We began a week-long World Affairs cruise of the Mediterranean with a short flight to the small island country of Malta, which sits in a historically strategic location in the Mediterranean sea. This tiny island country has been inhabited for over 5,000 years, and has been settled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Spanish, French, and British, not to mention the pre-historic communities who left behind the world’s oldest free-standing stone structures. Malta’s culture and language are thus a unique mixture of many influences.
Read on and check out the photo gallery.
We arrived a day early and spent several hours wandering the center of Valleta, the capital city. Our first stop was the Saint John’s Co-Cathedral built by the Maltese Knights Hospitaller, aka The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, a medieval and early modern Catholic military order. This same group was responsible for the construction of the impressive fortifications that form the historic city of Valleta.
The interior of the church is elaborately decorated in baroque style, and the audio tour describes the history of both the art and of the knights who founded the church and oversaw Malta for generations. I was impressed by the art but struck by the amount of violence represented in both the art and their history. The church is presently displaying some lovingly restored paintings by Caravaggio, including his impressive and stunning portrayal of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
We ate lunch at Ambrosia Bistro, with its delightfully quirky interior (mirrors on the ceiling) and delicious menu of Maltese and Italian meals made with local ingredients. Many in our party raved about the quality of the food and wine. Highly recommended!
I spent the afternoon strolling the streets, exploring the fortifications at the edge of the harbor, pondering the many centuries of battle and strife experienced by this tiny but strategic island. If I’d had more time, I would have explored the war museum, reputed to be fascinating. Right now, I was intrigued by the narrow alleys, the street-corner carvings of saints and other catholic figures, and the overhanging second-story bay windows. These colorfully painted windows date to the early Arabic settlers, whose screened balconies influenced early Maltese architectural practice.
The cruise began with a bus tour of some key sites in and around Valleta, with an emphasis on pre-historic civilization. Our first stop was Ħaġar Qim, nearly 5,700 years old, a dramatic hilltop temple made entirely of huge limestone blocks. Little is known about the people who constructed this and other pre-historic temples of Malta, but it clearly indicates a sophisticated culture capable of coordinated construction. These temples are the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world.
Our next stop was Tarxien Temples, about 5,250 years old. This site included insights about the construction, including stones carved spherical to use as rollers for moving huge blocks, indications of the temples’ use for animal sacrifice, and numerous carved reliefs and figurines.
We drove on to the National Museum of Archaeology to see many of the artifacts recovered from these sites, with our guide expertly explaining the details and significance of each. What a difference a good guide makes!
We tracked down the secret entrance to the Rampila restaurant, which is entered through a tunnel under the ancient city walls, with a cafe tucked into a balcony overlooking the dry moat and nestled under a set of olive trees. Another fine meal, including the likes of Maltese Rabbit (a local specialty), a delicate ravioli with truffle sauce, and an octopus carpaccio, matched with a delightfully light rosé.
After lunch we pressed through the crowds of tourists along Republic Street and stopped by Amorino Gelato, to sample some of their delicious flavors and to experience their floral-shaped cone service. I have to admit, though, I still think Morano Gelato (of Hanover NH) is better!
We embarked mid-afternoon on Ponant Cruises’ newest ship, Le Bougainville, just in time to see the ritual “cannon salute” from the high battery overlooking the harbor, then set sail as the sun set over the golden-yellow limestone walls of Valleta. This beautiful ship is only five months old, and sleeps only about 190 passengers, so it has a comfortable and cozy feel. We’re cruising overnight to Catania, Sicily, where we hope to see Mount Etna and explore Syracuse.
Be sure to check out the photo gallery.