Entries tagged with “travel notes in Malta”.

The last episode of the Maltese travel notes is dedicated to the former capital of Malta – Mdina and the adjoining village of Rabat. We visited them in our last full day on the island.

the old city of Mdina

Mdina was populated as early as the year 700 BC and may have been founded by the Phoenicians. It was the capital of the island until after the Grand Siege, when the knights moved their principal institutions in the fortified city of Valletta.

Mdina Main Gate

The city today has no more than 300 inhabitants, but the surrounding Rabat has a population of 11,000. The entrance to the city is made through a spectacular gate, more beautiful than the access gate in Valletta.

in the streets of the old city of Mdina

The old city offers the traditional views of narrow streets in former medieval city. A tourist accustomed with the old city of Jerusalem will not feel displaced here at all.

knights are still walking the streets

There is a lot of tourist exploitation going on in the old city. Photo opportunities with armored knights is one of them.

St. Paul's Cathedral

The most important building in the city is the imposing Cathedral of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Saint Paul is the patron of Malta. Arrested in Jerusalem in the year 60 for preaching the new Christian faith through the Eastern part of the Roman empire he was sent to trial to Rome, but on its way to the capital of the world at that time the ship was wrecked and Paul saved himself on the island, living according to the legend in a grotto in Rabat. He converted the governor and thus introduced Christianity to the island, but later was captured again and sent to Rome to be killed during the reign of Nero.

interior of the St. Paul's cathedral

The current impressing building was built in Baroque style by the end of the 17th century, after an earthquake destroyed a previous church built by the Normans on the same place. Here took place the inauguration ceremonies of the Grand Masters of the knights Order of Saint John.

floor of the St. Paul Cathedral

We had the last opportunity to admire here the tombs on the floor of the cathedral, specific to the religious art of Malta.

dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral

The decoration of the church is due to a large extent to the Calabrese painter Mattia Preti, among other beautiful frescoes depicting episodes from the life of Saint Paul.

Madonna and Child icon (13th century)

An old icon of Madonna and Child is one of the beautiful objects of art saved from the previous church destroyed in the quake.

Mosaic in the Roman Domus

another Mosaic in the Roman Domus

Out of the city of Mdina we visited the principal objectives in Rabat, the adjoining village. One of them is the Roman Domus, actually a 20th century reconstruction of a Roman villa, hosting a beautiful museum on the ruins of a 1st century townhouse built during the Roman epoch. The mosaics are exquisite, with both decorative motives as well as figurative symbolic representations.

statue of Claudius - Roman Domus

Among the statues a splendid statue of emperor Claudius.

theatrical masks - Roman Domus

Theatrical masks remind one of the favorite pastimes of the Roman inhabitants of the place.

Saint Paul's Catacombs

Saint Paul's Catacombs - 2

One almost mandatory stop in Rabat are the Roman catacombs, named somehow inaccurately Saint Paul Catacombs. They do not have too much with Saint Paul, in reality they were the burial places of the city of Mdina for a few centuries, as Roman law forbid burial inside the city. Today they are well within the streets of Rabat, but then they were safely remote from the walls of Mdina.  The underground labyrinth of corridors and burial chambers may have some macabre fascination, but it’s not my preferred kind of visiting objective.

the train does not come today

We did not miss the touristic minicar train ride of the city, which took us around the whole Mdina and Rabat and allowed us a few spectacular photo angles. One of the interesting objectives was the deserted train station. There is no train service today in Malta, and no need for one on an island whose diameter is 40 or 50 kilometers at most. Yet the British tried to build one during their rule, but it proved to be totally uneconomic and was abandoned after the second world was.

That was our last day in Malta. Early next morning Mr. David, the hotel driver took us back to the airport, to start our way home via Athens. It was the end of a visit in an interesting place, very much worth visiting once, probably not more than once.

