The Beauty of Malta
Of all the countries I have visited total, Malta is still my absolute favorite place. I first visited Malta in January 2013 as a short holiday before I headed off to a new job in the Middle East. I honestly can't really remember what made me decide to visit Malta since it didn't really stand out in any particular way, but I just remember having a desire to visit.
Prior to visiting in 2013, Malta was a country that I had almost never heard about and knew virtually nothing about. The only thing I knew was that it was a small island nation south of Italy and north of Tunisia and that several famous artists in the 17th century hailed from the country. Other than that, I pretty much knew nothing else about Malta.
When I first arrived in the country from Vienna, Austria on Air Malta, I was not sure what to expect, but I knew shortly after arrival that I would be in for a special treat. The day I arrived happened to be a religious holiday. If I remember correctly, it was the Feast of St. Paul's Shipwreck. According to the story, while the apostle Paul was on the way to Rome, he was shipwrecked on what would later be known as Malta, and during his time here, he began to spread Christianity throughout the island in the 1st century. As a result, despite being the subject of conquests and colonization throughout its history, Malta is a heavily Catholic country where religious feast days are still big events that are celebrated throughout the island.
I had booked a hotel in Valletta, the capital, and on the day I arrived, the street to the hotel was blocked off. The taxi driver only told me that it was a holiday. However, at the time, I did not know what holiday it could be since it was past Christmas and Valentine's Day was still a few weeks away. Of course, there could have been some Maltese holiday that I didn't know about. Since it had been a long journey, I didn't press the driver for more information and just settled with his answer.
Since the taxi could not go any further, I got my stuff and walked the rest of the way. Luckily, it was not too far of a walk from where I got dropped off to the hotel. As I walked down the street with my rather large suitcase, the streets were absolutely packed with people with lots of ticker tape on the ground, fireworks occasionally being shot off, and a brass band playing lively tunes while marching in a procession. Eventually I reached my hotel and during check in, I asked the guy at the front desk what was going on. I was told it was the Feast of St. Paul's Shipwreck. Of course, I knew who St. Paul was, but I had never heard of a story of his shipwreck on the island let alone a particular feast day dedicated to it. Even though I was tired from the travel, I knew this was a once a year occurrence, and I might not have the opportunity again, so I immediately dropped my bags off in my room and went off with camera in hand. Little did I know that this would be my first taste of traditional Maltese culture.
As I made my way through the crowds down the street, I could hear the brass band playing, people applauding, and fireworks occasionally being shot. Eventually, I saw the focus of the religious festival. At the head of the procession was a huge and over life-size statue of St. Paul with his right arm outstretched being carried by a group of large guys on their shoulders. Every so often, the men would stop and move in such a way that made the giant statue of St. Paul look like it was blessing everyone in the crowd or waving. This often caused the crowd to break out in raucous applause and various upbeat chants. The procession then gradually made its way to the statue's home, the Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck. It was here that the loudest applause were heard and when most of the fireworks were set off. Once I saw that event, I knew that Malta was going to be a special place, and it certainly was.
The next morning, I was eager to get out and check things out. Based on what I had seen the previous night, I knew Malta was going to be unlike any place I had visited prior. Unlike last night which was filled with people and ticker tape, the streets were deserted save for some street cleaners sweeping up the huge amounts of leftover ticker tape. I made my way down the street to find the Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck open, and upon going inside, I found the same large statue of St. Paul in its place in the church. It was hard to believe that there had been a religious festival a few hours before. Everything was quiet and one would not have known there had been any major event here based on how orderly everything was. After checking out the church, I headed outside and continued to explore Valletta.
In a way, I was glad the streets were nearly deserted at this time. It allowed me to walk around in peace and find my way around without looking too lost. Luckily, Valletta is a very easy place to find your way around in, so it wasn't too difficult to get back on track. Plus, every wrong turn seemed to bring me to a new treasure or great photo op. As I explored the city, I found myself pleasantly surprised at what I saw. The city seemed almost frozen in time, or it at least seemed like the modern world had passed it by. It would not have been hard to imagine a tourist visiting this place in the 1940s or 1950s and seeing almost the exact same scene (picture at left) with almost nothing changed.
