Malta: Crossroad to history

by Arlene Rafiq
Malta

Malta is often described as a one big open air museum. This is not only a museum with trendy cafes and shops but also an impressive entrance. With some of the nicest windows and doors around. With its capital city of Valetta, with calm and peaceful surroundings. Then you have Mdina, dating back four thousand years. The walled city has a timeless atmosphere where getting lost in small alleys may be a lot of fun for others but could be scary for some but then stumbling into a great dessert may not be too bad after all.Join me in my short but delightful escape to Valleta and Mdina. I will try to guide you about my time here, the places I have visited and a few places that I missed that maybe you should explore. My companion and I arrived early in the capital city at 10:30 in the morning. We would have a few days here so we wanted a mixture of exploring, sightseeing and possibly writing about this place.It is for this last reason that we chose an apartment just across the water and walking distance to almost everything so I can cover as much in a short time. What we did not anticipate was the road leading to the apartment. I thought it was a joke but no, we had to climb at least 50 cobblestone steps to reach the main entrance to the apartment building carrying our heavy luggage and another four floors of winding steps to our main apartment. It was torture! Catching our breath, we sat on the terrace for a short while and completely forget what we had gone through after seeing what we saw. We immediately dumped our bags and headed out to explore the place. I already loved it! From our terrace, we could see the Forts, the beautiful body of water, the port and school of birds flying above us. It was breathtaking to say the least.

Church

Climbing up and down the stairs was momentarily forgotten. I love the neighbourhood, just across from our apartment is the Basilica of Mount Carmel, a Roman Catholic Church, one of the most famous churches and is part of UNESCO Heritage Site which includes the whole city. Passing the Basilica is a very old building called Manoel Theatre, an important performing arts venue. It is a very old building built in 1731 but still being used. It was closed the whole time we were in Valleta so we did not get the chance to see inside or watch anything as we had planned. Walking pass several restaurants and bars… examining some front doors along the way, we wandered through the quiet picturesque until we got to the city centre.Valleta is Europe’s smallest capital city so it’s perfect for walking. Hidden streets and views appear around almost every corner so it was great just admiring. The architecture alone, especially with the sun setting, added to its glow. This small island with a population of 439,000 is perhaps the safest place in the world. You can walk in a dimly lit alleys without being bothered. People are friendly and will go out of their way to assist anyone. My companion and I walked at least a total of 40 hours during the 5 days of stay in Valletta excluding the 2 hours a day of break for lunch, coffee or touring the many heritage sites… well, the whole of Malta is heritage. You have got to see it, to believe it.

Malta gained independence from a dwindling British Empire in 1964. History can be seen throughout the city however, with Valleta’s roots on display, over the last two thousand years, Malta’s timeline reads like a who’s, who of conquerors. Naming a handful, the Romans, the Normans, the Turkish, the Spanish, the French and the British. Even as the recent Second World War, the Maltese islands were a highly prized base being fought over. Due to the bravery and courage shown by the Maltese people during the prolonged invasion, they are the only country awarded with the George Cross. The George Cross is typically handed to individuals, it is the second highest award in the United Kingdom’s honour system and is even part of the nation’s flag. Built following the siege of Malta, was the Barakka Gardens, which unfortunately we’ve missed, overlooking the great harbour. We continued walking until we reached Republic Street.  Feeling a bit hungry, we found a nice, cosy coffee shop, Caffe Cordina. We sat outside for a while to view the statue of Queen Victoria. I thought this is more than just a coffee shop. My conversation with one of the owners, Luca Cordina, revealed that it is a famed establishment with a two hundred year old history and considered a minor landmark within the bustling streets of Malta’s stunning capital, Valleta.

Malta city

After a long full day, we struggled through cobblestone steps to our apartment and caught up with a much needed rest. I sat in front of my laptop and started planning for the next day. It would be another exploration day with a mixture of Cathedral hopping, trying out Maltese food. I will definitely go for a taste of Aljotta, a fish soup and some other renowned Maltese food.The following day, the sun was shining brightly and the cool breeze energised me. I had latte macchiato and chocolate croissant for breakfast overlooking the Grandmaster Palace now known as the Palace which was built between the 16th and 18th centuries as the Palace of the Grandmaster of the Order of St. John who ruled Malta. Had a quick visit to the Grand Masters Palace to view the Armoury Collection dating back to the 15th century and the Palace State Rooms and corridors which displays the glory of the Order of St. John. As per the manual given to guests, it says that this Palace was one of the first buildings in the city of Valleta founded by Grandmaster Jean de Vallete a few months after the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Palace was then enlarged and developed by successive Grand Masters to serve as their residence. It became the seat of Malta’s first constitutional parliament in 1921. It is now the seat of the Office of the President of Malta. Close to the Grand Masters Palace was the house of Nobility, Casa Rocco Piccola a 16th century Palace, home of the Noble de Piro family. We were asked to sit in the courtyard whilst waiting for the guide and while being entertained by a parrot, named Kuku. I tried to talk to Kuku but the only word he knew was “hello” so we exchanged hellos several times until the guide came to show us the interior of the Palace.

