An 8 Hour
My flight from Rome
was delayed owing to adverse weather conditions. Coming from Europe, at that
time, was a nightmare called snowstorm! So, a 10-hour stop for a connecting
flight to Cairo was exactly what I needed, to enjoy some of the nice weather
that the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta promised to offer.
10:00am: The 10-hour stop was already reduced
to a mere 8-hour escape from the airport. Still, I had to keep the promise
that I made to myself when I was an avid reader of the Italian writer
Umberto Eco. I had to see the land of the mythic religious order of the
Knights of Malta, who are mentioned in one of his most famous books – and
my favorite one - entitled The Focault’s Pendulum. The birth of the
Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Order or Knights of St. John, dates
back to the XI century with when their goal was giving hospitality to
pilgrims and sick persons in the Holy Land. When Pope Pascal II approved
their foundation, the religious order also became a military one, in defense
of the territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Muslims. The
Order actually formally took control of Malta only in 1530, after escaping
from the Holy Land in 1291 when the Christian stronghold fell, and then from
the island of Rhodes when the Ottoman Sultan Soliman the Magnificent forced
them to abandon the island.
10:30am: Eventually my flight landed at the
Maltese airport of Valletta. After passing through the quick passport
control, I managed to take Bus no.8 that connects the airport to the
island’s capital, Valletta. What a relief, busses leave daily from 6:00am
till 9:00pm every twenty minutes and quickly take you to the capital for a
pleasant and relaxing visit. This tiny Mediterranean island, in fact, is
part of an archipelago that measures only 316 Km2 (the island Malta 246 Km2,
the island of Gozo 67 km2 and the island of Comino 2,7 Km2). From southeast
to northeast the island measures about 27 km, while from east to west it
measures only 14,5 km.
The view from the bus window is astonishing.
White, yellow and brown-sand are the predominant colors of a landscape
characterized by an interminable expanse of little houses built in the best
Armed with the cheapest guidebook I could buy
at the airport, and a little brochure called “A Walking Tour of
Valletta,” I began to feed myself with the history of this old city.
Valletta is supposed to be an amazing labyrinth of historical sites and I
wanted to discover the place where the Knights of Malta began their
In the guide I read: “Brother Jean de la
Valette, Grand Master of the religious Order of Hospitallers of Jerusalem,
remembering the danger of which the Knights (of Malta) and the people of
Malta had been exposed during the siege laid to them by the Turks the
previous year (1565). On Thursday 28 March laid the first stone of the City
on the hill known locally as Sceberras and, having bestowed on it as a coat
of arms a golden lion on a red field, expressed the desire that it should
bear his name – Valetta.” This is the inscription found on one of the
foundation stones in the city. The Maltese capital was founded by Knight
Jean de la Vallette, Grand Master of the religious Order of Hospitallers os
Saint John of Jerusalem. This old military and religious order, otherwise
known as the Knights of St. John and later the Knights of Malta, was given
control of the entire island by Emperor Charles V in 1530 after the Turks
expelled them from the island of Rodi.
The fear that the Turks would return was
strong enough to speed up completion of the fortified city. Less than one
hundred years later, in 1657, another part of Mount Sceberras was covered by
a system of fortifications, strengthening those of Valletta. The entire
width of Mount Sceberras was surrounded by massive fortifications. The only
access to the town was by a gate with a drawbridge. Each new Grand Master
undertook the building either of a small fort or the reinforcement of an
existing one. Valletta became one of the most strongly fortified cities in
the Mediterranean region and the Turks never again dared to undertake a
major offensive against the Knights of St Johns.
As soon as I reached the central bus station,
just outside Valletta’s main gate, I noticed that streets run straight as
an arrow and form 90-degree right angles. In fact, the town is like a hump
with streets running straight down into the sea and crossed here and there
by unexpected stairways. On the sides of these streets old houses bear
exotic flowered balconies. The architecture is European, but what really
grabs your attention are the balconies covered with windows that resemble
the Arabic architecture of the traditional “Mashrabiyya” balconies. A
sense of displacement overwhelms you when you walk in these streets whose
improbable architecture produces a unique design proper of the Mediterranean
I soon decide to move towards the sidewalk
near the sea. The landscape from the Lower Baracca Gardens leaps before your
eyes and transmits the fortified spirit of this city. Fort St. Angel,
overlooking the Grand Harbor, and Fort St. Elmo, situated in the tip of
Valletta, are only two of the most admirable examples of Maltese
architecture. Constructed entirely in white stone, they stand out of the
blue sea like unshakeable guardians fighting for the safety of the city.
