From Military Stronghold to Literary Legend – the Chateau d’If

From Military Stronghold to Literary Legend – the Chateau d’If

In 600 B.C., three centuries before an obscure Iron-age Celtic tribe began scattering huts along the bank of the Seine near what would eventually become Paris, 750 kilometers (500 miles) to the south on the Mediterranean shore, the Phoenician shipping settlement of Massalia was already thriving.

The entrance to the Old Port is guarded by two medieval forts.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and it had become Marseille, one of France’s major trade centers, with two large forts guarding the entrance to the Old Port. However, to further protect this strategic port city, and the fleet of royal galleys that were anchored there, in 1529, King Francois I ordered a royal fortress to be constructed farther out in the Bay of Marseille, on the island of If. And set the stage for what would become the most famous legend in French literature.

A Notorious Penitentiary

The ramparts  are flanked by foreboding towers.

The entire 3-hectare  (7.5-acre) island, a rocky promontory rising from the ocean some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) west of the Old Port of Marseille, was quickly fortified. High ramparts with canon platforms now surrounded a colossal square three-story fortress flanked by three foreboding towers. The castle was intended as a deterrent, a job it performed remarkably well since thought out its history, the Château d’If was never attacked. But with its isolated location and dangerous offshore currents, it also had all the makings of an escape-proof prison. It soon was turned into a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners that the authorities wanted consigned to oblivion. Over the next two centuries it became known as a destination from which there was no return, in the popular imagination as in reality.

The Road to International Fame

A single well provided water for the prison.

By the 19th century, the Château d’If was notorious for its sordid conditions of detention. But it didn’t reach international fame until Alexandre Dumas used it as a setting for The Count of Monte Cristo, published to widespread acclaim in 1844. Dumas, who had heard of it as a child, took the opportunity of a trip in to the Mediterranean coast to visit the fortress for the first time in 1834. An aspiring writer, he was still a few years away from asserting his voice in the historical novels would make him one of the most successful authors of his time. But he was already gathering inspiration from his many travels, actual events and the historical records of the Paris Police Archives. The latter being where he unearthed the plot for the Count of Monte Cristo.

Centuries of graffiti were left by prisoners.

In 1807 in Paris a shoemaker about to marry his beautiful fiancee had been wrongly reported to the authorities by a jealous rival for being a British informant. He was arrested and, without so much as an explanation, left to languish in prison for seven years. While incarcerated, he had befriended a fellow prisoner, a Milanese priest opposed to the Bonapartist cause, but nevertheless a wealthy heir. Before dying, the abbot had made a will in favor of the shoemaker, who had subsequently recovered the fortune of his benefactor upon his release in 1814. After returning to Paris under a false identity, he had set out to understand why he has been deprived of seven years of his life, and to concentrate on taking revanche. The most famous avenger in French literature was born.

The Birth of a Legend

The unescapable Château d’If rises out of the sea.

Under the pen of Alexandre Dumas, the wronged shoemaker became Edmond Dantès, a young Marseille seaman with a promising career ahead of him. On the day of his engagement to the lovely Mercedes, he was unjustly accused by his rivals in love and business ( Mondego and Danglars) of being a bonapartist and committing treason. Summarily arrested and imprisoned in the Château d’If, he survived several years of solitary confinement before coming in contact with the occupant of the neighboring cell (Abbé Faria), who had been tunneling for years between the two dungeons.

Entrance to the the dungeon attributed to Abbé Faria.

Over the next seven years, the wise old abbot befriended Dantès, revealed to him the location of an immense treasure he once hid on a tiny Mediterranean Island, and the two planned to escape together. However, when Faria died before the plan could come to fruition, Dantès contrived to substitute himself for the body in Faria’s canvas shroud, just before it was hurled into the sea, becoming the only prisoner ever to escape the Chateau d’If and survive. Dantès then retrieved Faria’s treasure from a remote island of the Tuscan archipelago (the Island of Montecristo). He now had the means to orchestrate his revenge.

When Legend Becomes Reality

The visit includes a look at the cell of the legendary Edmond Dantès.

Published in 1844, Le Comte de Monte Cristo was a resounding success. The novel was serialized in Le Journal des Débats, one of the earliest mass circulation newspapers, from August 1844 to January 1846. At a time when books were expensive and reserved to the affluent levels of society, the reading of novels was popularized through their publication in newspapers passed freely from one person to another. The novel was soon translated in multiple languages and the Chateau d’If became famous around the world, despite the fact that most readers were unaware of its exact location.

