Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Malta and Gozo photos - some favourites

The beach at Xlendi on Gozo.

Fort St Angelo early morning from Valletta.

Near the Victoria Gate, Grand Harbour, Valletta

Valletta streetscape looking towards Sliema

At rest, early morning.

Dr Who's Tardis near the Bridge Bar and above Victoria Gate
Fort St Angelo early morning.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Me Missing Malta

10 things I miss about Malta

1. The bustling street life within 100 metres of my front door day and night.
2. The sense of community that comes from living cheek by jowl with families and kids and grandparents who all look to say hello.
3. The choice of four family run taverns withing 100 metres.
4. Walking to the market to buy fresh fish from the local fishmonger
5. Being able to walk to one of three swimming spots withing five to ten minutes
6. Walking from one end of the city of Valletta to the other in 15 minutes.
7. Views of the Mediterranean and the everchanging harbour scene
8.  Cheap (E1.50 all day ticket) (sometimes unpredictable) bus services to every point on the island
9. The sense of history contained in every building and on every street corner.
10. The relaxed attitude to life. A siesta between 1
and 3pm is mandated.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Sally port - Malta Coat of arms.

Coat of arms of Malta
Coat of arms of Malta.svg
Armiger Republic of Malta
Adopted 1988
Crest A mural crown with a Sally port and five turrets or

Sally port is the entrance into the fortress.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Holy Malta! St Domenic sets the city alight.

St Dominic’s Festival (and my last post from Malta)

I was brought up Catholic. I was quite a devout young lad. Attendance at nine first Friday masses (first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months) earned me a plenary indulgence (guaranteed entry into heaven). At thirteen I seriously considered that becoming a priest or Christian brother might be my vocation - until puberty kicked in and pleasures of the flesh and guilt and more guilty pleasure made me reconsider. Incense assaulted my nasal cavities regularly; Latin masses were powerful (if unintelligible) rituals. I was confirmed and took the confirmation name of Francis which I subsequently refused to acknowledge as it seemed like such a goose of a name - why hadn't I chosen Paul or Patrick or some saint with a cool name?

I was, at that stage, definitely in the mould of the apostle who pretended he wasn't. Although my religious inclinations continued into my tertiary life (where I was the president of the Tertiary Christian Students group at UQ for a year before I had my final crisis of faith) I never went back. I now go to weddings and funerals and can't see Catholicism as anything but a cult.

All this is by way of saying that this background did not prepare me for Malta and its saints. Let's get some statistics nailed down here. Malta consists of two islands whose combined total area (316 sq km) is a little larger than Stradbroke Island off Moreton Bay in Australia. Stradbroke is a beautiful sand island with a population of 2500 and maybe five places of worship, each the size of a large matchbox. Malta has 460,000 residents, 350 churches, each built from limestone and each a majestic work of art. The largest has a dome taller than St Paul's in London. There are tens of thousands of public shrines and statues and devotional entrance niches, not to mention the household shrines and images of devotion (the lift to my apartment has two!). Malta is 97% Catholic. The crusading Knights of St John and their version of the Inquisition made sure of that.

There is an old Jewish quarter by the Jews Sally Port, the only entrance through which the Jews were permitted to enter and exit the city, but there are only a handful of Jews remaining in Malta (they were forcibly expelled by the Knights in 1492). I had understood this archway to be called the Jew's Gate (as this was the colloquial name by which it was introduced to me) but learnt that a Sallyport is a general term for a controlled entrance to a fortification or a goal. We still use the word when we talk about sallying forth for a stroll or a look around. It's actually a military term meaning that troops would sally forth - on a raid.

The Muslims/Arabs were here for 400 years; there is one mosque. The Romans were here for six hundred years and there are only a handful of  Roman ruins. There is a substantial Anglican Church which, ironically, features on many Valletta postcards. It was commissioned by Queen Adelaide in the 19th Century when she visited her island and realised that there was no place of worship for her English subjects. If she was attempting to establish a religious foothold on the island it failed miserably. The three percent non catholic population are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

Malta is a nation of true believers. The Catholic faith arrived quite late following in the cultural footsteps of the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians (from north Africa), the Romans (600 years), the Byzantines (Constantinople based), the Arabs (400 years), the Normans (200 years), the Spanish (300 years) until, in 1523 the Knights of St John were offered Malta as a secure base after they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottomans. They ruled the islands for almost three hundred years until Napoleon arrived. It became French for two years and then the British, at the invitation of the Maltese, liberated them and they themselves ruled until 1964.

I hope you're not finding this too tedious, it's just that as an Australian this sequence is mind boggling, almost inconceivable (and I haven't even mentioned the ancient prehistoric temples which dot the island and date from close to 5000 BC). Malta might be in the centre of the modern Mediterranean shipping lanes with regular cruise ships dropping by but, for the previous 3000 years, these were two islands in the middle of nowhere, beyond the horizon from Sicily or north Africa, barren and inhospitable.

