because of the famous Le Meridien Myoka Spa where I’ve got to experience one of the best massages of my life. I would definitely stay at this place again!
The closer to Valletta you get, the more residential and commercial area becomes; it is sort of a mix of totally dilapidated mansions, middle-class apartment buildings and different sort of facilities, from pharmacies to garages. It is all fascinating until you glance over the Marsamxett Harbour and see the Valletta’s formidable city walls, it will take your breath away!
Valletta – a tiny capital of Malta (measuring 600m by 1000m and home to about 6,500 people) is a treasure chest. Just like everything in Malta, it might seem small, but I bet you won’t be able to see everything in one or even two days. I will speak of Valletta in two parts – as a visit on our own and then as a part of a Tour of Malta with Stephen Place. The building of a city on the Sciberras Peninsula had been proposed by the Order of St. John as early as 1524. Back then, the only building on the peninsula was a small watchtower St. Elmo, which had been built in 1488. In 1552, it was replaced by the larger Fort St. Elmo (story of which I’ve already told in the Great Siege of 1565). After the victory over the Ottomans, Grand Master de Valette set out to build there a new fortified city to reinforce the Order’s position in Malta and bind the Knights to the island. On 28 March 1566 de Valette placed the first stone in what later became Our Lady of Victories Church and Valletta appeared on the map.
Francesco Laparelli was the city’s principal designer and his plan departed from medieval Maltese architecture, which exhibited irregular winding streets and alleys. He designed the new city on a rectangular grid plan, and without any collacchio (an area restricted for important buildings). The streets were designed to be wide and straight, beginning centrally from the City Gate and ending at Fort Saint Elmo (which was rebuilt) overlooking the Mediterranean. Completed in early 1570s, Valletta became Malta’s capital, an elegant “city build by gentlemen for gentlemen”. Unfortunately, Valletta and harbours were heavily bombed during the WWII, nevertheless, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1980, describing it as “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world”. Smartly and tastefully renovated, the architecture of Valletta’s streets and piazzas ranges from mid-16th century Baroque to Modernism; it is the island’s principal cultural centre and has a unique collection of churches, palaces and museums.
We arrived to Valletta by taxi with a goal to explore the wharfs, Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens and Fort St. Elmo with its National War Museum. We also had plenty of time to wonder around the hilly streets of Valletta and walked its main pedestrian Triq ir-Repubblika (Republic Street).
We started at the beautiful Pinto Wharf, a place of the Cruise liners’ mooring and home to a mid-18th century shopping center. To our left and right, we could see one of the most beautiful baroque architectural waterfronts along Grand Harbour’s shores. These stores were financed and built by Grand Master Emanuel Pinto (1741-1773) in 1752. Over the years, this complex served as Government storage facility during emergencies and exigencies. In 1827, due to the Battle of Navarino, many Russian ships stopped over for a prolong period of time and in order for the Customs to cope with related shiploads of supplies, one warehouse was given to the Russians and was subsequently known as the “Russian Government Magazine” (‘magazine’ means “shop” in Russian). During WWII, the wharf was severely damaged but was recently restored and is used for commercial purposes and as a promenade. There is also a chapel, flanked by stores on both sides, which is dedicated to the “Holy Family on its Flight into Egypt”. It was also built by Grand Master Pinto in 1752 to serve the people living and working in the area. The Chapel was extensively damaged on 16 January 1941 during the air raid on H.M.S. Illustrious but has been restored in 1988 and once again it is serving its parishioners.
From Pinto Wharf, via Lascaris Wharf, we continued towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens and Saluting Battery. There is a lift that takes you up to the Garden level and you do have to pay (€2) only if you are going up. Upper Barrakka Gardens (allow 45-60 mins) are a public garden (hence – it is free) twinned with the Lower Barrakka Gardens located just 300m to the east. It is situated on the upper tier of St. Peter & Paul Bastion, which was built in the 1560s, while the lower tier contains the Saluting Battery. It is the highest point of the city walls, thus its bordering terrace offers the most breathtaking views over the Grand Harbour, the Three Cities, as well as over the shipyard and the lower-lying parts of the capital. The garden’s terraced arches were built in 1661 by the Italian knight Fra Flaminio Balbiani as a place of recreation to the Knights of the Italian langue of the Order of St. John, but were opened to the public following the end of the French occupation of Malta in 1800. They were originally roofed, but the ceiling was removed following the Rising of the Priests in 1775.
In the park there are several monuments and memorials to a number of prominent people, including Gerald Strickland, Sir Thomas Maitland and Sir Winston Churchill, as well as a replica of the statue Les Gavroches (The street boys) by the Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino.
The bastion’s lower tier contains the Saluting Battery (€3 entry which includes a very useful audio guide) – a real artillery battery that gun-salutes every day at 12.00 and 16.00. During the siege of 1565, Ottoman forces mounted cannon on the Sciberras Peninsula to bombard the Knights in Fort St Angelo. One of the siege batteries was located close to where the Saluting Battery is now, since the area is on high ground and has clear views of St. Angelo and the rest of the Grand Harbour. During the Order’s rule in Malta, the battery was used for both military and ceremonial purposes. By the late 18th century, the battery was armed with sixteen 12-pounder bronze cannons that fired stone spherical shots. Between then and the beginning of WWII, the guns were added and their purpose has been changing all the time, but in 1939 the guns were all removed to be deployed for coastal defence. A single Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun was placed on the right salient of the battery to protect the Malta Dockyard. During the war, the Lascaris War Rooms were built in tunnels dug under the battery and gardens, which were severely damaged by the air bombardments. After the war, the damage to the battery and gardens was repaired and in 1965, the part of the battery that was still military property was handed over to the civil government and the whole area was turned into a garden. In 2004 the Malta Heritage Trust, acquired the battery and began to restore it to its late 19th century configuration. It now has working cannons, artillery stores, a gunpowder magazine, a collection of historic ordinance and a small museum. We did consider this place as our wedding venue in Malta and if I had another chance, I would have totally been sold on this idea!
Following the Barriera Wharf along the southern shore, we proceeded to the Lower Barrakka Gardens, situated on the bastions overlooking the entrance to the Grand Harbour and the Breakwater. There are two monuments in the gardens, one dedicated to Alexander Ball and another in remembrance of the Great Siege of Malta. The prominent feature of the Gardens is the neo-classical temple folly at the center of the park, but it is also a very nice and relaxing place to hang out, refuel and get some shade from the burning summer sun.
A starred-shaped Fort St. Elmo stands on the seaward shore of the Sciberras Peninsula that divides Marsamxett Harbour from Grand Harbour, and commands the entrances to both harbours along with Fort Tigné and Fort Ricasoli. Ticket is €10 and includes entrances to Fort St. Elmo, National War Museum, Prison cells and Cavalier. Please allow 1.5-2 hours.
I have already mentioned about the Fort’s importance during the Great Siege of 1565, however, its role didn’t diminish with a construction of Valletta and fort’s integration within the city walls. The fort was modified a number of times in the 17th century by the Knights of St. John and in the early 19th century by the British, when a musketry parapet was built. Its military legacy didn’t end with Ottoman attack, as it was the site of the first aerial bombardment of Malta on 11 June 1940 when 6 RMA gunners lost their lives – they were the first victims of WWII. It also played an essential part in the defeat of the Italian seaborne attack of 26 July 1941 on the Grand Harbour. Parts of the fort were severely damaged during the war and some scars of the bombing can still be seen to this day. The Royal Malta Artillery left the fort on 26 March 1972, ending its long military history and after many years of restoration, the Fort was re-opened in 2015.
Since 1975 part of the Fort houses National War Museum, which contains a superb collection of items from pre-historic to modern times displayed in chronological order, starting with the early phases of the Bronze Age around 2,500 B.C. But before we enter the Museum, let me walk you through the Fort.
After buying our tickets and passing by a row of Casemates to our right, we entered the Fort through La Porta del Soccorso – during the Great Siege of 1565 supplies and men from Birgu (a town across the Grand Harbour) were brought in through this sally gateway under cover of darkness to never leave this fort again. The gate is decorated with 3 coats of arms and a mystery eye, which appears to be scanning the horizon for storms or an enemy. Traditionally, the eye represents royal power, good health and protection.
As you walk in to your left is a small chapel of St. Anne which housed an icon of the saint which had been brought to Malta in 1530 by Knights aboard the Carracca St. Anna. The chapel was the final battleground of the Great Siege of 1565 – knights and chaplains were slaughtered here as they defended the altar. It is a tranquil and inspiring place to take a moment and say a prayer for all souls lost in wars.
Then we came to the main square called Piazza D’Armi & Church of St. Anne, where multiple buildings (named “Blocks”) house the collection of the National War Museum.
We began our journey at “Block C” exhibiting items from Prehistory to late Middle Ages. Tools and weapons used by Malta’s early inhabitants are displayed together with information relating to the material culture of the people who used and fashioned them.
Two Blocks FO-K host the exhibits telling the stories of the People’s War and Maltese courage and tenacity during WWII. Displayed in these halls are three most important icons of the museum – the only surviving Gloster Sea Gladiator “Faith”, Roosevelt’s Jeep “Husky” and Malta award for gallantry, the George Cross. The exhibit also concentrates on the stories of supply convoys that helped in Malta’s heroic struggle during the darkest years of the war.
From there we proceeded to the Dungeons, which were always a part of the Fort and served, initially, to discipline members of the Order of St. John. It was later used as a prison for knights, chaplains or servants-at-arms and then for political prisoners such as Mustafa Pasha of Rhodes (1749) and the rebels of the 1775 “Priest’s Uprising”. These prison cells tell the story of Malta’s nationhood, from independence in 1964, to becoming a republic in 1974, the closure of the British military base in 1979, and joining the EU in 2004. Recent restoration found in dungeons and some other parts of the Fort stone inscriptions, dating to as far as the times of the Knights.
One side of Piazza D’Armi is occupied by a large Church of St. Anne. Built by Grand Master Perellos, this garrison church was dedicated to St. Anne and housed an icon of the Blessed Virgin brought to Malta from Rhodes by the Knights in 1530.
The Fort has a very interesting interactive 3D film about its history, and I have to admit that I’ve never met more accommodating attendants than there, they were very kind to fill us in with the details about the fort and show us not so obvious sites (like the wall inscriptions).
We left the Fort around 17.30 and spent a few hours just wondering the streets of Valletta, making photographs and taking in the unique ambience of this beautiful city – old palazzos, auberges, residential buildings, embassies, narrow streets. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit neither St. John Co-Cathedral – Malta’s most famous church and last resting place of all the Grand Masters nor the National Museum of Archeology. The former was closed (perhaps for renovation) and for the latter we simply didn’t have enough time. But there is always another time!
Attard, Mosta & Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (Paola). It might seem that I randomly picked these “off-beaten path” places in the middle of the island, however, they absolutely deserve to be discovered by the travelers. Attard has been inhabited since the Classical Period and takes its name from the Arabic “Atr” meaning “perfume” due to town’s abundance of gardens, ornamental trees and flowers. During the 1980s Attard experienced a boost in development, however the area surrounding the church and the Sant’Anton Quarter features a number of converted farmhouses (recognizable by their wooden doors and flat, rustic roofs) and residences built by the Knights of St John.
