Friday, May 23, 2008

Knights and Skulls

Day 71

I was up early and happy about it. It had only taken a few days to reset my clock. After picking up some food and having a quick breakfast I decided to walk to Valletta. This only took about an hour, but it was hot and I was not happy by the time that I got there.

Inside the tight and golden streets of Valletta I found relief in the shade and my energy picked up. One of the sites I had been looking forward to the most was the Malta at War Museum, unfortunately it was closed for refurbishment. St. Elmo's Fort was also closed.

In front of the Fort were a bunch of guys with horse drawn carriages trying to pick up tourists. They all ignored all alone me except for one guy who told me that he would give me a really good price. I told him that even a really good price would be too much for me and said thank you. He then told me that he would give me a free ride, I replied that sometimes free was too much as well. He told me that I was a smart girl.

I wouldn't have wanted a ride anyway, my next stop was just around the corner. This was the Malta Experience. The ad said that I would get 7,000 years of history in only 45 minutes. It was basically true. At one point Malta was connected to Sicily. This is evident through the remains of large animals. Malta could have never supported large animals at any point. Around 4000 BC there was a group of people who built temples all over Malta and Gozo. They also built statues with changeable heads. No one knows why. By the time the Bronze age arrived these temple building people were long gone. No one is sure what happened to them. They may have actually died off or even simply left. After the Bronze age came the Romans. They did what they did all over Europe and brought laws and built things on this island. The Romans called the island honey, or something close to Malta in Roman. I didn't write down the name. They called the island this because of the abundant amount of honey colored limestone rock.

When St. Paul (the apostle, I think there are several St. Paul's) was headed to Rome to be punished for being Christian his boat was wrecked on the way. Everyone survived and he stayed in Malta for about 3 months converting the populace to Christianity. He is now the patron saint of Malta.

After the Romans came Arab rule. They were pushed out of Malta at the same time that they lost Spain. The Normans were the next group. King Charles V of Spain gave the homeless Knights of St. John (also known as the Knights of Malta) the island. The rent was only one falcon per year.

It wasn't too long after that that the Turks, who had apparently spared the Knights some years before, decided to attack the islands. The raid went on for months and was extremely gory. The Turks killed captured knights and hung the bodies by spikes, the Knights returned the favor by killing their prisoners and then firing their heads out of cannons at the Turks. Eventually a backup force from Sicily arrived. The Turks had far more casualties than the Knights whose army was just a fraction of theirs. They pulled out in embarrassment. The knights power over the island was cemented.

The Knights reigned until 1798 when Napoleon and his troops showed up. The Napoleonic Code was instituted. Napoleon's soldiers stole from Malta's wealthy churches to finance their campaigns. In 1800 the British Empire showed up. Admiral Nelson was the one who took the island. He was the same one who died on the HMS Victory that I visited way back when in Portsmouth. The Brits ruled until 1921 when the Maltese were given self-government. It, however, wasn't until 1964 that Malta became a republic.

During WWII Malta was sort on in Hitlers way when it came to the Africa campaigns. The island was bombed relentlessly for quite some time. Allied forces tried to get relief through, but none of the ships made it. It wasn't until they were literally days away from running out of food that one broken down and war torn ship was able to make it through. The Maltese consider this to be one of WWII's miracles.

Even though my head was overloaded (and I'm sure your board by now) I was determined to see Valletta in just one day. While I was checking out the Grand Masters Palace another tourist, I think French, was in line behind me. He was wearing very short see through yellow shorts, and an equally sheer and unbuttoned white shirt. He had space issues. He didn't like waiting in line and kept pushing me from behind, as if I could get the guy at the ticket booth to move faster. Right when I was about to turn around and say something to him, it was my turn.

I didn't pick up the audio guide here, I didn't realize that it was free. So all I can tell you is that the apartments are beautifully painted and worth checking out.

Just a bit up the street was St. John's Co Cathedral. It was amazing. The knights built it in 1577. Initially it had been quite austere and undecorated, but when the baroque period came it they decorated with abandon. Also, over the years various knights gave beautiful gifts to the cathedral. This is truly worth checking out, even for an over churched person like me.

One interesting thing was a small icon of the Madonna. When Napoleon sent the last Grand Master out of the country he (the Grand Master, not Napoleon) took with him an icon that had been with the order forever and St. John's hand. Both of these were lost to time for a few decades. Just a few years ago the icon was found in Moldova's national museum. Moldova had apparently been given it for safe keeping during WWII. Now they don't want to give it back, so they made a copy and gave that to the cathedral. This is why I don't lend things to my friends. The hand of St. John is still missing. It was last seen in Belgrade in 1914. Best guess is that it is either squirreled away in a monastery, or it has been destroyed.

Once I had finished with the cathedral it was about 4:30 pm and things were shutting down. I decided it was time to do what I had wanted to do all day. After stopping at the tourist info place for directions I had my first experience on a Maltese bus. The buses here are British buses from the 1950's and have a certain amount of excitement to them.

In no time I was in St. Gillian where all the nightlife happens. I wasn't here for beer though, I was here for the movie theater. The day before Indiana Jones had come out and I had to see it. Lets just say, I wasn't really disappointed, but the Holy Grail will always be my favorite.

Afterwards I walked slowly back to my hotel room along the waterfront. It was quite pretty. When I was back in my room watching German MTV (the reality shows are in English) I heard some popping noises out of my window. When I looked out there were fireworks. I think they were to celebrate my first full day in my 30th country.

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