Malta’s Grand Harbour & Three Cities

Three Cities is used to describe Malta’s three historical, fortified cities of Birgu (Virtiosia), Senglea and Cospicua. Birgu has existed since the Middle Ages. A friendly boat man aboard a sleek, traditional Maltese water taxi, called a “dghajsa”, was always quick to offer me a ride across the harbor. During these rides to and from the Three Cities across one of Europe’s grandest harbors, I often felt like I was traversing the Grand Canal in Venice on a gondola (see photo of the dghajsa) for the mere price of 5 Euros.

Fort St. Angelo, in Birgu, with its commanding position at the entrance to Grand Harbour, has a fascinating air raid shelter which was used during WWII to house and protect hundreds of people. Strategically placed directional arrows kept me from getting lost in the underground labyrinth. I passed through long tunnels of stone walls. Accommodations for people on bunks with ten to a room made the international hostels I stay in when traveling look like palaces.

Among the narrow, winding streets of Birgu stood the impressive, stone Inquisitor’s Palace, now a museum. It was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 to 1798 with the center of power accountable directly to the Pope. Its purpose was to quell the dissidents of modern ‘heretical’ teachings.

Malta has had Jews on its shores since 9th century B.C. Jewish families arrived from Spain in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition. Eventually many were forced to convert to Christianity during the Maltese Inquisition.

The numerous interior passageways I explored were the result of centuries of renovations and additions. The opulent residence of the inquisitor and the tribunal court upstairs were in stark contrast to the tiny, cold basement cells where subjects under investigation were imprisoned. The Inquisitor’s Palace left me with a shiver and a heavy heart as I imagined what went on behind those walls over the centuries.

I finished the day with a visit to an outdoor cafe for some people watching in the charming Birgu Square near the Inquisitor’s Palace. The square was surrounded by an eclectic mix of lovely historic buildings. The city of Birgu was indeed fascinating, I thought.

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Introducing Malta, Valletta

The Maltese Islands are located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily, Italy, and the North African coast. The island nation is a *Commonwealth nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers over the centuries. It has numerous fortresses, megalithic temples, and ancient burial chambers. The Maltese language is a dialect of Arabic and includes a significant percentage of Italian and English vocabulary. All this, along with the use of Euro currency and the ubiquitous presence of water, were a continual reminder to me during my travels around the country that the Maltese Islands are strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Africa.

The teeming, picturesque port town of Sliema on Malta island, the main island of the Malta archipelago, was my jumping off point to explore the Capital city of Valletta, and the neighboring historic Three Cities in Grand Harbour (my next posting). I made myself at home in a charming little hostel in Sliema located up a narrow street from the town’s lively waterfront where I ate out nightly. At times I felt like I was in “Little Italy” (such as in Boston or Providence) because of the ubiquitous presence of Sicilian bakeries and restaurants with a decided Italian flair.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning as I made my way to the deck of a small ferry for a short ride across Marsamxett Harbour to the historic city of Valletta. As Sliema’s wide waterfront boardwalk disappeared in the distance, the commanding bastion walls of Valletta came nearer, enticing me to explore the cultural treasures within. The walled city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed almost five centuries ago by the **Order of St. John, a Roman Catholic order. They started as hospitaliers to protect Christians and became a powerful force.  The Order was a vassal state of the Kingdom of Sicily from 1530 – 1798.  The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights’ stature as aristocrats from noble European families.

Upon disembarking the ferry, I fell into step with other passengers onto a steep, wide street and through an opening in the stone walls. A grid-like plan of narrow streets where 16th century and ***modernist architecture lined the streets, eventually opening to the heart of the old city at the ruins of the Royal Opera House with its monumental pillars. Left in ruins following WWII, it is now a popular open air theatre.

Nearby, just inside Valletta’s landmark City Gate was the meeting point for a free walking tour. Our guide, Oliver, was a knowledgeable, young, Maltese man who works for tips. He told stories behind some of the old stone buildings with their traditional timber balconies, and related history of palaces and grand churches within the city walls. Later I returned to a cozy seafood restaurant which Oliver had pointed out as a local favorite, and dined on savory local seafood at a bargain price.

Fort Saint Elmo, built in the 16th century, is integrated into Valletta’s city wall. The fort’s ramparts offered dramatic views of Grand Harbour and Three Cities with their fortresses and miles of fortification walls.

