Il-Belt Valletta & Cottonera Text

I had a student from Malta (holding a Maltese passport, but not Maltese) who emphasized the importance of visiting Valletta and the Grand Harbour in general for history there. She was the same student who recommended staying in Mdina, which was absolutely correct. QQ and I spent three days around the Grand Harbour, as I see things very slowly. As a result, we didn’t end up seeing much of the island – nor Gozo or Comino.

We took the bus to and from Valletta/Cottonera. It’s always an interesting decision that one makes between using the public transit and renting a car. On leaving Cyprus I regretted not renting a car in Malta, confident in driving on the left by then. And yet public transit has it’s own appeal. In Malta, the clientele was mostly immigrant workers from South and Southeast Asia. On our first bus from Rabat to Valletta the other passengers were:

  • One young man from Laos sitting behind us
  • A young couple from Vietnam
  • One young man from Cambodia?
  • A Thai woman speaking loudly on the phone
  • An old Maltese man standing
  • Two middle-aged Filipino women
  • A tourist couple from some Germanic place
  • A British couple with a young child
  • A solo traveler from some Slavic place

And our bus driver was Filipino. Our route also took us past an immigrant neighborhood advertising Eritrean, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Afghan food. As we stopped and took on passengers there, I thought of how much my traveling style changes with my wealth and my company. Traveling alone I always stayed with locals – quickly learned the language, eating local food simply for economical reasons, seeing fewer sights, doing fewer things, immersing myself deeper into typical life. Traveling with Brent or with Qianqian, I spend most of my time speaking with them, deepening extant relationships rather than creating new ones, developing our language rather than learning new ones, seeing many things, doing many things, eating well with specific destinations picked out, and generally staying outside the orbit of local life. When we alighted at the Triton fountain, I felt simultaneously wistful for my past travels and content with my current style.

We walked down a side street in Valletta, avoiding the crush of tourists on the main thoroughfare. The streetscape was a bit dirty with that standard European grime while remaining beautiful in a style that was reminiscent of Amman, with beige instead of white. We spent the entire afternoon at Fort St. Elmo, the National War Museum. I didn’t expect to find it so fascinating. While we had read up on the history of the island before arriving, spending an entire afternoon weaving through the history of the place from prehistory to the present gave so much more depth, somehow. Sometimes I find museums to be a glorified, deconstructed textbooks. Sometimes that doesn’t matter – the National War Museum is very much one of these textbooks turned into a guided walk, but captivating nonetheless. While it naturally focuses on war – the Phoenician to the Carthaginians to the Romans to the Goths to the Arab conquest to the Italian and French dominion to the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller to Napoleon to the British to Independence – so much more is included between the lines. QQ was rather depressed by all the war and devastation (there’s an entire section on the Great Siege by the Ottomans against the Knights of Malta, and multiple for the Second World War). Maybe I’m becoming a middle-aged man, and I’ll start watching history documentaries about the Second World War. Suffice to say that I enjoyed learning from the museum, when I think an earlier version of me would have given the museum a miss entirely.

We left at close, with the docent closing the doors behind us as we walked through the final few rooms. I stopped to scribble the monument in the drawing above while QQ decided our next plan of action. We decided to stop briefly at the nearby gardens, complete with a hilarious firebending statue, then tried to find a ftira. The latter was a bust, unfortunately, as the restaurant was closing as we passed it. Undeterred, I led us back to the Filipino restaurant we’d passed on the way in, cheered by the prospect of showing QQ Halo-halo. Sadly, she wasn’t particularly impressed. We did succeed in purchasing her a tourist hat near the brilliant parliament building before taking a bus back to Rabat.

As we failed to visit anything other than the War Museum on our first day in Valletta, I was keen to return the next day. Naturally we headed straight for the Co-Cathedral of Saint John, the headquarters of the Knights of Hospitaller during their time in Malta. We spent four hours inside, and if I’d been alone I may have stayed until closing. It’s not that I’m enamoured with baroque architecture or painting. I generally find the rather… unrestrained style to be ostentatious. The combination of the history of Malta, the history of the Knights, my morning Russian lesson about the importance of both to Christianity, my interest in multi-national organizations, and the sheer volume of details to examine made the Co-Cathedral a Terrence magnet. Each chapel in the Cathedral was given to a specific langue to adorn. Seeing the roots of national symbolism within a supranational brotherhood, with the mix of elements specific to a certain people group alongside religious iconography painted or sculpted by members of other orders and national groups was an experience filled with nuance and wonder.

Oh, and Caravaggio, of course – his paintings and his story – are a massive (pun intended) draw. QQ and I quite enjoyed the proprietary dialogue free short film about his life shown in a small room past his massive painting of the beheading of St. John and a smaller contemplative painting of St. Jerome writing. A criticism levied at Caravaggio stung true to me – a slave to nature. Unlike QQ and other artists, I find it very difficult to draw from imagination and am quite cognizant of this weakness.

We were able to make it to the ftira shop around the corner from the church, and I unsurprisingly chose the “Brontese” – filled with burrata and other things that are not burrata. I unsurprisingly rather enjoyed it, along with the espresso, though I was somehow surprised with my GI issues which were a direct result of these indulgences and inconsistent eating times.

Before leaving Valletta, we decided to visit the Casa Rocca Piccola, quite a different experience from anything else in Malta, due in large part to our mandatory tour. Our hilarious tour guide maintained a very sardonic air throughout the hour, acting annoyed at our ignorance and trying to ride the line between making fun and joshing. QQ found her delightful, while I thought she went a bit far, especially as the other two couples on the tour were not native English speakers (French and Greek). Mansion tourism is something I never thought I’d enjoy, either, but I’ve found that it reveals quite a lot about all of society. I remarked to QQ that I’d appreciate a museum from a working class house, but she correctly appraised that there wouldn’t be that much to see.

We returned to the Grand Harbour on the next day, this time to the other side, the Cottonera (three cities). I felt self conscious about returning again, especially as it was yet another fort museum with a tangential focus on war. We’d gone to so many Terrence things and not enough QQ ones. I delegated the choice to QQ, and she predictably chose the fort to please me. We went. Luckily, the grounds were wonderful, and there was much to enjoy beyond the exhibits. We tried Twistees (inferior Cheetos according to QQ, superior Cheetos according to me), ducked into the three main exhibit halls, and spent most of our time in the upper fort. This portion boasted gardens, lightly restored captain’s quarters, a nymphaeum, and a small chapel.

We stopped by the Inquisitor’s palace afterwards, which wasn’t particularly well kept but did house quite a lot of interesting information about the Inquisition. I’d only previously learned about the Spanish Inquisition, so if nothing else, I enjoyed learning about a stream of history about which I was entirely ignorant. It seems have served as a political stepping stone for the clergy, with Pope Innocent XII, for instance, once serving as the Malta Inquisitor.

Before returning to Rabat from the Cottonera, Qianqian I decided to get some food. I was quite famished again, and my stomach was rather in pain (I had probably given myself an ulcer in my attempt to lose weight). She chose Be Birgu on the main square. While the food was good – nothing to write home about as QQ picked out exactly the wrong pizza, a salmon pizza with almonds – the memorable part of the evening was our conversation with our waiter, a man from India who had spent time living in Austin. As with so many foreigners who’ve lived in the States that I’ve met over the years, he stressed over and over that “States is the best. You don’t know because you’re from there, and you don’t feel it until you leave. But States is the best.”

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