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Malta in May

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I’m in the Westin Dragonara, a Conference Hotel and Resort on the shores of St Julian’s Bay on the island of Malta. Other than a handful of impeccably dressed Italians in the lobby, there are suited conventioneers to push past; English tourists with kids screaming in strollers or running wild; and yet I am very happy to be here! I have a room where I can not only see the sea, I can hear the waves from the Mediterranean lapping over the edges of small rock pools on the shore beneath my balcony – all day and all night. I even sleep with my doors open. I get to see the sun rise and colour the sea and sky each morning. I have the gentle repetitive lapping of the waves for the remains of the day. I even prefer eating on the balcony to going into the hotel dining areas. That said, I took a taxi to see the old town of Valetta today, and on the way told the driver I wanted to see the colourful little fishing boats that are always featured in the Malta tourism promotional material. There’s only one fishing village remaining (with real fisher folk) and it is on the south of the island at

Marsaxlokk Bay. We drive out of the built-up areas (and how over-built Malta is in places) and into the countryside past pine trees, olives, and vineyards (reminiscent of Italy) and through open farming areas with neat low stone walls separating the small plots. Luxuriant pink oleanders and succulent yellow flowering prickly pear further colour the landscape. Aren’t I glad I made the detour? What a pretty spot with colourful little boats bobbing in an

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usual colour of green water in bright sunshine. Restaurants with tables under umbrellas are doing a roaring trade along the wide promenade in front of chunky little limestone houses. I only wish I had the time to stop for lunch. But with the meter running, I’d better get to Valetta. There are Catholic influences everywhere you look and step in Malta. In this small island that is only 13 by 17 miles there are more than 300 churches. You see towns with square, boxy dwellings of limestone radiating out from the raised spires and dome of the local church all over the island. Flags provide colour to the yellow limestone landscape as feast days of the various communities are approaching. The population is only 400,000 but there are 270,000 cars on the roads. The old fashioned, rattle-trap heavy buses are very colourful in red and yellow but the fleet needs to be modernised more quickly if people are to leave their cars at home. Sound familiar?

We enter Valetta through a Gate built by the Romans as part of the town wall, and will exit out the gate on the other side which was built by the British to match the older one. The road is landscaped with neat palms and flowers as we wind up through the bastions of the Old Fort to the Castille, now the home of the President. I’m on foot from here.

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Walking down Republic Street from Freedom Square, I’m impressed by the wonderful old buildings, and not so impressed by the number of tourists. My first stop is at the Co-Cathedral of St John the Baptist after whom the famous Knights of St John took their name. I thought a Co-Cathedral might have been both Catholic and Anglican but on enquiring I am told that the first Cathedral for Malta was up in Mdina and it was not usual to have a second Cathedral in the same diocese. The Knights must have pulled some strings in Rome to have their Cathedral recognized as such. The ten dollar entrance fee was well worth it. Even though I was in a church, the audio guide and the coloured brochure brought the whole story of the famous Knights of St John to life. The knights were noblemen from the most important families of Europe and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith and Europe from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. After the Great Siege in 1565AD the Knights turned Malta into a fortress. Pride of place in the new city of Valetta was reserved for their church. The plain façade is severe and has the character of a fortress. In the 17th Century, Calabrian artist Mattie Pretti transformed the interior into a celebration of Baroque art. He depicted episodes from the life of St John the Baptist on the stone of the vaulted ceiling. Baroque ornamentation transformed the walls into a riot of gilded foliage, flowers and angels. The hanging lamp in the Sanctuary is solid silver. And the altar is made of rare marble with a frieze in lapis lazuli that my camera couldn’t capture. Back to read the manual for me. Of course St George slaying the Dragon appears in one of the many side chapels.

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The impressive National Library is set back on Republic Square that is otherwise taken up with outdoor dining under big white umbrellas. It’s too hot today so I choose to go inside for my turkey sandwich and a cup of tea (This was a very English sandwich. It has such thin slice of meat I could taste only the iceberg lettuce.) I couldn’t see too much of the Grand Master’s Palace and Armory but what is visible through the courtyard doorways is very beautiful.

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I continued on down to Fort St Elmo away from the tourists and explored some of the narrow little side streets. Life goes on in all these big cities with washing on lines and people gathering in front of shops and in small groups talking spiritedly.

I also took the advice of my taxi driver and walked through the Barracca Gardens which stand high above the sea looking across to the old limestone fortifications where the Knights first established a settlement on arriving in Malta. Monuments, fountains and shaded walkways through olive and palm

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trees and blooming oleander in every colour make this a very peaceful place to stroll and take in the atmosphere. I spent a night on the island on my way to Libya up in the old town of Mdina. I stayed in the Xara Palace which is in a restored section in the XVI Century battlements that encircle the old fort city. Today orange trees grow in the old

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moat and lots of prickly pear is growing wild around the perimeter of the walls. In the fields stretching out below there are more ordered farms and vineyards in neat plots with low stone walls. Looking out from my room I can see white built-up areas in the distance down by the sea. I like staying overnight in these World Heritage restored places because after visitors leave in the evening, I am free to walk and imagine things past. I still have much to learn about the Knights of Malta who lived here hundreds of years ago.

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I spent some time in the Museum attached to the Cathedral of St Paul but didn’t garner too much information on the Knights from that. Inside the cathedral, the whole floor is colourfully decorated with marble insets in memory of so many Knights and Bishops of centuries past. Walking around the spotlessly clean streets, I see lots of restored monasteries and convents but can’t see past the heavy wooden doors set into the high limestone walls. I had to wonder how St Paul the Apostle ended up here in Malta all the way from Jerusalem. The lady in the Cathedral told me that he was sentenced to death by the Romans for spreading the Word. He demanded that he be sent to

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Rome for trial and was shipwrecked on the way. He washed up in Malta. After these few days, I don’t think I’d mind ended up here for a bit longer either.

MM 24th May 2007

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Malta - May 2007