Bear with me as I inch closer to St Dominic. Back to the churches - three hundred and fifty across the two islands of which twenty five are within Valletta (population 6500, area 0.3sq mile or 0.8 sq km), each with their own saint on their own saint's street (my apartment, for example, is bordered by St Dominic, St Paul, St Ursula and St Christopher streets) and each with their own festival week. There is  some doubling up of saints, (multiple churches devoted to the same saint), a miracle of sorts, which means that there is a festival taking place somewhere in Malta every week during festival season, May to September. And there are eight religious orders resident in this 0.3 sq miles. The Maltese seem to have become addicted to invasions - they set off explosives using mortar shells each night to alert the community to the fact that there is a festival on their doorstep (as if they need any reminder). So small is the island that I have heard the noise, like rolling thunder, from across the island almost every night for the past ten weeks.

Here's a few of my favourite saints and their special intercessionary powers:

St Paul (Pawl) – a Jew, shipwrecked here in the first millennium; beheaded in 65AD in Rome, his patronage includes writers, musicians, journalists, rope makers, saddle makers and tent makers. His festival here has occurred every year since 1690.

St James - disciple of St John the Baptist, put to the sword by Herod. Patron saint of blacksmiths, equestrians, veterinarians, apothecaries and of course pilgrims. Legend has his body being transported by angles in a rudderless boat to Spain and hence the pilgrim's walk to Santiago de Compostela.

St Lucia - Sicily born. She is often depicted carrying a tray containing a pair of eyes. She gouged them and presented them to her jilted lover before being murdered by him. She  had chosen the life of a nun over him. Patron saint of the blind, writers and those suffering sore eyes and sore throats.

And skipping the other three hundred we come to St Dominic (Diminuku).

Where should I start? Born of Spanish nobility in Castile in 1170, he is a fairly recent saint. He is patron saint of astronomers, scientists, of the falsely accused and of Valletta itself. His mother may have been a little bizarre as she had a vision during her pregnancy of her unborn child as a dog carrying a torch in his mouth - which is why Dominic is often depicted accompanied by his puppy with his torch to light up the world.
St Dominic's festival filled the week leading up to the weekend of his feast day (actually August 8th). Typical of Malta's festivals it combined explosives, fireworks, incessant bell ringing, with daily/nightly parades of his statue through the streets born by eight white robed heavily sweating men with disfigured shoulders (their badge of honour after many years in the role of bearer of this weighty statue), and accompanied by a brass band which played for close on three hours each circuit. Dominican monk's wear white but are also known as Blackfriars as a reference to the black hooded cloak they wear as an over-garment.

This was not a parade to be rushed. Each outing St Dom inched his way through the narrow streets, confetti raining down on him from the balconies above until the streets were ankle deep in shredded snow. The streets themselves were lined with oversized statues of angels and other saints each on an individual plinth and framed by heraldic cloth hung along and across the streets transforming them into avenues lined with sumptuous red and gold fabric. This was accompanied by Holy Masses celebrated several times a day in the basilica which was also decked out in red. Rich red velvet hung from every flat surface - pillars, walls, window frames etc.

St Dominics also happens to be the parish which includes the Presidential Palace so, on the Saturday, the parade wound it way around the palace and at one point was greeted by the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who arrived in her black limo, accompanied by her security contingent (black sunglasses, dark suits) and alighted to pay her respects to St Dominic and his devotees. She was greeted rapturously and led into the palace by a Maltese man carrying a stubby of beer. She was giving her minders hell as she kissed the babies and shook hands with all and sundry and then invited the masses to follow her into the palace courtyard where more kisses took place and a spontaneous rendering of the national anthem was sung. The parade then continued for another two hours.

Andrea, who had witnessed the Presidential moment while shopping for food, came home to share her experience and an hour later we headed out for a stroll and met the parade, still every bit as enthusiastic, returning from its two hour palace circumnavigation. Those poor brass band musicians were still blasting away on their trumpets and trombones and still in tune.

Come the final night (Sunday) and Andrea and I headed off to a concert in the Knights Hospitalier, a huge 16th Century building in our immediate vicinity which was built by the Knights as a hospital and continued as such for over 400 years including up until the end of WWII. As we left the concert we assumed that the festival had run its course but something drew us the few blocks to St Dominics for one last look.

