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Category Archives: Knights of St John
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.
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.
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.
The Red Tower, or to give it its proper name St Agatha’s Tower, is a large imposing watchtower in Mellieħa, the sixth and most important of a coastal defence system of fortifications and small castles built by the Knights of St John during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
St. Agatha’s Tower turns out to be the last large bastioned tower to be built in Malta to provide early warning of attack and to alert the defence of the city of Valletta.
The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.
The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his honour. Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great battlements and armed bastions the architects also found time and paid attention to good design and within the walls they built a Baroque style city with churches, palaces and fine mansions, laid down gardens and designed grand plazas at the intersections of the grid pattern of the streets. It was certainly worth protecting.
Saint Agatha’s Tower was built between November 1647 and April 1649 and consists of a square castle with four corner towers. Cannon ports in the turrets gave interlocking fields of fire commanding the base of the walls and the gateway, with other large artillery ports in the faces of the main tower.
The tower is situated in a commanding position on the crest of Marfa Ridge at the north west end of Malta, overlooking the natural harbour and potential enemy landing site of Mellieħa Bay, with clear views over to Comino and Gozo, and also eastward to the line of watchtowers along the north shore of Malta that linked it with the Knights headquarters in Valletta. It was the primary stronghold in the west of Malta, and was manned by a garrison of thirty men, with ammunition and supplies to withstand a siege of forty days.
It continued to have a military purpose throughout the British period, and was manned during both World Wars. From the British period it continued its military function being used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta.
Although the children would have preferred to stay at the hotel and spend all day in the swimming pool I thought it was important for them to get out a little and learn something about Malta. The girls weren’t too keen and Patsy (the clever one) feigned a stomach ache to get out of it, Molly (not so clever) didn’t think fast enough to find an excuse but William is rather fond of forts and castles so luckily he was enthusiastic about the visit. Molly was dragged along complaining.
It was just a short walk but it was all uphill so, in the heat, it did become rather a drag by the time we reached the steep flight of steps which took us to the entrance.
There are some good displays inside and some imaginative reconstructions but the best bit is the climb to the roof and the reward of sweeping views in all directions as far as Victoria on Gozo to the north and Valletta to the south and it was easy to understand why they chose this spot for the tower – no one was going to slip in unnoticed that’s for sure.
It didn’t take long to see all that there was to see and with the promise of an ice cream down at the beach after the stroll back there were a lot less complaints on the return walk.
The children celebrate the end of the walk and return to the swimming pool…
“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
“Upon the gates of Burgos there is a dim scratch, in the shadow of the arch, which romantics variously interpret as indicating the length of the Cid’s sword” – Jan Morris
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Burgos and we located the hotel without too much difficulty and checked in. I had chosen the Meson Del Cid because of its location and because the hotel web site boasted about the panoramic views of the Cathedral.
Unfortunately our room didn’t have a panoramic view of the Cathedral or its celebrated ornate front door as we were allocated a room at the rear with a view of a tiny courtyard and the back door of an adjacent church and I immediately decided (perhaps unfairly) that this was most likely going to adversely affect my customer review scoring.
I was especially keen to visit Burgos because the first time I was there in 1985 I dashed through with indecent haste on a road trip from the Algarve to the English Channel and at that point we were seriously behind our schedule and didn’t have time to stop but mostly because this is the spiritual home of my Spanish hero Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar, better known as El Cid.
There was time for a brief excursion into the city but with a full day ahead in Burgos we ignored the sights right now and looked instead for a likely restaurant for later. The one that we selected served a nice evening meal, but not the best that we had had this week and our mistake was not to have the menu del dia which was being served up by the plateful to the pilgrims who made their way inside.
My way of getting our own back on the hotel for the disappointing room was to boycott their expensive breakfast at €11 each and instead found a good alternative at only €4 each just around the corner in a place with the tempting aromas of the first meal of the day, pungent coffee, sizzling eggs, newly fried churros and the faint hint of charred toast.
It was a miserable cold morning and immovable grey clouds filled the sky, the walkers were all wearing their warmest clothes and most people on the street were taking the sensible precaution of carrying an umbrella. We walked first to the Plaza Mayor which isn’t going to get into my favourites list because although it was large and colourful the place was spoilt by the inappropriate placement of recycling containers where, in my opinion, there should have been pavement tables.
From the Plaza we walked to the river through one of the original city gates, the Arco de Santa Maria, and then along a boulevard, Paseo del Espolón, lined with trees like lines of Greek dancers each with their hands on their partners shoulders and then towards the Plaza del Cid.
Once over the river we crossed a bridge lined with statues depicting the heroes of the Reconquesta and then, there he was – El Cid, looking fearsome with his grizzled beard, wild cloak flowing madly, his sword La Tizona, too big for an ordinary mortal, extended ahead of him, his eyes fixed ferociously on an enemy army as he led a charge against the Moors sat on his magnificent famous white horse Babieca.
Only one other statue is the equal of this one in all of Spain – that of Francisco Pizarro more than five hundred kilometres away in the Plaza Mayor in the city of Trujillo in Extremadura.
The weather stubbornly refused to improve so we decided that it was time to visit the Cathedral, the third largest in Spain after Seville and Toledo and we walked to the great Gothic construction with its balustraded turrets, needle-pointed pinnacles, statues of the Saints and steel grey filigree lace towers soaring above us, went inside and grudgingly paid the €7 entrance fee.
Actually this turned out to be very good value for money because I would agree with the travel writer Jan Morris that this is perhaps the finest Cathedral that I have visited in Spain, better than both Seville and Toledo and with an audio guide thrown in.
It took some time to visit all of the chapels on both sides and eventually reach the centre of the building with its huge grey columns reaching up above us supporting a magnificent ribbed central dome where underneath in pride of place was the resting place and tomb of El Cid and his equally famous wife Doña Ximena Díaz Actually I was expecting something a bit grander but the great National hero of Spain is buried under a rather simple marble gravestone.
Through the magnificent stained glass windows we could see that there were occasional shafts of sunlight so with the weather improving Kim began to get restless so we hurried our pace for the remainder of the visit but I did manage to slow her down long enough to visit the Cathedral museum where amongst the exhibits were the travel chest of El Cid, which I am fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to use as Ryanair cabin baggage and a blood thirsty statue of Saint James the Moor slayer.
These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a similar statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.
A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement explained that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ. It might also be a case of political correctness. In 1990 there were one hundred thousand Muslims living in Spain but by 2010 this had risen to over one million.
Saint James is in danger of becoming a bit of a Nigel Farage! Burgos Cathedral on the other hand, for the time being anyway, appears not to be so sensitive.
With the sun now shining we returned to the streets and walked along a steep path through pleasant woodland towards the castle of Burgos. There was once a medieval castle on the site but the current fort was built by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, was the only castle that the Duke of Wellington failed to capture and which was destroyed again by the French when they retreated and left in 1813.
It has been restored again now but opening hours seem to be very limited and today the iron gates were firmly closed and locked so we walked back to the city and returned to the river and walked in both directions before selecting a pavement bar on the Paseo del Espolón and sat in the hot sunshine with a San Miguel.
I liked Burgos, probably most out of all the cities that we had visited this week and I was glad that we had chosen to spend a couple of nights here. Later we found an alternative restaurant for evening meal where the food was excellent and we were in the good company of some Camino walkers and at the end of the day there was a walk back to the hotel through the quiet streets under the waxy glow of the iron street lamps casting their curious shadows into the corners of the Plazas and streets and overhead there was a clear sky which made us optimistic about the next day.