One of the places to visit is The San Anton Palace and Gardens. It owes its origin to the Knight Antoine de Paule, a French knight from the Langue de Provence, who was elected the 54th Grand Master in 1623. De Paule (who also founded Paola in 1626) acquired a sizable plot of land near Attard and set about building a country villa which would be nearer to Valletta than Verdala Palace (Knight’s official summer residency). He planned a generously sized chateau to provide accommodation for his guests and for his large domestic staff which included cooks, food tasters, torch bearers, pantry boys, wig makers, a winder of the clocks, and physicians, as well as a baker to make black bread for his hunting dogs. The Grand Master named the villa ‘Sainte Antoine’ after his patron saint, Anthony of Padua. De Paule also provided the palace with a private chapel dedicated to the Madonna del Pilar with a vault decorated with the coats-of-arms of Grand Masters. He designed a symmetrical walled garden that consisted of mostly orange groves, fruits of which he sent as gifts to those he desired to honor.
Successive Grand Masters used the place as their country-residence but Sant’Anton has also greeted numerous royalties across the centuries, including Queen Marie of Romania, the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna, King Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth II. It has seen the most distinguished visitors in contrasting personal situations – Napoleon’s younger brother Louis Bonaparte as a prisoner, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as an admiring recluse. After the French occupation the Palace was the seat of the Maltese National Assembly. It later became the residence of the Governor of Malta and since 1974 Sant’Anton Palace has been the Official residence of the President of Malta. So it is out of reach for mortals like you and I, however the gardens of San Anton, part of which have been open to the public since 1882, have officially re-opened in 2015 for everyone to visit. They are laid out in a formal manner, with graceful walkways, sculptures, ornamental ponds, families of ducks and swans, and a small aviary. The gardens contain a large variety of trees and flowers from around the world, including a variety of palm trees, cypress, jacarandas, araucarias and other exotic plants, some of which are over three centuries old. For many years it has been customary for visiting Heads of State to plant a tree in memory of their stay in Malta. The gardens also contain an orangery, and following the tradition started by de Paule it was the practice of incumbent Governors to give baskets of oranges grown in the palace gardens as gifts at Christmas time.
Another important place to visit is Villa Bologna – a Maltese stately home, built in opulent Baroque style. Villa Bologna has been called “the most beautiful 18th century country house to be built for a Maltese family” and “of similar grandeur to the finest palaces on the island”. It is as interesting for its history as it is remarkable for the beauty of its architecture and gardens, which, together with the neighboring San Anton Gardens, are the largest historic gardens in Malta. Once the seat of the Counts della Catena, Villa Bologna is now held by the great-grandson of the 6th count Gerald Strickland, 1st Baron Strickland. Built during the rule of the Order of St. John, expanded during the British colonial period and currently undergoing revival, Villa Bologna is a comprehensive record of the architectural, artistic, cultural, social and political history of Malta in the two and a half centuries since it was built.
Villa Bologna was constructed, by Fabrizio Grech, in 1745 as a gift for his daughter Maria Teresa Grech on her marriage to Nicholas Perdicomati Bologna, later the 2nd Count della Catena. Fabrizio Grech was both sindaco of the Maltese Università and uditore, or advisor, to Grand Master Pinto, which made him an immensely wealthy and influential man. A story, much repeated but never substantiated, has it that he was provoked into building a residence of surpassing beauty and magnificence for his daughter by aspersions cast by his new in-laws on his social standing. This is unlikely. Whatever the case may be, Nicholas Perdicomati Bologna and Maria Teresa Grech got married on 25 April 1745 and received Villa Bologna as thier wedding present. Nicholas was succeeded by their youngest daughter Angela Perdicomati Bologna (the 4th Countess), who married Baron Sciberras and the title, together with entail and the Villa passed on to their son Nicholas Sciberras Bologna in 1798. After the death without a will of Nicholas Sciberras Bologna, in 1875, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council awarded the title and lands, including Villa Bologna to Gerald Strickland, the great-grandson of Angela Perdicomati Bologna.
Gerald Strickland, now Gerald Bologna Strickland 6th Count della Catena, later also raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom as Baron Strickland of Sizergh, was to usher in a new age for Villa Bologna. He was also the most politically influential native of Malta in its history. The son of Walter Strickland, a British naval officer of a family of landholding gentry descended in part from the Plantagenet and Norman kings through Edward III, Lord Strickland had a spectacular political career and held many political offices in both Malta (he was elected Head of Ministry, office equivalent to that of Prime Minister), and around the British Empire (he had a seat in the House of Lords). He was also appointed governor of a number of British colonies, the only colonial ever to hold such an office.
Lord Strickland also made two highly advantageous marriages. In 1890, he married Lady Edeline Sackville-West, the daughter of the 7th Earl de la Warr. Lady Edeline gave him eight children, including the Hon. Mary Constance Strickland, the Hon. Cecilia Victoria Strickland and the Hon. Mabel Edeline Strickland. Of the two boys born to Lord Strickland, neither survived infancy. During these years, Lord Strickland held numerous governorships of British colonies around the British Empire and, while the family was absent from Villa Bologna, he generously allowed an order of religious nuns to occupy the villa until the family returned to Malta. Lady Edeline died in 1918 and in 1926, Lord Strickland married Margaret Hulton, daughter of the newspaper magnate Edward Hulton. It was Lady Strickland who was to modernize Villa Bologna and, together with her friend Count Giuseppe Teuma Castelletti, she extended the gardens far beyond their original limits, raised the walls of the property and decorated them with crenels. She added turrets, planted hundreds of trees, many of exotic species, and laid out fountains and ponds of unique character and beauty. If Fabrizio Grech had built a fabulous villa, it was Lady Strickland who transformed it into a horticultural paradise.
In 1940, Lord Strickland died and, for the first time since its construction, the ownership of Villa Bologna was estranged from the Catena title. The title passed on to the son of Lord Strickland’s eldest daughter, while Villa Bologna passed on to Gerald Edmund Hubert de Trafford (1929-2015), the eldest son of the Hon. Cecilia Victoria Strickland with her husband Captain Hubert de Trafford. After the death of Gerald in 2015, his son, Jasper inherited Villa Bologna and is now its current owner, the seventh of his line. This Anglo-Maltese family is of great interest to students of History and Genealogy. Not only is its forebear, Lord Strickland, unique in the annals of British Colonial History, but through the intermarriage of Stricklands, de Traffords and the descendants of the Perdicomati Bolognas they blend some of the most notable English blood with that of a glittering constellation of European royal families.
Villa Bologna is a palatial country house typical of the Mediterranean Baroque. Though regally splendid in its own right, it is through its gardens that it acquires a character that is absolutely unique in the annals of Maltese architecture. The gardens of Villa Bologna were laid out in two phases. The original garden, better known as the Baroque Garden, dates back to the original construction in 1745. This garden was laid out in the traditional style with a symmetrical layout and citrus trees throughout. Later on, lawns were added and exotic trees were planted. This garden is remarkable for its nymphaea, one large and one small, the larger of which is said to be one of the best examples of the use of rocaille in Malta. Its rocaille includes gagazza, coral-like material, and real seashells. Rusticated columns frame the niches and panels while figures drawn from Classical mythology, or personifications of nature, fill the fountain. There are also dolphins serving as waterspouts and Nereids serving as caryatids. On top of the fountain are busts of the four seasons. Over the fountain is a carving of the face of Neptune and the main panels contained statues of Bacchus and Pan. The Baroque Gateway is less complex but no less imposing. On the left side of the gate is a statue of Cleopatra over which is the reclined figure of the god of river Nile. On the other side of the gate is a statue of Mark Antony and above this statue is the reclined figure of the god of the river Tiber. The gateway, beautiful as it is, comes into its own when one looks through it towards the west, upon which it appears to frame the large Nymphaeum to ravishing effect.
*picture by Alexey Leonov (One Special Day)
The New Garden was laid out by Lady Strickland after she married Lord Strickland in 1926. An Englishwoman, Lady Strickland came from a culture that reveres gardens and, being extremely wealthy in her own right, she was able to indulge her passion for gardens by letting her imagination run wild on the grounds of Villa Bologna. She planted Malta’s first grapefruit and avocado trees, an exotic vegetable garden, including asparagus, and cherry trees as well as tangerines. But perhaps the most spectacular additions were the Dolphin Pond and the Sunken Pond, two ponds that, for beauty and character, have no equal in Malta.
In the middle of the the Dolphin Pond is the statue of a boy embracing a swan from whose beak springs a fountain of water. In each corner of the pond, a toad spouts water into the pond. Soaring on columns around the pond are four arches meeting on the corners of a rectangle just above the pond. On each arch is a stone dolphin carved in the Baroque style.
As you have already guessed, I spent so much time talking about Villa Bologna because D and I were married there. We thought that the story behind Villa Bologna, its heritage and most importantly, its beauty resonated well with our high requirements. We couldn’t have been happier to host our families and friends at this absolutely gorgeous venue. But ….. The Gardens at Villa Bologna are also open for public (€6), so you might as well spend an afternoon there.
Just 4 kms from Attard is a small but mysterious town of Mosta, associated not with one but with two inexplicable events that happened there. The first miracle of Mosta is associated with a small Speranza Chapel (‘Speranza’ meaning ‘hope’), which was built between 1760 and 1761. A legend says that a few sisters were herding their family’s sheep when Turks attacked the island. While all other sisters escaped, the youngest one couldn’t follow them as she was born lame. Instead she hid in a cave (which was found on the left side under the Chapel), and prayed to Our Lady promising her that, if she was to get out of there alive, she would build a chapel in her name. When the Turkish invaders chasing her pass by the cave, they failed to look inside as the entrance was all covered with miraculously appeared spider web.
The second miracle of Mosta is related to the Rotunda of Mosta (Mosta Dome) – The Parish Church of Santa Maria. Designed by the Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vasse and built between 1833-1860, it is a remarkable circular church, closely based on the Pantheon in Rome, with one of the world’s largest domes, visible from most parts of Malta. With a diameter of 39,6 m, its interior is stunningly decorated with blue, gold and white. On 9 June 1942, Mosta Dome took a direct hit from a German bomber, while 300 people gathered inside for a Mass. Two bombs bounced off and landed in the square without exploding. The third bomb pierced the dome, smashed off a wall and rolled across the floor of the church. Miraculously, no one was hurt and the bomb failed to detonate. A replica of the 200kg bomb can still be seen in the sacristy of the Church.
Another “must visit” site in Malta is located in a small, and somewhat sleepy town of Paola. Founded by the Grand Master Antoine de Paule (the same Master who built Sant’Anton Villa) in 1626, it is home to a group of megalithic temples, called Kordin Temples, which were built around 3700 B.C. and abandoned after 2500 B.C., the Malta’s largest parish church and Mariam Al-Batool Mosque, the only mosque in Malta. It is also a place that conceals two of Malta’s post important pre-historic sites, both of which have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List – the remarkable Tarxien Temples (pronounced tar-sheen) which represent Malta’s most complex network of temples (they were unfortunately closed for public) and Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 6,000 year old subterranean necropolis. Tickets (€30 per person) must be purchased via www.heritagemalta.org far in advance (I acquired ours 3 months before the visit) as entrance is allowed at scheduled times and only as an organized guided tour with no more than 6 people at the time. No photos allowed!