A plaque marks the entrance of Dantès’ dungeon for posterity.

When Alexandre Dumas revisited the fortress in 1858, he realized how famous he had made it when his guide, unaware of his visitor’s identity, told him of Dantès’ imprisonment without omitting a single detail, not the death of Faria, nor the prisoner’s escape, nor even the tunnel dug from between the two dungeons. An opening had even been created on the ground floor to lend a touch of reality to the tale. The legend prevailed over history and today’s visitors are treated to the very same sights and narrative as they explore the fortress from ramparts to dungeons and discover the cells of the imaginary prisoners – in addition to the superb views of the Marseille coastline,

The Château d’If offers and the Marseille coastline.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Chateau d’If is accessible via the Frioul-If Express Shuttle, a ferry departing hourly from the Old Port, the central waterfront of Marseille. It’s a 20-minute ride the from the port to the fortress.
  • Visiting – The Chateau d’If is open year-round (weather permitting) Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 am to 5:15 pm. Closed on Monday. 
  • Catching up with The Count – There is much more to Dumas’ hero than his ordeals at the Chateau d’If. If you want to read, re-read or simply refer to the famous novel, it is available free of charge through the Gutenberg Project.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château d'If

The Island of Ancient Temples — Megalithic Malta …

The Island of Ancient Temples — Megalithic Malta …

From a geological standpoint, the Maltese archipelago is a handful of limestone, clay and fossil coral outcrops separated from the Sicilian coastline by a mere 80 kilometers (50 miles) of open sea. But its highly strategic geographical location for ships sailing the Mediterranean placed it at the crossroad of Mediterranean cultures since the dawn of history.

Malta has the highest density of Neolithic sites in the Mediterranean basin.

Among the many mysteries that surround the Megalithic past of these tiny islands, several revolve around the origins of their first settlers. This opaque prehistoric past has left behind the highest density of archeological sites in the region, testament to a tradition of ancient architecture that is unique to this part of the world. Archaeologists have discovered over twenty temples on Malta. While many are not open to visitors, six of them, classified by UNESCO as part of the ‘Megalithic Temples of Malta’ World Heritage Site, are.

The National Museum of Archeology

The Auberge de Provence is home to the National Museum of Archeology.

A good place to begin a journey of discovery into Malta’s enigmatic past is the National Museum of Archaeology. Housed at the Auberge de Provence, the grand historic  mansion built by the Knights of Saint John in the heart of Valletta, it is where Malta’s most striking archeological discoveries are displayed. Each section illustrates one of the successive prehistoric civilizations that settled on the islands, starting with remarkably advanced Neolithic stone tools dating back to 5200 BC and an amazing prehistoric architectural maquette of the Ta’ Hagrat temple (3600-3200 BC). 

The Sleeping Lady is one of the most prized treasures of the museum.

More impressive still are the beautiful prehistoric figurines of The Sleeping Lady (circa 3300-3000 BC) found at the Hypogeum, the fat deities believed to be symbols of fertility sculptures of Hagar Qim (circa 3600-3200 BC), and the elegant stone friezes from the Tarxien Temples (3000-2500 BC). By providing a comprehensive introduction to the prehistory of the Maltese islands, the museum is a catalyst for the exploration of its rich archaeological sites.

 

The Caves to Temples Enigma

Ghar Dalam ware is the oldest known in the Maltese islands.

While we still know very little about the early phases of life on Malta, there is strong evidence that the first Stone Age farmers arrived on its shores around 5200 BC and made their home in caves. The most important find to date is Ghar Dalam, a 144-meter (500-foot) tunnel and cave, located on the outskirts of the southern seaside town of Birżebbuġa. The household potteries vessels, flint and obsidian remains found here point to the settlers connections to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands.

The architectural design of the Tarxien Temples is unique in the region.

Then, the early part of the following millennium shows the emergence of a particularly enigmatic period now known as the Temples Period (or Tarxien Phase – 3600 to 2500 BC). This was a time, some 1000 years before the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, when the people of Malta used megaliths weighing up to 50 tonnes to create elaborate buildings that appear to be oriented in relation to the winter solstice sunrise. These Megalithic temples are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world. Furthermore, neither their architectural design nor the sculptures found in them bear any similarity to those of any other Mediterranean cultures.

