Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Our Lifestyle Adventures: Six Striking Scenes in Valetta, Capital of Malta

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Our Lifestyle Adventures: Six Striking Scenes in Valetta, Capital of Malta

Valetta, as we were landing 
Hotel Intercontinental Beach Club
First, a short note about where we stayed. The  Diamond Suites in Malta are four floors of Intercontinental Hotel at  St.George’s Bay, St.  Julian’s.  Jingjing and I enjoyed a large studio with a balcony that looked out to man-made cascading waterfalls. A jug of refreshing water with lots of lemons always met us at the lobby. There is an enormous pool at the top floor where there is an excellent view of the town and the  Hotel Beach Club, a two-minute walk away. There were plenty of choices for dining and shopping at the mall in front.

A day after our cab tour of Malta, we turned our sights to Valletta, the capital of Malta. Less than a square kilometer in area, the city is the smallest national capital in the European Union.

Palace Square
Alas, we were not able to wake up early again so we could not get tickets for the Hypogeum. As luck would have it, another friendly cab driver took us, not to the tourists’ general drop point in the pedestrian-only UNESCO World Heritage Site, but to the closest side street accessible to residents. We only had to make a short walk to the Palace Square, the seat of government. A block away we found the Manoel Theatre, Europe's third-oldest working theatre, Malta's National Theatre. 

Cafe Cordina and the National Library
But it was St. John’s Cathedral, the famous baroque church, that we wanted to see. We smelled a great aroma from a nearby bakery/restaurant. True enough, we stumbled upon Caffé Cordina, the first Maltese tea shop that has grown to become a Maltese icon in the last 175 years. Just across the main walkway, in front of the National Library, are many tables where we could sit and dine. In the middle of the tables was the good-looking young man playing incredible music on a unique open piano. We promised to come back for late lunch after our tour of the Cathedral, which was just a couple ob blocks away.

St. John's Cathedral
St. .John Relic
At first we were disappointed; the façade was undergoing renovation! But when we found our way inside through a side door, we were impressed. The interior was in sharp contrast with the plain façade. It is extremely ornate and decorated in the height of the Baroque period. There are intricately carved stone walls, painted vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of St John. The ceiling paintings appear as three-dimensional statues due to the artist’s use of shadows and placement. The carvings, done in Maltese stone, were all done in-situ. The marble floor is an entire series of tombs, housing about 375 Knights.  The classic 1608 painting of Caravaggio, “Beheading of St. John the Baptist, hangs at the Oratory. Jingjing even found a first-class relic of St. John the Baptist, his forearm, at one of the museum rooms.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world's great cathedrals. It was built between 1573 and 1578, as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, known as the Knights of Malta. As the islands were much desired due to their strategic importance, its history is replete with many conquests by different regimes: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, French, Germans, and Spanish. In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Spain gave the islands to the Knights Hospitaller for which they had to pay an annual Tribute for its perpetual lease. These knights, a military, religious order, had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire in 1522.

street artist and her art
rabbit stew
As we had planned, after the tour of the cathedral, we went back for our late lunch at the tables of Caffe Codina. As we listened to romantic old goodies piano music, we slowly savored the famed stuffat tal-fenek, the full of flavor slowly-cooked rabbit stew for which Maltese cuisine is known. Satisfied with our meal, we went shopping for souvenirs in Valetta, encountering many street artists. Then we called our cab driver who had earlier volunteered to take us back to our hotel.


Maltese crosses for sale
When he arrived, he took us through the waterfront. He showed us the awesome view of the Three Cities of Malta, Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua. After the reign of the Knights of St. John, Napoleon ruled until the islands were surrendered to the British Empire. For the bravery of the Maltese during WWII,.King George VI gave the islands its national symbol, the eight-pointed Maltese cross that stands for the 8 obligations of the Knights (truth, faith, repent of sins, humility, justice, merciful, sincere and enduring persecution), Our driver also told us that on Nov. 27-29, 2015, the Commonwealth of Nations would meet in Birgu  for the turnover of the titular leadership from the Sri Lankan to the Maltese Prime Minister..  

Maltese Bread

Then our driver showed us the place where the cruise ships dock. When we asked about Maltese bread, he took us to a small store where the bread was sold on a side road on the way back to our hotel. He even told us that Malta was the venue of the first face-to-face encounter between US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, signaling the end of the Cold War. Cab drivers in Malta are, besides being kind, excellent English-speaking tour guides!  

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