Under the crowded streets of housing south of Paola Square, built around 1900, lies a unique monument. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is an underground prehistoric burial complex made up of interconnecting rock-cut chambers set on three distinct levels which cover some 500 sq. m. Earliest remains at the site date back to about 4000 B.C., and it is known that the complex was used over a span of many centuries, up to c. 2500 B.C. and contained an estimated 7,000 bodies. The ancient workers mimicked built masonry in carving out these underground chambers, and exploited the rock’s natural weaknesses and strengths to carve out the spaces by hand and create a safe underground structure.
*picture is taken from www.heritagemalta.org
The uppermost level consists of a large hollow with burial chambers on its sides. This hollow was probably originally exposed to the sky and excavations in the early 1990s indicate that there might also have been a monumental structure marking the entrance.
A doorway leads to the Middle Level, which contains some of the best known features of the Hypogeum such as the intricate red ochre wall paintings and the beautifully carved features in imitation of architectural elements common in contemporaneous Megalithic Temples. This level features several apparently important rooms:
- Main Chamber – carved out from rock in a roughly circular shape with a number of trilithon entrances, some of which are blind, and others – leading to another chamber. Most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre. It was in this room that the famous statuettes of the sleeping lady were recovered.
- Oracle Room is rectangular and one of the smallest side chambers. According to our guide (and we tried it) it produces a powerful acoustic resonance from any vocalization made inside it. This room has an elaborately painted ceiling, consisting of spirals in red ochre with circular blobs.
- Decorated Room (just out of the Oracle’s Room) is another spacious hall, circular, with inward slanting smooth walls, richly decorated in a geometrical pattern of spirals. On the right side wall of the entrance is a petrosomatoglyph of a human hand carved into the rock.
- Snake Pit – a 2 m deep pit which could have been used for either keeping snakes or collecting alms.
- Holy of Holies room which focal point is a porthole within a trilithon, or structure consisting of two large vertical stones, which is in turn framed within a larger trilithon and yet another large trilithon. The corbelled ceiling has been taken as a hint that Malta’s surface temples, now uncovered, could have been roofed similarly.
The deepest of the three levels is known as the Lower Level, which is accessed down seven steps in the ‘Holy of Holies’ chamber. The end of the site appears to have been quite sudden, as enlargement of the chambers was interrupted, and perhaps that lower level would have been brought into more obvious use if the temple culture had survived a little longer.
We can only guess at the activities in this mysterious place. The burials are obvious, though the actual funeral rites less so. We might assume that the bodied were placed, probably in a crouched position, in the side chambers, together with their personal possessions (many of which were discovered at the site). Even in this vast labyrinth there is hardly space for 7,000 complete corpses, or even skeletons, so almost certainly bones, as they fell apart were pushed to the back to make room for their successors, their descendants, century after century. The central chambers doubtless witnessed religious ceremonies, honoring both the dead and the gods, though nobody any longer remembers those ceremonies or can recover them. The reverberations of the Oracle Room may well have played a part here. The cast cistern to one side, certainly contemporary though kept open for use until much later than the rest of the site, as its contents showed, provided water for use in those ceremonies. The baffling problems of interpretation merely add to the mystery, and to the powerful feeling of religious awe this remarkable monument inspires.
* source www.malta.com
Discovered in 1902 during construction works, the site was first excavated by Fr Emmanuel Magri between 1904 and 1906, however when Fr Magri died in Tunisia he didn’t leave any notes behind him. Excavations were taken over by Sir Themistocles Zammit, who continued works until 1911. The visit, about 50 minutes long, starts with a brief exhibit and multilingual film, which provides an introduction before you descend into the dimply lit, mysterious and silent world that lies beneath. There were talks about closing the Hypogeum for tourists as people’s presence provokes a speedy deterioration of artifacts, however, you might still be lucky and visit this amazing site.
On July 3, 2015 D and I got married in Villa Bologna and to celebrate this occasion, besides the wedding and the after-party at the Bedouin Bar, we hired a catamaran for the sunset cruise of Malta (which coincided with the US Independence Day – July 4). We used Tip Top One Day Cruise Malta and couldn’t have been happier with service, food and drinks. It was one of the highlights of our, and ours guests, time in Malta. We embarked at Sliema dock at 19.30 and for 4 hours navigated along Malta’s east coast, stopping for a sunset swim, finishing the trip in the Grand Harbour and witnessing multiple fireworks as if they were specially planned for us. It was a remarkably beautiful night with a completely orange moon that took everybody’s breath away.
Other activities that we planned for our guests were two tours, one of Malta and one of Gozo, organized by Stephen Place. Those were all-day adventures that covered the most important and/or beautiful places of Malta and Gozo and even though they were good substitutes for people with little time, they just wetten my appetite for more. We started Tour of Malta at 9.00 at the Westing Dragonara (Stephen arranged a coach for our 35+ guests, a Russian speaking guide for non-English speaking friends and water/snacks/map gift packages) and we made stops at Valletta & Birgu (walking tour), took a boat in Blue Grotto (€8), visited Ħaġar Qim and Mnajra Temples, dropped by Dingli Cliffs for some photos and finished with a walking tour of Mdina.
We first visited Valletta, where we took a 2 hour walking tour with a brief stop for coffee and pastries at Caffe Cordina. We parked at Valletta’s bus terminus, next to The Triton Fountain and crossed the bridge spanning across Valletta’s deep ditch leading to the gate.
The Main City Gate which was built in the Porta Reale Curtain, a curtain wall at the centre of the Valletta Land Front, located between St. James’ and St. John’s Bastions. Completed in 2014, it is the fifth Gate to replace Valletta’s main city entrance since 1566. It marks the beginning of Republic Street (formerly Strada Reale), Valletta’s main street which goes all the way until Fort Saint Elmo at the opposite end of the city. “The City Gate” project by Renzo Piano comprised of four parts: the Valletta City Gate and its site immediately outside the city walls, an open-air theatre within the ruins of the former Royal opera house, the construction of a new Parliament building and the landscaping of the ditch. All three constructions (highly controversial and frequently discussed) are built in modern style and are strikingly different to the rest of Valletta’s Baroque architecture, however, the combination of the same limestone with new technologies, made them blend in well with the rest of the city, in an unusual way.
The New Parliament House, just to the right of the Gate, occupies a square originally built up with houses and later served as the Valletta Station of the Malta Railway. The area was bombarded during WWII, hence the station and other buildings were demolished in the 1960s as part of a project to redevelop the entrance to Valletta. The area was converted into an open space known as Freedom Square but was more commonly used as a parking lot. The Parliament House, looking suspiciously new and modern (it was completed in May 2015), is made up of two massive blocks in stone that are balanced on slender columns to give the building a sense of lightness, the whole respecting the line of the existing street layout. Energy use and environmental considerations were principal components in the design of this building. On the one hand, stone is used for the building’s facade to diminish solar heat gain and to allow natural ventilation, but it is also effective as part of the building’s geothermal heat exchanger (with 40 geothermal boreholes sunk into rock to depths of 140m, 100m below sea-level). In addition, the roof is covered with 600 sq m of photovoltaic panels – an ambitious energy strategy that allows the building to generate 80% of the energy required to heat it in the winter and 60% of its requirements to cool it in the summer months.
The Royal Opera House, a construction just next to the Parliament Building, was also a part of Renzo Piano project. The original Royal Opera House was erected in 1866 and was arguably one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in Valletta. In April 1942 it received a direct hit from arial bombing and the building was reduced to rubble. Even though, the area was cleared and plans were made to rebuilt the theater, very soon it became clear that a modern theatre of conventional size, would not fit in this site considering today’s requirements for rehearsal, backstage facilities, accessibility, etc. Piano’s statement that he strongly believed that “after more than 60 years of controversy, the ruins of the demolished opera have undeniably reached the status of monument, irrevocable witness of history and the dignity of collective memory”, won the day and in 2013 a New Royal Opera House was inaugurated. It looked nothing like the old traditional theater, but a combination of surviving ruins and modern technology – all are under the open skies, which reminded me of the traditional Greek Theaters.
We turned right at South street, just after the Opera House, and walked one block to a small square framed, from the west side by the Church of Our lady of Victory and from the east side by the Church of St. Catherine and Auberge d’Italie. A small statue of de Valette decorated the center of the square.
Our Lady of Victories Church was the first church and building completed in Valletta. In 1566, after the end of The Great Siege, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette and the Order showed interest to build a church in the name of the Nativity of the Virgin as a form of thanksgiving for the victory over the Ottoman Turks. It was built on the site where a religious ceremony was held to inaugurate the laying of the foundation stone of the new city of Valletta on 28 March 1566 and the Grandmaster de Valette personally funded the building of this church. On 21 August 1568, when de Valette passed away after coming down with a fever, in line with his final wishes, he was entombed in the crypt of the church. However, as St. John’s Co-Cathedral was built, de Valette’s remains were moved there. The church was damaged during WWII and is currently undergoing restoration.
Just the opposite is the Church of St. Catherine adjacent to Auberge d’Italie. The Church of St Catherine is a Roman Catholic church built in 1576 by the Italian Langue of St. John to serve as their church. Throughout the centuries, the church was enlarged and new chapels were added. In early 2000s it underwent restoration and after reopening in 2011, it continues to serve as the parish church of the Italian community of Malta. Auberge d’Italie was the second Auberge Italian Langue of St. John built in Valletta. The first one was built in 1570 in Saint George’s Square but a year later, it was integrated into the Grandmaster’s Palace. The construction of the second Auberge started in Strada San Giacomo (now corner of Merchants Street and South St) in 1574. The Italian knights moved into the Auberge in 1579 but three years later in August 1582 construction resumed when another storey was added to the building. In the 1680s the facade was extensively refurbished in Baroque style. After dissolution of the Order of St. John, the auberge served as the French Military Command (1798), British Corps Headquarters (1800-1920), first public dispensary and the Museum of Archeology (1920-1940) before it was bombed and damaged during WWII. After restoration, it became a School ofArt (1956), law court (till 1971) and even Malta’s GPO (from 1974), until yet another restoration, in 2002 it became a Ministry of Tourism.
Just past the Auberge d’Italie, is another very imposing building – Auberge De Castille. The Auberge was originally built between 1571-1574 to house the Langue of Castile, León and Portugal, one of the most powerful langues of the Order. The Auberge was completely rebuilt from 1741 to 1745, during the Grand Mastership of Manuel Pinto da Fonseca to a Baroque design and the coats of arms of Castile and León and of Portugal, along with Pinto’s personal coat of arms were sculpted on the facade of the building. After the French occupation, the building served as the headquarter of the British armed force and a Protestant chapel, however in 1942 the Auberge was bombed and sustained severe damage on the right side of the entrance. After the rebuilding in 1972, the Auberge de Castille became the office of the Prime Minister of Malta.
As one big happy family, we proceeded to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Luckily, D and I already visited them otherwise, 15 minutes wouldn’t be enough time to listen to the guide and enjoy the breathtaking views.
