Legends Thrive off Italian Coast
By Igor Lobanov
Mature Life Features
VALLETTA, Malta ‑‑‑‑ Long popular with vacationing royalty and artists from across Europe, this rock‑bound bastion 50 miles south of Sicily remains an enigma to many North Americans.
A balmy year‑round climate bathes a land whose legacy is rooted in temples a thousand years older than Egypt’s Pyramids at Giza and branches through classical Greece and Rome to the palaces of a patrician unit of Christian crusaders.
The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked here. Arabs occupied the outcropping in 879, followed by the Normans. Napoleon dropped by for six days and his troops hung around for a couple of years until sent packing by the English. Britain’s Royal Navy operated out of the island’s superb natural harbors for a century and a half before the Maltese finally attained their independence in 1964. But it was the Sovereign Military Hospitaler Order of St. John of Jerusalem, better known as the Knights of Malta, whose influence is most heavily felt.
Our cruise ship arrived after dark and we made sure we were on deck as the harbor pilot led the vessel to the quay. As we nosed past the breakwater into the island capital’s narrow harbor entrance, we were confronted by the massive spotlighted star‑shaped Fort St. Elmo to the right and the spear‑like walls of Fort San Angelo to the left whose towering ramparts take on a creamy yellowish glow.
The Knights of St. John, ousted from the Holy Land by the Ottoman Turks and then from the island of Rhodes by Suleiman I (The Magnificent), were invited here in the mid‑16th century by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who saw Malta as the pivotal bulwark to blunt a Moslem invasion of Southern Europe. The newcomers fortified the island and withstood a brutal four‑month Turkish siege in 1565. Over the next 2 1/2 centuries, they created a place that Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott called “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen.”
The Renaissance grid of narrow streets holds palaces, municipal buildings, and churches, many still honeycombed with secret passages. The soaring Co‑Cathedral of St. John, with its high‑baroque ornamentation, has a marble floor quilt‑pattern of mosaics that covers the tombs of some 350 knights. A museum houses treasures “liberated” from all over the Mediterranean by the far‑ranging cavaliers. On a wall of the Oratory is Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s chilling masterpiece, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.”
Perched on a mountain spur 160 miles away high above the Ionian Sea on the northeast coast of Sicily is Taormina (see map). Medieval stone buildings hug cobblestone streets and unexpected portals reveal views past flowering gardens to the deep blue waters where Homer set his tales of Neptune, Ulysses, and the Cyclops.
A favored residence of wealthy Roman patricians for centuries, its quixotic Piazza IX Aprile overlooking the sea is its social center where folks gather in coffee, gelato and marzipan or participate in the lassiggato, the traditional Latin evening stroll.
The piazza is framed by a couple of churches and a clock tower dating from the Middle Ages that serves as a gateway to the medieval sector. Narrow lanes lead to views of the villa‑strewn hillside above and the sea below. A few small squares with bars and other meeting places are interspersed with shops catering to the chic crowd.
Carved into a hillside on the northeastern fringe of town is the town’s treasured Greco‑Roman theater that dates back to the 3rd century BC. The Greeks built it for classical plays and musical events and the Imperial‑age Romans transformed it into an amphitheater for gladiator contests, hunting spectaculars, and even naval battles on a flooded stage.
Today”s audiences at summer concerts and other events still have a grandstand view past the stage to the sea and the largest active volcano in Europe: Sicily’s Mt. Etna.
Mature Life Features, Copyright 2003