Valletta, Kalkara and Birgu

Monday 7 to Wednesday 16 September

We had found accommodation in Kalkara just across the Grand Harbour from the capital Valletta. There was a stunning view of Birgu, a peninsula on the same side of the Grand Harbour, from the lobby window.

We were happy to explore our local area during our first night, including a restaurant conveniently located next to our hotel. And then there were the fireworks. Yes I am a pyromaniac, I love fireworks and had enjoyed them during the 4th of July celebrations while we were in the USA just two months earlier. These were celebrating Malta’s victory in the great siege of 1565. The fireworks were a combination of sparkles and coloured smoke – quite unusual.

Malta has a term pika which describes the rivalry between villages for the best fiesta, the best band, the highest church steeple or anything else that can outdo the neighbours, including fireworks. We noticed that with the constant flashes appearing from all directions in the few days we spent there.

After a few days visiting friends in Switzerland Bruce’s work was piling up. That was OK as we had time in Malta for some work/catchup as well as sightseeing.

Late next day, after Bruce had worked, we set off to explore the capital Valletta.

The Bell Tower remembers the lives lost during the Siege of Malta between 1940 and 1943. Malta became part of the British Empire at the Treaty of Paris in 1814. In both wars the tiny island state was of strategic importance to the Allied countries. The Axis resolved to bomb or starve Malta and as a result it was one of the most bombed areas. The siege continued until November 1942.

Valetta is a small city squeezed into a rocky peninsula. Named after Jean Parisot de Valletta the 49th Grand Master of the Order of Malta between 1557 and 1568. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, recognised for being one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.

The official languages are Maltese and English. The Maltese language is a strange mix of Arabic, Italian and English written in Latin. Traffic drives on the left, like England and Australia. However there is a distinctive Mediterranean feel about the place.

Malta is the most densely populated country in Europe. And it feels crowded.

With Bruce’s work finished and our island tours completed, we spent our last days in full sightseeing mode.

We did the tour of Valletta, examining as many churches as we could find. The grand baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral shares its equal prominence with the cathedral in Mdina, giving it the title of co-cathedral.

As well as its lavish interior, the cathedral houses some famous art, particularly Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing. A museum which adjoins the church holds further famous artwork including Flemish Tapestries designed by Peter Paul Rubens and paintings of Grand Masters Jean de la Cassière, Nicolas Cotoner and Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, and St. George killing the Dragon by Francesco Potenzano.

We found Our Lady of Mt Carmel church and St Paul’s Anglican cathedral which was not open. It is said there is a church for every day of the year in Malta.

There was the Grandmaster’s Palace in the beautiful St George’s Square, Queen Victoria’s statue and the National Library of Malta in Republic Square and a true British red telephone box and letter box in Merchant’s Street.

We had a late flight our of Malta, so we spent our last day touring the The Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu. Originally built as a courthouse, it became the seat of the Maltese Inquisition between 1574 and 1798, under the name Palazzo del Sant’Officio. The building was used as a residence as well as housing the tribunal and prison. There was the ostentatious living quarters, complete with private chapel and the torture chambers.

Here is the story of one of the exiles Don Francesco Vestuso,  a 37 year old Sicilian priest from Palermo

I arrived to Malta in 1636 when I was granted pardon from a sentence of rowing on the galleys for ten years for killing a Sicilian woman. In Sicily I had learnt a lot of magic incantations and owned a number of prohibited books on devil invocation and sorcery. When I came to Malta people started to make use of my knowledge for their personal everyday needs. On one occasion I was reported to the Inquisitor for having made inappropriate use of holy oil and other sacramental paraphernalia. I was imprisoned on 29 September 1637 after two days on the run from the Inquisition’s officials and underwent torture. I was found guilty on all counts and was released from prison on 29 September 1637, on the day of my sentence, according to which I had to hear mass the following Sunday kneeling at the front door of the Porto Salvo parish church in Valletta holding a candle and with a placard denoting my crime. I was also exiled perpetually from Malta.

So with Malta seen, we were off to Berlin to spend our last few days with Hayden and Andrea.