We continued via Merchants Street towards the St. George’s Square and along the way passed one of the famous bars in Valletta “The Pub” as well as a group of “guards”, who were on their way to the Fort St. Elmo, where they were to take part in a historical re-enactment of a full 16th century military parade from the time of the Knights. It is actually a scheduled performance that takes place few times a month, so check out the local calendar.
St. George’s Square is home to the largest palace in Valletta – the Grandmaster’s Palace – once the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John, it is now a museum and the official residence of the Maltese President. The Palace was originally built in 1569, as the palace of Eustachio del Monte. It was purchased by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière in the 1570s, and was enlarged into his own residence. It grew further in size and grandeur by successive Grand Masters, and its present configuration dates back to around mid-18th century. Currently, you can visit the Armoury (the collection of over 5,000 suits of 16th to 18th century armour is all that remains of an original 25,000 suits) and the State Apartments (the long Armoury corridor with paintings, Council Chamber, State Dining Room, Supreme Council Hall, Hall of the Ambassadors and Pages’ Room). Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go inside, but we’ve been told that the Grandmaster’s Palace is haunted by a ghost of a large cat.
Next to St George’s Sq is a small Republic Sq where the National Library of Malta, commonly known as the Bibliotheca, is located. The building was commissioned when larger premises were required for the Order’s library and was completed in 1796. Due to the French occupation of Malta, the library did not open until 1812. Now, it is accessible for visitors and mostly serves as a research and reference library; its vaults contain many interesting documents, such as a papal bull issued by Pope Paschal II in 1113 confirming the establishment of the Order of St. John, the complete archives of the Order and its Treasury from the Middle Ages to 1798, 1617 codices and manuscript and many more. A statue of Queens Victoria, dressed in famous Maltese lace, was erected on a piazza in front of the Bibliotheca in 1891 and since then, the square became known as Piazza Regina.
Across from the Bibliotheca is another Valletta’s landmark – Caffe Cordina, founded in 1837 it is both, locals and tourists, favorite place to grab some coffee and a delicious dessert. This is exactly what we did before getting back on a bus and proceeding to Birgu, or as it is also called Città Vittoriosa. This old fortified city is ideally situated for safe anchorage, and over time it has developed a very long history with maritime, mercantile and military activities. Birgu is a very old locality with its origins reaching back to medieval times as Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the Angevines, the Aragonese and the Order of Saint John all contributed to the development of the city. Upon arrival to the island in 1530, the Knights made Birgu their capital, they strengthened and fortified it by building Fort St. Angelo, and all their efforts paid off during the Ottoman invasion in 1565. After the Siege, in 1571, the Knights transferred their convent and seat to the new capital, Valletta, and Birgu lost some of its importance. It is hard to get lost in tiny Birgu, that is only 800m long and 400m wide, but it is home to a few fantastic sites that require a visit – The Inquisitor’s Palace (built in 1530s to serve as law courts, it later became the Tribunal and prison of Inquisition), Fort St. Angelo (initially a site of Roman and Phoenician temples, after 1530s fort served as a residence of the Grand Master and was a headquarter of de Valette during the Great Siege of 1565; the upper part of the fort, including the Grand Master’s Palace and the 15th century Chapel of St. Anne is now occupied by the modern Order of St. John) and Maritime Museum (built in 1840s it houses a wealth of material on Malta’s maritime past). Modern Birgu is also home to world’s finest mega-yachts and this part was the most interesting for my friends to see.
Our next stop was not a man-made historical place, but a huge natural arch in the sea cliffs called Blue Grotto. We first took a look at the Grotto from above and then descended into a small harbour, set in a narrow inlet in the cliffs and guarded by a watchtower. There, we bought our tickets (€8) and patiently waited in line to get in a small boat (suitable for 7-8 people) for a 30 minutes ride. The trip took us to seven caves, including the Honeymoon Cave, Reflection Cave and Cat’s Cave, where water, depending on the time of the day brilliantly changed responding to the light. It was fun!
Just a short drive away from Blue Grotto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples. The prehistoric site of Ħaġar Qim consists of a group of monumental megalithic buildings, built during the late Neolithic, around 5,000 year ago. Similar buildings have been found in more than 20 different places in Malta and Gozo, and the nearest site to Ħaġar Qim is that of Mnajdra, which is about 500 m downhill to the west. Today these buildings are usually called “temples” however, very little is known about what went on inside them.
The megalithic buildings at Ħaġar Qim are located on the crest of a ridge. To the south, the site commands views over the open sea, while to the north, it overlooks the edge of a large plain that extends over much of southern Malta. The temples are built of Globigerina limestone, a relatively soft, yellowish stone that is still widely used for buildings. The main building at the site has the most complicated plan of all the Maltese megalithic temples. It is clear that the building was not planned at a single moment, but was modified and extended at different times.
I thought Ħaġar Qim was a perfect location for another wonderful wedding tradition that I saved for later – bride’s bouquet tossing.
Before visiting the ruins (€10, please allow 1 hour), we spent about 30 minutes in the visitor’s center, watching a 3D movie about the history of the temples and being “hands-on” with the exhibits explaining how and why the structures may have been built. Walking around the outside of the building, we could see a few interesting features. The upper part of the facade around the entrance has been partly rebuilt in modern times. Tent-like shelters were built over the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, to protect them from the elements and help preserve them. The main building at Ħaġar Qim is unusual because it has several doorways facing different directions. Today, you can enter the doorway facing the sea and come out through another doorway facing inland. After entering through the monumental trilithon entrance, you appear in an internal court, floor of which is made of megalithic flagstones. To the left of the walkway there is a finely carved altar with a design that looks like a tree, and a slab with spiral motifs. On either side of the court, there is a screen with a doorway cut from a single megalith, knowns as a “porthole” doorway. These doorways give access to circular rooms or apses. The doorways are positioned so that, if you are standing in one apse, you can’t see across the corridor into the opposite apse. It is still a mystery whether the central courts in these buildings were partially or wholly roofed. On the other hand, most agree that the circular apses that lead off the courts had a corbeled roof, made of successive rings of megalith, each one smaller than the one below. Moving down the walkway, we came to another apse on the right, where the lower part of the corbelling may still be seen. Note how the upper megaliths overhang the ones below. On the other side of the walkway, the original plan of the building appears to have been modified and extended during prehistory. Note the two unusual mushroom-shaped altars. The famous “fat lady” statuettes and the so-called Venus de Malta figurines were found there in 1949 and are now on display in the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta. Another interesting feature is a block which has the remains of two figures carved in high relief.
From Ħaġar Qim we went downhill to Mnajdra Temples, which are tucked into a hollow overlooking the south coast of Malta. The garigue landscape between the two sites is dotted with dry-stone huts built by bird-trappers. The tower that comes into view on the left half way down the path is the Hamrija Tower, one of 13 coastal watchtowers built by Grand Master Martin de Redin in 1659. A short distance further on, a small monument on the cliff edge commemorates Sir Walter Norris Congreve, a British Governor who died in office in 1927. Congreve was buried at sea between this point and the rocky islet of Filfla, giving his name to the Congreve Channel that separates Filfla from the mainland. Part of the charm of Mnajdra Temples lies in the fact that no modern development is visible from the site, so that it may still be appreciated in its original setting. It was first excavated a year after Ħaġar Qim, in 1840 and was then investigated further through various excavations over the years. Remarkable finds uncovered during these excavations include examples of clay vessels decorated with various intricate designs, flint tools, as well as a clay representation of a human head. Mnajdra Temples are more elaborate, consisting of three temples side by side, each with a trefoil plan and a different orientation. The oldest temple is the small one on the right, aligned towards the southwest and Filfla Island. Unlike in Ħaġar Qim, the harder-wearing Coralline limestone along with the Globigerina were used in the construction of these temples.
As you stand in the oval forecourt outside the prehistoric structures at Mnajdra, look around and take this moment in. The first and oldest structure is the small three-apsed temple built in the Ggantija Phase, around 3600-3200 B.C. The South Temple (on the left), with its concave facade was next to be completed early in the Tarxien Phase, shortly after 3000 B.C., followed by the Central Temple which was built on an artificial platform between the two earlier buildings. The entrance to the small trefoil temple appears to have consisted of three doorways and just opposite the entrance one may see a niche bearing a series of drilled holes. The South Temple was built in such way that its main doorway is aligned with sunrise during the spring and autumn equinoxes (20 March and 22 September). During the winter and summer solstices (21 June and 21 December) the beams of the rising sun pass along the sides of the main doorway hitting two decorated slabs within the first chamber.
On the way to our next stop, Dingli Cliffs, we passed the famous Misrah Ghar il-Kbir (informally known as Clapham Junction) a prehistoric site known for its “cart ruts” – a complex network of tracks gouged in the rock, dated to about 2000 B.C. Cart ruts can be found in a number of sites in Malta and Gozo, however the site near the Dingli Cliffs is the most impressive, creating a picture of the Broze Age “traffic gam”, origin of which is not yet clear. Ruts are up to 60 cm deep and have an average distance between them of 110 to 140 cm. Some cross while others form junctions, creating the illusion of a great railway station switching yard.
The highest point in the Maltese islands, 250 m above sea level, Dingli Cliffs, offer the most majestical views of the entire western coast. It is definitely worth a stop and a hike, if you have free time.
And the final stop before heading back to St. Julians was in the ancient capital of Malta, the mysterious and fairylike “silent city” of Mdina. Founded as long ago as 1000 B.C. by Phoenicians, it was the favored residence of the Maltese aristocracy and the seat of the Università (government council) in medieval times. After the arrival of the sea-based force of the Order of St. John (who, as I mentioned earlier founded its capital in Birgu), Mdina became a holiday destination for the nobility and today, with its massive walls and peaceful, full of legends streets, it is a must visit place in Malta. Luckily, D and I were staying the last 5 days of our wedding trip in the only hotel in Mdina – The Xara Palace, so I will get back to the history and sites of this place later on. While we slowly walked the narrow winding streets of Mdina, Stephen pointed out a few interesting places to visit – Knights’ summer residency at Vilhena Palace, Malta’s main St. Paul’s Cathedral, Palazzo Falson etc. The city of 300 noble families felt so pure and spiritual, that I hardly wanted to hear any human voice.
Everyone was ravenous when we finally landed on the upper terrace of Fontanella Tea Gardens for late lunch. Service was quick, portions were enormous and food was truly delicious. That was a perfect way to complete a trip to Malta for some of my friends who were already heading back home.
Mdina. The last few days of our stay in Malta, D and I chose to escape the young crowds of St. Julians and spend romantic time in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a golden-stone walled city of Mdina. Many cities can pride themselves for preserving and restoring some medieval parts within their vicinities, Mdina, as a whole, is a medieval town – taken from a history book and placed in a modern time. When you walk the streets of Mdina, especially during the twilight hours, when even the most curious tourists already left, you live in the medieval times, you touch the stone and walk the corridor-like streets, hear the sounds and breath the air of that time. A car-free (almost) town of Maltese nobility, palaces, piazzas and churches is one of the most authentic living places I’ve ever got to visit in my life. And for several days, D and I stayed at The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux. Built in the 17th Century as a residence for the noble family of Moscati Parisio, palazzo is inextricably linked to the medieval Mdina as its walls form part of the city’s bastions. All rooms have been individually designed with romantic décor, original paintings, antique tapestries and furnishings. They are reminiscent of the noble origins of the Xara Palace and boast spectacular 180 degree panoramic views of Malta. We had room 11 and it was the best room in the whole of the hotel.
