Malta, A Stroll Around Valletta and the Head of John The Baptist

Valletta Malta

The fact that Fort St Elmo was closed for restoration wasn’t really a problem because the whole of Valletta is in fact one huge fort with Medieval fortifications defending it on all sides so we set off to walk along the side of the Grand Harbour with views across to the marinas and docks on the opposite side.

Grand Harbour, Valletta…

Walking along the edge of the water it was easy to appreciate just how strategically important this place was to a strong naval power like the British and why the Germans in World War Two would have liked to possess it.  Today the harbour is full of fishing boats, yachts and tourist vessels but it is easy to imagine it full of battleships and naval dockyards.

It was a pleasant walk along the water side but eventually we decided to make our way back into the city centre.  On a side street we came across a bar which seemed to be cut into the rocks but it had some tables outside and a large beer was only €1.50 and there was some Spanish style tapas so we sat there for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.

Valletta Malta

We also enjoyed watching a trio of Community Wardens who were using this convenient junction to catch motorists who were driving without seat belts or who talking on their mobile phones.  They caught so many offenders that were being handed a €60 fine that very quickly there was a substantial traffic jam.

Apparently these two offences are common in Malta but despite this statistics show that the country has the lowest death rate from traffic accidents. With a fatality rate of twenty-five deaths per million of the population, Malta tops the table as the safest country, followed by the Netherlands with forty-five deaths and Sweden with forty-nine fatalities.  I imagine this must be due to the fact that there are so many cars on the road in Malta that no one can realistically expect to drive faster than about ten miles an hour.

Eventually the Wardens packed up and moved on to another location and we drained our glasses and walked into the city through the Victoria Gate.  That would be Queen Victoria I imagine.

Valletta Malta postcard

We were getting dangerously close to shops now and Kim stopped now and then to look at shoes and sparkly things but the danger passed and soon we were back on Republic Street.

Cathedral of St John, Valletta…

It was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.

St John the Baptist…

There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.

Very good but a bit gruesome…

Caravaggio The Beheading of St John The Baptist

In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed  the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately at some point over the last two thousand years it went missing.  No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox  monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.

The Baptism of Christ

Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich (a bit odd, if you ask me).   Other JTB heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens  in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.

Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist.  I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton where I grew up…

No flash photography rules…

Despite all of the splendour the most memorable thing about our visit came at the very end when we came across an altercation between a German visitor and some Cathedral staff.  He was upset about the no photography rule and wasn’t prepared to listen to reason.  I feigned a sudden interest in the last of the exhibits so that I could enjoy the exchange.  Try and do in a German accent because it works best – “I vant to know who vrote ziz policy”, “I vant to speak to ze man who wrote ze policy”, “Just who has made deeze rules”.  I was tempted to join in and suggest that it might be the Big Man upstairs.  Eventually the staff tired of repeating their reasonable explanation and he followed them to the offices demanding to have access now to the complantze policy.

When it was over we left the Cathedral and walked now to the other side of the city to Marsamxett harbour to the north where we watched the ferries travelling forward and back to the holiday town of Sliema on the other side and walked a while along the water front and admired the multi coloured box window balconies of the high rise apartment buildings.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto, Salamanca and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants.  I really do not like those awful cruise ships!

It was late afternoon now so it seemed about the right time to make our way back to the scrum at the bus terminal.  There was one due in ten minutes and only a few people waiting at the stop but by the time the bus arrived this had swollen to several thousand.  We were getting used to this by now and we pushed our way on and thankfully found a seat for the sixty minute journey back to Mellieha.

In the late afternoon we followed the same routine. I went to the mini-market, we sat on the balcony, Kim thrashed me at cards as usual and then we went to the same restaurant.  On the way back however we did something different and once back at the hotel followed the sound of the booming music and made our way to the Limelight Lounge.  It was wonderful, like stepping into a time machine and going back twenty years to my last visit.  This is where I used to play bingo, this was where there was children’s entertainment and this was the place where they played groovy disco music – and they were still doing it!

It had been a good day.

Malta Valletta St Johns Cathedral

* I have driven through Cetinje  in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.

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18 responses to “Malta, A Stroll Around Valletta and the Head of John The Baptist

  1. I think I am exhausted just listening ot that full day. I laughed out loud at the German complaint. Well written my friend. Happy you didn’t run into John the Baptist’s head. Really now who wants that on display? That bus pushing business is really turning me off Malta. Do I have any other options?

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  2. Fascinating account of a day in Valletta Andrew! I can picture the altercation in the cathedral must have been entertaining to listen in to – I wonder how the tourist progressed with his complaint?!

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  3. Interesting to hear about the Maltese traffic stats. A cycling blogger I follow tells us it’s a dreadful country for those trying to ride a bike.

    Incidentally, the Netherlands annually has about 10 cycling deaths per million population.

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    • I wouldn’t cycle in Malta Richard and I think most people would agree with me, I certainly didn’t see anybody on a bike and I didn’t see any cycle lanes either. Interestingly there aren’t any scooter hire places either! The roads are too congested and in the countryside they are narrow and windy with poor visibility!

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  4. Fascinating article Andrew – as is the story or legend or whatever regarding how apparently the hand of St John the Baptist came to Cetinje, Montenegro 🙂

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    • I drove through Cetinje on the way to Sveti Stefan without stopping. I wish I had now. Sveti Stefan was a huge disappointment!

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      • Yes, I had a similar experience with Sveti Stefan – was enticed by beautiful photos, couldn’t wait to get there and then a huge anticlimax… Perhaps that hand awaits you one day in Cetinje – I cannot but wonder how these stories arise in history but certainly keeps the imagination live 🙂

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  5. This has been a lively day and post. The John the Baptist stories are mind-boggling. History isn’t always neat and clean, is it? Except for the traffic, I believe I’d enjoy following your walk. 😀

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  6. I vreally vliked thiz post! 😀 😀

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  7. side street+tapas+beer=perfect. “the danger passed” ha ha ha. No wonder she trounces you at cards! This is a great story and so interesting to hear all the places who claim pieces of saints.

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  8. Pingback: Brittany, St Malo | Have Bag, Will Travel

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