The flight out of Saint Petersburg was delayed so I was a little concerned I’d miss my Riga (Latvia) connection to Malta. The flight attendant assured me the very small airport would allow a successful 15 minute transit given I already had a boarding pass. Possibly would have if we hadn’t been locked in the flight gangway for 5 minutes before a security guard finally woke up to it and let us out. Of course this also had to be the only airport in the world where security searches all cabin baggage to ensure prohibited liquids are not being carried. Needless to say the gate was well and truly closed when I arrived to it panting from my running through the supposedly ‘small’ airport.
A four hour sleep at a local hotel and I was back at the airport for my 6am flight. There were no direct flights available so I was going through Frankfurt. I was relieved when our flight left on time. I’d lost half a day so when I arrived at my accommodation mid afternoon I simply dropped my bags and headed off to visit the fortress capital city Valletta.
My grandfather had talked of the brave Knights of St John piquing my interest in Malta at a young age, which intensified after my friends Karen and Michael visited his family back when we were in our 20s. It was the Micallefs who’d introduced me to the Pastizzi and I thought of them fondly when I bit into my first one on Malta!
Valletta had been established by the Knights; a religious group of noblemen from all over Europe. The bastions surrounding the city were very impressive and looked pretty impenetrable.
St John’s Co-Cathedral (sharing Cathedral status with that of St Paul’s in Mdina (Malta’s earlier capital)) was a beautiful baroque style and houses a couple of Caravaggio paintings, the largest and most famous being The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The floor is laid with a patchwork of marble tomb slabs (I believe those of some of the knights).
The Grand Master of the Knights of St John had his own residence, which is preserved to illustrate the opulence of the former state rooms (still used on occasion by the president for meetings with heads of state) and the former stables are used to present the armoury collection. The Knights are famous for about 350 of them fending off a sustained attack by an incredibly large Turkish contingency in mid 1500s. The course of history would have been so very different had the Europeans lost control of this important location to the Ottoman Empire. Hence promised but delayed reinforcements were finally sent in the nick of time.
I’d just made the opening times of these key sights so the pressure was off for the rest of the evening. The city was one of the first master planned cities of Europe so it was quite lovely to wander around the shaded streets, visiting the lower Barrakka gardens and then the upper to catch the cliff top lift 58m down to sea level for a ferry across to the three cities – il-Birgu (now called Vittoriosa – former home of the Knights), Bormla (now Cospicua) and l-Isla (now Senglea).
I couldn’t get enough of the lovely balconies of Malta. I even had a couple in conversation across the road from each other oblige me for a photograph.
Night was starting to fall so I was getting to enjoy the subtly lit sandstone buildings as I made my way back to my accommodation in Msida. I needed rest for my adventure to Blue Lagoon the next day!
The bus trip to the boat was great – following the coast line for views of all the coastal towns abuzz with tourists (there certainly seemed to be more tourists and expats in Malta than Maltese). The ‘beach areas’ were about as big as a postage stamp compared to ours!
Blue Lagoon (at Comino Island) was just stunning. It was famed for being part of the film location for the likes of The Count of Monte Christo.
I took the option of the speedboat caves tour, which was a bit of fun and then went off to Gozo for a tour for a couple of hours where the highlight was the Il-Kastell (Cittadella) – a well preserved fortress with lovely views across the island. All of the inhabitants of the island had sheltered there during the siege by the Turks in the mid 1500s. I took the opportunity to enjoy my last dinner in Malta overlooking the lovely Valletta.
With a mid afternoon flight I had just a few hours left on my last day to see a bit more of Malta so I jumped on a bus to Mdina, fortified about 1000BC. The current name hails from the occupation of the Arabs (evident everywhere across the main island). It was lovely and quiet before all of the tourists arrived.
Mdina sat beside Rabat in which the St Paul’s Catacombs were located. Who doesn’t love to check out underground burial sites? They were impressive – said to cover more than 2000 square metres. They were created in the third century AD and used for about 500 years. Some were clearly for individuals, some for groups (babies and small children were believed to be buried together) and some were for the pots containing the ashes of cremated persons (those who couldn’t afford body burial). Apparently there was evidence that it was the burial site of multi religious denominations (with the denominations generally buried together) suggesting a very multicultural and peaceful society of the times. The catacombs had also been used as shelters for inhabitants during the world wars.
The Second World War has been particularly hard for Malta. It had received more sustained bombings than any other country of the commonwealth. For its valour Malta was awarded the George Cross; never before and never again has this honour been bestowed upon a whole county.
Well, I’d found my knights as I’d hoped, sadly just a little too late to bring one home with me! Perhaps I’d find myself a Greek god on the next leg…