Once joined by land to mainland Italy with a heavy Sicilian influence, and now accessible by ferry is the Maltese Archipelago floating in the central Mediterranean Sea. Seven tiny islets make up the Maltese Archipelago, with the largest island of Malta and its much smaller sister island of Gozo having been occupied by human habitation as early as 5000 BC. The even smaller island of Comino is visible by ferry as you travel to and from Malta and Gozo, and is a summer haven for day trippers. The remaining four islands are uninhabited.
The island country of Malta is one of the world’s smallest countries, with an area of only 27 x 14.5km yet is the fourth most densely populated country. This small yet strategically important island nestled within Maltese archipelago has like many parts of the Mediterranean had a long and turbulent history and played a vital role in the successive struggles for power and domination of this region and the interplay between emerging Europe and the older cultures of Africa and the Middle East. Maltese society has been shaped by centuries of foreign rulers bringing different cultures that have left an impressive collection of UNESCO-anointed sites, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Swabians, Aragonese, Hospitallers, French and the British. In 1974, Malta became an independent island country and a member of the European Union in 2004.
I’ve made my way to Malta to attend three days training in Ħamrun, Malta’s second most densely populated area and one of the islands oldest townships, dating back to the early 1400s. It’s a short bus ride away from the northern city of Mosta, where I choose to stay.
Day one of training and I learn that Mosta is only an hour and a half walk away from Ħamrun.
A short walk from where I stayed is the centre of Mosta and the Rotunda of Mosta, being the third largest unsupported dome in the world and is Malta’s largest church; one of 359 churches located across Malta and Gozo. The bus stops just across the street and I take a look inside to admire the exquisite interior dome.
The Rotunda of Mosta, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon was completed in 1860 and dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. During this visit seating was being arranged for an evening service, and parts of the Rotunda was roped off so I decided to come back in a few days with a friend and learn more about the history and what has been deemed a miracle of the ornate architecturally designed church that was officially named The Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady by the Vatican in 2018.
The following day after training, I had the opportunity to take a late afternoon stroll with two other training attendees taking in the views from the ancient fortified city of Mdina, also known as Città Vecchia or Città Notabile, meaning Noble City. A much favoured residence by the Maltese aristocracy that served as Malta’s capital during antiquity through to the medieval era.
Entering the hilltop walled medieval city through the ancient Mdina Gate (Maltese: II- Bieb tal-Imdina), also known as the Main Gate into the fortified city of Mdina really is a unique feeling. Ever step leads you through a time dripping with exquisite beauty and richness with intrinsic and ornate architecturally designed buildings. The shadowy and mysterious golden stoned Arabic walled city with hidden lanes and beautiful architectural detail is a unique contrast to Malta’s current capital Valletta. Within its walls you’ll find an ancient citadel from as long ago as 1000BC when the Phoenicians settled in the area and built a protective wall around their settlement, known as Malet, meaning ‘place of shelter’.
The Romans then followed and built a larger town and renaming the area Melita. The Arabs then arrived in the 9th century and built stronger walls, giving the ancient city its present name, Mdina; Arabic for ‘walled city’. The Arabs also dug a moat around the external walls creating a border between Mdina and the surrounding lower lying suburbs, including Rabat.
With the arrival of the ‘Knights of St John’, in 1530, having been given the island by the King of Sicily; Charles I of Spain; the knights choose the sea-based harbour of Valletta as their centre of activity, thus leading to the demise of this immaculately keep city to become known as ‘The Silent City’.
The outer moat has now been filled and landscaped to create an enjoyable walk, and also used as an open air venue for festivals. I learn that many of the existing dwellings are still held by the nobility and original family owners, having been passed down through the generations.
A short walk along narrow lanes that are adorned with stone statues, some with covered ornate painted and decorated awnings.
Picturesque potted flowers drape the balconies of brightly coloured French styled doors.
Ornate architectural details are evidence of a rich and prestigious history.
The St. Pauls Cathedral, located in Pjazza San Pawl was closed at the time of my visit. The cathedral is said to have been built on the site of a villa belonging to Pubilius, who was the Roman governor of Malta and had welcomed St Paul in AD60.
The original Norman style church was severely damaged during an earthquake in 1693. Parts of the building however survived, leading to a decision to dismantle the old cathedral and rebuild it in the Baroque style that is seen today.
Following the lanes that meander through Mdina we found ourselves at the rear gate that is decorated with reliefs of St. Publius, St. Agatha and St. Paul all regarded as patron saints of Malta.
The strong hold city walls that have protected the inner city sanctum over the years.
Leaving the wonders of Mdina, we take a drive along the coastal road of the Dingli Cliffs, 253 metres above sea-level; the highest point on the island.
Stopping awhile to take in and enjoy a sunset over the Mediterranean Sea.
