“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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
* 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.