Destination: Valletta, Malta
Where we stayed: Crown Princess
Best of: Jaw dropping, gorgeous church and tons of history
Worst of: Even the taxis stop for obligatory shopping trips.
When we booked the cruise, we had only the vaguest idea where Malta even was much less what was there. The tiny island nation lies just south of Sicily, Italy and has been the sight of some fairly significant events, particularly in Christian history. With a natural harbor of rocky fingers of land and it's strategic positioning in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta was an attractive target. The Carthaginians battled Rome from here and the Arabs, Normans, Germans, French and Spaniards all took turns taking over the islands. St. Paul shipwrecked here in 60 A.D. bringing Christianity with him.
The most important arrival came in 1530 when the Knights of St. John came. After suffering defeat in 1291, the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land and the Knights retreated to Rhodes where they regrouped and messed with Muslim trading routes. In 1522, Turkish Sultan Suleyman (the Magnificent) laid siege to the island and finally drove the Knights to Malta where they began rebuilding their ranks. By 1565, Suleyman came knocking again, this time with 35,000 soldiers against the 541 Knights and several thousand Maltese volunteers. After four months of intense fighting, the Knights still held the island leaving more than 30,000 Turkish troops dead and Suleyman retreating in disgrace. The Knights, coming from wealthy European families, brought their personal fortunes with them and spared no expense in building their palaces and churches and shaping Malta into what it is today.
We went with some friends and hired a taxi for a couple of hours to take us out to see a few of the islands sights outside of the town of Valetta. After making a quick stop at San Anton Palace & Gardens as well as the nearby glass blowing store (presumably so the driver could get a kickback) we headed out to the old capital of Mdina. The walled medieval city sits atop a plateau and served as the capital until Valetta was built by the Knights. The impressive cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul houses some interesting engravings and paintings including these panels.
After leaving Mdina, we make a quick stop at Santa Mariji Assumpta Church. Aside from it's massive size capped by the fourth largest Dome in the world, it's infamy comes from WWII. Since the island was a British colony from Napoleon days, Hitler saw it as a potential threat to his plans in Northern Africa. Italian and German planes bombed the island for 157 days straight. One stray bomb hit the dome of the church, wedged in but did not explode.
After our taxi tour of the island, we headed over to St. John's Cathedral. It may not look like much from the outside, but stepping inside reveals a Baroque interior that is simply stunning. It is one of the most impressive churches we have ever seen...and we have seen quite a few! In typical Baroque fashion, every square inch is covered...including the floors. The wealthy knights were expected to donate a gift to St. John's every time they were promoted or elected to office. Over 400 knights are buried in the floor; their marble tombs inlaid with semi-precious stones. The ceiling hosts a series of frescoes depicting the life of St. Paul from birth, though surviving the shipwreck, to his beheading. In either nave, there are intricate carvings depicting both saints as well as famous leaders in the history of Malta. Even the famous renaissance painter Caraviaggo came here for a short time and left a couple of masterpieces behind - The beheading of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome III; the former is considered his masterpiece and the only one he signed. Upstairs in the museum, lies choir books from the 1200s and massive tapestries depicting the life and times of Jesus. In a separate small room to the back sits an unassuming silver urn, said to contain the right hand of John the Baptist - the very one that touched Jesus.
The last couple of hours we checked out a nice little garden overlooking the harbor, checked our email, and wandered around the charming little town. Back on board, the ship set sail for our next port...Sicily! One last thing to mention is that the sail away is beautiful, if you come here on a cruise don't miss it!