Evidence of settlements in Mdina goes back to before 4000 B.C. It was possibly first fortified by the Phoenicians around 700 B.C, because of its strategic location on one of the highest points on the island and as far from the sea as possible. When Malta had been under the control of the Roman Empire, the Roman Governor built his palace there. Legend has it that it was here, in around 60 CE, that Paul the Apostle lived after his shipwreck on the islands.
In 870 AD, Byzantine Melite, which was ruled by governor Amros was besieged by Aghlabids led by Halaf al-Hādim and later by Sawāda Ibn Muḥammad. After the siege, which lasted few weeks or even months (it is unknown), Melite fell to the invaders, the inhabitants were massacred, the city was destroyed and its churches were looted. But the city was rebuilt as Medina when Muslims resettled in Malta in 1048–49, and according to Al-Himyarī, “it became a finer place than it was before.” The present layout of the city still has features typical of a medina, a legacy of the period of Arab rule. Malta, and Mdina was conquered by the Normans in 1091 and was then dominated by a succession of feudal lords. Various alterations to Mdina were made over the following centuries. The Byzantine fort was converted into a castle known as the Castellu di la Chitati. By the 15th century, Mdina’s land front consisted of a series of double walls, flanked by four towers, including the Turri Mastra (also known as Turri dila bandiera) near the main entrance and the Turri di la Camera at the southeast corner of the land front. When the Order of St. John arrived in Malta on 26 October 1530, the Order went on to settle in Birgu, and Mdina lost its status as capital city. However, the medieval fortification of the city were upgraded during the reign of the Knights, which helped Mdina to withstand several Ottoman attacks in the mid-16th century.
The city was severely damaged by the 1693 Sicily earthquake, and a large number of buildings were destroyed. It was extensively restored in the course of the eighteenth century, and Baroque elements were introduced in the largely medieval city. “Modern” Mdina displays an unusual mix of Norman and Baroque architecture, including several impressive palaces, most of which serve as private homes. It was home then, as now, to Malta’s 300 noble families; some are descendants of the Norman, Sicilian and Spanish overlords who made Mdina their home from the 12th century onwards. Until recently, the sales of property were restricted to only residents of Mdina but I believe this restriction was recently lifted.
The present configuration of Mdina’s fortifications consists of an irregular perimeter of medieval or Hospitaller curtain walls, which are stiffened by five bastions, all of which were built during the Hospitaller period. You can enter the city via two city gates, both on the land front facing Rabat: Main Gate – a Baroque gate built in 1724 to a design by Charles François de Mondion, and Greeks Gate – a medieval gateway. A third gateway known as the Għarreqin Gate was opened within the Magazine Curtain in 1890 to facilitate access to the nearby railway station. The Torre dello Standardo, located just within the city walls near the Main Gate, also forms part of the city’s fortifications since it was used as a signalling tower to communicate with the coastal watchtowers. It was built in 1725, by de Mondion, on the site of the medieval Turri Mastra, which also had the same function.
An arched stone bridge, decorated with statues of lions holding the coat of arms of Vilhena or the town of Rabat, leads to the gate. You have to cross this bridge to enter Mdina through its Main Gate. The Mdina Gate consists of a Baroque portal and a superstructure serving as a gatehouse. The portal is decorated with double pilasters, the coats of arms of Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena and the city of Mdina, a trophy of arms and a Latin inscription. The walled up medieval gate which it replaced can still be seen to the right of the Main Gate. The back of the gate is decorated with reliefs of St. Publius, St. Agatha and St. Paul, who are the patron saints of Malta.
Once you are inside the city, to you right is a magnificent Baroque-styled Palazzo Vilhena. The site was originally occupied by a punic-period building and then by a Byzantine fort, which during the Middle Ages was developed into a castle known as the Castellu di la Chitati. The castle’s inner walls were demolished in the 15th century, and the remaining part was converted into a palace by Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam in the 1530s to house the civil administrative council known as the Università. After the earthquake, on 3 November 1722, the newly elected Grand Master, António Manoel de Vilhena, issued orders for the restoration and renovation of Mdina. The city entrance was completely rebuilt, and the seat of the Università made way for a summer palace for the Grand Master. Construction of Vilhena’s new palace took two years, and was completed in 1728.
The building was designed by de Mondion in the French Baroque style similar to the Parisian Hôtel Palaces, and it was constructed under the supervision of the Maltese capomastro Petruzzo Debono. The Palazzo has a U-shaped forecourt which follows the plan of the original castle, and it possibly contains some remnants of the 16th century palace incorporated into the structure. The forecourt is approached through a gate decorated with Vilhena’s coat of arms. The central façade of the palace contains the ornate main doorway, which is flanked by Corinthian columns and is surmounted by a bronze relief of De Vilhena and another coat of arms. Palazzo Vilhena is linked to the Corte Capitanale, which was built at the same time and served as Mdina’s law courts. It was a symbolic gesture to convey that the courts were under the jurisdiction of the Order of St. John (the Corte Capitanale now serves as the seat of Mdina’s local council).
From 1837 till 1956 Palazzo Vilhena housed a hospital for cholera patients, sanatorium for the British military, temporary barracks and a hospital for patients suffering from tuberculosis. On 22 June, 1973 it officially became The National Museum of Natural History and its collections include samples of flora and fauna, fossils, rocks, minerals and dioramas of Maltese habitats.
Just beneath the Magisterial Vilhena Palace, there is The Mdina Dungeons (€5, allow 30-45 mins) – a museum set in the secret underground passageways, chambers and cells to recreate the mysterious circumstances from the dark side of Maltese history. From Roman times to the Arabs, the Knights and even Napoleon, you will find episodes and characters from the ancient past portrayed in startling realism and with great annotations. Torture, witchcraft, crucifixion, plague, inquisition, events and personalities, famous and infamous, from Malta’s sometimes gory history, you can see it all there if you dare to come in. I visited it at 9.30 and at times I felt a bit uneasy in those subterranean hallways.
If you continue via main street, on the crossroads, there is a small St. Agatha Chapel. Originally built in 1410 by the nobleman Francesco Gatt and his consort Donna Paola Castelli, the chapel was damaged during the 1693 earthquake but was rebuilt in 1694 to a design of Lorenzo Gafa (the architect responsible for the Mdina Cathedral). There is a miraculous legend attached to this Chapel. In 1551, Muslim forces under the command of Sinam Pasha landed in St. Paul’s Bay and marched on Mdina. According to the writings of Giacomo Bosio (1602), a pious nun from the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Scolastica had a vision, in which she was told that the enemy was about to siege the city. However, if Holy Mass would be celebrated, the marble statue of St. Agatha would be placed on the Walls of Mdina and all solders and civilians would walk in procession carrying her image which should be displayed on the bastions facing the enemy, then the city would not fall in the hands of the enemy. The Turks indeed besieged the city but were not able of conquering it; impressed by the numerous defenders seen marching on the Mdina’s walls, they lifted the siege and left to attack Gozo instead. This Chapel, during WWII also housed two refugee families and helped them survive the war.
Further down the Triq Villegaignon is Misraħ San Pawl (Piazza San Paul), the main square of Mdina, home to Metropolitan Cathedral of Malta (knowns at St. Paul’s Cathedral), Cathedral Museum and Old Banca Giuratale, as well as Casa Gourgion.
A baroque building to your right is an Old Banca Giuratale, built between 1726 and 1728 to house the Università, after their original premises were taken over by the Palazzo Vilhena. The new building was designed also by de Mondion, who, in fact, was responsible for rebuilding many buildings in Mdina. In later years, Old Banca Giuratale housed the National Assembly and served as a secondary school, but since 1988, it is home to the Legal Documentation Section of the National Archives of Malta. Its archives contain all the court records from 1530 to 1899, including the documents of the Consolato del Mare di Malta, Malta’s maritime tribunal between 1697 and 1814.
Cathedral Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Palazzo de Piro can be accessed with one ticket (€5, allow 2-2.5 hours for all). I started my exploration with the Cathedral Museum, located in a beautiful baroque 18th-century palazzo originally used as a seminary. The Cathedral Museum at Mdina traces its origin to a fabulous donation made by Marquis Saverio Marchesi, who decreed, in his last will, that once his family became extinct, all the artistic works the family possessed were to be given to the Cathedral Chapter. This came about in 1896. The idea of turning some halls adjacent to the Cathedral into a museum matured during the 1960s. Displaying tapestries and liturgical vestments from St. John Cathedral, the old Mdina Seminary was officially opened and renamed the Mdina Cathedral Museum in 1969. Both, the building and the collection require time and deserve admiration. The Museum’s outstanding highlight is a series of woodcut and copperplate prints and lithographs by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer. However, there are other items of interest, including Egyptian amulets dating from the 5th century B.C., a remarkable coin collection spanning 2000 years, which includes Carthaginian and Romana-Maltese examples, engravings by Rembrandt and a set of 15 Silver and Gold statues of the Apostles etc. Three large halls, previously used as dormitories of the Old Seminary, now feature the earliest painted panels from the Spanish Romanesque period till the 17th century as well as a small collection of 19th and 20th century painting from both local and foreign artists.
The St. Paul’s Cathedral is said to be built on the site of the villa belonging to Publius, the Roman governor of Malta who welcomed St. Paul in A.D. 60. The original Norman church was destroyed by an earthquake, and the restrained baroque edifice we can see today was built between 1697-1702 by Lorenzo Gafa. Note the fire and serpent motifs atop the twin bell-towers, symbolizing the saint’s first miracle in Malta.
Upon entering the Cathedral, you notice the large number of gravestones along the central passage; most of which are commemorations rather than tombs. Some of Malta’s bishops are buried in the side chapels and in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The Cathedral’s ceiling is covered with frescoes and with paintings depicting the life of St. Paul. The Altar’s painting The Conversion of St. Paul by Mattia Preti survived the earthquake, so did the beautifully carved oak doors to the Sacristy on the north side, and the apse above the altar, featuring with the fresco St. Paul’s Shipwreck. The top slab of the main altar of the Cathedral, made of precious marble, also survived the earthquake and is a large part of a Lapis Lazuli completed in 1726. During the main religious feasts, this altar is decorated by a beautiful silver frontal and by fifteen solver statues representing the Apostles, St. Paul, St. John and Our Lady.
Palazzo de Piro is Xara’s Multicultural center, hosting the extension of the Metropolitan Cathedral Museum, The Museum of Tools, Trades and Traditions, Xpresso Cafe and Bistro and a fully functional venue for meetings, functions and all sorts of events. Palazzo de Piro is a 17th Century Palazzo nestled in the bastion walls of Mdina. What we know as Palazzo de Piro as an existing structure now was originally three separate houses, the oldest parts of which date back to the second half of the 16th century. The emblem in what is now the main entrance hall indicates that they were built by Malta’s most famous architect Girolamo Cassar or his equally renowned son Vittorio. In 1868, Alexander de Piro D’Amico Inguanez and his new wife Orsola took up residence here soon after their marriage. Orsola was an heiress with various properties including a palace and small church in the heart of Florence, but it was here she decided to bring up a family of seven boys and two girls. Over the last two centuries, Palazzo de Piro has been extensively remodeled a number of times. The internal floor levels were changed, the monumental stone and marble staircase was constructed in Victorian times and in the 1950’s, extensive structural changes were made to accommodate the school that was run by the Dorothean nuns after the house was sold by Orsola’s heirs. In 2005, Palazzo de Piro was acquired by The Metropolitan Cathedral Chapter and extensive restoration works were undertaken to create this cross-cultural and artistic venue.