I have heard for the first time about Gozo when I bought on Amazon one of the tour guides in preparation for the trip. The title was ‘Malta and Gozo’. What in the world is Gozo, I asked myself. The answer is of course that Malta is an archipelago, and Gozo is the second island in size (67 square kilometers) and a population of 31,000 inhabitants out of the about 400,000 total population of Malta. The third one in size if you ask has a population of six (one is a policeman, crime rate must be high).

the ferryboat to Gozo

The connection between the island of Malta and Gozo is by means of ferryboat. It’s not necessarily my preferred travel experience, although the ferry between the two Maltese islands seems well run and maintained, I was lucky to see Polanski‘s Ghost Writer only after this trip.

the harbor of Mgarr

We took a organized trip, which is probably best to see Gozo, and one day is more than sufficient. The minibus waited for us at the harbor of Mgarr, which has a spectacular location, very Mediterranean in style.

the dome of Xewkija

The first stop was in the village of Xewkija, where the driver and guide of our tour was living. The village has a population of 3000 and a Rotunda church with a dome larger in size than the one of St. Paul’s in London.

admire God's creation

A welcome sign at the entry of the church invited us inside.

inside the Rotunda church of Xewkija

It is in fact man’s creation dedicated to God, rather than God’s creation. I have already written about the deep catholic feelings of the Maltese, and the church in Xewkija is a good exemplification. It was built during 20 years, between 1951 and 1971 and was all funded from money coming from the Catholic community of the village. All 3000 inhabitants have room in the church at the big events of the Catholic calendar.

stained-glass window in Xewkija

Not only its size, but also many of the interior decoration and pieces of religious art are remarkable. Of course, it is not the first church on this place, several other preceded it in the history, and part of the art objects previously used in these churches are preserved in the small museum of the church.

from the roof of the Rotunda church in Xewkija

One can climb the stairs or take the elevator to the roof of the church. The viewer is rewarded with the 360 degrees landscape of a large part of the island.

Gharb folklore museum

Our next stop was in the folklore museum in Gharb. It is quite a typical museum of ethnography, hosted by a 18th century house. The visitor will find here the typical sections in such museums about local crafts and costumes, some interesting, but presented in quite a dusty style.

Gozo wine

We did not have unfortunately the occasion to taste the wines of Gozo, just to photo the stand in a place where they were sold.


I already wrote in another episode about the megalithic temples of Ggigantija. The island is populated for 5000 years.

Dwejra Bay, Azure window

Our next stop was in the spectacular Dweira bay with the Azure window and the interior lagoon carved in the limestone rock that dominates the geology of the island (as of the whole Malta). It is beautiful, reminding the Rosh HaNikra cave in the North of Israel.

Calypso's Boutique

The island of Gozo is also known as the island of Calypso, so the tour included the place where the legend says the nymph imprisoned Ulysses for seven years. Not too much can be seen there, just the entrance of a cave in a hill by the sea, so I preferred to put here a picture of … Calypso’s Boutique.

John Paul II greets us in Victoria

The capital of Gozo is Victoria, or Rabat as it was known during the Arab rule. The Citadel which is an old city fortification is the tourist center of interest, and this was our last stop on the island.

inside the Gozo Cathedral of Assumption

The Cathedral of Assumption dominates the Citadel. It was built in 1697-1703, by Lorenzo Gafa, and it’s another wonderful piece of religious architecture and includes many of the characteristics of the other churches in Malta, including the elaborated tombs on the floor.

Gozo cathedral - ceiling and trompe-vue

The art of the ceiling with a spectacular trompe-vue impressed me.

good-bye, Gozo

The way back was by ferry-boat again, a 20 minutes trip which brought us back to the main island.

If there is time for just one museum visit in Malta or Valletta I recommend it to be in the National Museum of Archeology.

(video source heartofmalta)

Located on the Republic Street, the 5th Avenue of Valletta which divides the city grid into two almost symmetrical halves, the museum is hosted by one of the beautiful palaces built by the architect of the co-cathedral Gerolama Cassan, the Auberge de Provence which was hosting the Provencal knights when coming into Malta. The palace was renovated by the end of the last century and the entrance hall and its beautiful painted ceiling is a great example of the architecture of the palaces of the first period after the foundation of the city.

auberge de Provence - entry hall

The collection of the museum covers several historical periods, however the megalithic finds section is by far the richest and the most extensive, with both a comprehensive and well documented timeline of the ancient history of the island, as well as a richness of objects and artifacts that document each period, plus a few exceptional top findings, among the most exquisite objects of such kind in the world.

