Malta Day Five
Welcome to Rome WELCOME TO MALTA

All the warmth of the Mediterranean swirled in glass.

Click on each image to enlarge.
Valletta The port of Valletta as we sailed in at mid-day.
The Mosta Rotunda The Mosta Rotunda faces a busy city street near the center of the island.
A model of the Mosta Rotunda A model, shown here, better illustrates the unusual design of the church.
The Interior of the Mosta Rotunda The interior decor of the church is surprisingly restrained for the mid-nineteenth century.
St. Phillipus Outside, the double life-sized sculpture of St. Phillipus is one of several posted in niches built into the front wall of the church within the broad portico.
A figure of Mary Inside, two different versions of the Blessed Virgin flank the entry.
Another figure of Mary Thick glass covering the face of each niche reflects the image of windows above, just beneath the dome.
Carriage In Rabat is just outside the Medieval walls of Malta's one-time capital, Mdina. Here the tour busses park and here, small, but elegant European style carriages wait to take visitors on a tour of the narrow city street of Mdina.
Entrance to Mdina The entrance to the city is by way of a drawbridge over a centuries old dry moat. In passing over it, I noticed a modern day tennis court now occupying the moat.
A map of Mdina This map gives some idea of the size and shape of the city. The entrance is from the upper right segment of the map.
Cathedral Square A Gothic structure bordering the sloping Cathedral Square in Mdina. Most major buildings in the city, including the cathedral, were destroyed by an earthquake in the 1600s.
The Mdina Cathedral The Mdina Cathedral is Baroque in design but not as highly decorated as some such churches seen on the European continent. Notice the two clocks built into the facade of the structure. The one on the right has the usual 12 numbers around it's circumference while the one on the left has 24. This was a feature of many of the earliest clocks dating from Medieval times.
A typical Mdina street The Apse and high altar of the Mdina Cathedral. A small chapel just to the left of the apse features an ancient portrait of Christ claimed to have been painted by St. Luke.
A portrait of Christ Here we see the small portrait centered above the altar. The features of the figure have been all but obliterated by the passage of time. If truly done in the first century AD, regardless of its artist, it would be one of the oldest paintings in existence.
The Mdina Cathedral Dome The dome of the Mdina Cathedral.
A restored fresco Very nearly the entire floor of the cathedral has been taken up by tombs of the many bishops who have served Mdina. Each is marked by an elaborate floor panel of inlaid marble of various colors.
A typical Mdina Street A typical street in the Medieval city of Mdina with the cathedral dome in the background.
Mdina Glass Not far from the old city of Mdina, a number of factories turn out world renouned Mdina Glass, famous for its color, clarity, and swirling designs.
Mdina Glass. Mdina glass, at least when purchased at its source, was surprisingly inexpensive.
Mdina Glass I wanted it all. My wife reminded me who had to pack our suitcases the next day. We ended up each with a paper weight.

The Island of Malta, some 110 miles south of Sicily, is a little bigger than Capri and a world away in character.  Malta looks as much African as European.  After three full days devouring Italy (sometimes literally) a mere half-day in Malta was a welcomed relief.  The harbor at Valletta is one of the more beautiful ones we saw (second only to Villefranche).  A band played (probably NOT for us) from one of city's stone quays as we sailed in.  It was warm, sunny, and pleasant sitting on our private balcony, admiring the eclectic mix of architectural styles lining the docks.  Some structures looked truly ancient, some merely old.  Valletta was founded by the Knights of St. John around 1530, relatively late in the island's history.  Before that, Sicilians, Phoenicians, Romans, St. Paul, Arabs, and Turks had left their mark on the island and it's culture.  After that, the French and the English added to this mix.  It was the English, unfortunately, who taught the Maltese how to drive - as usual, on the "wrong" side of the road. Malta is, today, more English than any land (or island) in the Mediterranean except Gibraltar.

Valletta is a well-designed, spacious, fascinating city, the capital of the Maltese Republic.  It's a dry country.  It rains little on Malta except during the mild winter months.  Yet surprising little outcroppings of green along with swaying palms, Mediterranean pine, and flowering plants dot the otherwise tan and white landscape.  Architecturally, you see everything from the Baroque to daringly contemporary styles in their masonry homes and buildings.  Once you move away from the harbor and the downtown, Valletta is a relatively modern city.  But having said that, I must say the Maltese have a rather strange but not altogether unpleasant habit of plopping down modest areas of agriculture right smack in the middle of town - mostly garden plots, vegetables, herbs, and vineyards (all irrigated), but from time to time, horses and cattle grazing within stonewalled fields.  Being recently English (the country gained its independence in 1964), the island dotes on its race horses.  And being recently English, they bet on them every Sunday afternoon.

Malta has two cathedrals, one in Valletta, the other in Mdina (pronounced Ma-DEEN-ah).  The one in Valletta is Medieval (we didn't see it) while the one in Mdina is Baroque.  But the largest religious structure on the island (there are a surprising lot of them) is not a cathedral but merely a neighborhood church, the Mosta Rotunda built near the geographic center of the island.  Completed around 1868 and modeled vaguely after the Pantheon in Rome, the church is most notable for its relatively low dome and its lack of a nave.  With its two modest bell towers and nicely proportioned portico, the church is a unique blend of English and Mediterranean influences, as beautifully designed and decorated inside as out.  Besides its attractive, nineteenth century interior, the church's other claim to fame involves what could only be termed a miracle.  In 1942, during a German bombing raid on the island, as more than 300 worshipers gathered inside, a 1000 kg. bomb came crashing through the rotunda dome.  It did not explode.  There were injuries, but no one was killed.  Repairs to the dome can still be seen today.

The former capital of Malta is Mdina, a small, picturesque, fortified city on a low ridge well inland from Valletta. The modern town of Rabat has grown up around the western side of the ancient city, separated by Mdina's massive walls and dry moat (now home to at least one tennis court).  Unlike most Medieval cities we saw, Mdina has a few cars, but mostly it too is a pedestrian city, immaculately clean (a holdover from British times) and as authentically lovely a town as you'd ever want to see.  Unlike Eze, there are no crafts shops, no hotel, only a few restaurants, a monastery, a nunnery, several private homes, and the Cathedral.  Malta's religious claim to fame rests on the fact that St. Paul was once shipwrecked there.  The cathedral at Mdina celebrates this and boasts one of the oldest religious paintings on record, a portrait of Christ reportedly painted by St. Luke himself (the patron saint of painters).

Not far from Mdina is another of Malta's claims to fame, its glass industry.  Maltese glass is famous the world over for its incredible color, strikingly beautiful design, and remarkably reasonable prices.  A medium size paperweight was only about $7.50.  The other major industry on Malta is tourism, and they handle it well.  Malta sits at almost the exact center of the Mediterranean, long known as its crossroads.  Though its natural harbor is small, cruise ships find it impossible to resist (we had to wait over an hour for one to leave before we could dock).  Maybe because it was so recently English, despite its mix of French, Italian, and Moorish architecture, and culture, the island seemed like a wholesome, friendly place.  If the weather report is perhaps a bit boring each day, the island more than makes up for this in the variety of its offerings, a lot of history, warm Mediterranean waters, sandy beaches, mysterious, coastal grottos, and reserved, yet prosperous, friendly inhabitants.  Malta was nice for half a day...maybe even half a year.