Category Archives: Cathedrals

Malta, The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck

feast-of-st-pauls-shipwreck

Malta is the most religious country in Europe…

…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and he then went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.

Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta.

Valletta Malta

In a survey in 2010 95% of the population of Malta said that they were practising Catholics.  Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%.  The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important!

Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%

There have been four Papal visits to Malta, the last in April 2010 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul on the island.  His ship ran aground in St Paul’s Bay (obviously) and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate.  Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued.

saint-paul-shipwreckMalta waves

Last year I visited the town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers who were searching for him – rather like Saddam Hussein, two thousand years later hiding from the American troops – also in a cave.

St Paul's Grotto Malta

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

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I am fairly certain that I have mentioned here before that I have a travel ambition to visit all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain.  So far I have managed fifteen but still need to add La Rioja and Navarre to my  list.  I could have chosen to go there this time but instead I went to the east coast where I have been previously.

I have been to Valencia and Murcia before and I have always said that it isn’t my favourite part of Spain but now my sister lives there so this provided an opportunity to visit and possibly make a reassessment.  I resolved that if possible that this should be a voyage of discovery.

This part of the east coast of Spain is called the Costa Blanca now but it is still quite often referred to by its once regional name of Levante from a time when the Moors had colonial ownership of the Iberian peninsular and had a heavy presence all along this Mediterranean coastline.

It is said that the name Costa Blanca was originally conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom.  I think this may explain why I have always been a bit snooty about it because I have always associated it with concrete holiday resorts and as we flew in over Benidorm, gleaming like a shiny pin-cushion I was fairly certain that nothing short of dynamite was going to change my opinion.

Alicante Castle

This opinion exposes my prejudice and ignorance because the problem that I have is that I find it difficult to get an understanding of Valencia because you need to dig deep to find the true heritage of the place.  Nothing shouts out to me like the Flamenco of Andalucía, Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or the Conquistadors of Extremadura, of Gaudi in Catalonia, the Camino Way of Galicia or tales of Saint James and the Reconquista in Castilla y Leon.

The only flimsy thing that I have ever had to go on was the story of El Cid and the battle with the Moors over the city of Valencia

Benidorm Spain

Allow me to go on; it has always concerned me that there are a great many British living in this part of Spain, in Torrevieja alone there are about twelve thousand which accounts for about thirteen per cent of the entire population.  In fact the Spanish themselves are in the minority at only forty-eight per cent and soon it is estimated that in total there will be one million Brits living on the Costa Blanca.

It is not only British but also the Scandinavians and the Germans and the Dutch and even the Spanish themselves because as more immigrants arrive then more people from other regions of Spain head east for the jobs that are created. Valencia has some difficulty retaining and protecting its own identity and many local people lament the loss of heritage and language and tradition.

So I got a bigger spade and started to dig a bit deeper to try to learn something about Valencia other than the story of El Cid.

paella

I suppose I have to start with paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia.  When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.

They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice.  Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.

These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans.  Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal. Excuse me while I go to the bathroom to puke just thinking about it!

valencia-oranges

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region. After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sharp, sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air.  Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia.  The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of some five hundred fruits.

We landed in Alicante in bright sunshine around about lunch time and after a short drive to the urbanisation of Quesada we immediately settled in to local life by finding a bar with some local tapas.  It was good to be in Spain once more.

Tapas Alicante

Malta, Washing Lines

Italy washing LineMalta Washing Lines 2Malta Washing Lines 1

 

Entrance Tickets – St John’s Cathedral, Valletta

malta-cathedral

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  Benjamin Disraeli

Before I go any further, let me agree with Benjamin because Valletta is my favourite European Capital city.

On the second day we decided to take our chances on the buses again and visit the capital of the island, Valletta.  We waited in a long line at the bus stop but luckily most people were going to nearby Bujibba on a different route so when the bus we wanted pulled in to pick up there were still some spare seats.  This didn’t last long and after a few more stops it was packed tight like sardines in a can.  A very warm can!

It wasn’t very far but Malta has one of the highest ratios of car ownership to population so the roads were seriously congested and the nearer we got to the city the slower the journey became until the bus finally crawled into the bus terminus close to the old medieval walls.  The terminus is like a giant roundabout and was clogged with buses all belching fumes and impatiently trying to get in and out.

Valletta Malta postcard

Cathedral of St John, Valletta…

After walking around the city and the Grand Harbour 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 I thought even if it is 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, one of the most important in the Christain World, because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately and rather carelessly at some point over the last five hundred 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. Other John the Baptist 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.

I digress here to tell you that we have just had a decluttering exercise at home and have cleared out the attic space and in our frenzy of disposal I can’t help retrospectively wondering if we threw out anything valuable.