Ghar Dalam animal heads

The first populations in the island were the agricultural and shepherds inhabitants who left the artifacts at Ghar Dalam from the period between 5200 and 4500 BC. They were related to the inhabitants of Sicily from the same Neolithic period, and actually objects found on site show that they were navigating or part of a cross-Mediterranean commerce that put them in contact with other civilizations of the same period.

red Skorba figurine

The immediate next period is well characterized by findings at Skorba. The figurines from the Red Skorba period (4400 – 4100 BC) are the first representations of human bodies found here, they are very similar to the Cyclades figurines again indicating a possible commerce and cultural interference, and were probably religious cult object.

fragment from the Hypogeum

One of the most famous Megalithic objectives to visit on the island of Malta is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum with its monument and underground cemetery. It accommodates a limited number of visitors each day, and the waiting queue was a few weeks even in the out-of-season period when we visited Malta. Luckily the National Museum of Archeology has documentation and a few artifacts brought from that place that we could see and learn about it.

Hagar Quim Altar

The Hagar Quim Altar is another example of a valuable object, brought in this case from a place that we had already visited. The form and dimensions of the altar are very similar to ones in works by Brancusi, and it left me wondering if the Romanian had maybe seen photos of the monuments and made me see in a different perspective some of his stone works.

animal representation

The period of maximal development of the temples civilizations in Malta bring up some of the most representative objects of artistic expression of the stone and bronze ages. Representations of animals – mostly domestic as there were few wild beasts on the small surface of the island are typical for a culture that made of growing animals one of the principal sources of living.


Back to human representation, some of the heads of the Temples period (4000 – 2500 BC) are superb.

standing statues

Many of the human representations were however having cult destination as are the standing statues from Tarxien and other places which presumably are fertility goddesses.

seated statues

A similar group of seated statues drew my attention as a proof that Botero did not really invent anything.

The Sleeping Lady

The absolute masterpiece of the Maltese Temple period art of The Sleeping Lady, discovered in the Hypogeum. It is interpreted representation of Death, the Eternal Sleep, but can also be viewed as a precursor of the Goya’s Majas and other reclined women portraits in the history of art.

The Venus of Malta

The Venus of Malta discovered at Hagar Quin is another representative piece of work, of an astonishing realism. Well, it may look different than Venus of Milo, or maybe beauty standards changed in the thousands of years in-between.

sarcophagi from Tarxien

The last great period of Megalithic art is the one represented by works from Tarxien, around 2500 BC. After that time the great period of the megalithic temples ends abruptly. The causes are not clear, maybe a natural catastrophe, maybe diseases, maybe over-exploitation of the natural resources. Ancient history of Malta ends here in any case, and so did our visit through the most interesting sections of this beautiful and recommended museum in Valletta.

I love to visit art museums. Big ones and small ones. Famous and anonymous. In the big metropolis of the world or in remote places. Visiting an art museum (at least 0ne) is an almost mandatory part of a trip, of my exploration of a new place. When I am in a lesser known museum I look for the local artists, I try to learn as much as I can about the history of the institution, and about the role of art in the life of the place.

The National Museum of Fine Arts

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta is located not far from the gate of the city, in a beautiful baroque palace located on South Street. It is one of the oldest mansions of the city, built in 1571. During the years of the British rule it hosted the Admiralty House and Winston Churchill is said to have been its guest.  It became home of the most important art institution in Malta in 1974.

