Under the Maltese Sun

The copious amount of sunshine was just one of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Malta. Needless to say, I sunburned a little. We spent three wonderful days on that tiny island and saw it all… well, almost.

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Day 1 – Off-roading and jaw-dropping vistas

The theme of Day 1 really did seem to be off-roading. We had rented a little manual Kia Picanto, and Tex adapted to driving on the left side rather seamlessly. But our GPS directed us to take some very rocky paths (I won’t even call them roads). Somehow, we made it out alive and laughing and with somewhat higher blood pressures. Anywho, our first stop was to see St. Paul’s Island on the north side of the island. This is where they claim that Paul and Luke shipwrecked. You can read about it in Acts 27. While this stop wasn’t initially part of our itinerary, it ended out being one of my favorite things. Not only is it incredible to think of the apostle clambering out of a wrecked ship right there, but it is also a beautiful display of God’s creation. And as a cherry on top, we were the only souls there to soak it in that morning.

 

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A view of St. Paul’s Island

From there, we drove down to Mdina, an ancient city near the center of the island. This was the capital of Malta during the time of Paul and is likely the town where Paul stayed for much of his time on the island. St. Paul’s Grotto (technically in the town of Rabat, but within walking distance of Mdina) is the underground site claimed to have been where Paul founded the first Christian community on Malta. We purchased tickets at the Wignacourt Museum, which gave us entrance to both the Grotto and St. Paul’s Catacombs, as well as some WWII bomb shelters. The catacombs are early (4th century AD) Christian burial grounds, made up of innumerable tunnels and cave-like rooms. We had never seen any catacombs before, and these were remarkably fun to explore. One of the special pieces of architecture down there was called an Agape table. It was at this table that certain funerary feasts took place in honor of the dead.

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One more memorable stop in Mdina was an adorable tea garden, called Fontanella Tea Garden. It sits on the edge of the city’s high wall and overlooks much of the island. We ordered tea and tried a couple of their popular cakes, a strawberry meringue and a lemon cheesecake. I was quite pleased with the quick service and decent prices of this little establishment.

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A splendid tea
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From our table in the tea garden…

A bit after noon, we hopped into the car and headed towards the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast of the island. We were amazed at how easy it was to cover pretty much the entire island of Malta in one day, well really only 2 hours, of driving. Once we arrived and parked, we headed out to buy tickets for the much-sought-after boat rides into the Blue Grotto. I can only imagine the crowds there in the summer, but early February proved to be the perfect time to visit. For only 8 Euros each, we rode in a small motorized fishing boat out into the crystal Mediterranean and cruised through several grottos, including the Cat’s Cave, Reflection Cave, and of course the Blue Grotto. The light turquoise water that you can see in one of the pictures is caused by white sand on the sea floor reflecting light back up through the water. This was truly breathtaking.

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Heading into the Blue Grotto

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Our last destination for the day was the southern tip of the island, near Marsaxlokk. We took in some sun and watched the waves lap against the stony edge of St. Peter’s Pool. While I do wish it had been warm enough for us to swim, we were happy to be there with fewer people. We also visited the Salinas salt pans, one area of many on the island which have been used since the Phoenicians first established them. Still today, throughout the summer months, there are families that tend to the salt pans and harvest the sea salt after the water has evaporated.

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St. Peter’s Pool

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The Salt Pans

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After a very long walk to a highly-reviewed and very much closed restaurant, we stopped at a little seaside joint in Marsaxlokk to eat. Tex had quite a plate of pan-fried calamari, and I had some yummy fish-filled ravioli.

Day 2 – The Maltese Capital

We spent all of Sunday in the capital city, Valletta, which boasts of forts, gardens, and long hilly streets. The two main things on our agenda were Fort St. Elmo and the Palace Armory. And of course, some renowned pizza.

To start off our morning, we began walking along the city wall towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I think we could have stayed in the gardens looking across the Grand Harbor all morning and never have gotten bored. Plus, it helps to have a walking encyclopedia like Tex to tell you all you need to know about the Great Siege which happened there.

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Looking across the Grand Harbor
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Upper Barrakka Gardens

We continued along the wall until we reached Fort St. Elmo (which was closed for another couple hours), and then walked into the old city center to the Palace Armory. The Armory seemed to be a fairly extensive collection, exhibiting everything from real Knights’ suits of armor to early guns. By this time, we were famished and rolled on down to Sally Port Pizzeria. I ordered the La Vallette pizza with Maltese sausage and goat cheese, and Tex had the Genovese pizza with pesto, parma ham, and “too much green stuff” (haha!). There weren’t any seats available at the restaurant. So we carried our pizzas down to a bench by the fort, tore the napkin in half, and devoured the pies while hungry spectators eyed us.

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Next, we finally made our way to the historical Fort St. Elmo. Some crazy things happened there. During the Great Siege, where the Ottomans were surrounding the Knights Hospitaller who inhabited the island, the Ottomans succeeded in taking Fort St. Elmo. The Ottomans subsequently slaughtered the defenders and floated their bodies across the Grand Harbor on wooden crosses. Some Knights who still remained in another fort, which I’ll discuss later, answered their foes with cannonballs made of the heads of Ottomans. Pretty gory and sad.

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View from the fort

To end the day, we roamed the streets of Valletta, poked our heads into a couple of churches, and grabbed some pastizzi to take back to the apartment. Traditional Maltese pastizzi are crunchy, flaky pastries filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. When still warm from the oven, these little things are delightful!

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Inside the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Day 3 – A Place Called Victory

Well, actually, it has been called Birgu for its entire history and was renamed Vittoriosa about five centuries ago. Depending on who you are talking to, the town could be called either of those names. Personally, I like Vittoriosa, because it seems a fitting name for such a gloriously lovely town. Vittoriosa is built on one of the main peninsulas in the Grand Harbor and is known for its strong fortification, Fort St. Angelo. The town had a very medieval feel, with pale yellow stones paving the streets and covering the sides of houses. The Fort itself was more charming than an Italian villa. So charming that I told Tex he should become a Knight so that we could live there. (There is one resident Knight of the Order of St. John who has the privilege of doing so!)

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Defending Fort St. Angelo

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This is where I wanted to live in the Fort…

Fort St. Angelo was the fort I mentioned above where some knights remained after St. Elmo was taken in the Great Siege. It was here that the knights prevailed, hence the town’s name Vittoriosa.

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A quiet courtyard in the Fort

To wrap up our time there, we visited the Malta at War Museum, where we donned some hard hats to explore another underground network of bomb shelters. Malta was very heavily bombed by Axis planes during World War II, because of its critical location in the Mediterranean. The museum provided a unique look into the lifestyle of Maltese civilians during the War. Finally, we stopped in the town main square at the Café du Brazil, which served up our favorite meal of the trip… Maltese rabbit ravioli!

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That is the long and short of our most recent adventure. Thank you for taking the time to read it 🙂

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