The town of Halifax in West Yorkshire (UK) also claims that the head was once buried there in the Church dedicated to St John and the authorities there cling on to this claim by incorporating an image of the head within the town crest.

halifax2

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, near Rugby 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 that is how it works best – “I vant to know who vrote ziz policy”, “I vant to speek to ze man who vrote ze policy”, “Just who has made deeze stoopid rooles”.  I was tempted to join in and suggest that it might be the Big Man himself 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.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto 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!

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.

Malta, Doors of Mellieha

Mellieha Door 02Mellieha Door 03Mellieha Door 01Malta Door and Balcony MelliehaMellieha Iron Balcony and Door

More Picture Posts of Malta…

 

Malta, Fishing Boats

Malta, Door Knobs and Knockers

Malta, Cathedrals and Churches

Malta, Balconies

Malta, Washing Lines

Travels in Spain – Off the Beaten Track (1)

If you are travelling to Spain and want to avoid the coast and the obvious tourist traps then let me make some suggestions…

Almagro in Castlla-La Mancha

almagro

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

Almagro is an old town that was once much more important than it is today, two hundred and fifty years ago it was for a short time the provincial capital of La Mancha (1750-61) but religious decline set in during the reign of Charles III and it fared badly and suffered damage in the Napoleonic and the Carlist wars.  Eventually it was eclipsed by its neighbours, Ciudad Real and Bolaños de Calatrava and it became the quiet town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide the Plaza Major is one of the finest in all of Spain, flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

Antequera in Andalucia

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.”  –  George Orwell

Antequera has always been an important place due its geographical position as it falls on a natural crossroads east/west between Seville and Granada and north/south between Malaga and Cordoba and the Moors built their most impregnable castle at this place to protect their possessions in Iberia.

Plaza San Sebastian is at the very bottom of the city at a busy roundabout junction where every major road in the city seems to converge, a bubbling pink marble water fountain, a modern monument that marks the junction of two Roman roads, a proud church, several grand buildings and overshadowed by the looming presence of the Alcazaba, a steep cobble-stoned hill climb away.  The steps are steep but lead to the castle gate and inside is the Plaza de Santa Maria dominated by the biggest church in town.

Girona in Catalonia

Girona Catalonia Spain

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries.  How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell

This is a fine place – better than Barcelona!  The old town is packed onto a hillside alongside the river, which is spanned by a series of bridges that lead to the shopping area. One bridge leads to  Carrer de la Força, which, it’s hard to believe was once part of the Via Augusta, the road that led across Spain from Rome, and from the tenth to the end of the fifteenth century was the main street of one of Europe’s most important Jewish quarters.

The visitor will climb all the time but make frequent and sometimes pointless diversions into side streets and blind alleys, up steep steps and along difficult cobbled passageways, always grateful for shade in this labyrinth of enchanting lanes.

Eventually everyone will arrive in the square in front of Santa Maria Cathedral whose Baroque façade conceals an austere Gothic interior that was built around a previous Romanesque church, of which the cloisters and a single tower remain.  After the climb find the energy to climb the steps from the square to the Cathedral and go inside to visit the interior of the building and see the World’s widest Gothic nave and the second widest overall after St. Peter’s in Rome

Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Spain

“…Sigüenza, ninety miles from Madrid, remains a quiet spot in an empty landscape.  It sits among narrow valleys celebrated by Camilo José Celar in his ‘Journey to the Acarria’”  –  Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Sigüenza has always occupied an important strategic geographical position in a narrow valley on the main road and railway line between Madrid and Aragon and Catalonia.  This is not a surprise, the Romans, the Moors and the Catholic Monarchs of the Reconquista had all previously fortified this place.

For a small town the cathedral is an immense building and one of the most important late Romanesque buildings in Spain which was built to symbolise the power of Bishop Don Bernardo who began construction in the twelfth century.  It has three naves and a main chapel with an ambulatory and a dome and around the outer walls are a series of commemorative chapels which reads like a who’s who of the local campaigns of the Reconquista.

Inside is the jewel of the Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine which houses the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce where in what is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish funerary art is his alabaster statue decorated with the cross of Santiago as he lies serenely on his side while casually reading a giant book. The authors of the Spanish Generation of 1898 (a group of patriotic artists and philosophers) drew national attention to the statue by naming him ‘el doncel de Sigüenza’ – the boy of Sigüenza.

Siguenza Spain

In the Plaza Major café tables are arranged in the shadow of the South Tower which reaches high into the blue sky and has small-fortress like windows at regular intervals and the description fortress-like is rather appropriate because they bear the marks of shell damage inflicted on the building in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

Entrance Tickets, Malta to Gozo Ferry

gozo-ferry

“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.” – Nicholas Monserrat

We had debated what to do today and we finally decided that we would visit the neighbouring island of Gozo.

