Reflections From Roma #14
25 aprile 2019
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Hello there… Rodger French here.
A.J. and I recently returned from a four-night stay in the Republic of Malta, a archipelago located80 kmsouth of Sicily, 284 km east of Tunisia, and 333 km north of Libya; that is to say, right smack in the middle of the Mediterranean. Over the course of roughly 8000 years, this geographically tiny place with excellent natural harbours has been inhabited or conquered bythe Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and British. Currently, the residents of Malta endure and profit from a constant infestation of behemoth cruise ships and their attendant ZOTA™.
[Nomenclature Sidebar- The Republic of Malta consists in the main of three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Cosimo. “Malta” typically refers to the largest island of the same name.]
Littered with Catholic churches, megalithic temples, and impressive battlements, Malta is one of those places where History stops by from time to time, throws up all over the joint, and moves on. (E.g., Paul the Apostle - Christianity’s first and greatest PR man - was shipwrecked on “Melita” on his way to Rome, according to the Acts of the Apostles.) Maltese history is utterly, often brutally, engaging.
And in April, the weather is perfect: Sunny, breezy, and comfortably cool. We set up camp in a very nice small hotel in Valetta, the capital, and made use of the mostly reliable public transportation system. The local buses and ferries cost only €1.50/one way. Since the island is a mere27 km long and 14.5 km wide, you can get around pretty quickly. Among the highlights:
- The Malta Maritime Museum- Located in Birgu, across the Grand Harbour from Valetta. A veritable naval hodgepodge, it is enjoyable, though a bit dimly lit. (The memorial plaque dedicated to the Maltese who were among 1519 dead when the Germans sank three British vessels off the coast of Norway in 1940 proved unexpectedly emotional.)
- Marsaxlokk- A small, ancient fishing village in the SE part of the island, with a fine harbour, colorful fishing boats, and excellent seafood. Also, a large LNG terminal.
[Maltese Culinary Highlights Sidebar- Grilled cuttlefish, stewed rabbit, Maltese sausage/pork hamburgers, traditional (Good Friday) hot cross buns, figolli (marzipan-filled Easter pastry), Kinnie (bitter orange carbonated soft drink), dark chocolate “Maltese Falcons”]
- Mdina- A small, fortified city located in the Northern Region founded by the Phoenicians in the 8thcentury BC and the capital of Malta until 1530. St. Paul’s Cathedral (the Apostle left his mark) is a significant tourist attraction. It is Baroque, it is gilded, it is completely over the top. And I especially liked the marble floor. It was also packed with people praying in groups and priests hearing confessions on the go.
- St. John’s Co-Cathedral- Co-Cathedral, you ask? Here you go:
[Wikipedia Sidebar - “Over time, the St. John’s grew to equal prominence with the archbishop’s cathedral at Mdina. In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John's as an alternative see and it thus formally became a Co-cathedral.”]
St. John’s, located in Valetta, is the major tourist hotspotin Malta. It is Baroque, it is gilded, it is completely over the top. And... I especially liked the marble floor. The place was swarming with visitors, but the crowd was pretty well behaved, notwithstanding the idiots who insisted on taking selfies with Caravaggio’s epic painting “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in the background. Good Lord.
I should note that we arrived in Malta on the Wednesday before Easter and departed on Easter Sunday. Naturally, a fair amount of the tourism we experienced was religious in nature. Which I am emphatically not predisposed to, but “Yo, respect.” One should be cognizant of and open to the importance of ritual.
In fact, the high point of our trip came on Holy Thursday night, when, following the sound of a small brass band (complete with matching maroon blazers), we paraded through the narrow, vertiginous streets of Valetta, marching (well, schlepping) from one church to another, mingling with local parishioners and visiting pilgrims. E molti bambini. It was a good evening to be out and about and part of something ancient.
So, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Malta, I sincerely recommend it. Just one thing: In the name of the Saints John and Paul, please, no selfies.