The Tarxien Temples

The two most notable temples of the Tarxien Phase are Hagar Qim and Tarxien.

The facade and trilithon entrance of Hagar Qim.

Hagar Qim — The site occupies a commanding position on a rocky plateau overlooking the sea  on the southwestern coast of the island. Behind a facade of  monumental boulders pierced by a striking trilithon entrance (made of two standing stones supporting third one – from the Greek ‘three stones’), the complex consists of a number of horseshoe-shaped chambers arranged around a central space. Many of these chambers may be accessed only through porthole doorways cut through a single megalith. The central court and surrounding chambers contain beautifully carved  pillars and mushroom shaped altars. 

Thes large broad-hipped female figures are believed to be fertility symbols.

Rolling stones were used to transport boulders to temple sites.

Tarxien — Located in the outskirts the present day town of Paola on the south side of the grand Harbour, the sprawling complex at Tarxien comprises four distinct buildings, the last of which were completed at a time where the age of temple building was coming to a close, sometimes around the mid-third  millennium BC. The four linked structures, built of massive stone blocks up to three meters by one meter by one meter in size are decorated with remarkably sophisticated spiral patterns and animal reliefs. A special interest of the site is that it provides a rare insight into how the megalithic structures were constructed: stone rollers used to transport the boulders were found outside of one of the buildings.

Large statues of a broad-hipped female figures were found in both places, with copies remaining in situ, while the original figures can now be seen at the National Museum of Archeology. Excavations of both sites revealed that they were used for rituals, which likely involved animal sacrifice.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Middle-level chambers of the Hypogeum

A short walk from the Tarxien Temples into the center of Paoli, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is the best preserved example of the Maltese temple-building culture and the star attraction of the islands’ Megalithic sites. 

The Hypogeum (from the Greek ‘underground’) is a subterranean sanctuary and necropolis meticulously carved out of the rock to simulate masonry construction. It is a world of interconnected halls, chambers and passages superimposed over three levels, with the burial chambers of the upper level dating from the early phases of the Maltese Temple Period, while lower chambers were created in later periods. Based on pottery sample analysis and examination human remains, the site is believed to have first been used as early as 4000 BC and continued to be until around 2500 BC. 

Ochre ceiling painting in the middle chambers of the Hypogeum.

Overall, the remains of some 7,000 individuals were documented by archeologists. A broad range of objects recovered from the site include intricately decorated pottery vessels, stone and clay beads, shell buttons, amulets, axe-heads, and carved figures depicting humans and animals. The most notable discovery is the Sleeping Lady, a clay figure thought to represent a mother goddess. Other figures range from abstract to realistic in style, with major themes thought to be related to veneration of the dead.

To ensure the preservation of the site, access to the Hypogeum is limited to 80 visitors per day, admitted in hourly pre-booked guided groups of ten. Tickets must be reserved well ahead for a specific day and time, but the visit of this intriguing and remarkably preserved site is well worth the advance planning.

Tarxien Temple carved staela.

Good to Know

Visiting — At the time of this writing, due to the Covid 19 pandemic social distancing requirements, visit times and regulation are subject to frequent changes. Check with the sites websites for updates. 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Valletta

Joaquin Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

Joaquin Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

After being shuttered for several months, like all art venues in France, by the global health emergency, the Hôtel de Caumont, one of the Baroque Jewels of Aix-en-Provence, and one of my favorite art exhibition spaces anywhere, reopened recently. Its long delayed new exhibit: Joaquin Sorolla – Spanish Master of Light, proved well worth the wait.

Joaquín Sorolla, Autoportrait, 1900. Oil on canvas,      91,5 x 72,5 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Although inexplicably little known outside of Europe these days, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) is considered one of the greatest Spanish painters of the 20th  century. And along with Velàsquez and Goya, it is one of the most popular painters in Spain. 