The little brochure that the tourist office
gave me turned out to be really helpful. Following the little map included
in its pages, the imposing Auberges soon grasped my attention. During their
stay in Rhodes, the Knights adopted the custom of grouping their members
depending on the language they spoke – eight in all. They could live in
their own inns, or Auberges, where they had their own lodgings and where
they could also hold meetings to celebrate their respective national
festivities. When Valletta was built and became the headquarters of the
Knights of St. Johns, it was necessary to build these refuges for the
soldiers, to let them rest after a long day of work. Out of the eight
languages that made up the Knights, seven were represented in Malta and
grouped in the seven Auberges of Valletta.
The Auberge of Castille, Leon and Portugal is
one of the few that remained almost untouched since it was built. Its
massive façade overlooks the main city entrance and continues to provide
safety for the peaceful inhabitants of the city.
1:00pm: Valletta is a very small city, lots
of history and knights, and… two and a half hours is more than enough time
to taste the importance of its historical heritage and the value of its
noble guardians. But it is definitely not enough to taste its traditional
cuisine, based on the Mediterranean diet. My guidebook suggests that I try a
thick vegetable gnp1033 minestra (soup), an aljiotta (fish soup laced with
garlic), a kapunata (the Maltese version of ratatouille), a bigilla (a
thick pate of broad beans with garlic), or roasted rabbit, a Maltese
delicacy. I am definitely hungry and need to relax, so like the
Knights from yesteryear, I make my way to my own Auberge. A restaurant just
around the corner of Great Siege Square located in the city center suggests
and white vine. While sitting at the table, I
discover that pastizzi is a little cake, served warm and stuffed with
ricotta-like cheese. Lampuki is fish cooked in a sauce of olives, onions
garlic and capes. They taste--and smell--really nice, especially the
fish, whose meat is so softly prepared that it literally melts in your
mouth. I ask the waiter what kind of fish this is. He replies: ”It is
lampuki, a special kind of fish that we eat in Malta.” Then, he shows me a
coin representing the fish. I am slightly horrified. This fish really looks
like a cute, innocent dolphin! I abruptly end our conversation, pay my
bill--a very reasonable one--and leave the restaurant trying to convince
myself that the guy who designed the coin was not familiar with what fish
3:00pm: It is
definitely time for some shopping. My guidebook suggests some more food,
best purchased in the old-world shops in Valletta narrow streets. A good
choice would be to pick up one of the many local deli treats, made from
olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Or, if you want something that lasts
longer, the intricate, filigree silverware or art work from one of the
island’s renowned artists. I’ll go for the renowned handicrafts,
especially the ones representing the colorful luzzu, the traditional Maltese
boat whose bow is decorated with two little blue and yellow eyes. They help
protect the sailors from bad luck.
5:00pm: There is only enough time left for
one more thing. I want to sit in one of the local cafes or bistros and sip a
cup of good coffee while the glow of the sunset bathes the town. These
popular meeting places in Malta are normally busy with young people,
drinking their cups of coffee or glasses of local wine, in an atmosphere
that very much resembles an old Italian or French winery. They sit for hours
chatting in their amazing language. Of Semitic origin, it is now written in
Latin script and includes words derived from Arabic, English, Italian and
time to leave now. I’ll have to catch the No. 8 bus back to the airport.
My eight-hour escape allowed me to discover an island that is much more than
a quick holiday get-away. Instead, I have found an oasis where culture
and history blend together to transport the visitor to the mythic time of
the belligerent Knights of Malta.
The easiest way to
reach the island is flying Air Malta, the national airline company. Their
aircrafts reach the Luqa International Airport of Valletta twice per week,
on Monday and Thursday.
The Malta Tourism
Authority (MTA) runs a wonderful web site at www.visitmalts.com.
Their interactive map is an amazing adventure in which the arrow of your
mouse can play with a zoom that takes you from an overview of the all island
to the narrow streets of the main cities.
Pieranderi is a travel-added Italian journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. After pursuing a career in translation and linguistics - she speaks fluent Arabic, English and Spanish - Elisa decided to challenge herself and develop her writing skills with a Masters in “Journalism and Mass Communication” at the American University in Cairo.
At the moment Elisa is freelancing for a few local newspapers by writing stories on art, history and travel in the Middle East. Elisa has recently published for the monthly magazine Egypt and Middle East Life and the weekly newspapers Middle East Times and Cairo Times.
Please visit her personal web page a leave your comments: http//digilander.iol.it/middleastoday/index.htm .
(More about the writer.)
# # #