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*Commonwealth – an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire

**Order of St. John – became known as the Knights of Malta

***Modernist architecture has little or no ornamentation, with clean lines and functionality

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Exploring Malta Island – Mdina & Rabat

My first view of the dramatic citadel of Mdina perched high on a hill in the middle of Malta Island took my breath away. At that moment I knew that I had to experience the wonder of the place by day and night, which could only be accomplished by staying overnight there, which I did. Little did I know at the time about some of the history that lurked behind its fortified walls for me to discover – such as the old Jewish Silk Road where the market is said to have taken place before the Inquisition, and the medieval museum houses of wealthy merchants filled with artifacts.

Mdina served as the island’s capital from antiquity to the medieval period. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 8th century BC and then later taken over by the Romans in 218BC. Mdina and part of the neighboring town of Rabat (derived from the Arabic word for “suburb”) were built on top of the ancient Roman city of Melete. A succession of rulers after the fall of the Roman Republic included the Arabs. The walled city with its narrow, maze-like streets, still has features of a medina which is a legacy of Arab rule.

By the 16th century the population of the suburb of Rabat outgrew that of Mdina, and has remained so to this day. The liveliness I felt as I walked around Rabat’s streets with its restaurants and cafes in full swing, inside and out, was in stark contrast to the quiet streets of Mdina which I felt compelled to leave at sunset because of a foreboding feeling of desolation that ensued when all the tourists left for the day.

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Mdina is magical.

Palazzo Falson was a beautifully preserved medieval mansion. Later, during some research of the place, I learned it is believed that the dining and kitchen area of the house were part of the synagogue structure where the Mdina Jewish community worshiped (before the Inquisition).

I climbed over, along, and around the wide fortified stone walls that encircled the town enjoying stunning views of the valley below, often getting lost along the way. Getting lost was a blessing because that is how I found the archaeological museum which was tucked away on a tiny street behind an imposing door. Once inside the museum I passed through inner passageways and hidden rooms while delving into the history of Mdina up to the time of the Phoenicians.

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My discoveries in Rabat, just outside Mdina’s fortified walls, were as fascinating as inside.

St. Paul’s Catacombs, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 7th century AD, were located down the street from the Rabat’s central historic square, Plaza San Pawl. I prowled through interconnected passages and tombs and found drawings of (Jewish) menorahs etched into stone. The ruins of Domus Romana (Roman villa) near the entrance to Mdina revealed the remains of a well-preserved mosaic floor.

Life in Plaza San Pawl was interesting to observe. On one side of the square in front of a building with a huge sign directing tourists to St. Paul’s Catacombs, groups of men of all ages gathered. Some men stood and chatted; others rested on benches watching the world (of tourists) go by. On another side of the square an outdoor cafe was often packed with well-healed people taking in a bit of sun on a clear, seasonally- cool day.

One afternoon I stopped to eat Maltese cuisine at an unpretentious eating establishment owned by the Maltese Labour Party. It was full of local people. A double rainbow hovered over a lovely setting around an old stone church just outside its windows. I lingered longer than normal, soaking in the local atmosphere and the view. The food was exceptional; the price was right. I returned for more the following day.

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It took two days and one night to experience much of what Mdina and Rabat had to offer the tourist. What a treasured experience it was!

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Malta Island – Marsaxlokk Fishing Village

A visit to the Malta archipelago is not complete without a visit to the colorful Sunday Marsaxlokk Fish Market in the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk on the southeast coast of Malta Island.

I disembarked from a bus, along with a busload of foreigners, after a 15 minute ride from Valletta, near Marsaxlokk’s main square. Marsaxlokk Parish church, which dominates the square, was built in the late 1800’s. A busy outdoor cafe was opposite. Church service had just finished and worshipers were pouring out of the church entrance, gradually contributing to a mob scene in the square.

The nearby bustling fish market sprawled along Marsalokk’s colorful waterfront. Inhabited since antiquity, Marsaxlokk was used as a port by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and also has the remains of a Roman-era harbor. The whole harbor area was systematically fortified over successive centuries, with towers, batteries and fortresses ringing Marsaxlokk Bay.

In addition to the numerous fish stalls in the market, piles of colorful fresh fruit and vegetables were being sold alongside stalls selling clothing and handcrafts. Some artists who were deep into their artwork, displayed their paintings for sale around them. The fish stalls appeared to be the busiest of all.

