The capital city of Valletta on the island of Malta was at one time the headquarters of the Knights of St John, and had in fact been built by them. Or they ordered it built in any case. The Knights were one of the more adventurous orders, skipping from country to country one step ahead of the Ottomans, laying siege here, being besieged there and amassing a lot of wealth along the way. When they eventually washed up on the scant shores of Malta, I imagine there may have been some sights of ‘here we go again’ from the inhabitants, or whatever the local equivalent is on an island that almost seems to be the hot potato of the Mediterranean.
These latest visitors would only be around for about 250 years, but during that time they left their mark very clearly all over the islands. 14 towers circle the islands, castles and fortresses surmount most large hills, and at the capital you can’t go 5 metres without seeing a trace of them. Especially if you approach by water.
Fort St Elmo is perched on the seaward facing point of the penninsula. As you approach from the north on a bus, winding around the points of St Julian and Sliema, you can catch glimpses of the massive walls and towers, the golden limestone glowing in the morning light. From the walls themselves you can get an amazing view over the harbour and surrounding metropolis, as well as imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers watching the sea for invading fleets. In 1565 there would have been blood and fighting where we stood enjoying the sea breeze, as the fortress fell during the Great Siege. A little distance away from the walls, we found the small, quiet chapel of St Anne which had apparently been the site of the last stand of the Knights, and where a number of priests were killed. I read this before I went in, so I couldn’t help shivering a little as I looked around, and not just from the chill of the darkened room.
In addition to chapels, walls, bastions (whatever they are) and gates with eyes, the Fort of St Elmo contains a war museum detailing the military history of Malta.
Not having a huge amount of interest in the subject, at least when it doesn’t concern really ancient military history, I left my fella to it and wandered out of the fortress and into the streets of Valletta. The main streets leading from the city gates to the fortress were busy with tourists, so I nipped down a few side streets, passing locals going about their business. There was an old man on a mobile talking animatedly, a woman hanging up washing on her balcony and a number of stray cats snoozing in the shade of parked cars. For some reason most of the cats on Malta are ginger. My theory is that once, long ago, a ginger cat was brought to the island and through a campaign of feline bullying took over the capital city and ensured that its descendants continued its gingery legacy. Most likely it came from Sicily, where keeping it in the family is apparently de rigueur.
My feet eventually led me to the Museum of Archaeology, where I spent a happy few hours exploring the long history of the islands. Among the things that most struck me were the sculptures from the Neolithic period. The most common were large women, sitting with legs decorously folded to the side and one arm folded. There were no heads on the bodies, but rather a hole where archaeologists assume a series of interchangeable heads could have been inserted. Though some were clumsily made, there were many that had been very finely carved, the folds in their dresses precisely made and their hands and feet delicate, giving a sense of dignity and poise even after all these years.
Elsewhere in the museum was a room dedicated to the Phoenicians, who had dominated the islands before the Romans took over in the 200sBCE. I’ve never had a chance to see Phoenician artifacts before, overwhelmed as they were and are by their noisy competitors, so a tiny curse scroll in their script and a sarcophagus who looked as though she was holding her breath were pleasant surprises.
History ancient and military achieved, we met up and made our way to the Upper Barakka Gardens, swapping notes on the history of the islands. From the balconies and shady tables of the gardens we had an amazing view out over the harbour and city, the industry of the docks chugging away behind tourist boats, and ancient fortresses blending with busy neighbourhoods.
Before we could let ourselves settle too deeply into our chairs, however, there was an event that night that I very much wanted to attend. The L-Imnarja is an ancient agricultural festival held in honour of St Paul and St Peter (or at least since Catholicism came to Malta), which takes place in Buskett Garden. This is a grove not far from Mdina in the centre of the island and as such I had assumed from the safety of my computer in Sweden that it would be no problem to get there and join in the market stalls and watch the donkey and horse races before the fireworks were finally set off. Once in Malta the reality of traveling the 12.5kms from Valletta to Buskett settled in, and so did we on our bus seats as we sadly passed the stop for the festival, realising that if we did get off there would be no reliable way to get back home.
Instead we continued on the bus to Dingli cliffs, which is less disappointing now that I know that we should have gone around the corner to see the real ones. The sunset over the scrubby flowers and plants and the sea beyond was a lovely sight though, and worth the long bus ride and teenagers loudly singing the hits of the 80s.
Tired and hungry, we went back to town and dined on local pastries and a slushie overlooking the Sliema harbour, were refused admittance to the last bus home as it was too full and caught a taxi back to the apartment, trying not to doze off as we rocked up the roads and trudged across the construction site in the bright, Mediterranean moonlight.