Before I get to today’s travel post, congrats to Laura who is the winner of last week’s giveaway. I’ll be shipping her prize off to Canada later this week.
It’s a tad embarrassing to admit, but prior to planning our cruise last year I didn’t exactly know where Malta was. I’m pretty sure I didn’t realize it was an island either. Just in case any of you are equally clueless about it, here’s a map to put it in perspective for you.
Malta is about 50 miles south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s only 122 square miles in size but has a population around 475,000 making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. There are also three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and nearly 8,000 years of fascinating history crammed into those 122 square miles.
Maltese dogs are thought to have originated in Malta, and there really is such a thing as a Maltese Falcon (Falco peregrinus brookei). However, Maltesers (which are the British version of malted milk ball) are not related to Malta in any way. They are one of my favorites candies though (and are much tastier than Whoppers), and did you know that you can get them at Target now?
Anyway, fortunately Mr. Q has a much firmer grasp on both geography and history than I do. As soon as he saw that Malta was on our itinerary he suggested we figure out how to see as much of it as we could on our one day in port. So once again we hired a private guide. Joan Sheridan came highly recommended on TripAdvisor. We booked both Joan and her driver, Chris (who as it turned out is her husband), for the full day.
We’d heard that the sail in to Malta was quite lovely, so we got up early that morning so that we could watch it from the top deck.
We definitely weren’t disappointed, isn’t it a fascinating looking place already?
Joan and Chris met us just outside the pier area. We hopped in the car and took a small driving tour around the perimeter of Valletta, the capital of Malta, where we were docked. Then Chris dropped us off at the Upper Barrakka Gardens. It was incredibly convenient having a driver and a guide, we never had to worry about finding parking and the car always magically appeared to pick us up after touring each site we visited.
Although the gardens were pretty enough …
Joan had really brought us here for the panoramic view overlooking the Grand Harbor and Fort St. Angelo.
From there we headed towards Saint John’s Co-Cathedral on foot. Along the way, Joan took the opportunity to educate us about the Auberge that we passed by. An Auberge was a hostel that provided accommodations for the knights of the Order of Saint John.
The Auberge de Castille was completely rebuilt in the Spanish Baroque style between 1741 and 1744. Apparently the knights required some rather posh digs.
We also had the opportunity to check out some of the famous balconies of Valletta on our walk.
Ironically, even though I had no idea that Valletta was the capital of Malta (or even where Malta was), I had pinned a photo of the balconies of Valletta a couple of years ago. It was totally cool to find myself seeing them in person. If you want to learn more about these balconies, check out this link.
You can see a glimpse of the Co-Cathedral at the end of that street above.
I wasn’t terribly impressed by the rather plain exterior, and I have to say both Mr. Q and I were skeptical about spending much time seeing a cathedral.
And by the way, I had no idea why everyone kept calling it a Co-Cathedral so I finally asked Joan why that was. Apparently when there is more than one cathedral in a diocese, the 2nd one is called a Co-Cathedral. In this case, the original cathedral for this diocese is in Mdina (which we’ll visit in next Wednesday’s post).
I also have to mention that this was just one of many instances during our tour of Malta where it really paid off to have an experienced tour guide. There was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets and get inside, and Joan took us to the head of the line and slipped us right in with pre-purchased tickets. She knew that large tour groups would be showing up soon and she wanted us to see as much as we could before the church became crowded.
Clearly the incredibly ornate interior more than makes up for that plain exterior, huh? That will teach me to judge a book by its cover!
The ceiling was painted with scenes from the life of John the Baptist by Mattia Preti in the 1660’s.
There are nine chapels around the perimeter of the church, each one was sponsored by a specific division of the knights, and each one attempted to out-do the others with ever more elaborately gilded decoration. Those knights were a competitive bunch, always wanting to have the most impressive auberge or the best chapel.
However, the real pièce de résistance of the Co-Cathedral is in yet another room.
This is Caravaggio’s painting depicting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. It was painted in 1608 and is the largest painting he did at 12′ x 17′. Caravaggio was most famous for his use of chiaroscuro (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) and this painting is brilliant example of that. Honestly, this painting was breathtaking in person. I know my photo does not do it justice.
While we studied the painting, Joan told us about the tumultuous life of Caravaggio. He ended up in Malta in 1607 after fleeing Italy and a death sentence for murdering someone in a brawl. He was hoping to secure a pardon for his crime. However, he didn’t change his brawling ways and was arrested and jailed for assaulting someone else in Malta in 1608. But somehow he managed to create that beautiful painting in between skirmishes.
After being rather overwhelmed by the interior of the Co-Cathedral, we needed a breather. We stopped off at Caffe Cordina next for a delicious cup of coffee.
Believe it or not we weren’t even halfway through our day in Malta yet. Chris picked us up at the end of the street (this cafe is in a pedestrian only area) and next we headed off to see the Blue Grotto. But I’m going to save that, along with the rest of our visit to Malta for next week.
In the meantime, I have a desk do-over to share on Friday so be sure to check back!