(video by PhoeniciaHotel)

The Museum of Valletta was founded in 1903, and its fine arts section became the National Museum of Fine Arts and moved in the location on South Street in 1974. It was the dream and deed Vincenzo Bonello who built the collection and led the fine arts section for much of the century. Unfortunately he did not live to see it in the beautiful home today. A short film about the man and the museum he created is available on YouTube.

inside the museum

The collection of the museum is strong in works that are inspired by Caravaggio, although no work of the master who spent two years in Malta (1607 to 1609) can be found here. We can however see works of Guido Reni or Mattia Preti -  the latest with an impressive gathering of Bible inspired art which can be seen at http://www.maltaart.com/pretismall/html/list_of_works.html

Maltese Prie-Dieu

Before getting to the paintings that seemed to be more interesting although out of the beaten path here is a beautiful piece of religious furniture from the 17th century, called a ‘prie-Dieu’ – you can imagine the knight or the noble man or lady kneeling in prayer and keeping his Bible (and maybe other artifacts) in its drawers.

the crystal sword

Two beautiful pieces of arms that could never be used in war are exposed at the first floor of the museum, near the superb spiral staircase. These are a sword and a dagger made of crystal, with exquisite ornaments that were a present by king Philip the 5th of Spain to the Knights of St. John, in sign of the special relation of friendship and protection between the kingdom of Spain and the island of the knights.

Le Valentin - Judith and Holofornes

One of the most caravaggian works in the museum belongs to Valentin de Boulogne (Le Valentin) is ‘Judith and Holofornes’ which matches the painting of Caravaggio which I had seen in Rome a few days earlier at the retrospective at Quirinale.

Jusepe de Ribera - St. Francis of Paola

Jusepe de Ribera also known as Lo Spagnoletto is also considered a disciple of Caravaggio. I like his style sometimes called ‘Tenebrist’ and works who seem to me to be a balancing act between the darkness of the Inquisition-haunted Spain he came from and the ideals of Renaissance of the Italy he lived and created much of his life. The portrait of St. Francis of Paola that can be found in the museum in Valletta is fascinating.

Venetian School - Flowers in a Vase

I am no big fan of floral arrangements paintings, but this painting from a 18th century Venetian school master drew my attention.

Louis Ducros - View of the Great Harbor

Local landscapes take a deserved place in the collection. Above is a painting of the Great Harbour of Valletta as painted by the Swiss Louis Ducros at the beginning of the 20th century.

Eugenio Maccagnani - Leah

Out of the more recent collection of art here is a piece by Italian sculptor Eugenio Maccagnani from the beginning of the 20th century.

facade of St. John's Co-Cathedral

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is not only the most visited tourist attraction on the island, but also one of the most beautiful churches and religious monuments in Europe. It is located in the center of the city of Valletta and was built between the years 1573 and 1578, the years of the foundation of the city following the Grand Siege of Malta. Its austere exterior reminds a military fortification, and this is no coincidence. The architect who was commissioned with designing and building the church was Gerolamo Cassar. Descendant of a well known Maltese family, Cassar was a knight, a military architect and an inventor of military machines during the siege. His architectural contributions to the shape took by the city of Valletta include beside the Co-Cathedral the Palace of the Grand Masters and several of the knights auberges – actually palaces that are today part of the Valletta original look.

the Co-Cathedral Interior

The simple exterior makes even stronger the impact of the viewer with the rich decoration, opulence and elegance of the Baroque style interior. Much of the design of the interior is attributed to master Mattia Preti, who also authored some of the paintings in the chapels and ceiling. The big WOW reaction of many of the visitors is by no means exaggerated. Some of the relief and decorations are not built separately and applied to the structure, but carved directly in the limestone which is the material of building of choice in Malta, the church being no exception.

tombstones in the Co-Cathedral floor

It is not only the walls but also the floor of the co-cathedral that impresses the visitors. Inlaid marble tombs cover the almost the whole surfaces, and each of the tombs is a work of art by itself, inviting admiration for their beauty and reflection about the passing nature of life and things in this world.



On the two sides of the church there are several splendid chapels, each one richly decorated with paintings, sculptures and carvings. Eight of them are dedicated to the eight langues that were used by the knights of St. John coming from the different nations of Europe.

a Grand Master's Tomb

Also of a great beauty are some of the tombs of the Grand Masters and bishops who are buried in the church. For more than two centuries between the inauguration until the occupation of the island by Napoleon’s army the church hosted the throne of the Grand Master. During the British rule this was taken over by the governor, and now it belongs to the bishop, who shares his time between this church and the one in Mdina, hence the designation of the church as a co-cathedral.

Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio - source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_Co-Cathedral

The museum of the cathedral hosts several remarkable pieces of art as well as objects and documents related to the functions and history of the building. The cornerstones of the collection are beyond any doubt the two works of Caravaggio painted during the artist’s stay here in 1607 and 1608. Running away from Rome where he had killed a man in a street fight, Caravaggio arrived here and was made in a short time knight (quite an exception as he was no soldier and not of noble origin) and commissioned to paint several works among which the two kept nowadays in the cathedral museum. He soon got himself again into trouble, fought a fellow knight, was arrested and imprisoned, to escape in 1608 from prison and from the island. He was promptly expelled from the order. Seeing the two works at their original place was a beautiful continuation of the visit I had paid a few days ago at the great Caravaggio retrospective at Quirinale in Rome.

St. Jerome Writing by Caravaggio - source http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/caravaggio.html

The co-cathedral has a beautiful web site - http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/

The relative isolation of Malta as an island in the center of the Mediterranean, while still accessible to navigation allowed for the early development of a civilization that built an impressive number of monuments comparable to the Stonehenge megalithic structures, as well as to their preservation in time, relatively better kept ways from the invasions and conquests that overturned the earth of Europe.

Hagar Qim

There are 17 such sites on the islands of Malta and Gozo, five of them are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and considered among the oldest religious sites on the surface of Earth. The period when they were built extends from 3600 BC in the stone age to 2500 BC in the bronze age. The population that built the temples came around 4500 BC from Sicily. By 2500 the Temple Culture disappears, and the reasons are not clear – natural catastrophe, disease, or social unrest. What is known is that after that date the settlements start to look very similar to other neighboring bronze age structures, and the usage of the temples is completely abandoned. The ruins are rediscovered in the 18th and 19th century, when they begin to be studied scientifically.

altar at Hagar Qim

The first site that we visited was Hagar Qim, located on a hill near the Southern coast of the island. The structure is nowadays protected from rain and winds by a metallic tent-like structure. A visitors center is yet to be built with European funds, actually we encountered this type of announcement in several other places, it looks like investments were made, work started, but not completed at least until the time we visited there. There are three separate structure grouped in a flower-like shape, with utility rooms, and other enclosures whose destination can only be supposed nowadays.


temple entrance at Mnajdra

walls at Mnajdra

At a distance of 500 meters from Hagar Qin stands the temple of Mnajdra. It is built actually earlier than Hagar Qin, but the stronger coraline limestone used allowed for better preservation. There seem to be three temple structures in Mnajdra as well, but they are arranged in line. The form of the entrance and the remains of the pillars indicate that a vaulted roof covered the whole complex.

goddess at Tarxien

sarcophagus at Tarxien

The Tarxien temples that we visited the next day as part of our guided tour are located in the village, so there is no good perspective of the original emplacement. We can find here again three temples, the most recent of the ones we visited, well, relatively recent, built between 3200 and 2800 BC in the bronze age. Many of the objects that were found here at the begining of the 20th century were taken to the Museum of Archeology in Valletta and museums in the US, but a few interesting ones are left – like the legs of a statue of the goddess of fertility, and a sarcophagus that indicates that the place was also a burial place. Other artifacts indicate that animal sacrifices were practiced in the temple, probably part of the religious rituals.

Ggantija walls

The last impressive site we visited was Ggantija, on the island of Gozo, where we arrived in the sixth day of our trip. That site is maybe the most spectacular that we have seen, and also the one that reminds mostly Stonehenge, with one massive round structure. It was built between 3600 and 3000, and it is being said to have hosted oracles, and considered to be a magic temple, with healing powers. A sacred permanent fired was maintained in the altars.

the altars inside the Ggantija temples

Unfortunately, we missed the Hypogeum site, which is an underground site which is said to be very impressive. A limited number of visitors can enter that site each day, and bookings must be made days in advance. However, we have seen a number of beautiful pieces of art and cult at the Museum of Archeology in Valletta, which will be the subject of a future episode.