Normally early October brings the delights of the Poetry on the Lake Festival at Orta in Italy. Like a number of others, I first attended this festival when I was successful in one of their competitions – and then became addicted. This year, because of other potential arrangements, I wasn’t able to commit to Orta in advance, so decided to take a break from my normal pattern of revising my rudimentary Italian and heading south in the camper van as soon as the first whiff of autumn blew in my direction.
The expected appointments didn’t materialise, so at the last minute we made a booking to join our grandchildren and their parents for a half-term holiday week in Malta, which we had never visited before. The weather was perfect all week with temperatures in the mid-30s, and the sea was deliciously warm, so we enjoyed the luxury of swimming several times a day as well as visiting some of the interesting sites on the islands. And, of course, we had lots of fun with the lovely family. We had also made some new friends earlier this year, and it turned out that they are Maltese and spend quite a bit of time back there; so we were able to spend two happy days with them as well.
One of the striking features of Malta is the pale honey-coloured limestone which is quarried on the island, and from which everything, from ornate cathedral to humble dwelling, is built. It gives a gentle relaxed feel to the towns, and looks beautiful from the air. Like our sandstone in places like Lindisfarne, the stone is soft enough to be sculpted by the elements, and takes on fascinating decorative patterns as parts are worn away.
Of course, much of the history of Malta revolves round the Knights of St John. Like so much other history this tends to be rather macho and it’s sometimes tempting to think that the islands were uninhabited by women. However, the knights have left behind some beautiful cathedrals and churches. Like so much from this Baroque era, the insides of these buildings are incredibly ornate, and on entering Valetta Cathedral one is almost dazzled by the extensive gold. But most of it is not as over-the-top as one might have expected. I’ve seen far more excessive Baroque buildings in other countries, especially in Spain, Austria and Brazil. My taste in ecclesiastical architecture normally tends towards the simplicity and grace of the Romanesque; but on this occasion to my surprise, I actually liked much of what I saw, especially in Valetta Cathedral.
The picture on the right is of Mdina Cathedral. Mdina is a beautiful city, surrounded by walls and is so much of a piece that it feels extremely harmonious. It is, of course, highly preserved for tourists, but also seems to operate as a real place as well.
Apparently the inhabitants of the town were all sheltering in this church in the war, when a bomb was dropped and fell straight through the dome and down to where all the people were. By an amazing stroke of good fortune, or what many would call a miracle, the bomb did not explode and nobody was hurt. A replica of that bomb is now on display in the church. Malta suffered terribly during the war, and the whole island was awarded the George Cross by King George VI.
The friend we spent some time with was a child in the war and remembers it quite clearly. The experiences of the Maltese people came alive so vividly for us as he talked: in particular his stories of how his family spent the nights down a large well for safety, and how one uncle who decided he’d had enough of that left the well one night and was killed.
Moving further back in history, St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, and we passed St Paul’s Island when we took the boat to Comino and Gozo on what turned out to be the only day when the wind got up. It was still sunny and warm, but the seas became pretty rough, and gave us a taste of what St Paul might have experienced a couple of thousand years ago. The story goes that when St Paul landed, he had an unfortunate encounter with a viper, so the locals all expected him to keel over and die. Instead of that, however, he simply shook the viper off into the fire.
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts of the Apostles chapter 28).
There’s a large statue of St Paul and the viper outside the church in Mellieha (see right).
The other treatment of this theme, which I’ve always loved, can be found in St Anselm’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, where the twelfth century artist captures so much of the movement and drama and of the story.
Travelling even further back into history, Malta has some rather impressive pre-historic temples, which are far older than Stonehenge. As with many such early structures in Britain and France, they appear to be aligned in such a way that the sun striking certain stones marks the solstices and equinoxes, thus giving shape to the year and guiding the timing of agricultural activities.