Born into a modest family in Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast, Sorolla began his artistic training at a young age but didn’t discover the classic masters of Spanish painting until he traveled to Madrid at the age of 18 and ardently began studying the great works at the Prado Museum. Then, in 1885, he obtained a four-year grant that enabled him to complete his studies in Rome, making him the only Spanish artist of his generation to move in international art circles and associate with artists as varied as Bonnat, Degas, Monet, Rodin and Sargent. Soon, the spontaneous, impressionistic brushstrokes of his images of Spain and his incandescent capture of the Mediterranean light were recognized in major European artistic competitions, such as the Salon of Paris, the Venice Biennial, and the Secession exhibits in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. 

The current exhibit introduces visitors to Sorolla’s creative process and the main themes his work.

Grandson of Velàsquez

Joaquín Sorolla, My Family. 1901. Oil on canvas,          185 x 159 cm, Museo de la Ciudad. Ayuntamiento de Valencia.

Although formal portraiture was not Sorolla’s preferred genre, as it restricted his creative impulses, he was an avid portraitist of his family – and he couldn’t overlook the profitable aspect of portrait commissions. The exhibit begins with some of his most notable portraits, the part of his works where the influence of Velásquez  is most remarkable, as in My Family (1901). Here, he has grouped his wife and children in the foreground, with the painter reflected at work in a distant mirror, in clear tribute to The Bridesmaids (Velàsquez, 1665). 

Again, for the Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, an eminent neurologist and winner of the 1906 Nobel Prize for Medicine, he used the traditional palette of subdued colors from the Spanish Baroque School, and the posture again shows the influence of Velàsquez.

Joaquín Sorolla, Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1906. Oil on canvas, 107 x 144.5, Museo de Zaragoza.

Yet, as in all the other portraits shown here, Sorolla’s most remarkable achievement as a portraitist was that while he strongly leaned on Classical elements, he subtilely modernized them with references to the likes of Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sargent. This is as noticeable in the large hats worn by his daughters María and Elena, and the gray dress of his wife, Clotilde, as in the background detail of books in the Ramón y Cajal portrait.

Daily Life of the Seashore

Joaquín Sorolla, The End of the Day, 1900. Oil on canvas                86 x 128 cm. Private collection.

Like his Impressionist contemporaries, Sorolla favored painting outdoors, which allowed him to capture instantaneous impressions and luminosity. With his native Mediterranean coastline offering a rich ground for inspiration, he created brilliant and varied representations of people engaged at seaside activities. 

His painting of fisherman on the beaches of Valencia, achieved the most success in international exhibitions, such as with his very modern The End of the Day, Jávea, presented at the Salon de Paris in 1901. Here, fisherman pulling the boat are viewed diagonally from behind giving an impression of depth to the composition. In the background, the rocky Cape San Antonio is tinged with the orange hues of sunset and the reflections of the water are composed of infinite colors.

Joaquín Sorolla, Beach in Valencia, Morning Sun, 1901. Oil on canvas 81 x 128 cm. Private collection.

In Beach in Valencia, Morning Sun, which he presented at the Salon the following year, he displays an other aspect of his mastery: capturing immediate, fleeting impressions, such as the wind catching the bonnet of the woman and the swelling the sail of the returning boat.“Nothing around us is immobile,” he wrote. “One must paint quickly because so much is lost in an instant and one never finds it again.” 

Joaquín Sorolla, Sail, 1894. Oil on canvas, 16.6 x 25.4 cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid.

He was especially fascinated by the speed with which a sail swelled with the wind.  He strove to paint it just as one might see it at first glance. In order to convey it, he made endless drawings of sails swollen by the wind, or furled, or partly folded back, exploring all the plastic possibilities of the motif. His sketches subsequently enabled him to represent sails with the same spontaneity as these small studies.

Children in the Waves

Joaquín Sorolla, Swimmers, Jávea, 1905. Oil on canvas,               90 x 126 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid.

Figures in the sea were a key theme in Sorolla’s paintings, emblematic of his style. Playful children bathing or running on a beach were some of his favorite subjects. Swimmers, Jávea, is an especially fine example of how these scenes enabled him to fully display his skills as a painter. The challenge here was to capture the way in which the light interacted with the reflection of the sand and the glow of the wet skin, dissolving the children’s bodies under the crystalline water in motion.

Joaquín Sorolla, Bathing on the Beach, 1908, oil on canvas, 77 x 105 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.

Bathing on the Beach, is another of these remarkable works, a bold painting that shows an overhead view of a baby playing with the foam on the shoreline. Here, Sorolla fully demonstrates his talent for working with light in combining the bright appearance of the baby’s skin, the girl’s white dress, the warmth of the light, and the coolness of the sea foam. 

