Sunday, April 17, 2011

Malta, Gozo, and Milan

Hydrofoil from Sicily to Malta
We took a rather large catamaran hydrofoil from Sicily to Malta, arriving in the capital city of Valletta in about three hours.  Valletta is considered to have one of Europe’s finest cityscapes, and entering the Grand Harbor by boat offered an impressive view of this very hilly city of stone that is surrounded by massive fortifications. 
View of Valletta from the Grand Harbor
 Since you probably know as much about Malta as we did a few months ago (i.e. next to nothing), here is a mini-Malta history lesson.  Much like Sicily, Malta was conquered by every bully on the block including the Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, French, and British.  In 1530, Malta was given to the Knights of St. John (aka Knights of Malta).  These Knights came from all over Europe and were originally charged with protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. 

Another view across the Grand Harbor
 In 1565, the Knights became the heroes of Europe when their outnumbered force of less than 9,000 held off a Turkish invasion force of over 30,000.  In fact, the stone fortifications that we admire so much were built out of fear that the Turks would return.

The Maltese people were put to the test once again during WWII when they suffered 154 days of continuous bombing (even London during the Blitz numbered only 57 days of continuous bombing).  As a result of their bravery, the people of Malta were awarded the George Cross, Great Britain’s highest civilian honor.  

Colorful wooden balconies in Valletta
The Knights have a long history of providing excellent hospital services.  After the turmoil in Gallipoli (circa 1915), the Maltese gained renown by caring for the survivors of that infamous battle. Surprisingly, the Knights still exist with about 12,000 Knights and Dames (yes, they now allow women!) providing medical care and disaster relief around the world.

Steep streets in Valletta
In Valletta, we stayed in a studio apartment carved right out of the fortifications.  We even had a view of the Grand Harbor from about 100 feet up from our balcony!  The city layout of Valletta was a bit challenging with steep streets that reminded us of San Francisco.  Valletta sits on a hill, and cross streets go up one side of the hill and down the other with lots of steps along the way.  The architecture is also unusual with bright red, blue, or green enclosed wooden balconies hanging on the outside of the stone walls of the buildings. 

Looking out over the Grand Harbor
English is the second language of Malta, so everyone speaks it, making Malta a very user friendly place for us English speakers.  And because of the British influence, all street signs and storefronts are in English too.  It’s a good thing, because Maltese is a strange and difficult language, a mix of the languages of all its former conquerors.  

Co-Cathedral of St. John inValletta
 We began our tour of the city at the Knight’s church, the “Co-Cathedral of St. John”.  The original Knights may have taken a vow of poverty, but their cathedral must have been exempt!  The interior was a stunner: a kaleidoscope of rich colors with an ornate Bernini-like altar, and a marble inlaid floor that marked the tombs of the Knights buried below.  

We also visited Valletta’s Archaeology Museum where we first learned about the remarkable prehistoric sites on Malta.  Believe it or not, the megalithic temples of Malta, built between 3600 and 2500 B.C., are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world (500 years older than the oldest Pyramid).  

Tarxien Temple

We explored several of them including the prehistoric temples at Hagar Qim & Mnajdra (you can really see the Arab influence in the Maltese language), and the even more impressive Tarxien Temples.  All the temples were built with great craftsmanship over 5000 years ago with standing stones weighing as much as 20 tons, marvelous swirly stone carvings, and unusual stone portals with holes in the stone doorways believed to have been used to hang animal skin “doors.”

"The Sleeping Lady"
Statues found at the sites were equally fascinating: the famous “fat lady” artifacts which may have been fertility goddesses, the tiny, but detailed “Venus of Malta”, and a sinuous “Sleeping Lady” who looks just like a Picasso sculpture.  Plus, several of these ingenious temples are aligned with the sun so that the inner altar is illuminated during the summer and winter solstices.

The "Holy of Holies"
Our favorite ancient site was the Hypogeum, a strange underground burial site.  Anne had bought tickets months ago, and with only 60 people permitted to enter each day, we felt privileged to climb down into the elaborate subterranean chambers carved from the rock.  The builders of the Hypogeum actually replicated the aboveground temples by carving pillars and portals out of the solid rock.  Remember, this burial site was created 5000 years ago; what tools did these people use?  How’d they lift the heavy stones? And, no traces of soot were found in these labyrinths, the implication being that these ancient people carved these underground rooms in almost total darkness!  The most special room of all was the “Holy of Holies,” so beautifully carved that you would swear you were looking at a Greek masterwork (even though the Hypogeum appeared several thousand years earlier).

No one knows who these people were, or more importantly, why they abruptly stopped building temples and seemed to disappear.  Honestly, the more of these mysterious sites that we visit, the more we start to believe in aliens!  

Fishing boats of Marsaxlokk
We also visited the village of Marsaxlokk, home to about 70% of the fishermen on Malta, with a colorful harbor filled with distinctive boats painted in primary shades of red, blue, and yellow.  The bow of each boat is decorated with the “Eyes of Osiris” to ward off evil spirits.  Not being a big fan of evil spirits ourselves, Anne did the proper touristy thing, and bought a ceramic version of an “eye” to bring back home with us.   

Island of Gozo
We checked out the island of Gozo, spending two nights on this laidback little island that is only 8.5 miles long by 4.5 miles wide, and just a ½ hour ferry ride from the northwestern tip of Malta.  Gozo belongs to Malta, and is similar to the mother island, but much more rural and with more of an Arab look.  Everybody seems to know each other on this tiny island, and we really enjoyed the folksy small-town ambience.  

Franky, our excellent guide and taxi cab driver
We spent a real “Gozo Day” with a taxi cab driver we happened to meet when we first arrived.  Franky Camilleri, a gentle and knowledgeable 45-year old cab driver here on Gozo who had lived for 16 years in Manhattan, gave us a complete tour or the island. 

The Miracle Church
We enjoyed lovely sea views, and the Miracle Church (the Maltese are some of the most devout Roman Catholics in the world) where the faithful come hoping for medical cures. 

Gozo "bobbin" lace in progress
  We were also able to buy some of the famous handmade Gozo lace in a village craft shop from a woman who showed us how she makes lace doilies.  It was fascinating to observe this artisan flipping her hand-held bobbins around, each tied to a piece of lace thread, to make the resulting lace.  She worked so fast, it was hard to see exactly what she was doing, even though we watched intently at the operation. But the end result was an unmistakably beautiful handcrafted piece of lace.  This is really an “almost lost” art, we thought. 

A lot of fun was had at the Folklore Museum that, like Doylestown’s Mercer Museum, contained one man’s well-organized collection of tools, devices, and other historical memorabilia of Gozo.  Later, we stopped at the super friendly Ta ‘Mena winery for a taste of unique Gozo wine! 

Da Vinci's "The Last Supper"
 After returning to Malta, we flew Easy Jet from Valletta to Milan where we spent just one night before flying home.  But this stop gave us time to partake of a long sought-after view of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous wall mural in the chapel of Santa Maria della Grazie - “The Last Supper.”  The painting is in much better shape than we expected with surprisingly vibrant colors.  Anne was most intrigued by all the different hand gestures (something she had never noticed before), as the apostles pondered the statement that Jesus had just made: “one of you will betray me”.  Leonardo was a real master hand painter.  We had a mere 15-minute time slot with Da Vinci, but the memory will be infinitely more long lasting.

We had an uneventful but lengthy 9-1/2 hour flight back to Newark – and were greeted by cold, rainy and dreary weather.  We had worried that we might miss some of our spring flowers, but it looks like Spring decided to wait for us.


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