So after almost 2 years of communication, cancellations and rebookings, I finally met my Malta guide, Joan Sheridan. Joan is often booked up a year in advance and after spending one day with her I immediately understood why. Not only is Joan a wealth of knowledge, Joan was a whirling dervish of fun and seemed to know everyone. A museum is closed? No problem Joan made a few calls to see if they would make an exception for us in a couple days. (They did.). Best restaurants? Joan knows them all. In short, I hit a home run with Joan.
Anyway, the day began with Joan and her husband Chris (who is also a tour guide) driving me around the island to the Three Cities. Now, I had been to the Three Cities last week, but all I did was wander around because nothing and I mean nothing, was open.
Unfortunately, nothing was open again today, including the one site I really wanted to see, the Inquisitor’s Palace. Apparently, the tourism board is keeping many sites closed due to Covid. And this is where Joan’s phone call to the powers that be came into play. Fingers crossed I will finally get to see the Inquisitor’s Palace on Wednesday.
Anyway, Joan and I got out of the car and took a wander first to the city of Senglea and the beautiful Gardjola Gardens and the crazy watchtower with an eye, a crane and an ear carved into the tower.
Now I had not been to Senglea and has only seen the city from the other side of the bridge in Vittoriosa so this was all new to me. We wandered through the gardens and took up residence on a park bench as Joan proceeded to give me some history about the origins of the Three Cities and life under the Order of the Knights of St. John.
Perhaps the most interesting factoid I learned is that the Order of the Knights of St. John were comprised of eight langue, which were administrative divisions based on the ethno-linguistic and geographical distribution of the members. The eight langue were the regions of Auvergne, France, Provence, Italy, England, Portugal Germanic Europe and Aragon. In other words, the Order of the Knights of St. John were made of noblemen from eight distinct regions of what is now known as Europe.
Each langue had it is own headquarters called an auberge. The auberge served as accommodation for each langue member and also for pilgrims and visitors from their home country. The auberge was also used for meetings, dining and other social activities. And now it was all making sense. Everywhere I walked in Vittoriosa last week, I found signs on buildings stating that the buildings had been the auberge of (insert name). These buildings were the original headquarters of each langue.
Armed with this knowledge, Joan and I then moved on to Vittoriosa where we passed through three fortified entry gates that one back in the day had to pass through to gain entry into Vittoriosa.
We then we climbed to the top of one of the walls to take a look across the harbor before wandering back down the hill and meandering the narrow alleys from which Joan pointed out the different auberges.
At one point, Joan stopped and pointed out a building that was riddled with pock marks. Turns out the marks were made from shelling during WW II. The government will not allow the shelling to be repaired as a reminder of the perils of war.
By this time we had been walking for a couple hours so we stopped at a small cafe on the lovely little main square of Vittoriosa. It turns out, though, that the “lovely little main square” wasn’t always so lovely. Apparently the square used to be the site for public executions ordered by the Knights of St. John. The grim history is marked by a stone crucifix on the wall of a building dating to the 16th century. Yikes!
After Vittoriosa, Chris picked us up and took us back to Valetta where we took in the Parliament Buildings (I had been walking by them for days and didn’t even know it), the old Opera House that had been bombed during WW II and was now used as an outdoor concert venue (complete with still damaged pillars), the Church of Our Lady of Victories, which was across from the St. Catherine of Italy Church and then to Auberge de Castille.
Now this Auberge had belonged to Portugal, but was taken over by the French when they ran the Knights of St. John out of town and finally was used by the Brits as the headquarters for the British Armed Forces when they kicked out the French. Today the building is used as the office of the Prime Minister of Malta. Whew. What a history.
We then made our way across the street to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, where is was far less windy than it had been when I visited last Wednesday. The views were spectacular and Joan was able to fill me in on a number of sites and landmarks.
By now it was time for lunch. Joan suggested we go to Kings Own Band Club, where I had been on Saturday during my food tour. Fine by me. We ended up having a meal of pasta (spaghetti with prawns and clams with a lobster base sauce) and imquaret for desert (a fig pastry accompanied by vanilla ice cream – so good that I forgot to take a picture).
When we walked outside, I felt ready for a nap. It was incredibly hot today, we had more walking to do and I was stuffed. Fortunately, we only had to walk a short distance down Republic Street to our next stop – St. John’s Co-Cathedral Church ranked amongst the most beautiful churches in the world. And once inside I could see why.
First, everything and I mean everything was covered into 24 k gold. Second, the paintings, frescos and statutes were absolutely gorgeous. Third, how many churches in the world can boast Caravaggio paintings? And I am not talking about just one. I saw at least four, including one of the most famous in the world, The Beheading of St. John.
The church dates to the 16th century and was constructed by the Knights of St. John between 1572 and 1577. That it took only five years to build is amazing in and of itself.
There were nine chapels within the Church, one for each langue and an extra honoring Our Lady of Philemon.
Another interesting feature is that there were hundreds of inlaid marble tombstones covering the floor dating back to the early seventeenth century. Each one of these tombs is a commemoration for a Knight of St. John. The place was a true living museum. Amazing and well worth the visit.
Our final stop of the day was supposed to be the Grandmaster Palace, but it is currently undergoing renovations and the small area currently open to the public is, according to Joan, not worth the visit. So Plan B. We ended up visiting Fort St. Elmo.
Now quite frankly, there was not a lot to see in the Fort. Joan had already provided me with a wealth of history about the Knights of St. John and the tour through the Fort was simply displays that reiterated what Joan had already told me. It was nice to see the Fort up close and to walk around the walls, but other than that, not much to see.
By now, Joan and I had probably walked 8 or 9 miles and I was exhausted. We walked back to my hotel and made plans for Joan and Chris to pick me up at 7:30 tomorrow. We are off to the island of Gozo. I am really looking forward to the boat trip and the tour around the little island.