 

The exhibition, which can be seen until November 1st, 2020, showcase around eighty paintings, drawings, and studies, including a substantial number of rarely, if ever seen before, on loan from private collections. It offers a unique opportunity to discover a vibrant, optimistic vision of modern Spain, by a  brilliant artist little known outside of his native country,

Joaquín Sorolla, María with Hat, 1910. Oil on canvas, 40 x 80 cm. Private collection.

Good to Know

  • Getting There By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 1 to September 30 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, with late opening hours on Friday until 9:30 pm, and from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm the remainder of the year. Contact: e-mail. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Aix-en-Provence

Malta — Beyond Valletta

Malta — Beyond Valletta

There is no denying that the Warrior Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (or Knights of Malta as they are commonly known) proved the most influential settlers in the long and convoluted history of the Maltese Islands. Their 250-year rule left an indelible legacy, most prominently the fortified  capital city of Valletta, which they created from bare rock to guard the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

In Birgu, the old Norman citadel was expanded by the Knights.

But long before they took control, the islands’ prime Eastern Mediterranean location and natural harbors had attracted successive waves of conquerors. The Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normand gradually shaped the unique character of the tiny country, and understood the need for fortified defenses.

 

 

The Fort Across the Harbor

The ferry ride from Valletta offers a unique viewpoint of Birgu.

When the Knights, having been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire, were granted Malta by its then ruler Charles V of Spain in 1530, their obvious choice was to settle in Birgu. Strategically located on one of the promontories jutting between the Marsamxett Harbour and Grand Harbour, opposite what would later become Valletta, this ancient city was already protected by a sprawling fortress dating back to Norman times (11th century). The Knights hastily set out to expand the fortifications into the colossal Fort St. Angelo, which came in handy when the superior Ottoman forces attempted their ill-fated siege in 1565.

The Knights’  arsenal is now the Malta Maritime Museum.

Seen from the southern side of Valletta, the panoramic view of Birgu is so spectacular that I hop onto one of the frequent ferries for the scenic, ten-minute Grand Harbour crossing to get a closer look. The ancient city’s waterfront has been transformed in recent years into a thriving marina and enjoyable promenade. At its head, an imposing building that was once the arsenal for the Knights’ galleys is now home to the Malta Maritime Museum. Its collections span over two millennia of Mediterranean seafaring history.

The Collachio is the medieval heart of Birgu.

Behind the museum, the steep maze of the Collachio neighborhood remains the medieval heart of the city. In true Maltese fashion, it is a reminder of the different cultures that held sway here. Its narrow winding streets hint of the ancient medinas of North Africa, with the occasional European Renaissance and Baroque building thrown in. And on the far side of it, after decades of restoration, the colossal Fort St. Angelo is now open to visitors again.

The First Capital

The main gate into the ancient walled city of Mdina was reconstructed in Baroque style in 1724.

Located on low a plateau of central Malta, the walled city of Mdina had been the capital of the islands since the Byzantine era at the time of the Knights’ arrival. Entirely enclosed within protective ramparts dating back to the Islamic and Norman times, its labyrinth of Moorish style winding streets was home to the highest echelons of Maltese aristocracy. Most of the town has remained intact, its quiet warren of pedestrian lanes, shady courtyards and stately palaces giving it an eerily Medieval atmosphere. But even so, there is no escaping the influence of the Knights.

Palazzo Vilhena now houses the Museum of Natural History.

Today, Mdina is a popular day-trip destination, an easy 20-minute bus ride from Valletta. But to enter its bygone world, one must first walk through its Baroque main gate designed in 1724 by French architect Charles François de Mondion for the Order’s Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena. Also included in the commission was the flamboyant Baroque Palazzo Vilhena (or Magisterial Palace) next door. Today, it houses the National Museum of Natural History’s extensive geology and paleontology collections. Even if natural history is not your thing, the museum may be worth a quick visit, just to see the sumptuous interior of the Palazzo.

The St. Paul Cathedral

The dome of the St. Paul Catherdal fills the nave with light.