During my stay in Malta, I based myself in Valletta, but I also took a trip to Vittoriosa (Birgu), which is a small city essentially located opposite of Valletta across the Grand Harbor. I initially thought this was an extension of Valletta (it kind of is), and when I saw all of the historic architecture from across the harbor, I knew I had to check it out. When I arrived there via bus, I was not sure what to expect, but I had seen the skyline of Vittoriosa from the opposite end of the Grand Harbor, and I was definitely curious to see what I could find there.
As I explored Vittoriosa, I was most impressed by the large Church of St. Lawrence. While I was checking the place out, a middle-aged man who was in the church kept on eyeing me, and I had a feeling he was going to tell me not to take pictures. Sure enough, he approached and started to talk to me. Much to my surprise, he didn't tell me take pictures, but he actually encouraged it. I learned that he was a teacher and also served as an unofficial tour guide.
During our conversation, he took me over to one of the side altars and asked me to look at it. To me, it looked like a pretty standard altar from the 17th/18th century, but he grinned and said this was a special altar. He then reached toward the framed painting of Christ in the center of the altar that was apparently hinged. He deftly lifted it up to reveal a hidden compartment. He asked me if I knew what that was, and needless to say, I was stumped. He said that the secret compartment was used to hold relics of saints. During the year, the relics were kept in this secret compartment, but on religious holidays or festivals they were taken out and put on display. I never thought of that before, but now that I think about it, I would not be surprised if other churches from the same period throughout Europe had the same type of compartments. It made me wonder how many times I had visited historic churches to simply pass by these nondescript side altars without thinking there might be an actual hidden compartment behind some of the paintings. It was an interesting experience since I had never seen anything like that before during any of my travels.
While I continued to explore Vittoriosa, I also happened upon something relatively unique. Near the church of St. Lawrence was a "museum." In actuality, this "museum" was simply a smaller church next to the significantly larger one. The same middle-aged man led me there and let me look around. Even though he said it was a museum, it looked more like a storeroom for all kinds of liturgical and religious objects packed into a small chapel in a rather haphazard fashion. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the order. It was as if someone had just decided to put items wherever they fit and call it a "museum."
As I looked around the room, I was quite fascinated by what I saw since it really was a window into a type of religious practice that is rarely if ever practiced anymore by most people aside from maybe pockets of strict traditionalistsThere were reliquaries, chalices, flags (both Maltese and British), paintings, crucifixes, liturgical vestments, statues of saints and angels, the Virgin Mary, crowns, candelabras, and sedan chairs which were used by religious authorities in the 18th century as a form of transportation. It should be noted that it was clear these items were not particularly well-taken care of, but the disorganized nature of the collection and clear amounts of dust on many of the items gave the "museum" something of a quaint and charming appeal. I could not imagine this "museum" was open very often. Maybe I was a lucky visitor to get to see it?
Even though Vittoriosa was certainly impressive, by far the best treasure of Malta was exploring Mdina, which is west of Valletta. Getting to Mdina from Valletta was quite simple and only took about half an hour by public transportation. Since I wasn't sure how long it would take, I actually got to Mdina quite early in the morning, but it turned out to be perfect and quite fortuitous for me. When I got there, there were almost no people around. Therefore, I had the old city more or less to myself to explore. It was absolutely wonderful being able to wander the streets without seeing anyone else in sight. Of course, as the day went on, more and more tourists arrived, but by that time, I had had the opportunity to wander the old and narrow streets on my own without running into other tourists or tour groups.
Utlimately, Malta was quite unlike any place that I had been to prior or since then. The country has a Mediterranean island culture that still retains a traditional albeit easygoing manner of living. However, the thing that impressed me the most about Malta was its dearth of religious holidays. Religion obviously plays a big role in the lives of many Maltese, and this was evident since I later learned that there are major religious feasts and holidays that are publicly celebrated throughout the year, and I just happened to be there for one of the first major ones in January.
Although my stay in Malta was short, it was a place that I have always remembered, and it is one of the few places that I have visited that I would seriously consider relocating or retiring to in the future because of the reasonable prices and lifestyle. Seemingly out of the blue, I went to Malta not knowing what to see or expect, but I left more than satisfied. It is a truly unique country, and I certainly hope to return to in the future and maybe even live in one day for the long term.