museum

The Palace is a living museum. A privately owned and much loved home of the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro. They were actually home that time but were entertaining guests so we were not able to meet them but apparently, they do oblige whenever possible.  The Palace is open to the public from 10am to 4pm every day except Sundays and holidays. It is a beautiful home full of antiquities and collections from the past. Not only did we see the important rooms inside the Palace but also the underground passages and tunnels which were used as a safe place during the war.We missed going to the restaurant located in the Palace’s old kitchen as we had made reservations for a nearby Maltese restaurant. It was a delightful visit to this nobility’s home.Our next stop was the St. John Co Cathedral. I wouldn’t miss this Roman Catholic Church as it has always been mentioned by my Humanities professor in college and for some reason I didn’t pay much attention then, as I had no idea where Malta was at that time, and had no interest in knights except for Sir Lancelot of the Round Table.

The queue was long and it was already four in the afternoon and the Cathedral is about to close. Luckily, we had pulled some strings and were able to enter the back side of the Cathedral. I stood in front of the altar with mouth open and eyes so wide totally mesmerised. It had me dumbfounded as it dwarfed all the churches and Basilicas that I have visited in this trip. There are no adjectives to describe the magnificence of this church interior. It is Baroque all the way. I was awed at the style, design and particular attention to detail. It was an overwhelming feeling of respect and admiration. St. John Co Cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and built by the Order of St. John between 1572-1577. It is one if not the most beautiful Cathedral’s that I have ever seen. From ceiling to walls, including the floorings, are decorated with inlaid colourful marbles creating a beautiful tapestry. Photographs just would do it justice to its beauty, but viewing it yourself will give you a feeling of wonderment, just as I felt.

Rocco

Our next visit is the St. Elmo Fort which became the location site for my companion’s photography project. The Fort is huge and to walk inside the fort in the late afternoon is doubly tiring and even more so if you had been a subject in a photography project. In between modelling and looking around, I was reading a brochure about the Fort. Fort St. Elmo is considered Malta’s five-star Fort as it protected the main ports of Malta during the Great Siege in 1565. Inside the Fort is a War Museum with collections of various items from prehistoric times starting from the early Bronze Age of 2500BC to present time. There are several videos to watch to better understand the history and greater appreciation of Malta. With Fort St. Elmo as the setting of Malta’s historical episodes so it is a must see place. Give yourself at least two hours inside the Fort. You will be surprised at the historical value of the place and be proud of the courage and bravery of the Maltese people. The sun had set and whilst I could see our apartment building from a distance, it took us at least an hour and a half to reach the area, because most of the streets are like in San Francisco, USA. Fatigue caught us so we just decided to buy cold cuts and bread and make a sandwich for dinner and called it a night.

Silent City

Not really surprising, the days went by so quickly. As they say time seem to move faster when you are having fun. I have now fallen in love with Valleta. I have documented on a daily basis my trip and posted them on Facebook so a good friend of mine, a Maltese Knight of the Order of  St. John suggested that I should visit Mdina. That’s exactly what my companion and I did. Mdina is a walled city with a history spanning four thousand years, it’s named the “Silent City” and it speaks for itself. At the lone entrance, I was totally stunned by the medieval look and feel of the place. The town was the old capital of Malta, and with its narrow streets, few inhabitants and beautiful views it is truly a magical town. There are no cars allowed in the walled city except those of a limited number of residents who have permission to enter Mdina. The town provides a relaxing atmosphere among the visitors walking its narrow streets and alleyways. Horse drawn carriages are available at 35Euro for an hour of sightseeing inside Mdina.

Nightlife

The medieval town is a mixture of Norman and Baroque architecture and is home too many Palaces, most of which today serve as private homes. We went around the narrow, winding roads on foot stopping by boutique shops selling glass jewellery and various souvenir items while appreciating the Baroque buildings the knights have left for humanity to appreciate. Mdina is a sight to behold.Our last day were spent tasting food, walking the narrow alleys, taking photographs of the amazing buildings, chatting friendly with the locals and expatriates alike. We walked for hours hoping to find a real market where the locals went but unfortunately what we saw was an establishment with a sign Market but it was just a small supermarket not the kind that I was looking for. It was getting late so we just watched the sunset and walked back the cobblestoned steps to our apartment. It was a wonderful visit to a magical place… something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you, Malta for a memorable insight of your country… whilst we only scratched the surface, what we have seen so far definitely left a strong impact on me and I will definitely come back again.

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