Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 26th – One Knight in Valletta!

I don't think that there's any other city around the world that I've been to, that displays its history so obviously and impressively as Valletta. From the moment that you sail into its magnificent harbour, and you see its immense bastions, its golden stone palaces, and its splendid baroque churches, then you feel history all around you. And it's a fascinating history – of so many sieges and battles, and the glory years when this was the home of the Knights of St John.

Our plan today was to visit the Knights' ground zero – the Grandmasters Palace – however, Malta currently holds the Presidency of the EU; so, as the Palace doubles as the office of the President, then it was sadly off-limits to us. Maybe the battles over Brexit will be as vicious as anything Valletta has seen?

Instead, we headed to the spiritual home of the Knights – the hugely impressive St John's Co-Cathedral. From the outside, the Cathedral looks almost like a fortress – unadorned and forbidding. Yet, on the inside, it looks almost like a palace, so opulent is its decoration – the floor lined with the decorated marble tombstones of the nights, and its walls highly ornamented with gold-covered stone carvings, as the different nationalities of the Knights competed to outdo each other in their individual chapels.

Back in the 16th century, the Knights acted as a kind of European combined defence force, as the French, Spanish, Italian, German, and English Knights, each contributed their wealth and military expertise to defending Europe from the expanding Turks. In a forerunner of Brexit, the English Knights pulled out fairly quickly (after the reformation), while the order gradually began to lose its way from its original stated military purpose, and become more about spending money on itself (are there any parallels with the EU on this?).

But, the end result is that the Cathedral is a wonderful baroque confection of a building, that has the course of history running through it. For me, its most impressive feature are two masterpieces by Caravaggio – painted while this turbulent genius was on the run from a murder charge in Rome. Unfortunately, as he tried to become a Knight, Caravaggio couldn't stay out of trouble in Malta either; so, after yet another fight, he had to escape to Sicily. But, at least his legacy here in the Cathedral is two of his greatest ever works.

Exploring the Cathedral top to bottom was fairly tiring, so we did a bit more exploring of this golden city, before a much needed drinks break, and back to the ship for a rest. Because, that evening, we were joining the final Silversea Experience of the World Cruise, with a visit to "The Silent City" of Mdina, where we were being treated to a classical performance in the Cathedral.

The setting was superb, in this evocative frescoed cathedral, as the singers showed off its fabulous echoing acoustics to the max, with some great "Ave Marias" and "Agnus Deis". Like the island as a whole, the evening packed a lot into a small space – history, culture, and plenty of stirring sights and sounds.