Malta is a tiny island nation plopped in the Mediterranean Sea in between Sicily and Tunisia. It is best known for being a European summer beach holiday destination.
I was looking at Google Flights and saw a $33 roundtrip fare to Malta on RyanAir with perfect flight times for the weekend of November 29th. It seemed too good to be true, but I booked it anyways. Being late November/December, I hoped to see a different side of Malta- a historic and cultural side.
November 29, 2019: The Flight In: My First RyanAir Experience and New Friends
RyanAir is notorious as the Europe’s OG ultra-budget no-frills carrier. They were one of the first in Europe to charge for carry-ons and printing boarding passes and have strict check-in policies. I checked in using the app and paid for no extras (my backpack was free).
The flight boarded on time and I was greeted with a very normal short-haul cabin. The one difference between a RyanAir cabin and a typical plane is that the seats have no pockets. Therefore, the safety information is printed on the back of each seat. In the absence of in-seat entertainment, the flight attendants sold lotto scratchers and walked through the aisle with a duty-free cart. In short, the in-flight experience was very normal.
I am a plane talker. For me, a flight is a unique opportunity to interact with someone who you would otherwise never talk to. I was lucky enough to sit next to Lisa from Virginia. She was traveling with her two daughters who live in Spain. At the end of our two-hour conversation, we agreed to split a taxi into town since our lodgings were close-by.
After a 20-minute taxi ride to the town of Silema, I said goodbye to my new friends and checked into my uber-sleek hostel: Two Pillows Boutique Hostel. It is the only hostel I have ever been to with a spa. I then got a quick dinner down the street and headed to bed.
November 30, 2019: Valetta
For my only full-day on Malta, I had to make the most of my limited time. My first destination was Valetta, the capital. From the main tourist town of Silema, I hopped on a short 5-minute ferry ride across the harbor.
It was only 8:30 am, so I had some time to kill before the main sight opened. I decided to get a Maltese pastizzi at Café Cordina, which opened in 1837.
Right at 9, I headed into the Grandmaster’s Palace to tour the famed armory and state rooms.
Before I continue, it is necessary to explain the unique history of Malta – the history is quite different from any other European country.
In the early 1522 the Knights of St John (a order of warrior monks made up of men from all the European Catholic nations) were expelled from their home of Rhodes (off the coast of Turkey) by the Ottoman Empire. They were searching for a new home. Luckily, Charles V of Spain gave them Malta to have as their own.
They set up their capital in Mdina and spent the next few decades building fortresses of stone along the coast. In 1565, the Ottoman sultan decided to crush the Knights for good. He sent 36,000 men to take the island. Despite being outnumbered 6-1, the Christians won the obscenely bloody siege which killed 1/3 of everyone on the island.
In the aftermath of the victory, the Grand Master of the Knights, Jean de Valette, decided to build a new capital that was so fortified that it could withstand any siege. He named the capital Valetta after himself.
The city and the Knights flourished with money flowing in from other Catholic nations including France, Spain, Naples, and the Vatican. For over 200 years, the island served as a bastion of Catholic unity.
The Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John lived and worked in a palace in the very center of Valetta. Today that palace houses the offices of the President of the Republic of Malta. Until 2015, it housed the Parliament too. The public can tour both the Armory and the State Rooms. The armory contains 4,000 sets of armor including those belonging to the Grand Masters of old!!
The State Rooms contain many official rooms including the Tapestry Hall where the Parliament used to sit! The rooms were ornate but are undergoing some refurbishment. I am sure in 2021 it will look much nicer.
Down the street is the world-famous St. John’s Co-Cathedral- widely considered Malta’s top destination. Having seen my fair share of churches, I was skeptical- how beautiful can this plain-looking church really be?
Then I walked inside…
The interior was as ornate as anything I have ever seen – Baroque splendor! So far the only comparisons I have seen could be Sao Francisco in Porto and Granada’s San Juan de Dio.
One reason for the incredible ornateness of the church is the money. Because Malta was seen as a symbol of Catholic strength, all the Catholic nations of the Europe donated obscene amounts of money to make the church special. The church contains nine chapels. Eight of the chapels were dedicated to the nations from where the Knights came from: England, Germany, France, Castille/Portugal, Italy, Aragon, Provence, and Auverge.
The entire floor of the co-cathedral is a tomb. Each of the 400 floor tiles houses the remains of a famous Knight. Tombs of Grand Masters are inlaid into the walls of the chapels.
In a side room hang two paintings from Caravaggio, a former Knight of St. John himself. These include his largest piece “The Beheading of St. John”.
After “checking off” Valetta’s two most popular attractions, I spent some time wandering around town. The streets are all beautiful. Unlike many “old cities”, Valetta still is mostly residential and is not overrun with touristy shops and attractions. As a result, it retains an authentic charm.