Talk about good timing. We arrived to see St Dominic a mere fifty metres from his final destination, the front door of his basilica. The crowd was thick with passion and expectation. The brass band played, the parade inched forward, the crowd chanted, the children on their fathers’ shoulders called supplications to the saint high above their heads, church bells rang and fireworks exploded above. At one point a woman with a microphone led the crowd in the national anthem. That fifty metres took close on an hour. It was hard not to be moved, such was the emotion of the moment. I am not a believer, despite my early devotion to all things religious, but I could appreciate the power, some might say mesmerising, intoxicating power, of this experience. This annual festival (repeated many times over across the nation) is a true community celebration of a fundamental set of beliefs which may explain how these people have weathered so much adversity over hundreds of years and survived emotionally, culturally and finally become an independent self governing nation.

As I sit here writing this another salvo of explosions bursts outside my window, launched at 7am on this Friday morning from a barge in the middle of the Grand Harbour heralding the beginning of St Lawrence's Festival at Vittoriosa, across the water. Move over Saint Dominic it's Larry's turn.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Ghost of St Dominic

Photo by Jo Lynch
H and his confetti dance at St Dominik's Festival in Malta

Kantilena - Contemporary Maltese Folk Band

Malta contemporary folk band Kantilena take you on a ride around the villages of central Malta. Andrea and I saw them last Sunday night and they were fabulous.

We only have 5 days left so we're packing the last gems in day by day. Yesterday was the island of Gozo (6 hours travelling - 6 hours on the island); Tomorrow is the old capital of Mdina (pronounced Mmmmmmmdina), the silent city. It only has 240 residents and no cars and sits atop the highest point on the island. You'll see it in the distance in the u tube clip.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Alessandro of Rome

To link with Alessandro's website click here.                                                                           
Alessandro of Rome
We are standing outside the Circus Massimo Metro station opposite the roman chariot raceway of Circus Maximus. Traffic roars through the massive roundabout as if re-enacting the roman charioteers. A young man of about thirty with a spring in his step, jeans hanging off his bum, runs across the intersection followed by three girls with large bags. Two are platinum blonde the other dark haired. Finns we later learn. A dark eyed southern girl (Napoli it transpires) who has been standing beside us for the past five minutes suddenly answers my thoughts. She says they’re taking their bags to the shop on the far side of the Circus to store them while we do this walk. A few minutes later they emerge and the young man shepherds the Finns through the chariots towards our corner of the circle.

This is our introduction to Alessandro, a young history nut from Rome who runs free walks twice a week to the places tourists and other tour guides don’t go, the back streets the hidden sites. The group has meanwhile grown to about twelve people – the three Finns, two Belgians and a scattering from other nations including North America, Sweden, Poland, Argentina, other Italians and we two Australians. We think we blend in amongst the largely twenty something group but in reality we are the grandparents of the cluster.

Alessandro beckons us to form a tight group around him and begins. He apologizes for not being in good health. He has an allergy of some sort and is on medication. He hopes he will survive the tour. 

Before we leave the curb he tells us his three rules for crossing the roads of Rome (he has not lost a guest yet and wishes none of us to be the first). Rule 1. Make eye contact with the oncoming driver; check they are not texting. Rule 2. While maintaining eye contact, confidently (as if you own the road) step into the traffic walking steadily and allowing the traffic to flow around you if necessary. Rule 3. Never run, never hesitate - any sign of fear will only encourage drivers to revert to their instinctive wild state – programmed to kill and maim. The exception to these rules involves buses and taxi drivers.  He then leads us into the melee.

He is full of knowledge and apologies for his health – though none of us can detect any sign of his malaise. If anything it seems likely he might have had a big night out the previous evening. We don’t care. He throws us questions, the answers to which we are rarely able to answer which introduces his next gem of information. We leave the circus Maximus and I am immediately lost. We are below the walls of the Paletine Hill and Rome has no sky scrapers by which to navigate. A moment ago the Coliseum was in sight and now a lane or two later, my sense of N, S, E and West have abandoned me. In addition it is approaching late morning and the sun is scorching down from high in the sky. I can’t even use my old boy scout’s trick using my watch and the hour hand to get my bearings.

The group is largely quiet and attentive except for the Finns who talk loudly to each other as we try to understand Allesandro’s accented English. The other exception is a Belgian girl who begins the tour (within the first 100 metres) accusing Alessandro (and all Italians) of cheating in the recent World Cup. (Belgium was knocked out by Italy apparently – I don’t care, I am Australian with an Australian flag flying proudly from window in Malta). Thus begins an argument that continues for the duration of the walk.

I’m sure we walk at least two kilometres by which time we reach a farmer’s market full of local cheeses and olive oil, meats, fish and homemade delicacies. I’d love to come back here so I ask Alessandro where we are on my map and he points to a spot about 500 metres from our beginning point.

Alessandro has a great sense of humour and reserves his most mocking comments for the ugly white monolith which was built to honour the first King of the newly united Italy (1861), King Victor Emmanuel II. This monstrosity could have been designed by the Third Reich’s Albert Speer such is its scale. It features oversized statues and overwhelming friezes and seems to herald some terrible return of another Roman Empire and perhaps hints at the emergence, in the 20th Century, of Mussolini and his grandiose aspirations. Alessandro is passionate about his city.

