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EASTER WITH THE KNIGHTS OF ST. JOHN

April 18th, 2012 1 comment

Destiny arrived at Grand Harbor Marina in Malta on Maundy Thursday.  We needed a spring “shake down” cruise and heading south 50 NM from Destiny’s winter home in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily to spend Easter weekend in Malta seemed perfect. 

Our sails are full once again. . .

and Kent is a happy captain.

Malta and neighboring Gozo are steeped in history being situated at the cross roads of Europe and the African continent, but are best known for the several hundred years that the Knights of St. John occupied the islands.

Destiny is berthed at the end of Dock C which leads directly to the Maritime Museum at Grand Harbor Marina, Malta. . .

which is currently undergoing an expansion.

In 1565 the Knights of St. John and Maltese residents, vastly outnumbered by the forces of Suleiman the Great defeated the Turks and their planned take over of the islands.  The Great Siege as it is known was a turning point in the island’s history and resulted in even more fortifications being built by the Knights.

Fort St. Angelo sits at the entrance to Great Harbor Marina and was part of the Great Siege.

Most of the Maltese population is Catholic and Easter is a particular cause for solemnity and joyous celebration on the island.

On Good Friday, it is tradition for the parish churches to stage elaborate processions that include life size statues depicting the Passion Play being carried through the streets.  On the waterfront of Grand Harbor in front of the marina is the Church of St. Lawrence (or San Lawrenz, as it is known to the Maltese).

The Church of St. Lawrence is to the right of the Maritime Museum and adjacent to the marina.

San Lawrenz Church. . .

raises colorful banners on Good Friday morning.

After a several hour service commemorating the crucifixion and death of Christ, the parishioners take to the streets at 6 p.m. carrying massive wooden structures on their shoulders that portray Christ’s life in the final days of his life. 

People gather outside the church waiting for the procession. . .

and mingle with participants. . .

in Biblical dress. . .

and Roman finery.

Even with up to eight barrel-chested men carrying each structure, there are frequent rests stops.

The first float of the procession is carried by. . .

eight strong men.

There were a hundred or more people who participated in the procession, including small children. 

The life size statues of Christ are carried down the church steps and through the streets. . .

as onlookers line the streets. . .

watching the pagentry.

Both adults and children participate. . .

all with solemn expressions.

The Good Friday procession ends with Christ on the cross, and the expressions of the faces of everyone in the procession is mournful and sad.

As the sun sets. . .comes the most solemn part of the procession. . .as Christ on the cross is carried through the streets

preceded by Roman sentries.

 We were told that the roles played in this annual Passion Play are passed down from generation to generation within each parish.  The amazing thing is that nearly every parish on the island will stage the similar procession.  In Malta Good Friday is a national holiday. 

And then it was over. . .until next Good Friday.

On Easter Sunday we attended St. Paul’s Pro Cathedral in Valletta, built between 1839 and 1844 within the fortifications of Valletta.  St. Paul’s is one of only two Anglican Churches on the island of Malta, and most of its parishioners are expats from the United Kingdom & Ireland.  The Cathedral’s spire, which is quite distinctive on the skyline of Valletta escaped serious damage in the heavy bombardment during the Second World War when Malta was an Allied base.

Spire of St. Paul's Co-Cathedral. . .the Anglican Church in Valletta.

The interior simplicity of the Cathedral is in striking contrast to the opulence of the various Catholic parish churches we saw in Malta, not to mention St. John’s Co-Cathedral. 

St. Paul's Co-Catheral was simply decorated. . .

with candles. . .

and white calla lilies.

The architecture of the building was dramatic but not ornate, and the congregation very welcoming.

We stopped at St. John’s during the Easter service there and were overwhelmed by the ornate decoration of the building and the profusion of white flowers.

St. John's Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, with its simple lines belies the ornate interior.

After the church services we had Easter lunch at a restaurant on a large square just in front of the Grand Master’s Palace.

Malata Restaurant has outdoor tables or cozy interior space in a cave-like room.

We can highly recommend the French Lamb Shank in red wine reduction. . .and Fresh Grilled Swordfish

After our scrumptious Easter lunch, we toured The Grand Master’s Palace, built in the late 16th Century after the Great Siege when Valletta was founded.

Overlooking the courtyard at the Grand Masters Palace. . .

is a clock tower that also tells the day, month and phase of the moon.

The palace was occupied by the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John until 1798 when Napoleon invaded the island.  The Knights all but vanished after that, but the Palace State Rooms and Armory are open to the public and provide a glimpse back in time.

The Grand Masters Palace is filled with decorative surfaces. . .

The Grand Masters Palace is filled with decorative surfaces. . .

and coats of arms set into the floor. . .

that are cordoned off from footsteps in the Grand Hall lined by knights armor.

Being in Malta on Easter weekend and observing the intersection between the island’s religious and military history was particularly interesting.   The religious traditions date back hundreds of years to the Knights of St. John, but are very much a part of Malta’s modern identity.

But there is more to Malta. . .next post.