Malta was amidst a crisis involving the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who regularly exposed government corruption scandals. It was recently revealed that a shadowy network of high ranking government officials and powerful business owners were involved in calling the murder. People are peacefully protesting outside the Prime Minister’s house in Valetta and a memorial has been erected in front of the co-cathedral, but otherwise it appears to be business as usual. If all the allegations are true, there is a serious Deep State level corruption in Malta. I think that the Prime Minister will resign within the week over this. (UPDATE: 3 hours after leaving Malta, the PM announced he would resign in a month).
At the back end of Valetta at the edge of the peninsula sits Fort St. Elmo. This fort played a significant role during the Great Siege against the Turks. 400 years later, it would play another key part in the history of the Malta.
The Knights of St. John’s illustrious rule came to an abrupt end when Napoleon conquered the island on his way to Egypt. The French would rule for just two years until the British invaded. Malta would become a British colony all the way into the 20th Century.
In World War II, British Malta lay just 70 kilometers from Italy and was in the middle of key shipping routes between the eastern and western sides of the Mediterranean. This made Malta a prime bombing target of the Italians and Germans. In fact, Malta was the single most-bombed place in the entire world during World War II.
In 1942, Malta was the lone Allied territory on the Mediterranean Sea west of Cyprus.
But the British Army and the Maltese people fought back. They reequipped the ancient fortresses with modern anti-aircraft cannons. From Luqa Airfield (today’s Malta International Airport), the Royal Air Force launched attacks deep into Axis territory. By 1943, Italy had fallen to the Allies and the conflict in Malta was essentially over.
In an unprecedented affair, the entire island of Malta was awarded St. George’s Cross, the highest British honor for civilians.
Anti-aircraft cannons and the bastions remain as a reminder from both of these major conflicts.
After a quick lunch at the modern Valetta Food Market, I walked out of the walled city and caught a bus to the center of the island.
The journey to Rabat was supposed to take 20 minutes according to Google Maps, but due to traffic, delays from the crowds trying to board the bus, and some guy crushing boxes in the middle of the road, it took nearly an hour to get out of Valetta and its suburbs. The sprawl ended just 1km away from the edge of Rabat and its sister city Mdina.
Mdina was the Knights of St. John’s original headquarters and Rabat was originally suburb. In Maltese, Rabat means suburb. However today Rabat is much larger.
Rabat is pretty but far less so than Valetta. On the bright side, it was very quiet. The only people I encountered were attending a funeral.
Rabat has exactly one major tourist attraction: the Catacombs of St. Paul (yes THE St. Paul). According to the Bible, in the year 60, St. Paul was convicted of a crime in Jerusalem. He decided to invoke his right as a Roman citizenship to appeal the verdict to Caesar… in Rome. The boat to Rome shipwrecked on Malta. For three months, Paul lived in a cave and started a Christian community on the island. That cave is believed to be in Rabat and sits as part of a much larger ancient tunnel complex hidden underneath the local history museum.
Also Rabat has are the ruins of a Roman house. While most of the house was destroyed, the tiled floors are perfectly intact! The attached museum talks about Malta’s Roman history.
I then walked over to Mdina. Like Valetta, Mdina is an ancient walled city built by the Knights of St. John. However unlike Valetta, it is completely a tourist town. Everything is either a museum, restaurant or shop. The main attraction is the Cathedral of Malta. It is the oldest and most important church on the island. Despite the international attention paid to the co-cathedral in Valetta, the Bishop of Malta resides in Medina. The cathedral is nice, but underwhelming when compared to the co-cathedral.
Besides the cathedral, there isn’t much else to see in Mdina. I’ve heard that the interactive movie is fun. That said, the town is beautiful and its narrow alleyways are worth exploring.
After some time I was ready to head back to Silema for dinner.
Part 3: Return to Valetta
Back in Silema, I reached out to my friends from the flight – remember the family from Virginia???- to see if they wanted to get dinner. They said that they already got dinner but asked if I wanted to get dessert…in Valetta because they moved to an AirBNB. I said yes and got onto the last ferry of the day.
Just before the ferry was to depart, I got a WhatApp asking if I wanted to stay in their extra bedroom. I said yes and jumped off the boat so I could return to the hostel to get my stuff.
We agreed to meet in Valetta at 9, which left me just enough time to get a blowout dinner at Ta’Kris. I ordered Malta’s national dish, rabbit, with a side of Cisk beer. I then caught a public bus to Valetta. Instead of the 5 minute ferry, the bus took 30 minutes.
In Valetta, I learned how the original AirBNB booked in Silema turned out to be an underground hostel, which they did not want. We then strolled around Valetta- all lit up for Christmas- and got the most amazing gelato. It was a lovely evening.
Click here to read Part 2 where I visit 5,000 years of Maltese history.
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