He has his rhythm now and races ahead with his commentary. His English is good with the occasional charming mispronunciation. Ironically the tour is in English but only three of us are native English speakers. Allesandro’s medications have kicked in and he shifts a gear resulting in some of the others getting lost in his rapid fire comments.

The noisy Belgian girl is an exception. Her English is excellent and she continues her battering of the Italian football team at each pause in the tour.  Alessandro meanwhile is not short of an opinion. In pretty much everything Italian he claims expertise. And yet he is not pretentious, just confident of his knowledge and unable to resist a challenge. 

During a break at the half way point he shepherds us into his favourite ice cream shop (there are many ‘best’ ice cream shops in Rome depending on the “private arrangement” guides make I suspect) and over macadamia and vanilla bean ice cream he discusses (most vigorously with our friend from Belgium) the authentic Roman recipe for spaghetti carbonara and the important place of offal in traditional cuisine.
Alessandro lays his trap by inviting Miss Belgium (as if she needs any encouragement) to describe her carbonara and then begins his dissection. Mushrooms – NEVER! Bacon – OUTRAGEOUS! And NO cream. Miss Belgium is baffled. What about the creamy consistency? It should come from the pecorino and parmigiana cheeses cooked, not in oil or butter (well, perhaps a little olive oil) but in the juices from the pork cheek (remember, never bacon) and then the egg. Miss Belgium argues strongly and objects frequently - pepper and salt for seasoning? Pepper yes, salt NEVER!  Alessandro is unshakable and wins this round. Simple food with quality ingredients. It’s peasant food he reminds us - Alessandro scores a simple goal. It’s beginning to look like the Netherlands v Brazil game.

At the half way mark it is Italy – 3, Belgium - 0. The topic has broadened to encompass all World Cups and European Cups. Miss Belgium cites a game played in 1910 as evidence of something which none of understand or have any knowledge or interest in. Alessandro responds with the information that the game was actually played in 1912. Miss B is silent. She has scored an own goal. Italy – 4,  Belgium – 0.

On the walk Allesandro’s hyperactivity continues. He checks his mobile constantly. In the middle of his comic exposition on Roman statues (he has found an example of an ancient ‘selfie”) his phone buzzes. He checks it and mid-sentence breaks off to take the call. We all sense that something important must have caused him to do this. ‘Mama, no…….. not now ……….. Yes I’m okay. Yes, I’m taking the medication. No I’m not going to die. …” The call between Alessandro and his mum continues for three or four minutes while he prowls the square, waving his hands, bending double as if in pain, embarrassed at his mother’s attention. When he returns he regales us with the story. He sneezes and his mother wants to call an ambulance. He doesn’t call her and she thinks he is dead. The girls in the group are in fits. Italian boys and their mothers. They think it’s hilarious. 
Alessandro leads us into secret courtyards and up alleyways behind the crowds of tourists, at each point allowing the story of Rome to unfold. The most remarkable thing I learn is the amazing amount of Roman buildings, foundations, walls, remnant buildings which have survived and been incorporated into subsequent buildings. At one point we are looking at a building which incorporates four different eras of construction into its fabric. We avoid the long queue of tourists waiting to kiss the feet of Jesus at a church built on a Norman structure, follow a narrow winding lane full of hat makers and end the tour in the courtyard of a small square. A tiny space entered through the ubiquitous arch surrounded on all sides by ochre walls. Hidden marble steps lead to the 2nd and 3rd levels where washing hangs from balconies and garden ferns drape from the windows. The square is lush with greenery. We all want to live here. It is romantic Rome at its simplest and best.

The football argument continues in this small space. Miss B for belligerent is determined to score a goal. Alessandro is unwilling to concede. Eventually I suggest a truce with as much tact as possible and there is a moment of quiet as Alessandro brings his story to a close and bids us farewell.

I score him a perfect 10 for his knowledge and entertainment value and Andrea and I offer him a generous tip for his services. The others offer nothing except their adoration. They are all students and are not as cashed up as we are (in fact the three Finnish girls and their bags – remember their bags? - are sleeping on his floor tonight. Couch surfing). Alessandro does not even ask for money or a donation.
His passion has been sated for another week. His audience has been enthralled. That has been his reward. We have been with him for four hours.

Eight of us then join Alessandro at a small pizzeria nearby for lunch. The Argentine boy invites Andrea and I to join him at the Argentine Embassy for the final of the World Cup later in the evening; the Polish girl who is about to begin  the final year of her medical studies offers to  assess Allesandro’s allergy symptoms; the Finnish girls eat like horses and we have a beer. Notably absent is Miss Belgium who has retired to the change rooms to lick her wounds.