Moments later, I come across another Baroque masterpiece: the St. Paul Cathedral, rebuilt to a design of Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà after the original Norman cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. Its opulent decor features elaborately inlayed marble floors, gilded detailing, pink marble columns and exquisite ceiling paintings, enhanced by the natural light flowing in from the dome. Many artifacts that had survived the earthquake were reused in the new cathedral, including the early Renaissance baptismal font, earth 15th century choir stalls, and a number of works by Mattia Preti.

The Cathedral’s Museum holds a collection of silver artifacts.

Across the square, the former seminary, now the Cathedral Museum, showcases a rich collection of silver liturgical objects and sacred art. In addition to a number masterpieces of European painting, the museum also features a noteworthy selection of engravings by Albrecht Durer.

 

Bastion Square

From Bastion Square, the view reaches out to the sea.

Leaving behind the Baroque world of the Knights, I wander further back in time to the earlier days of Mdina, into deserted alleyways lined with stark golden sandstone facade and brightly painted wooden doors and shutters, until I emerge onto Bastion Square and the very edge of the citadel wall. The view from here is exceptional: a serene panorama of gently undulating farmland stretching all the way to the sea.

 

A Timeless Fishing Tradition

Colorful luzzu fishing boats fill the port of Marsaxlokk.

The Phoenicians settled it, then some 1500 years later, the Arabs gave it its name: Marsaxlokk (or Southeastern Harbor – pronounced Marsa-shlock). Today, the ancient seaside village at the very tip of the island remains home to the majority of its fishing fleet and a resolute slice of traditional Maltese life. Timeless low houses – now fronted by the busy terraces of top-notch seafood restaurants – circle the harbor filled with colorful luzzu (fishing boats). The boats are painted in stripes of bright primary colors, with at their bow a discrete pay of eyes. These “Eyes of Horus” are survivors of an ancient Phoenician custom, said to protect fishermen while at sea.

The town is especially popular with tourists on Sunday, when is holds its weekly fish market.

The Birgu Waterfront stretches along Marsamxett Harbour.

Good to Know

Getting there — Birgu: There is regular ferry service throughout the day between Valletta and Birgu. In both places, the ferry dock is centrally located on the waterfront. Mdina: Buses (numbers 51 and 52) run throughout the day approximately every 15 minutes between the Valletta bus terminal and Mdina. The trip takes about 30 minutes. Get off at Rabat, the modern district of Mdina. From there, its a five-minute walk to the main gate of the walled city. Marsaxlokk: Buses (numbers 81 and 85) run throughout the day every 30 minutes between Valletta and Marsaxlokk. The trip takes between 45 minutes and one hour depending on the traffic. In Marsaxlokk, the bus terminal is a five minute walk from the waterfront.

Visiting — Birgu. Malta Maritime Museum:  Birgu Waterfront. Fort St. Angelo: The Great Siege of 1565 Street, Birgu. Both are open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on December 24, 25 and 31, January 1 and Good Friday. Mdina. Palazzo Vilhena: Saint Publius Square, is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on December 24, 25 and 31, January 1 and Good Friday. Cathedral St. Paul:, 2 Triq San Pawl, is open Monday through Saturday from 9.30 am to 5.00 pm and Sunday from 3.00 pm to 5.00 pm. The adjoining Mdina Cathedral Museum  is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Sunday.

Location, location, location!

Birgu

Mdina

Marsaxlokk

Valletta — The City Shaped by Knights

Valletta — The City Shaped by Knights

The history of the Maltese Islands dates back Neolithic times, when the first waves of stone age farmers came to their shores. But the story of contemporary Malta, and especially that of its capital city, Valetta, began in 1530 A.D., when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V bequeathed the islands to the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

From the Holy Land to Malta

The ancient Fort St. Angelo juts into the Grand Harbour.

The Order of St. John as it became commonly known, was founded in the late 11th  century in Jerusalem to provide care for the sick and needy pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. However, soon after the 1099 A.D. conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Order received its charter from the Pope to become a military religious order charged with the care and defense of newly minted Kingdom of Jerusalem. And there the knights battled and prospered until the Kingdom fell to Islamic forces in 1291. They then retreated to the island of Rhodes, where they ensconced their headquarters within the impregnable Byzantine walls of the Old Town.