There were moments when I felt like I was observing a quaint fishing port on a Greek Island. Colorful Luzzu, traditional Maltese fishing boats, were anchored in the sheltered inner harbor. Specific colors were used for the mustache of the fishing boats to allow for easy recognition of their place of origin.

I sat down on one of the benches which was anchored along the narrow, cluttered boardwalk. I proceeded to eat some of the oranges, bananas, kiwis and mangoes I had purchased from a local vendor, while observing fishermen intently cleaning and repairing their nets. Some men were line fishing from the boardwalk.

For the first time during my three months of winter European travels, I took off my scarf and jacket and reveled in the warm Mediterranean sun. The delicious fruit, the eclectic atmosphere, and the warmth of the sun, all made me feel like there is no other place in the world that I wanted to be that moment.

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Finding Malta Island’s Coastal Treasures

The next day I planned to explore coastal areas of the island by bus. As I was heading for the bus stop in Slima where I was staying, a woman named Vivian who turned out to be someone I had met in my dorm room, leaned out of a car window and asked if I wanted to join her and her two friends for a day of island exploration. I gratefully nodded and got in.

The day was one of delight and exploration with three new international acquaintances – Vivian from Germany, Joel from Malaysia, and Roger from the Canary Islands. My limited Spanish came into play that day as I made every effort to communicate with Roger whose command of the English language was very limited.

Crossing the center of the island on nice paved roads on the way to the Blue Grotto on the southeast coast, we enjoyed jaw-dropping views of the ancient Capitol city of Mdina. As we approached the coastline we stopped to explore the vicinity of the dramatic prehistoric Hagar Qim Temples. On foot we followed an occasional dirt path, and then skirted over rugged, rocky areas when the path disappeared.

The stone megaliths of Hagar Qim have been standing on a Maltese hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for over 5000 years. The Maltese Islands went through a golden Neolithic period (3200BC), the remains of which are thirteen preserved megalith stone temples. Six of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (More about others on the Maltese Island of Gozo in a subsequent posting)

The Blue Grotto consists of a number of sea caverns in which rays of sunlight lead to the seawater mirroring numerous shades of blue on the cave walls and ceilings. It is a popular place for locals and tourists to visit by boat.

We reveled in the warm winds that blew off the sea as we alighted from our car. The coastline was magnificent that day with surf crashing against the rugged rocks. Clear blue skies enhanced the setting. Small, colorful boats lined the ramp to the put-in area for cave visits. Unfortunately the strong winds had churned up the water to such a point around the grotto that all boat trips had been canceled that day.

Perched on the rocky coastline nearby was a fortification tower dating back to the middle ages. This was one of the twelve coastal towers which constituted the island’s coastal defense network during the time of the knights (1530 to 1798). We passed several of various sizes and degrees of renovation during our island exploration that day.

The Victoria Lines

After a half hour of following dirt roads and coming up against numerous dead ends, we found a decent section of the Victoria Lines, a rugged defense wall, to climb on. The Victoria Lines were built along a fault line across the middle of the island during British Empire Rule (1800-1964). They were finished in 1897.

I followed a dirt path along the ridge for a short while until the crumbling condition of the wall beneath my feet, coupled with a sheer drop from a narrow part of the pathway, propelled me to turn around and return to our starting point. The others braved that precarious section and joined me later. Together we relaxed on a stone bench while taking in the peaceful surroundings, complete with a stunning island view and blooming wild flowers.

We decided to end our day’s outing dining in a town we never heard of, just for the adventure. A lovely little town called Zebbiegh in the middle of the island produced several good restaurant choices. A meal which included pasta was served to us with utmost care.

As the sun set, we drove back to Sliema on a bumpy, narrow road. Driving on the left side of the road, a legacy of the former British Colony, didn’t come into play here as it had all day because the road was so narrow.

The next morning I made plans with Vivian and Roger to meet them in a couple of days on the Maltese Island of Gozo. They had booked an apartment with a balcony overlooking the sea through Airbnb for one night. They invited me to stay with them and split the cost ($10 per person).

I was moved since they seemed oblivious to both our age difference and that we were almost total strangers.  But I have learned over the years that it is typical of international independent travelers to overlook these two factors.  It is one of the treasures of independent travel.

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