Three stately, inter-connecting rooms within Palazzo feature displays of artistic and historical patrimonial artifacts from Maltese parishes and other sources. Another unique space that is housed inside the Palazzo de Piro is The Museum of Tools, Trades and Traditions (Free, allow 20 mins). It presents a single private collection of objects and tools related to an array of trades. In the current display the prime role has been given to the relics, both as a tool matching specific requirements but also as a collectable in its own right, exhibiting aesthetic and historic qualities. Joseph Zammit Tabona started his collection in the early 1970s when his wife Susan inherited a few items from her step-father, the late Dr. Thomas Agius Ferrante. A consultant pediatrician, he had over the years, received several tools as presents, from the farming families he was visiting. This formed the basis of the collection and the start of a lifetime obsession. During the following two decades the collection grew at the rhythm of the weekly visits to the Sunday market in Valletta, but also to local antique shops where old tools could still be found. Each item has a story, a connection with the collector and in most cases with Malta. However, what prompted the idea of creating a museum, was the acquisition, some years back, of Pawlu Tanti’s collection, which almost doubled the initial number of items. Fascinated with the artistry, ingenuity and skill that were applied to make an instrument produced to perform sometimes a very humble task, Pawlu Tanti was very interested in old tools.
Only a portion of the collection is being presented here. Many artifacts were used and incorporated in the design for the refurbishment of The Xara Palace Hotel, and also in the adjacent Trattoria AD 1530. As I already mentioned, most of the furniture within the hotel consists of very fine antiques specifically selected and purchased for their current use, whilst the walls of the Trattoria are adorned with an impressive tools collection.
The museum is designed around five main sections. Each collection has its own qualities, logic, shortcomings that have been curated into a contemporary assemblage which highlights the creative diversity and constant innovation that is hidden behind each of these objects. This place offers a window on past tools and trades, a place where to learn and recall memories, but also a place for intimate and silent discoveries.
Well, if you have very little time and can’t visit all the places in Mdina, then go to one – Palazzo Falson, the second oldest building still standing in the walled city offers a rare glimpse into the sumptuous private world behind Mdina’s anonymous aristocratic walls (€10, a very good audio-guide, no pictures allowed). Fashioned on the Siculo-Norman examples of its period, this building forms part of the imposing heritage of palazzi built by the Sicilian, Spanish and local nobility in this city, and parts of it date back to the 13th century. In the early 16th century, the property was inherited by the Vice Admiral Michele Falsone, who was the Head of the Town Council. In 1530, it is recorded that Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam was hosted by Maltese nobles at Palazzo Falson, after Malta was donated to the Order of St. John by Emperor Charles V. In 1927, the part of Palazzo was bought by Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher (1889-1962) who was a researcher, artist and philanthropist. The Palazzo by then has been split among different tenements, but Captain Gollcher managed to purchase the rest of it some years later, as he was very concerned with the conservation of the cultural heritage of the Maltese islands. He was also a discerning collector of objects d’art and historical items. Included in his 45 varied collections on display at the Palazzo are silver, furniture, jewelry, Oriental rugs from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, armour, and an impressive library of more than 4,500 books. The paintings collection includes a number of significant 17th century works attributed to Mattia Preti, Jusepe de Ribera, Jakob-Ferdinand Voet, Charles Beale and others. Gollcher’s wish was to bring this unique and extraordinary treasure-trove to the general public, and as of May 2007, we can fully enjoy it.
After several days of browsing the almost always empty streets of Mdina and devouring its not very well hidden past, I still decided to visit The Mdina Experience (€6, 30 mins) and learn more about the town in a very animated way. I thought it gave a very good overview of this place and could be a valuable start to exploring the town.
Also, while in Mdina, we lunched and dined at several venues. We visited Fontanella at least a couple of times, as it was a delicious, fast and cheap place to eat. We also had a dinner at de Mondion restaurant located in our hotel. I expected a lot from The Xara, since I myself used to work at one of the Relais & Chateaux properties in NYC, and the restaurant didn’t disappoint. Weather was fantastic so we were seated on the top of Mdina’s bastions offering the beautiful views of Malta. Ingredients were carefully selected and many dishes were to die for, for ex. Foie Gras Terrine with Orange and Seared Foie Gras. It is an upscale restaurant, so please dressed appropriately and don’t forget your credit card. We had also tried Trattoria 1530 – The Xara’s casual restaurant located in the piazza next to the hotel’s main entrance. It is a charming place serving a very simple but delicious food for a very good price. Another place we had dinner at was Sharma, a restaurant offering a few ethnic cuisines – Mediterranean, Arabic and India – in a very picturesque setting and at a very good price. Please book in advance as this place filled in very quickly.
And of course, if you still haven’t bought a souvenir, head straight to Mdina Glass shop (either in Mdina, Valletta or Ta’Qali village) for a spectacular choice of unique, locally blown vases, plates, bowls, glasses etc. Whatever you buy there will forever remind you of this enchanted walled-town.
Rabat. Medieval Rabat (Arabic word for “suburb”) emerged in the area which had formerly constituted the western two thirds of Roman Melite (old name of Mdina). The area was defined by the ancient walls of Melite as well as a ditch which can still be partly seen behind the parish church of St. Paul. It is a very attractive town in its own right with narrow streets and wooden balconies. It is full of interesting sights, and has a splendidly traditional feel. The Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the Republic of Malta is seated in this village and parts of the films Munich and Black Eagle were shot here. I could easily spend a couple of days there because the place is jammed with gems.
We exited Mdina through the Greek’s Gate and appeared at the roundabout – small park that serves as a stop for local buses, horse carriages, taxis but also as an invisible dividing line between Mdina and Rabat (not counting a huge ditch that separates the two). To your right, there is one of the most interesting places of visit – The Domvs Romana (€6, allow 1 hour). It is believed to have been built in the beginning of the 1st century B.C., and it remained in use until the 2nd century A.D. The house had a colonnaded peristyle inspired by ancient Greek architecture, and its best features are the well-made polychrome Hellenistic style mosaics found in the peristyle and the surrounding rooms, which show decorative motifs or mythological scenes. The domus also shows fine painted wall plaster imitating colored marbles and showing partly stylized architectural elements which would place them somewhere between the 1st and 2nd Pompeian Styles. Although the house was mostly destroyed over time, its mosaics have survived largely intact, and they are comparable with those found at Pompeii or Sicily. A number of 1st century A.D. statues of the imperial Roman family, along with coins, glassware, tableware, bath accessories, amphorae and other fine artifacts have also been found in the domus.
The term “domus” stands for a Roman town-house which was not just a private residence but served a major part in the public and political relations of the house owner with the outside world. It was a place where most of the business was conducted and if the owner was powerful enough, people would flock into the first rooms of the house to receive his blessing in the morning. The main parts of the house were thus designed to served these public needs and to portray the power of the owner. Like many Roman houses, the one in Rabat seems to have originally been built according to the customs of a Domus Italica. The rooms were oriented around one main central area, the atrium. The typical plan of this type of house was later supplemented by influences from the Greek house, with the addition of areas like the peristylium, which became the second focal point of the house and thus created Domus Romana. This carefully setup succession of rooms created a perfect background for the rich social life of a Roman aristocrat. The rooms around the atrium were usually used for everyday social needs, like the salutatio (morning salutation), whereas those around the peristylium were more intimate and were reserved for the family and close acquaintances.
The remains of this extensive rich Roman town house and its mosaic pavements were discovered in 1881 during the planting of trees. The site was investigated further between 1920-1924 when at least 245 Muslim burials were discovered along with a number of limestone (and one marble) tombstones with Naskh or Kufic inscriptions. In the 11th century, while Malta was part of the Fatimid Caliphate, the site of the domus was transformed into a Muslim cemetery, with rows of graves facing eastward. It is evident that the graveyard was systematically laid out over the foundations of the domus, with some of the graves placed on the original pavements. A solid silver ring inscribed with the verse “rabbit Alah Wahid” (“My Lord is the One God”) was the only piece of jewelry discovered there. Unfortunately, the excavation of this unique Muslim site remains incomplete, and the cemetery has yet to receive the serious scientific attention it deserves.
After the domus was first excavated, a museum was built on the site of the peristyle in order to preserve its mosaics. The museum opened in February 1882, and it was the first building in Malta constructed specifically to house a museum of a particular archaeological site. Apart from the mosaics and other Roman or Muslim artifacts uncovered from the domus, it also exhibited some other Roman marble pieces which were found in the streets of Mdina and eventually, many Roman artifacts found elsewhere in Malta. In 1922, the museum was enlarged and a neoclassical façade and a large display room were added.
Following the main street in Rabat, Triq San Pawl, to our left we saw an open church (which is a rarity in Malta), which was The Church of Santa Marija Ta’Giezu and it housed a museum of history of Rabat (free entry). It was an unusual combination of beautiful medieval frescoed walls and ceilings with modern stands and exhibits occupying the main floor.
We stopped at the Palazzo Castelletti for a delicious lunch and I took a short stroll around their premises. I wish we have discovered this unique place earlier, because it was definitely a rival to some of Malta’s best restaurants, food, ambience and character wise!
Right next to the Palazzo Castelletti is Casa Bernard – a 16th century Palazzo recently restored to its splendor (€8, allow 60-80 mins). The name of the house – Casa Bernard – was chosen in 1723 because Dr Salvatore Bernard, the French personal physician of the Grand Master, lived in this palazzo. The Bernards, who were a family of doctors, occupied the Palazzo until the second quarter of the 20th century when the current owners, Mr and Mrs Magri, bought it in 1993 to revive it to its former glory. It is not a museum but private family home where you will be personally guided by one of the home’s charming owners. She (or he) will take you through the barred-vaulted hallway, the Chapel, the Dining Room, the three Drawing rooms, the Library and the main bedroom, pointing out in the rooms important pieces of furniture, paintings and objets d’art which till a short while ago were not available for public viewing. Started off as a medieval watch-tower built on Roman foundations, the house progressed to a double-fronted Palazzo in the mid 16th century and then acquired some Baroque additions. According to Maltese tradition, the oldest son of a noble family was sent on a many-year long journey around Europe, where he would learn about art, culture, languages, etc and hopefully acquire an exquisite taste in things. He would be given significant amount of money to purchase the best “things” European artists produced or invented and send it back home. Hence, the personal collection (or rather collections of multiple generations) at Casa Bernard speaks for itself. One of the things I’ve learnt from the owner was the story of a “missing brick of maltese balcony”. Apparently, the main entrance to almost every Palazzo or home has a balcony just above it and in the middle of the balcony there is a hole, plugged with a wooden peg. As the legend goes, when ladies of the house were sitting on their beautiful Maltese balconies, needling lace and the front door bell rang, they didn’t have to go downstairs to see who it was, they could just quietly pull the peg and through the hole in the balcony’s floor “spy” on the visitor while deciding, whether they should appear to be home or not. It served as a sort of a peephole. Overall, Casa Bernard offered us a fantastic way to see the insights of the Maltese Noble family home and their style of living. It was one of the most interesting private tours we’ve taken in Malta and I would definitely recommend visiting this unique home.