Fort St. Elmo controls the the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

From this Eastern Mediterranean naval stronghold, they set out to disrupt Turkish shipping, and generally become a major obstacle to Ottoman expansion in the region; until they were once again tossed out, this time by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. And that is when the Holy Roman Emperor stepped in, eventually granting the errant knights hospitality in Malta in 1530. They settled in Birgu, an ancient fortified city perched on a promontory jutting into the Grand Harbour, with at its tip, the colossal Fort St. Angelo.

Work on the bastions of Valletta began soon after the Great Siege.

The knights quickly returned to their lucrative occupation of raiding Ottoman shipping for God and profit, which predictably didn’t sit well with Suleiman. On May 18, 1565, determined to rid the Mediterranean once and for all of the troublesome knights, he unleashed upon them a Turkish fleet, by all accounts one the largest assembled since antiquity. The conflict, which would go down in Western history at The Great Siege of Malta, lasted four months. In spite of being exponentially outnumbered, the 500 or so knights and their small army, recruited mainly from the local population, held fast. They inflicted heavy casualties to their invaders and dispelled the myth of Ottoman invincibility.

The Birth of Valetta

The vibrant city of Valletta developped within its ramparts.

By the time what remained of the battered Turkish expedition had retreated from the Maltese shores, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette had determined that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, its seat had to be assaillant-proof. Under the guidance of Francesco Laparelli, Pope Pius IV’s military architect (think Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome), work began in the spring of 1566 on the rocky Sceberras Peninsula, between the Marxsamxett and Grand Harbours. Starting with high bastions and deep moats, a magnificent new fortress city took shape: Valletta, named after the respected Grand Master and hero of the Great Siege.

Side streets are designed accommodate men in heavy armors.

The main streets are lined with Baroque palaces.

Uniquely planned with defense in mind, the city was laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, its streets falling steeply as they got closer to the tip of the peninsula, to make it difficult for invaders to maneuver, and stairs were specifically designed to accommodate men in heavy armors.

But defense was not the only consideration: now the Knights needed places to live, worship and conduct business. A number of sumptuous residences were built, including the Grand Master’s Palace (a.k.a Magisterial Palace) and eight Auberges (or Inns) to house knights from the various Langues (or linguistic division) of Europe. All were designed in the Mannerist style favored by Maltese architect and resident engineer of the Order, Girolamo Cassar, and lavishly decorated by the best artists of the time. Several remain to this day, witnesses to the opulent lifestyle of the Order.

The steep side streets afford stunning views of the habor.

 

 

By the 17th  century’s, tiny Valletta – a mere 630 meter (0.40 mile) wide by 900 meter (0.55 mile) long – had grown into a sizable city as people from all parts of the island flocked to settle within the safety of its fortifications. The austere military style of Cassar gave way to lavish palaces and churches with graceful Baroque facades. Today, in addition to being the smallest capital city in the European Union, Valletta is now considered one the most concentrated historic areas in the world.

 

The Grand Master’s Palace

The Grand Master’s palace has retained its Mannerist facade.

Built as the formal residence of the Order’s Grand Master, the palace has remained Malta’s center of administration for the past four centuries, becoming the Governor’s Palace during British rule (1800 to 1964) and currently housing the Office of the President. Behind its Mannerist facade, it has evolved into a Baroque showpiece with lavishly decorated staterooms. Five of them are now open to the public, displaying  most notably a number of 17th century French Goblin tapestries, several portraits of Grand Masters of the Order and oil paintings of naval battles. Additionally, the armory holds an extensive collection or arms, including the personal armors of several Grand Masters and Ottoman weapons captured during the Great Siege.

Casa Rocca Piccola

The table is set with family heirloom dinnerware.

Minutes away from the Grand Master’s Palace, the Casa Rocca Piccola is another of the city’s treasures. This 16th-century traditional Maltese aristocratic townhouse was originally built around 1680 for Don Pietro La Rocca, the Italian-born Admiral of the Order. It remained the property of the Order until it passed into private hands when the Knights were once again expelled from the islands, by the French forces Napoleon this time, in 1798. 

For over a century now, the mansion has been the private home of an ancient Maltese noble house. The current owners, the 9th Marquis and Marchioness of Piro, have opened twelve of the rooms including several drawing rooms, two dining rooms, the library, family archive and chapel to visitors. The fully furnished rooms feature a wealth of family heirlooms to give a glimpse at the life of a Maltese noble family over the centuries.