Just to be clear, this is the island of Gozo and not Gozer the Gozerain from the film ‘Ghostbusters

This is Gozer…

gozer

This is Gozo…

Gozo Postcard

Getting there should have been straight forward but this morning we had our first experience of the inefficient bus service.  There was a stop at the end of the hotel drive and we arrived there at about nine forty-five which should have given us plenty of time to reach the ferry port about two and a half miles away for the eleven o’clock crossing.

We saw the first bus approach and we saw the first bus pass by without stopping – it was full.  A second bus came and passed without stopping and then a third, it seemed as though everyone was going to Gozo this morning.

Malta Bus Chaos

By this time it was almost ten o’clock and Kim made the decision that we should walk.  I said that we wouldn’t make it in time, Kim said that she was confident that we would, I said we wouldn’t, she said we would and so we set off at a brisk pace.

Well, just in time, we made it and that took care of all of the breakfast calories and eventually we calmed down, cooled down and enjoyed a thirty minute ferry journey to our destination, passing as we went the third of the Maltese islands, Comino.

For our day on Gozo we had booked one of those open topped tourist buses.  I don’t usually like these because they seem to spend a lot of wasted time going to places that you don’t want to go but the man at the hotel reception had persuaded me that this was a good option because we could be sure of seeing all of the places of interest in one day which could not be guaranteed if relying on the privatised bus service.  We found the bus, made our way to the top deck and waited for it to fill up with passengers and leave.

Xewkija Gozo Parish Church

The first really noticeable thing about Gozo was how less busy the place was compared to Malta and we drove through villages and open fields on practically empty roads.  First we came to the village of Xewkija which was a modest place but has an enormous church with what is claimed to be the third largest unsupported church dome in the World.

To put that into some sort of perspective the largest is St Peter’s in Rome (fourth largest city in Western Europe) and the second largest is St Paul’s in London (population 7.5 million, give or take a thousand) Xewkija is a village in Gozo with a population of about three thousand, three hundred people.

Our plan was to stay on board the bus and complete the route to the very far side of the island at a place called Dwejra where there is a natural rock formation called the azure window which attracts people like bees to a honey pot mostly it seems on account of the fact that it was used as a location for the TV show ‘Game of Thrones’ although I cannot confirm this because I have never watched it.

Azure Window Gozo Malta

It was an interesting little stop and we clambered over the erosion scarred limestone rocks, rock pools where nothing lived and the salt pans which was the reason why.  It was very busy so we made our way back to the shabby little ring of tourist trap shops and bars, had a beer and then on account of the number of people who might be competing to get on the bus made our way in good time back to the stop ready to move on to Victoria.

Victoria is the capital of Gozo.  It used to be called Rabat but in 1887 the British renamed it to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way.  A lot of people on Gozo still call the place Rabat – Good For Them!

The bus dropped us off and we made our way to the centre of the city, to St George’s Square and the Basilica of the same Saint.  As it was 23rd April there was a lot of bell ringing and celebration but the disappointment was that the square resembled a construction site as it was in the process of restoration and improvement.

Victoria Gozo Malta

We tend to think of St George as an English Saint but a lot of the rest of Europe has claimed him as well because St. George is also the Patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia and I wouldn’t mind betting that all of them will do an awful lot more to celebrate 23rdApril every year than we do!

We moved on from St George’s building site and made our way to the Citadel at the very top of the city which as the name suggests is a medieval fortress city in the most defensible position on the island.  This also turned out to be rather a disappointment because this was another construction site.  The Citadella is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list and it looks as though the Gozians are putting in a bit of extra effort (courtesy of EU heritage funding) to give the application a boost.

saint-george

The time was passing quickly now and there was still more of the island to see so we returned to the bus station, stopping briefly to buy a Maltese cheese pie for lunch (very tasty by-the-way) before rejoining the tour bus for the remainder of the trip.

First we went to the fishing village of  Xlendi where due to the fact that I was confused by the schedule we forgot to get off and so we stayed on and went back to Victoria and then to the other side of the island to the holiday village of Marsalforn where we stopped for forty-five minutes and walked around the sandy beach and the pretty harbour.

Rejoining the bus we went next to the UNESCO site megalithic temples at Nadur and the directly back to the port to catch the six o’clock ferry back to Malta.  Twenty years ago the ferry used to arrive and drop passengers off directly on the quay side but now there is a posh (EU funded) ferry terminal with ticket desks, lounges and rules and regulations. I preferred it the old way.

Gozo Countryside