The religious complex of San Paolo fuori le mura – that is, the Church of St. Paul outside the walls – and the venerable shrine of St. Paul’s Grotto next to it, is reminiscent of Rabat past. In 1536, Quintinus testified to the strength of the cult of St. Paul amongst the Maltese and the Grotto would become well known abroad as a source of earth which was reported to have miraculous healing power. The Church of St. Paul is built on part of the site of the Roman city Melite, which included all of Mdina and a large part of present-day Rabat. There were numerous churches built on the site of the present church. In 1336 bishop Hilarius refers to the church as ecclesia Sancti Pauli de crypta, and also mentions the cemetery and the Roman ditch. The present church was built (1653-1683) to replace a church of 1578 with funds provided by the noble woman Guzmana Navarra.
To the church’s right is a small annexed St. Publius church that now serves as an entrance to the mysterious Grotto of St. Paul, a cave where the saint is said to have preached during his three months stay in Malta in around A.D. 60. The statue of St. Paul was gifted by the Knights in 1748, while the silver ship to its left was added in 1960 to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the saint’s shipwreck. The Grotto was visited by two Popes, Pope John Paul II in 1990 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
In 1617, control of the grotto was passed to the Order of St. John, and Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt raised the status of the grotto and the church above it to a collegiate church in 1619. He also established the Wignacourt College in order to manage the church and the grotto. The building which now houses the Wignacourt Museum (€5, allow 60 mins), completed in 1749, is on three levels: the underground level consists of a labyrinth of Punic, Roman and Christian Hypogea with interesting architectural features as well as a complex of World War II shelters with two main corridors and fifty rooms. The ground floor level consists of a corridor with on one side a number of rooms used as offices and minor collections and on the other side a spacious garden with a built area which once included the refectory of the Chaplains of the Order and an oven which during WWII provided daily more than 2000 loaves of bread for the population of Rabat. The main floor has an impressive picture gallery with works by Mattia Preti, Antoine Favray, Francesco Zahra and other Maltese as well as European Artists. Also a collection of 17th- 19th century Spanish, Italian and Maltese silver; a unique wooden altar used for the celebration of Mass on the galleys of the Order; a collection of old relics and reliquaries, sculptures in wood, alabaster and bronze, including a medallion by Alessandro Algardi; maps, coins, prints and rare books among which is King Henry VIII’s ‘Septem Sacramants” written to confute Martin Luther and above all a baroque chapel for the private devotions of the residing chaplains.
As much as I enjoy the sun, I preferred to spend my time in Rabat underground and I couldn’t have chosen a better place as it is home to two largest networks of Catacombs in Malta dating back to the 3rd century A.D. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the time to see the splendid St. Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs, but I thoroughly explored the St. Paul’s Catacombs (€4, free 45-mins audio guide with €20 deposit, allow 60-90 mins, pictures allowed) so-named for their proximity to the church.
St. Paul’s catacombs are part of a large cemetery once located outside the walls of the ancient Greek city of Melite, which also comprises of the catacombs of Saint Agatha, San Katald, St. Augustine and many others. The cemetery probably originated in the Phoenician-Punic period, when burials had to be located outside city walls and was used for around 500 years. The early tombs consisted of a deep rectangular shaft with one or two chambers dug from its sides. This type of burial was used well into the Roman occupation of the islands, but the chambers grew larger and more regular in shape over time. It is probable that this enlargement joined neighboring tombs and led to the creation of small catacombs, which became the norm by the 4th century A.D. The site that is currently open to the public comprises of two catacombs out of the 24 in the St Paul’s cluster. The main complex, covering an area of more than 2000 sq m, is so far the largest catacomb ever to be found on the island. Its entrance leads to two considerably large halls, adorned with pillars made to resemble Doric columns and painted plasters most of which have now disappeared. On either side of the entry there are loculi, small niches used for the burial of children, indicating the high infant mortality rate. The main halls are equipped with two circular tables set in a low platform with sloping sides which resemble the reclining couch (triclinium) present in Roman houses. In all cases found in the main complex and the numerous other Christian Hypogea of the site, both table and couch are hewn out in one piece from the living rock forming a single architectural unit within an apsed recess. Although various interpretations may be found, these triclinia, or Agape tables, were probably used to host commemorative meals during the annual festival of the dead, when the rites of burials were renewed. The catacomb is large enough to have served as a communal burial ground in successive phases of Malta’s history. One of the halls was transformed into an early church following the expulsion of Arab conquerors in the second century A.D.
Although the complex contains almost all of the burial types found in the Maltese repertoire, the best represented are so-called baldacchino tombs. These free-standing, canopied burials dominate the main corridors of the complex; their four elegant arches and supporting pillars are exemplary. Other decorations within this catacomb include illustrations and written messages in red paint.
The second catacomb that can be visited is much smaller than the first. The surgical tools carved in relief on one of the three blocking stones in the inner chamber suggest that it was the burial place of a particular family or group of surgeons.
It is an atmospheric yet at times downright scary (with no other visitors in sight) labyrinth of rock-cut tombs, narrow stairs and passages, and it is one of the most thrilling places to check out in Rabat.
Gozo. Of course, we wouldn’t have seen all of Malta if we didn’t visit Gozo. Stephen Place organized a day-long Tour of Gozo for us and our guests with a Russian-speaking guide Daiva Griguoliene (her email is firstname.lastname@example.org). We visited Popeye Village (on Malta), Ggantija Temples, Ramla Bay and Calypso Cave, took a boat-trip under the Azure Window, ate ice-cream in Xlendi and explore the capital of Gozo, Victoria.
We got picked up at Mdina’s Main Gate (as it was convenient for us) and before heading to the Ferry terminal, we stopped by Popeye Village (also known as Sweethaven Village), located at Anchor Bay just a few miles of Mellieħa. In 1979 the entire village (19 wooden buildings) was built as a set for a new Paramount Pictures production of musical feature “Popeye” starring Robin Williams (a story of a sailor Popeye who arrives to Sweethaven village to find his father). After the movie was completed, the set remained and now serves as a wonderful attraction place for children and adults. We didn’t go inside, but it is definitely a place to visit and explore for another time.
At Cirkewwa our minibus boarded a ferry and for 30 mins we enjoyed the views of Gozo and Malta’s smallest brother Comino island. Gozo, called “Għawdex” in Malti, is a much slower and relaxed island. Although it is more than 1/3rd the size of Malta (it is the size of Manhattan), it has less than 1/10th of the population and people living here consider themselves Gozitnans first, Maltese second. According to our guide, about half of them, never left the island, not even to visit Malta (6 km away). I guess, much more fertile land, more space and greenery, superb coastal landscape and excellent scuba diving, plus history in the form of megalithic temples and medieval citadels make their lives complete and happy. The island is definitely a destination on its own and offers fantastic farm lodging facilities, away from everyone. I believe Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt rented one of the farms during their work on “By the Sea”, a film produced in Gozo. BTW, for Game of Thrones fans, some of the episodes were also shot in Gozo.
The history of Gozo goes back to 5000 B.C. when a group of people from Sicily succeeded in crossing over on some form of sea-craft. These people who first colonized Gozo (Neolithic 5000 – 4100 B.C.) probably lived in caves around Il-Mixta on Ghajn Abdul Plateau on the outskirts of San Lawrenz village, to the north-west of Gozo. This site consists of one huge cave separated into two by a natural column and a man-made wall. Pottery sherds unearthed on this site are of a purer pedigree than any other pottery found elsewhere in the Maltese Islands suggesting that Gozo might have been settled earlier than Malta. The history of Gozo is strongly coupled with the history of Malta, the Temple Period (4100-2500 B.C.) was followed by Bronze Age, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the European domination and the rule of the Knights of St. John. In 1551, Gozo suffered its worst siege in history. In July, the citadel was besieged by the Turks of Sinam Pasha (the same one whose army was re-routed from attacking Mdina). The Medieval walls of Rabat (Gozo’s citadel capital) without flanks and terreplein to resist gunpowder bombardment were easy prey to the besiegers and the fortifications soon succumbed. A tombstone in the local cathedral conveys some of the horror in its commemoration of the nobleman Bernardo Dupuo, who died fighting the Turkish pirates, after killing his own wife and daughters to save them from slavery and concubinage, two fates worse than death. The entire population of about 5000 was taken into slavery.
After the terror of 1551, recovery was slow and painful. Some Gozitan slaves were traced and ransomed, but life was shattered and families left permanently split asunder, their various members sold to different owners in far–off lands. Grand Master de la Sengle encouraged resettlement from Malta, by promising to waive the new settlers debt, if they would take the risk of living in undefended territory. Others, it is said came over from nearby Sicily. The vulnerability to pirates and slavery is the reason why villages in Gozo did not develop until the late 18th – early 19th century. Before that, the tiny population stayed close to the citadel, taking shelter within its walls between dusk and dawn, in line with a curfew order that was only lifted in 1637 and whenever there was notice of a raid by pirates. The villages remain, today, completely different in structure to those of Malta. They are open–ended and do not form the Maltese pattern of tightly-winding, narrow and easily defended streets. As a result of pirate raids, a reluctance to communicate information crept irremediably into the Gozitan character. As one writer recently put it in his guide to Gozo, Gozitans “have now accepted that not all tourists are direct descendants of 16th century Turkish slave-traders”, and their natural wariness has eased into friendliness, though they still prefer to keep their distance.
The first place we visited in Gozo was perched on the crest of the hill next to Xaghra, the megalithic Ggantija Temples (3600-3000 B.C.) (€9, allow 30-45 mins). Commanding a splendid view over most of southern Gozo and beyond to Comino and Malta, they represent an important turning point in the cultural evolution of prehistoric men and along with Ta’Hagrat and Skorba in Malta are documented as the oldest free-standing structures in the world. The temples take their name from the Maltese term “Ggant” meaning “giant”, an apt name when one views the sheer size and height of these megaliths, the largest of the all temples found on the Maltese islands – the walls stand over 6 m high and the grounds span over 40 m.
We entered the Ggantija Temples through a contemporary Interpretation Center, a museum that illustrates various aspects of Neolithic life to provide a context for understanding the temples. It also displays significant findings from various prehistoric archaeological sites on Gozo island. To get to the temple site, we took a pathway with gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. The archaeological complex itself is well maintained and beautifully situated; the ruins are lined with vibrant bougainvillea and colorful flowers. The site consists of two temples, contained within a single outer wall. The temples were possibly the site of a fertility rites; archeologists believe that the numerous figurines and statues found on site are connected with that cult. Although sharing a common façade, each temple unit has a separate entrance. The south temple has a five apse plan and is the older, larger and better preserved of the two. The left apse in the second pair of apses, has three niches complete with capstones. Some suggest it might refer to a triple divinity, a triade. The remains of a fire-reddened circular stone hearth, possibly for an eternal flame, is in the opposite apse, where there are also remains of what was probably a small enclosure where oracles were delivered. The north temple is considerably smaller, but with a more evolved four-apse plan having its rear apse replaced by a shallow niche. The entrance is very similar to that of the first temple; only the threshold is narrower and shorter.