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MORE MALTA. . .

April 18th, 2012 No comments

There is much more to Malta than its religious celebrations for Easter,  and we spent several days exploring other aspects of the island.

Good Friday, which would end with the solemn procession,  dawned with bright sunshine and blue sky—perfect for touring the island.

First we set out in the dinghy to see the fortifications that make Valletta and its surroundings famous.  There is an impressive breakwater that shelters the entrance to Grand Harbor, one of the most well protected natural harbors in the Mediterranean.

We started our tour at Grand Harbor Marina. . .where Destiny was moored.

Grand Harbor Marina is on one of the so-called “Three Cities”—Birgu was also known a Vittoriosa after the Great Siege in 1565.  At the head of the peninsula created by Dockyard Creek and Kalkara Greek is Fort St. Angelo from which the Knights defended the island against the Sultan’s forces.

We left the "high rent" district in Grand Harbor Marina. . .

and took the dinghy to the other side of Valletta where we saw the spire of St. Paul's Co-Cathedral.

Fort St. Elmo and the fortifications a Valletta

On the Marsamxett Harbor side of Valletta are other marinas and boatyards, as well as a small gas station where we got fuel for the outboard.

We passed the fortification on Manoel Island. . .on the way to get gas. . .

and meandered through all the local boats on moorings.

The town of Sliema faces east to Valletta and is lined with high rise hotels and apartments catering to mostly Brits on holiday.  The street running along the waterfront is filled with tour buses and cafes–much more “touristy” than Vittoriosa.

Sliema is lined with hotels & condos. . .

has a wonderful view of Valletta.

After returning to the marina, we set out for Valletta by dghajsas, a small wood boat of ancient Maltese design that now serves as a water taxi.  A small outboard, mounted on the side makes the oars mostly ornamental.

One of the colorful, decorated traditional boats serving as a water taxis. . .

took us to Valletta--just 10 min. away across Grand Harbor. . .

which is a busy commercial port. . .

dominated by freighters and cruise ships that reach the height of the walls.

For 5 euros each we traveled the short distance from the marina to the commercial dock at Valletta, only to find that we were dropped off on a dock that was locked up tight because Good Friday, is a Maltese holiday.  We went from gate to gate trying to find a way out with no luck. 

I barely squeezed through a gate that opened about 10 inches on its chain, but when Kent tried to follow—no way!  So now he is on one side of the fence and I am on the other. Eventually, he found a place where he could climb over.

This was no easy fence to climb over.

Notice the spikes on the top of the fence that Kent climbed over. . .yikes!

Once outside we headed uphill to the town of Valletta.  Valletta was a planned city built after the Great Siege and heavily fortified.  The streets run parallel in grid-like fashion with Republic and Merchant Streets being the main thoroughfares.  There is little vehicle traffic permitted in the city.

Horse & buggy is another. . .

"Malta Experience" in Valletta.

On Good Friday, many of the historic buildings were closed for the holiday, but the streets and cafes were filled with people.

Queen Victoria's statue and ever present pidgeons, are focal points of one of Valletta's Squares.

The churches were preparing for the processions that would take place later in the day, but we had wonderful views of the marina at Birgu.

From highup in Valletta we caught a unique view of Fort St. Angelo and Grand Harbor Marina.

On Saturday, another perfect day for sightseeing, we took one of the red double-deck Malta Sightseeing buses from the marina. 

The double decker sightseeing bus was a great way to see the sights.

Hop-on, hop-off tours are a great way to see a lot in a short time, and at 15 euros per person are a good value too.

We hoped off at the village of Zejtun to visit the parish church. . .

where men stored the props from the Good Friday procession (in this case the golden ark). . .

and women cleaned the church in preparation for Easter.

Next we headed to the south shore of Malta, to a traditional fishing vilalge.

Marsaxlokk is a typical fishing village. . .that is post card perfect. . .

where outdoor dining in the shadow of the parish church. . .

and along the quay seemed more popular than fishing. . .the fleet was in.

Driving past rolling countryside, covered with yellow daisies as far as the eye can see we toured the south coast of Malta.

After miles of yellow daisies along the southern side of the island, . .

past St.Lucian's Tower. . .

to the rocky south shore of Malta near their own Blue Grotto. . .

but we decided to stay on board. . .it was getting to be lunch time.

Then we were back to Sliema with its highrises and cafes.

Sliema skyline. . .

is a backdrop for the tour buses. . .

and cafes surrounded by flowers.

Amid all the hustle and bustle of the Easter holiday, life in Malta, like life everywhere has an “everyday” aspect.

Flags remain at half staff, with laundry hanging underneath, until Easter Sunday. . .

making everyday laundry day in Malta!

One of the most surprising things about Malta was the language.  Given its long history as an English territory before becoming an independent country we expected English to be the predominant language.  The Maltese speak their own language, although most all speak English as a second language.  So as you stroll through the villages you rarely hear spoken English unless you initiate a conversation.

But some language is Universal. . .like little girls in pink.