Friday, October 24, 2014

Week in Malta - 2

Where to eat? A twice daily question. It was hot and humid and we didn't want to be inside, so that limited us a bit. There were 10 of us, so that limited us further. There are lots and lots of restaurants in Valletta, but the ones that can manage to seat 10 are on the main squares. They are good, but not fantastic. I didn't have a single bad meal, but I didn't have a single exceptionally excellent one, either. Servings tend to be enormous.
Tuesday we decided to do things at our own pace. One couple went off to visit the Tarxien temples and discover the coast, have a swim.... Paul and I headed out early after breakfast to walk through the streets before it got too hot. I wanted to see the church of St. Paul the Shipwrecked (tradition has it that St. Paul shipwrecked on Malta), but there was a mass going on, so tourists were asked to wait. We walked on. Everywhere you turn, there's another church. The island was under the rule of the Knights of the Order of St. John, a hospital order that was dedicated to healing people (like Medecins sans Frontières, today?). They had to defend themselves, so it was also a military order, of course. They built forts and churches and magnificant palaces, called "auberges" for each country or province they came from. We found the market, but there is restoration work going on, so there was no real food market going on, just a few butchers, fish mongers, and poultry dealers open for business. On the street, Merchant Street, there was an open market, but no food, just clothing, batteries, toys...
Before 9, we were already waiting for the Palace of the Grand Master to open at 9, but it didn't, so we headed on to the co-Cathedral and waited for it to open at 9:30; which it did. The Cathedral is a baroque masterpiece: ceiling and upper wall frescoes by Mattia Preti illustrating the life of St. John; marble floors with the tombs of 400 knights, all different and colorful: lots of side chapels representing the countries and provinces of the knights' origins; and lots and lots of gold all over. It's a co-cathedral, because the arch-bishop resides in Mdina, which was the capital before the order built Valletta and which has its cathedral. Caravaggio was, for a time, a member of the order and he painted the "Beheading of St. John the Baptist" and "St. Jerome" in the early 17th century. His paintings are dark; the only highlight in both of them being the red cloth. Personally, I can't stand the gore of  many religious paintings and seeing John the Baptist being behead does not draw my attention. I preferred "St. Jerome" by far. He's the one who is credited with translating the bible from Greek to Latin.
From the Cathedral, we strolled down the main street,Triq (street) Republika, to the Archeology Museum. The visit there gave me a better understanding of the temples we had seen and the ones we were going to see, later. After the civilization that built those temples left (Why did they go? fire, earthquake, disease? Where did they go? further north to Carnac and Stonehenge?), others came: Phoenicians; Romans; early Christians; Arabs; Normans; the Knights; the French (Napoleon's army stayed two years); the English from 1800 to 1979. The Maltese language is, apparently, a Semitic language written with the Latin alphabet. In this museum, they have the gigantic neolithic statues from the temples and many smaller statuettes. There are some statuettes of pregnant women and on the backs of these statuettes, marks that seem to indicate the pregnancy calendar. There is one, who looks very close to the end of her pregnancy and she does have nine marks. Interesting. There is also a very small statuette of a woman lying on her side -- absolutely beautiful. That's what struck me in this visit, but there is also the pottery from all the different civilisations, and all the other things one finds in an archeology museum.
On the way back to the hotel, we dropped in at the Fine Arts Museum, almost next to our hotel, and met up with the rest of the group, who had done things differently in the morning. Valletta is very small, so it's not surprising that we ended up in the same place at the end! There are a lot of dark, badly lit, gory religious paintings, portraits of the Grand Masters of the Order, and some very pleasant paintings of views of Malta, including one watercolor sketch by Turner, who never visited. As we checked in with our "Heritage" tickets (bought at the first visit, at Hagar Qim in our case, it's a
multi-visit ticket), we discovered that there was a slight chance of getting to see the Hypogeum. Pleyel, and Dancla performed by a young violinist and an equally young cellist, both excellent musicians. It was a short concert and a good appetizer, so we all (well, 8, not 10) went off to lunch.
Normally, one must reserve that when planning the trip to Malta because the number of tourists allowed each day is restricted. We had been told there was no chance of our getting in. However, everyday, there are 20 tickets available for the noon and 4pm tours. People line up long before this museum opens to get these tickets for the following day. That evening, we decided that Paul and I would try to get us tickets for the Saturday visit. After this museum, we returned to the hotel to freshen up (I can't get over how hot and humid it is!) before going to the St. Francis church oratory for a noon concert of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel,
Links to Wikipedia articles that might be of interest to you:
Malta, general article
Valletta
Hagar Qim
Mnajdra
Co-cathedral St. John
Museum of Fine Art
National Museum of Archeology

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