Malta – Valletta and the Knights of St. John

In 1530, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, gave the Island of Malta to the Knights of St. John in exchange for a single falcon, to be paid annually to the Viceroy of Sicily. The falcon was a token. The real exchange was that the Knights would hold Malta as a strategic front against Turkish incursion into Europe. Did you know all this while growing up watching Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon? I did not.

At any rate, having nowhere else to go after their recent expulsion by the Turks from the Isle of Rhodes, the Knights settled on what they felt was a bit of a barren rock in the middle of the Mediterranean. Thirty-five years later, the Knights, together with the inhabitants of their diminutive island, held off a Turkish invasion against overwhelming odds in what became known as The Great Siege, effectively protecting France, Spain, and Italy from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire.

Having achieved such a dramatic and visible victory, the knights decided that Malta was definitively home. The king of Spain sent money, the pope sent his favorite architect, and the Knights built their new capital, Valletta, out of the glory of victory and the gifts of a grateful continent.

It’s a tiny city, built on a rocky promontory. On any street corner in Valletta, it’s likely that you can gaze down to the end of the street in two, maybe three directions, and glimpse the blue Mediterranean not too many blocks away. Like the rest of the island, the city seems to live in several centuries at once. This giant Christmas tree, made of traditionally blown Maltese glass, stands against the backdrop of the Parliament building, which is constructed from the same beautiful light-coloured limestone as the rest of the city, but in a dramatic modern style.

The top item on my itinerary for any city is its cathedral. And Valletta was no exception. While the exterior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral is austere, the inside is a burst of gilt Baroque embellishments, and the floor is covered in intricate inlaid polished marble.

In fact, I spent as much time looking down as looking up in this cathedral. Stiletto heels are not permitted in the church, to preserve the marble floor, which tells a colourfully detailed story, and Check out this angel, who looks like he would be equally at home in a Tintin comic.

There’s one chapel dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament, but the other eight commemorate the eight langues (tongues) roughly corresponding to the socio-linguistic groups represented by the Order of St. John. For example, here’s St. Michael the Archangel between those gloriously twisted pillars in the chapel of Provence.

The cathedral also houses Caravaggio’s spectacular Beheading of St. John the Baptist, of which photos were understandably not allowed. By way of trivia, this is the only painting that Caravaggio ever actually signed; he scrawled his name in the blood issuing from John’s throat. Malta witnessed some of the most colourful episodes of the painter’s rather chiaroscuro life. In the very oratory where his painting hangs, he was inducted as a knight, and then after one or another sordid event, was defrocked in absentia before his own painting while a fugitive from justice.

While I lingered with Caravaggio, the rest of the family was eating lunch in the shadow of the cathedral. I made it out in time for some fabulous octopus,

And a quaint organ grinder performance of Hallelujah.

After lunch we visited the Palace of the Grand Master (ruler of the island in the time of the Knights), which houses a fairly extensive armoury.

And yes, as you can see here, we did manage to get Lyra in to everything except the cathedral by carrying her like a baby in a new scarf bought for the occasion.

Our final sightseeing stop was Ft. Elmo, built at the very tip of the promontory in the 15th century. It reminded me a bit of Fort Augustine in Florida, but on a much grander scale.

The fort houses a spectacularly good museum focused on Malta’s long military history. Here we are with the Faith, one of three small biplanes that held off the 1940 Italian air bombardment for three weeks until British forces arrived.

Malta was once again under siege for much of WWII (in fact, check out Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for “Siege of Malta”, and you’ll get a pretty good overview of the island’s history, which largely consists of being under siege for its highly strategic location), and its inhabitants held out so bravely that in 1942 King George VI awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award of bravery for civilians, to the entire island of Malta. While Malta eventually broke with the UK and became an independent republic, reminders of the British period remain in abundance.

Merry Christmas from beautiful Malta!