Opportunity: the sabbatical program I'm part of in Rome is in four "modules," and each module includes a retreat. I'll take part in the retreat that goes with the fourth module, so I decided to skip the retreat in module two.
Also, while flying to Malta would be complicated from the U.S., it's easy from Rome. Would I ever get here any other way?
Another reason is I wanted to be someplace sunny and perhaps warm if possible. North Africa would be warmer, but my options there were Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Only the latter seems safe. Malta seemed safer.
A fourth reason is Malta's history. It's full of it. The Phoenicians dropped anchor in Malta's remarkable harbors; Saint Paul shipwrecked here. This nation withstood Arabic conquest, was liberated by the Normans, heroically withstood the wrath of Suleiman the Magnificant in the great seige of AD 1565, was home base for the great Hospitaller Knights, was plundered by Napoleon for his war in Egypt, was a key asset in the British Empire, and was besieged once again during the Second World War. Now Malta is free, and is glowing gem of Catholicism in the brilliant blue Mediterranean.
Yesterday I prowled around the fortress capital of Valletta, named after the Knight of Saint John who led Malta's victorious resistance to the Ottoman fleet. Here are some highlights that intrigued me, and may entertain you.
This is the great co-cathedral of Saint John. It has two paintings by the great Caravaggio. I arrived here hungry for lunch, so I decided to eat before paying the fee for the tour. As it happened, I ended up wandering so much, that I didn't get back here until past closing time. I have at least two more good opportunities: Friday afternoon there's a Carnivale parade nearby, and Sunday high Mass at 9:15 am.
Meanwhile, note the curious clocks on the right. If you look closely, you'll see the lower two indicate the days of the month and the days of the week.
While lunching on what was described as a traditional Maltese sandwich of tuna and tomato and olives, a street preacher I'd seen further up the street came by. You can see him in the background wearing signboards. He told us that God loves us all, especially atheists, that there is no purgatory and that our Lord is coming soon. No one seemed to mind him and a few took his pamphlet; eventually he moved back up the street. I didn't mind him either; and I'm gratified to see this expression of freedom of religion, although I hope he merely succeeds partially, of course.
I couldn't make out the name of this church, as it was in Maltese, but it had exposition of the Holy Eucharist. So I came in for a few moments. After taking one picture, I carefully set down my iPad to pray. Unfortunately, the top of the pew wasn't level as it seemed, and a moment later my iPad clattered on the floor. The devoted sister ahead of me didn't twitch a muscle.
Here's the information I saw on the outside. Note the mention of Venerable Mother Margerita de Brincat. (FYI, Malta has been favored four papal visits: three by Pope Blessed John Paul II, and one by Benedict XVI as part of the Year of Saint Paul. On one of his visits, John Paul II beatified three Maltese.)
One of the things that makes Malta an easy place to visit is the widespread use of English, thanks to its time in the British Empire. One of the amusing things, however, has been the odd use of English in many signs and menus. For example, a clothing store near my hotel is called "Original Marine" with a stylized U.S. flag logo. Nothing in the store has anything to do with the Marines, or anything nautical -- it's clothing for kids and young adults.
Even more amusing were menus which included random references to American place names. One offered "Mississippi wings" with "Louisiana sauce," and also "Buffalo wings" with "Long Island sauce." I suppose we should be flattered.
Here, however, is a menu that was amusing on purpose. I was going to have dinner here last night, but my peregrinations took me elsewhere. I hope to get back. (You should be able to click on this to make it larger.)
Here's another menu, illustrating some curious references to places and people:
While digging in the amusing sights file, I saw this on the front of Saint Augustine Church. Make of it what you will:
Speaking of churches...Malta is 96-98% Catholic, and reportedly has 365 churches. So I came upon several yesterday. Here's the exterior of Saint Paul Shipwreck Church:
I'm sorry I couldn't get the whole facade, but the streets are narrow; I'd backed up as far as I could. Also, no inside pictures were allowed. But it was gorgeous.
To give you a flavor of what these churches look like inside, here's San Domenico:
And here's Saint Dominic himself:
The whole church was decorated with this splendor!
My great interest in Malta -- and Valletta in particular -- is the history. After the Ottoman seige ended, the Knights went to work building the city and surrounding it with fortifications. This story is part of a film called "The Malta Experience," which served as a worthwhile introduction to Malta. While waiting for the 3 pm showing, I sat on a patio overlooking the great harbor. Unfortunately, I simply can't get it all in one shot:
Exhausted from my labors, I fortified myself with a beer.
My strength regained, I ventured downstairs for the film. Here's the corridor, leading us deep into the fortress:
After the film, the ticket included a tour of what was the Knight's hospital; at the time, one of the best in Europe. They figured out that silver seemed to avoid spreading illness, so all the plates, bowls and cutlery were sterling silver. They had a lovely interior garden filled with orange trees, which now is a theater (the hospital is now a venue for conferences and receptions and so forth). Here's the upper hall, which the upper class used:
This is the lower chamber for commoners, now set up for events; it runs the same length as the Knights' chamber, directly above. The guide noted that this section had an advantage: they could walk out into the garden I described earlier.
Remember I told you that Carnivale takes place this coming weekend? I chanced upon one of the floats being decorated:
While walking about, I noticed some police and folks in military uniforms, as well as some stands set up in a public square. I asked a police officer about it. He explained the stands were set up for the Carnivale parade on Friday evening; and that the large building on the left of this photo is the Parliament. You can see some of the police and military personnel in the photo.
There seemed to be a lot of officiousness going on; I wondered what was up. A few minutes later, I figured it out when I saw a procession with police escort coming down the street. After powering up my iPad and getting the stupid password in, I snapped this absurd photo of the mysterious bigwig:
If you are getting the sense I was wandering a lot, you're right. It was getting late, but not late enough for dinner -- restaurants don't open for dinner till 7 pm, and I was a bus-ride away from my hotel. Around 6, I decided not to wander about for another hour and gave up on the interesting pizza restaurant, and stepped into another place which was thankfully open; only to find it would soon be closing! I'd already ordered something, so I ate that and decided to head back to my hotel. That was my first outing in Valletta.