Many mathematical and engineering minds sought a solution to the mystery of how these huge stones were quarried, transported and then lifted upright in those primitive times. Local legend has it that the work was undertaken by a giantess called Sansuna, who lived on a diet of broad beans and water and carried the megaliths on her head. However it was stone balls, which one can see strewn around the site, which probably served as rollers to transport these huge blocks of stone to the site. Just like with the megalithic temples in Malta, no one knows who were the people who built the Temples and where and why they departed after 2500 B.C.
Then we drove to Ramla Bay, located on the north-eastern shore of Gozo. The beach is unusually wide and sandy and of a particularly golden-reddish sand which makes it different from all other beaches in Gozo and Malta. Its Maltese name is Ir-Ramla l-Ħamra — the Red Sandy Beach. The area around the beach is quite interesting and according to our guide, provides some very rich historical treasures, as many Roman remains lie beneath the sand. But I could also see why this pristine nature site was a relaxing place to spend the day. Unless, you want to see the famous Calypso Cave overlooking the western side of the beach (about an hour hike up the hill).
We didn’t go to the beach but stopped at the small observation desk, next to the cave, offering a panoramic view of small farms in the valley, the expansive Ramla Beach curving around the bay, and the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Apparently, Gozo is one of the half-dozen or so contenders for the title of Calypso’s Isle – the mythical island of Ogygia described in Homer’s “Odyssey” where nymph Calypso seduced the hero Odysseus and kept him captive for seven years. But she could not overcome his longing for his home in Ithaca, and Zeus eventually sent Hermes to commend her to release Odysseus. The cave was closed, but we were told that if this cave above Ramla Bay was indeed Calypso’s hideaway, then it was no wonder that Odysseus was keen to get home. Despite the nice view and pretty island, the crammed living quarters left a lot to be desired.
Then, we crossed Gozo to the west to see a remarkable geologic feature of the island, the most famous and photogenic site – Azure Window – a natural 60m high stone arch that was formed millions of years ago when a limestone cave collapsed. It looks like a table over the sea with two almost perpendicular vertical rocks holding a huge horizontal mass over them – a result of extensive fault-ins, as well as the wind and wave action on the rocks. The arch of the window is continuously eroding and pieces of rock fall every now and then. It is expected that the arch will collapse sooner or later, so we were advised not to walk on it. Azure Window was also featured in the movies “The Clash of the Titans”, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Game of Thrones”.
We didn’t walk on Azure Window but took a small boat (€5, 15 mins) into the caves and around. It was fun to see groups of divers going just underneath of our boat and swimming along the cave walls into the famous Blue hole.
Our next stop was just a few kms south, at Xlendi. Development has turned this sometime fishing village into a resort town, popular with weekending Maltese and tourists. The word “Xlendi” is of Byzantine origins as the village was named after a galley “Shilandi” of the period, that was wrecked along the coast. The remains of the ship were retrieved near the entry of the bay, at the bottom of the sea, in the 1960s. Since then it became a popular diving site. Tombs dating Punic-Byzantine times were also found in Xlendi, some at St. Simon Point (under St Simon Street) and others in Xlendi Valley. Romans used to port in Xlendi as its bay protected them from the winds, however many ships wrecked on the mid-bay reef which explains a large number of Roman amphora on the sea bed in the mouth of the bay. The Xlendi Tower guarding the mouth of the bay was built by the Grandmaster Juan de Lascaris-Castellar on 29 June 1650 to prevent pirates or Turks from disembarking from this bay. Even though the cluster of modern buildings wrapping the bay won’t win any architectural awards, the bay still enjoys an attractive setting and offers a great stop by the sea, with good swimming, snorkeling and diving. We grabbed some ice-cream and fruit cups and enjoyed a few minutes on the beach.
Our last stop was in Victoria the chief town of Gozo, that sits in the center of the island and is crowned by the tiny citadel Il-Kastell, which appears to grow out of its rocky outcrop. Named after the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, it was originally known as Rabat and is still called that by the islanders. Besides the quiet and atmospheric winding streets, there are actually plenty of things to see.
One of them is, of course, Il-Kastelli, also known as Cittadella, which has been the centre of activity of the island since possibly Neolithic times, but is known to be first fortified during the Bronze Age c. 1500 B.C. It was later developed by the Phoenicians and continued into becoming a complex Acropolis by Roman times. The north side of the Citadella dates back to the Aragonese domination period and retains its medieval form, while the south flank, overlooking Victoria, was re-constructed under the Knights of St. John, namely between 1599 and 1603. The massive defensive stone walls of the fortifications rise above the town, various bastions, cavaliers, batteries were built to protect the village communities from foraging corsairs attempting to take slaves. After some terrible raids on Gozo by the Turks (1551), it became customary for all the island’s families to stay within Il-Kastell overnight, a practice that lasted well into the 17th century. The bastions also offered one of the best panoramic views of Gozo. The fortification restoration project that took off in 2008 is still underway, but inside Il-Kastell looked very much medieval, quiet and very authentic.
Within its walls lie a fine 17th century baroque Cathedral of the Assumption designed by Lorenzo Gafà, Chapel of St. Joseph (built in 1625 on the site of an 11th-century chapel), Courts of Justice (built in the early 16th century), Old Prison, Gozo Museum of Archaeology, Natural Science Museum, Folklore Museum dedicated to Gozitan folklore and housed in a cluster of early 16th century houses.
It is said that The Cathedral of the Assumption lies on the site where a Roman temple dedicated to Juno once stood. Following the Christianization of Malta and Gozo, the temple was converted into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but it was destroyed during the Arab rule. Following the expulsion of the Arabs, a parish church within the Cittadella was built around 1299, and it was enlarged over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. The foundation stone of the present cathedral was laid down in 1697 and the construction was completed in 1711. Now it serves as a seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gozo and it is most famous for the remarkable trompe l’oeil painting on its ceiling, which depicts the interior of a dome that was never built due to lack of funds.
The Old Prison is adjacent to the Courts of Justice to which it was originally connected. The prison was active from the mid-16th century until 1962. First, it used to host the most riotous and hot-tempered knights, as a place to cool down. Even the most historical knight, Jean Parisot de Valette was imprisoned there in 1538 for 4 months after attacking a man. Today, the prison complex is divided into two different buildings: the entrance hall, which had been a common cell in the 19th century, and a free-standing block with six individual cells. The site is well preserved in its original state, and one can find a large amount of graffiti (of ships, hand-prints, crosses, names, dates, games, and anthropomorphic figures) etched into the limestone walls.
Outside the citadel, the more modern area of Victoria has several interesting tourist sites. The main square, It-Tokk, is a bustling marketplace of street vendors and shops. Saint George’s Basilica is a beautiful 17th-century Baroque church that rivals the cathedral. Known as the “Marble Basilica,” the church interior is covered with marble inlays and columns. The breathtakingly ornate interior is a riot of gilded arch ways, lavish ceiling paintings, and fine art works. There are numerous paintings by Mattia Preti including “Saint George and The Virgin of Mercy with Souls in Purgatory”. Another important work is the painting of Saint George by Francesco Zahra. Be sure to admire the astonishing dome with its stained-glass windows and paintings by Giovanni Battista Conti of Rome.
Besides pointing out the attractions, our guide Daiva went into depth about Maltese and Gozitan people, their traditions, culture, politics, lifestyles, attitudes towards gay people, women and immigrants. A Latvian herself, she has been living in Malta for many years and had plenty of insights to share with us. For ex, people in Malta and especially in Gozo are not very concern about their property being stolen, as it rarely happens, that is why everywhere we went, we could see the keys left out in the door locks from the outside. Pretty much every house has a name plaque, either associated with the name of the family living in the house or based on religious beliefs. I actually doubt you would find a house in Malta or Gozo that wouldn’t have its own name. But I guess, the friendliness of local people, their ways of going about their daily business with ease and dignity (no matter how many tourists are looking at them) is the best part about Maltese people.
We spent pretty much all day on Gozo, but still there were plenty of things to see: the magnificent Basilica of Ta’ Pinu – an important pilgrimage church and a national shrine devoted to the Virgin Mary; Xewkija Rotunda dedicated to Saint John the Baptist (this remarkable church at the center of Xewkija village is Gozo’s largest religious monument and is visible across much of the island); the dramatic scenery of Ta’Cenc Cliffs – the highest cliffs in Gozo at 130 m high, etc. There is definitely more than one reason to go back to Gozo!
Comino. Tranquil and isolated, this 2.5 km by 1.5 km island has only 4 permanent residents (one priest and one policeman commute from Gozo to render their services to the local population and summertime visitors). Located between Malta and Gozo, Comino is known to have been inhabited by farmers during Roman times, but for long periods in its history it has been sparsely populated, privately owned, or abandoned entirely. Its rugged coastline is delineated by sheer limestone cliffs, and dotted with deep caves which were popular with pirates and marauders in the Middle Ages. In later years, the Knights of Malta used this island as hunting and recreational grounds. From 1285 until some time after 1290, Comino was the home of exiled prophetic cabbalist Abraham Abulafia. It was on Comino that Abulafia composed his “Sefer ha-Ot“ (The Book of the Sign), and his last work, “Imre Shefer“ (Words of Beauty). In the 16th and 17th centuries, Comino served as a place of imprisonment or exile for errant knights, where convicted of minor crimes knights were occasionally sentenced to the lonely and dangerous task of manning St. Mary’s Tower.
There are few structures on the island. Saint Mary’s Tower is the most visible of all and was erected in 1618 under Grandmaster Wignacourt as a part of a chain of defensive towers, which greatly improved communications between Malta and Gozo. A tiny Roman Catholic chapel (built in 1618) dedicated to the Sacred Family Upon its Return from Egypt is located above Santa Marija Bay. Saint Mary’s Battery, built in 1716, at the same time as various other batteries around the coastline of mainland Malta and Gozo, is situated facing the South Comino Channel. And there is also a 3 star Comino Hotel with its two private beaches, located above San Niklaw Bay.
This almost empty island is a breathtakingly beautiful place and home to the Blue Lagoon, one of Malta’s loveliest but also most-visited natural attractions. A sheltered cove between the western end of the islands and the uninhabited islet of Cominotto, Blue Lagoon is delightful and alluring. A white-sand seabed and intense blue waters made it a perfect end-of-the-day swim for us. We arrived to Comino around 16.00 when most people were already leaving (last scheduled boat is at 18.00) and got most of the small strip of the sandy beach all to ourselves. On the way back, we simply hired a private motor-boat (€7 per person, watch out for your hats and sun-glasses as the boat drivers tend to enjoy the speed) and in less than 15 minutes we were back to Cirkewwa Port.
Malta turned out to be a wonderful melange of history, adventure, ethereal medieval towns, formidable fortifications, wonderful natural sights and unimaginable romance. I couldn’t have been happier to get married to the most amazing man in this picture-card beautiful place. We will surely be back!