Firstly, a deep and heartfelt thanks to all who took the time to read our last blog entry and provide kind words of feedback and support. It means the world to me to know that you were moved in some way by my Nunnu and the stories and memories of his remarkable life. You have made me happy in a way that I'll never be able to describe.
Righto, now that I got the teary part out of the way, let's get down to the sight-seeing and highlights of the trip. We've broken it down city by city.
For tourists, Valletta is the ultimate starting point for all things Malta. Built by the legendary Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Knights of St John). Valletta was built following the famous victory in the siege of Malta in 1565 - when the valiant and outnumbered Knights held off Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman army, which was one of the largest ever assembled at that point in history. But Malta's history stretches far beyond the era of the Crusades. The 45 minute video known as "The Malta Experience" took Jess and I through the millennia and gave us a greater appreciation of this little Mediterranean rock and the stories she has to tell.
The first settlers arrived some 5200 years BC! And the temples and mass graves they left behind are all that remain of these mysterious people. From there, Malta has been home to every great era known to civilisation - Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Habsburg Spain, the Muslim empire, the Knights and Christendom, Napoleon, the British Empire, and finally an independent republic of her own accord following the valiant resistance during the Second World War, which saw the people of Malta awarded the George Cross - the highest civilian honour for gallantry and bravery. The George Cross proudly decorates the top left corner of Malta's flag to this day.
A stroll through the streets of Valletta will bring you into contact with just about every part of Malta's rich history. Must see places include:
- The Grandmaster's Palace (home to the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller)
- St John's Co-Cathedral (one of the greatest churches in all of Europe and home to Caravaggio's famous painting, "The beheading of St John")
- The museum of archaeology (housing relics from every era of Malta's history, including artefacts recovered from the 7000 year old Neolithic temples - older than the pyramids folks!)
- The war museum - home of "Faith", the sole survivor of Malta's legendary 3 gladiator planes (Faith, Hope and Charity) that lead the initial resistance of the Axis forces in WWII. Also home of the George Cross awarded to the people of Malta
- The Saluting Battery - featuring the famous one o'clock cannon gun salute (see the video section of this blog)
Gozo, Camino and the Blue Lagoon
Despite her tiny stature, Malta is comprised of three islands - Malta, Gozo and Comino. Gozo is like a smaller, dated version of Malta and is worth seeing for the churches alone - the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu is decorated by thousands of columns, each decorated in a unique trimming and pattern, and St George's Basilica is overwhelmingly big! Then there's the Azzure Window - a limestone natural arch in the north of Gozo that provides the last sighting of land before your eyes drift to a seemingly endless Mediterranean sea and a sunlit horizon.
Comino sits in between Malta and Gozo and has a permanent population of only four inhabitants. But that doesn't stop thousands of tourists from flocking there over the summer to go for a dip in the famous Blue Lagoon. It's like swimming in a sea of blue crystal. Comino is also famous for being a film location for the Count of Monte Cristo.
Known as the silent city, Mdina is the tranquil former capital of Malta. Walking through the streets of the walled city immediately makes you feel as if you stepped back in time to a bygone era - no cars to be seen, horses and cart roaming the streets and winding roads and laneways that only allow you to see a few metres in front of you. St Paul's Cathedral is similar to St John's Co-Cathedral in Valetta - a rather plain façade reveals little of the breathtaking beauty that awaits inside the church.
While you're in Mdina, stick around for a meal at La Fontanella, which boasts one of the best views in Malta (and a pretty mean pizza with Maltese sausage!)
Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni
Located beyond the city limits of Valletta, in Paola, the Hypogeum is one of the greatest things you'll ever see in your entire life. In a nutshell, it's three story underground mass grave of some 7000 souls dating back to 3300BC. It is the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world. You must book your visit months in advance and only 10 persons per hour are allowed to enter the delicately preserved site. All sorts of statues and wall paintings bear witness to the mysterious civilisation that once occupied this site.
Sadly, despite their best efforts, historians have been thus far unable to decipher exactly who these people were and what their society was like. This this is so historic it pre-dates history and all that we know about the world. And to think that it was accidentally uncovered in 1902 when construction workers were doing work on the apartments above!
My emotional attachment to Mellieha was further enhanced by the magnificent sites and landmarks throughout the village. The underground bomb shelters give you a feel for what life was like in Malta during WWII. Malta was the most bombed country in WWII and the residents constructed a network of underground tunnels and shelters in an incredibly brief amount of time - creating entire underground cities that were safe from relentless Axis bombing of the island that Churchill came to describe as "the unsinkable aircraft carrier". Walking through the damp and dimly lit tunnels sent a chill up my spine as it dawned on me that my Nunnu and Nanna would have walked and helped construct these very same paths during a time of unprecedented crisis. Their never say die attitude and their iron resolve to solider on in spite of every setback that life threw at them would have no doubt been formed in these very shelters.
Back on ground level, Mellieha's coastal views are constantly punctuated by the unmistakable sight of the Parish Chrurch. Nestled almost on the edge of the mountain, it's the church where my grandparents tied the knot and is an indelible feature of Mellieha's skyline. I can't tell you how many nights were spent on the balcony of our apartment just staring at the twin red spires of the church and wondering what my grandparents would have been thinking as their lives in Mellieha came to a close and they headed for the great unknown in Australia.
Other must see sights in Mellieha include The Red Tower (a knights' watchtower for incoming invaders), Selmun Palace (an elegant getaway location for the wealthy Knights of St John) and Popeye Village (shooting location for the rather horrible musical film "Popeye", starring Robin Williams in his debut film role. It's now a theme park and Popeye musuem). Whilst walking through Popeye Village, Jess made the comment that "it would be a sad day when Robin Williams passed away". If only we knew how prophetic that statement would turn out to be!