Friday, November 6, 2015

Melting in Malta

(Please allow me to offer the following quote as an explanation of why I haven't blogged about my August trip sooner: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon)

Malta - August, 2015

To begin with, Malta was never on my bucket list.  But when a neighbor found one of those Godfather "offer you can't refuse" deals, and my son mentioned that Game of Thrones was filmed there, I decided to go for it and try traveling with a companion for a change.

I've always said that I love warm climates.  I will happily visit Florida in July and have booked trips to Disney in August.  Southeast Asia, Costa Rica, the south of France?.  Love, love, love.  But Malta in August?  How can I compare it? The dry sauna at the Y with no water scoop for the rocks?  The Sahara with really interesting architecture?

It's probably unfair to start the discussion of such a fascinating country with a negative but, I was melting in Malta.  A shady spot always seemed to be in short supply.

On the other hand, the UP side of going in August is that there are a bajillion summer street festivals.  Every town has its saint that it parades under the colorful banners festooned across the streets. 

Or, in this case, Pope Francis.

Nearly every night - somewhere - everywhere - there's music and food, lights, color, and fireworks. 


And heat.

Okay.  I'll stop now.  You want to hear about Malta.

The country is about 122 square miles (including Gozo and Comino).  I visited all three islands but reviewing all of them would require a book instead of a blog.

(Side note: Don't believe people who tell you that, because of its compact size, you can see most of what Malta has to offer in three or four days - my companion believed that and rushed me through the country at break-neck speed, making the executive decision that we should skip lunch in order to see most of what was on our list in five).

In spite of its relatively small size, somehow, the Maltese manage to pack about 359 Catholic churches into that area.  I stopped in as many as I could.  Perhaps the most famous is St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta's lovely Baroque capital.  The original home of the Knights of Malta, Valletta is an absolute must-see.

I would definitely recommend a visit to St. John's.

The Knights of Malta were noblemen from the most important families of Europe, and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. After defending the island from the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, they turned Malta into a fortress and built Valletta, their new capital city. The center of the city was reserved for their Church.  Each country (or "langue") built their own chapel and, trying to rival each other in their contributions, each one is more elaborate, gold-encrusted, and jaw-dropping than the next.

The church also houses Caravaggio's The Beheading of John the Baptist.  The painting, worthy of a blog in itself, is housed in a separate installation where photography was strictly forbidden.  I might have chanced a sneaky, flash-free shot if it weren't for the fact that it was well-guarded.  I wasn't in the mood for the adventure of an international incident.  You'll just have to go see it in person.

Valletta is only one of the many cities that stand in Malta like monuments to the past. Mdina and Mosta are also noteworthy.

There seems to be nothing that smacks of the current century in Mdina. It is easy for one to be completely transported as you wind your way down narrow streets of medieval architecture (later infused with Baroque elements after a great earthquake destroyed many buildings in 1693.)

Mosta is another must-see.  One of its most notable attractions is the Rotunda of Mosta, Europe's third largest unsupported dome.  On April 9, 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a SC500 kg general purpose Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (one 50 kg bomb bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. It did not explode. The same type of bomb as the one that pierced the dome is now on display at the back of the church under the words Il-Miraklu tal-Bomba, 9 ta' April 1942 (The Bomb Miracle, April 9, 1942).  If you're traveling alone and not, as I was, with a companion who tears through sites like The Flash, you can see it.  Unfortunately, I missed that, but I got good shots of the church and the interior dome.

Lastly, even though this is a cursory examination of all Malta has to offer, I can't fail to mention the ancient Neolithic sites.  I wasn't able to see the Hypogeum (which evidently requires reservations months in advance and signing away your first born child) but I was able to visit two other sites.  First, the temple of Hagar Qim (c. 3600 - 3200 BC), a UNESCO World Heritage site which stands on a hilltop overlooking the islet of Filfla. 

Nearby are the temples of Mnajdra, a complex site consisting of three temples overlooking an oval forecourt. The first and oldest temple dates back to 3600-3200 BC, while the most impressive of the temples is the third, constructed between 3150-2500 BC. This temple is considered to be one of the finest surviving on the islands. The Lower Temple has an astronomical alignment which permits the rays of the sun to pass strategically through specific areas at the Equinox.

 Unfortunately, to get to either site requires  a long walk.

A veeeeeeery long walk in the open with the sun beating down on you.

Did I mention it's really REALLY hot in Malta?

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