With the day having turned to night, we made our way to the township of Rabat to enjoy dinner at the 17th century aristocratic townhouse that has been converted into the Ristorante Cosmana Navarra. The building belonged to Cosmana Navarra (1600 – 1687), from whom the building is named and stands adjacent to the Rabat parish church of St. Paul.
It was my third and last day of training and having taken note of the bus route for the past two days, I decided to walk the one and a half hour journey from Mosta to Ħamrun in the morning passing through a number of suburban areas including Santa Venera and the beautiful terrace homes that line the streets.
The ornate Parish Church of St. Cajetan of Thiene in Ħamrun constructed between 1869 and 1875 that is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Cajetan.
The outer lying street scene along Triq il-Kbira San Ġużepp in Ħamrun and a different style of terrace homes lining the streets, with various businesses occupying the street level.
On the return afternoon journey I found myself making my way through the suburb of Birkirkara another of Malta’s older suburbs.
Passing along Triq il-Kbira San Ġużepp where the front doors to the houses open to the Wignacourt aqueduct. The aqueduct was built by the Order of Saint John to carry water from springs in Dingli and Rabat to the then newly built capital of Valletta. The construction of the 29,000 yard (26.5km) aqueduct was completed in 1615 and named after the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt who contributed to financing its construction.
Today, sections of the long arched aqueduct has been repurposed to accommodate car parking for houses along the busy road.
Having completed the training that I came to Malta to attend, I made my way by bus and ferry to the island of Gozo to explore and enjoy seven days/nights, staying in the township of Nadur.
Whilst, staying in Malta I didn’t have an opportunity to spend much time in the islands capital Valletta, one of Europe’s smallest cities. This beautiful walled city that was created in the 1500s on the Sciberras peninsula by the Knights of St John was a purpose built city to be used as a refuge for soldiers returning from the Crusades. So after four days enjoying the grandeur, grace and a quieter pace in Gozo, I made my way back via ferry and local bus to spend a day enjoying and experiencing the sights of Valletta.
It was during the 16th and 17th centuries, under rule of the Knights of Malta (Hospitallers), the island of Malta and its new capital of Valletta progressed as a maritime hub. By the late 17th century, Valletta and other townships had become prosperous maritime centres.
With the rapid growth of the capitals dockyard complex came the British occupation during 1800 –1964, bringing ongoing development of new settlements around the Grand Harbour. This expansion continued into the 20th century to include the Sliema region, just north of Marsamextt Harbour, and by the 21st century became the most chic area of Malta having become a commercial and tourist centre. The whole area of Valletta, covering 550,000 m2 is now recognised as a UNESCO heritage site. With the islands independence in 1964, and the beginning of industrial estates and joining of major villages increased urbanisation, for residential developments all across the small island and its central areas fast becoming the densely populated areas that are seen today.
Of the 359 churches found across Malta and Gozo, 28 churches can be seen within the city area.
Our Lady of Victories Church (Maltese: Knisja tal-Vittorja), was the first church built in Valletta. It was built on the location where a religious ceremony was held to inaugurate the laying of the foundation stone of the new city in March, 1566, and commemorates the victory over the Turks during a period known as the Great Siege of 1565.
Step inside to admire the beautiful frescoes adorning the high ceiling.
There is much to see as I roam the lanes of the old city and make my way down the stone staircase to Victoria Gate. The only surviving gate of what were originally five gates within the fortified city walls, and build by the British in 1885 in honour of Queen Victoria.
Walking through St. George’s Square (Maltese: Misrah San Gorg), the main square and home to what was once the Grandmaster’s Palace: Palace of the Grand Master of the Order of St. John and passing by the De Rohan drinking fountain c.1790.
Past the parish church of St. Augustine (Maltese: II-Knisja ta Sant Wistin), being one on the many churches built during the creation of the new city.
Whilst, on my way to see the St Paul’s Pro Cathedral (Maltese: II-Pro_Katridral ta’ San Pawl). It was interesting to learn the meaning behind the definition ‘pro-cathedral’; something as simple as a church with cathedral status.
The pro-cathedral was commissioned by Queen Adelaide in the 19th century to provide Anglican services to worshipers, who had previously only been able to attend services in a room within the Grand Master’s Palace.
The pro-cathedral columns are a trademark of the Corinthian order. The name Corinthian is derived from the ancient Greek city of Corinth.
Note: the spire rising over the building at a height of 60 metres is a city landmark that is notably visible in the Marsamett Harbour.
Taking a stroll along the steeped street of St. Dominic, I then find myself gazing out across St Elmo Bay coastline and noticed a diver in the clear crystal water’s edge.
Nestled amongst the ornately designed terrace house along St. Paul street stands the modest entrance to the Catholic church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, (Maltese: Chiesa del Naufragio di san Paolo). This impressive and well-known 16th century church that is dedicated to St. Paul is one of the oldest Roman Catholic parish churches in Malta.
Stepping inside is quiet breathtaking and is filled with marble, gold and exquisite artistic treasures.