The guided visit includes the property’s basement. When Valletta was founded, the stone for its buildings was mainly quarried on the spot, creating foundations, as well as a cistern to store the rainwater collected from the roof, a necessity in a city built on arid rock. Visitors can descend into the vast conical cistern, which was extended during the Second World War to provide a bomb shelter for the family and their neighbors.

The Tongues of the Order

The Auberge de Castille is now the Office of the Prime Minister.

The Langues (or Tongues) were administrative divisions of the Order, referring to the ethno-linguistic and geographic distribution of its members. Each of the eight Langues had an Auberge (or Inn) where the knight lived and worked.

Five of them remain to this day, repurposed as public buildings. Most notable is the  Auberge de Castille, built in 1740 at the highest point of the city by Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, to replace the original 16th century Cassar building. Once home to the Langues of Castille, Leon and Portugal, it now houses the Office of the Prime Minister of Malta, which is closed  to visitors. However its flamboyant Baroque facade and spectacular views of the Grand Harbour make it well worth a walk-by.

What’s a Co-Cathedral?

The St. John Co-Cathedral had maintained its Mannerist facade.

The interior of the St. John Co-Cathedral is a Flamboyant Baroque extravaganza.

Lest we forget the religious mission of the military Order, there are over 25 churches in Valletta, including one of the most opulent ones in all Christendom: the St.John Co-Cathedral. Originally commissioned by the Order in 1572 as the Conventual Church of Saint John the Baptist. 

For the first century of its existence, the church’s interior was modest, until the 1660s, when Grand Master Raphael Cotoner decided it should rival – or preferably outdo – the churches of Rome. He commissioned the Italian artist Mattia Preti to turn it into a Baroque extravaganza of gold and frescoed arched ceilings. Further excesses were unleashed when a side chapel was assigned to each of the Langues. Rivalry became intense, with over-the-top monuments and mausoleums created to memorialize the regional knights who had served as Grand Masters. Additionally, as time went by, hundred of knights were buried beneath the elaborate marble tombstones that cover the entire floor.

‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’ (Caravaggio – 1608)

Preti also sculpted the Oratory, the place of worship for novice knights, to house a Caravaggio’s painting of ‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’. The work is now considered by many art historians to be one of the best painting of the 17th century for its chilling realism and outstanding composition. 

St. John’s remained the conventual church of the Order until it grew over the next two centuries to equal prominence with the cathedral at Mdina (the earlier capital of Malta). In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see – Hence the  Co-Cathedral moniker.

The Iconic Gallariji

Galleriji are a ubiquitous element of Valletta facades.

Valletta is a treasure trove of architectural statements, especially the ubiquitous enclosed wooden balconies (or Gallariji) that dot the majority of facades throughout the city. The origin of these Galleriji is obscure and it would be easy to think of them an an Arab phenomenon pre-dating the knights. However, there are no signs of them prior to 1675, when a long Gallarija appeared on the facade of the Grand Master’s palace. Which would account for its name, as the Grand Master’s was indeed a gallery running along several of the palace’s rooms. It provided him with a discrete vantage point from where he kept  an eye on the goings-on in the streets and squares below.

Over time, Gallariji became elaborate architectural statements.

This seems to have caused the sudden popularity of these wooden enclosures. Although most denizens of the city couldn’t manage  a whole gallery, a shorter version, perhaps superimposed on an existing small stone balcony would do just as well. Whatever the reason, over the past four centuries the wooden Gallariji have become a colorful icon of the City of the Knights.

Fort St. Elmo and Fort Ricasoli guard the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By air: Malta International Airport, with direct flights from most major Western European cities is located  eight kilometers (five miles) southwest from the center of Valletta. By ferry: there are two ferry routes operating daily between Valletta and island Italian island of Sicily 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the northeast – serving Catania and Pozzallo respectively.
  • Getting around — The best way to get around the grid of steep streets and wide stairways of Valletta is on foot. Comfortable walking shoes recommended. Taxis can only access the main arteries and squares.
  • Visiting — The Grand Master’s Palace, St George’s Square, is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Casa Rocca Piccola, 74, Republic Street, is open for guided visits only, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. St. John’s Co-Cathedral Triq San Gwann, Il-Belt, is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm and from 9:30 am. to 12:30 pm on Saturday.

Location, location, location!

Valletta