A history of Malta in seven days: Part Two

5 to 12 February 2019

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Ever since we stopped on Rhodes, the Island of Knights, Stefan has been under the spell of those itinerant Crusaders and on Malta it is impossible not to feel their presence everywhere you go.

Kicked out of Rhodes by the Ottomans, the military religious order of the Knights of St John were given Malta as a base by Charles V of Spain in return for a rent of one falcon per year and the small price of protecting Rome from Ottoman attack from the south.

The knights first settled the harbour peninsular of Birgu and built Fort St Angelo. The streets of the city are full of the Knight’s auberges. It was from Fort St Angelo that the knights defended Malta from occupation by the Ottomans.

But before that, in 1561, the Ottomans, of whose tyranny we learned so much in Greece and Albania, caught up with the knights on the island of Gozo. The Ottomans took its citadel and with it its population of 5000 into slavery. In readiness for an invasion on Malta, the knights set about building bigger and better fortifications in Grand Harbour.

In 1565 Suleiman the Magnificent and his combined forces of over 35,000 closed in on Malta. Under the Grand Master, Jean de Valette, just 9,000 knights, mercenaries and local militia defended Malta in a three month siege, enduring the bombardment of 130,000 Ottoman cannon balls. But the Turks could not break the fortifications or the spirit of the Knights and ultimately fled.

To celebrate victory, its architect was honoured by the building of a new city named Valletta and the city became Malta’s capital and the main base of its ruler Knights.

The Grand Master’s Palace was the boss man’s main residence until the Knights gave Malta up to Napoleon in 1798 and has subsequently served as the island’s parliament building. It remains the official residence of the President and venue for State events.

The Knight’s building programme included St John’s Co Cathedral, completed in 1576 and quite frankly the most astonishing display of opulence we have ever seen in a church. Belying its outside appearance, inside it is all ornate gold, carving and frescoes.

The marble floors mark the tombs of 400 Knights

and its Oratory houses paintings by Carvaggio including The Beheading of St John the Baptist.

Dating from 1574, the Holy Infirmary once boasted the longest hospital ward in Europe at 155 metres and housing 914 patients, each with their own en suite, albeit long drop, toilet! The Great Ward and its subterranean counterpart and the medical care they provided was available to men of all classes, all religions, but only men. No women were able to access its progressive health care.

It’s just as easy to feel the presence of the Knights in the equally fortified cities of Mdina

and in Victoria on Gozo.

In the narrow lanes of Victoria we got a glimpse of 18th century life on the island

and in the prison where rowdy and disruptive knights wiled away their sentences by etching dates, ships and hands into the stone walls.

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Unsurprisingly, after building of all those grand buildings with their opulent interiors, the Knights ran into serious financial trouble and rather than defend Malta against the French, surrendered to Napoleon when he landed in 1798. The Maltese didn’t much like Napoleon and his ransacking of the island’s treasures to fund his campaign in Egypt so they called Lord Nelson for help. At this very table, apparently, the French surrendered Malta to the British in 1800.

And British it was until independence in 1964. Grand Harbour was a key base for the British Navy enabling their support in the Greek War of Independence and acting as a staging post for troops during the Crimean War.

With the arrival of Florence Nightingale and it’s role in tending to sick and injured troops during World War I, the island earned the nickname “Nurse of the Mediterranean”.

During World War II Churchill called Malta “Great Britain’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean”. Except the war nearly did sink the island. Despite its tiny size it became the most heavily bombed area in the world. 140,000 bombs were dropped on it. The courage and sacrifice of the Maltese people was rewarded when at the end of the war King George awarded the people a collective George Cross. The cross appears on the official flag of Malta today.

The rebuilding of Malta after the war included increased calls for autonomy for the island from Britain and independence came on 21 September 1964.

Malta, however, remained a base for the British Navy until 1979 and you don’t have to look far to see the British influence on the island. Nearly all of the Maltese people are bilingual in Maltese and English.

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Post war and independence Malta’s neutrality (it is not a member of NATO) saw it having a role in bringing greater peace to the world as the venue of a meeting between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev which brought an end to the Cold War. Somewhat inauspiciously the summit between the two leaders was disrupted by one of the biggest storms to hit Malta. Transport between Russian and American warships was made impossible and the Presidents had to meet on a cruise ship instead!

Today there are mostly only pleasure boats in Grand Harbour and the peninsular of Sliema turned over almost entirely to tourism. Malta’s population of 450,000 is invaded by 2.3 million tourist each year.

We loved our week as just two of those tourists. As well as its history, we loved the ubiquitous Maltese balconies that reminded us of our time in A Coruna.

We loved wandering with the ghosts of the Knights around the streets of its capital Valletta

and pootling around on the bus through the tiny farms of the interior with their dry stone walls that recalled the fields of Menorca.

We loved being reunited with some of our favourite international cuisines including a wonderful Turkish breakfast and not one, or even two, but three curries (the best we’ve had since Athens and before that Gibraltar!). And we loved finding a new favourite soft drink in bittersweet Kinnie.

We loved stumbling upon the pub in which Oliver Reed had his legendary last drinking session whilst filming Gladiator on the island and where he died as a result. (We left having spent only a tiny fraction of his bar bill but raised half a cider to him!) And we loved learning fun facts that we didn’t know about the island – like the fact that one of Malta’s main exports is Playmobil!

So we came home to Pintail with a small plastic knight of our own to remind us of one of our favourite places in the Med yet…

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