Looking up is a sight to behold with the beautiful frescoes adorning much of the ceilings, whilst the outer terrace offers impressive views across the rooftops.
The church also holds notable records of baptisms, marriages, deaths and the parish family book; known as Animarun (State of Souls), a register of parishioners living in the parish and events relating to them. A very interesting characteristic held by the Roman Church that was maintained by the parish priests from as early as 1595 through to 1859.
A stone’s throw away I find myself in St John’s Square and standing in front of the 16th century St. John’s Co Cathedral (Maltese: Kon-Katidral ta’ San Ġwann). Commissioned in 1572 by a Grand Master of the Order of St. John, the co-cathedral shares the bishop’s seat function with the Roman Catholic, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. The strong military style façade cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the St John Order.
You’ll see one of its towers houses three clocks. The first and largest showing the time, whilst the second and third show the present day and the week.
However, don’t let the façade design deceive you. Within the walls you’ll find exquisite artistic pieces bringing the Baroque style of architecture to life, including the Beheading of St. John, an internationally recognised masterpiece by Caravaggio. Together with several gifts and inheritances left by the various Knights that further embellish the grandeur of the cathedrals interior, that is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe.
The Dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, (Maltese: Bażilika Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu) represents another of Malta’s most famous churches (and there are many). The striking dome stands proud across the city skyline and the Marsamett Harbour.
Photo credit: https://www.pikist.com/free-photo-vkefp
The high pointed steeple standing 42 metre makes for an impressive sight, however step inside to admire the impressive dome ceiling, interior paintings and the striking red marble columns.
The Republic Square, (Maltese: Misraħ ir-Repubblika) as the official name, was originally known as Piazza Tesoreria. Being the treasury of the Order of St. John was located in the square, however after the statue of Queen Victoria was installed in the 19th century, the square was renamed as Queen’s Square or Pizza Regina.
This popular outdoor cafés area that is also home to the Bibliotheca (The National Library of Malta) looks a little too busy for me.
So, I make my way down a side lane to M&S Café for a simple bite to eat.
There is still so much more to explore and see.
The sights and treasures of the city are all within a short walk away from any starting.
The Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, commonly known as the Church of St. Catherine of Italy.
A Roman Catholic Church built by the Hospitaller Langue of Italy and serves as the parish church for the many Italian expat community of Malta.
It’s nearing late afternoon, and I wanted to see the spectacular views from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, (Maltese: Il-Barrakka ta’ Fuq). Beautiful views of the Grand Harbour, Fort St. Angelo and a quieter pace amongst a manicured landscape, despite the many people around.
Leaving the gardens, I then made my way back to the bus station for the return journey by ferry to Gozo.
I returned to Malta the following day to meet with a friend and wonderful guide to visit The Ta’ Ħaġrat temples in Mġarr, one of a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites of the mystic Mysteries of Another Age.
We also spent time visiting the Mosta Dome which was greatly welcomed having had limited time during my first visit. Francis a knowledgeable Maltese local shared his knowledge of the sacred geometry where math and imagination meet with the intrinsic and painted design of the dome and the floor tiling.
The 61 metre high and 39.6 meter wide free standing dome is the third largest unsupported dome in the world. The design was inspired by Rome’s Pantheon with six iconic columns, influenced by the Ancient Greeks, and use of the Corinthian order for the columns. This beautiful architecturally designed church was built around the then existing renaissance church, that no longer had the capacity to serve the growing population and to not disrupt parishioner services. The original church also held burial vaults beneath the foundations and any disruption to the deceased was heavily frowned upon. Following the completion of the Rotunda, the original still functioning church was dismantled in February, 1860 with the burial vaults still intact.
Standing on the Maltese Star tiled centre point floor and looking up to the centre point of the dome surrounded by painted blue, gold and white interior whilst surrounded by the tranquillity of the rotunda provides an immense sense of inspiration. The building is a credit to neoclassical architecture and those who masterfully created a church of such elegance and beauty. To the long standing and deeply rooted Christian faith held by many in the Maltese community of which the local Mosta parishioner community holds ownership of the many vibrant coloured internal statues and other religious ornamental elements.
Today the Mosta Dome is celebrated for its miracle. That being, during WWII when a half tonne aerial bomb pierced the dome during a service with 300 parishioners in attendance. The bomb having dropped into the church never exploded and no one inside was hurt or injured. Damages were carefully restored and the locals regarding the event as a miracle.
When visiting the Mosta Rotunda be sure to pop into the small museum where you’ll find a replica of the bomb that fell through the dome. Nowadays, the sounds of the bells ring on the anniversary of the auspicious occasion.
An enjoyable and delightful day and end to my time staying in Malta. For now it’s time to make my way to Gozo for the next ten days of my stay in this magical and mystical part of the world.
This blog is the first of a three part series of posts sharing my time visiting the Maltese Archipelago and the many and varied cultural imprints that have been left by others throughout the centuries. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and historically enriching part of the world.
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