“Individually, every grain of sand brushing against my hands represents a story, an experience, and a block for me to build upon for the next generation.” Raquel Cepeda, Bird of Paradise
Wandering through a Medieval Walled City
The Citadel, a grand and beautiful walled city within a city, is set high on a hill above the suburbs of Rabat*, the capital of Gozo. The Citadel or Cittadella has been an active geographic and social center of the island since Neolithic times. The Romans started to build the defensive stone walls. Later they were expanded, reinforced and rebuilt by the Knights of St. John. The quarters within the walls were a safe house for the village. The community was garrisoned here when foraging Mediterranean pirates (corsairs) arrived to plunder in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Knights fought on these walls during the invasions of the Ottoman empire of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The history of the Knights of St. John, a long and complicated one, is conspicuous in the history of Malta. In short, the Knights were Catholic monks who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but whose mission was to be ‘warrior monks’. Some might say that is a contradiction in vocation. Their holy orders evolved as Christendom took up the fight against Islamic invaders. They hauled their holy swords over the heads of many a so-called ‘infidel’ and killed in the name of Rome and the Pope. They were wealthy aristocratic figures as well as courageous, ferocious warriors. Their legacy remains in the amazing walled cities that still stand today in Malta and Rhodes (Greece).
On the bus from Nadur, you can see the walls and spires atop the hill well before you reach the city. Trekking by foot from the bus station, the modern pilgrim climbs up the steep and angled streets, bustling with modern day consumerism, to reach the high walls of the imposing yellow limestone fortifications. The pilgrim then guides her weary knees through an arch into the hamlet that is the Cittadella and steps into the culture of long gone era.
Inside the walls, the wide steps of the fine old Cathedral of the Assumption stretch forward overpowering the piazza; sending a magnetic overture to come and climb. After walking up the hill from the bus station, the pilgrim’s feeble knees set up a loud protestation. But the plaza of steps, with their two matched bronze statues and imposing bronze door, were seductive. One step at a time, the reluctant knees functioned as best they could. The bronzes on the steps looked familiar. An old friend from Poland, Pope John Paul II, is one of the statues perched on the stairway. John Paul made two visits to the country in 1990 and 2001; he is a favorite of the Maltese people. John Paul’s hand is raised in greeting, beckoning the pilgrim to enter the sanctuary of the 17th century Cathedral dedicated to the Mother of God, that was once the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Juno.
Entering from the bright limestone walls to the dark cavern of the church is like walking through a mystical veil. The floor is immediately arresting with its inlaid marble of contrasting tones and colors. Each rectangle is a stunning commemorative slab covering the remains of some famous knight or nobleman who had helped assure the survival of the fortress.
The fresco on the dome made walking difficult as your neck was immediately locked into the “look up and stare” position. The paintings on the ceiling dome were detailed, rich and beautiful. We stepped through ornate chapels in the niches and under magnificent glass chandeliers. The Festa (feast day) statues were displayed behind glass. They were garrishly bright with color, ornate and larger than life. Their size was stunning when considered that they are carried in processions through the streets during the special feasts of the town.
Later over lunch, I read about a surprising detail in our guide book*. The dome of the cathedral was famous for not being a dome at all. It is a very clever ‘trompe l’oeil’: “a style of painting in which things are painted in a way that makes them look like real objects” (Merriam-Webster’s definition). The dome was never built. The illusion was created by Antonio Pippi, a Sicilian artist. We did not know about this creative snare while we were in the cathedral. So we walked back after lunch to look at the exterior again and sure enough, it was a flat roof with a peaked front. Wide-eyed with wonder, we meditated on the lovely trick.
There is more here than what you can see with your naked eye. This meander is about walking on history. It is a place to dream and wonder. So with no plan, we ignored the pointed signs and chose random narrow byways snaking their way between the limestone enclosures. Each choice of a bend in a passageway was an exciting unknown. The alleys curved to the back of the fortress where the enclosures opened up and the sky dominated the landscape. Here was the highest point of the fortress. The entire island of Gozo was visible in miniature from here. The walkway against the wall was wide and protective inviting a pleasant stroll with the blue sky and iconic puffy white clouds over the expanse of scenery. I wondered about the cauldrons of hot pitch that were poured over the side, the boulders that may have come crashing in from some long ago constructed catapult or trebuchet, or the arrows that were launched from these very walls onto the storming Ottoman troops.
In the more recent history of World War II, the aerial battles between the German and Allied aircraft could be viewed here like a wide screen movie. I had read that In the early days of the war, people would come out and watch the aerial shows from the highest points in the country to rally and cheer. Later, during the siege of the island in this same war, there was appalling destruction and deprivation. The population resorted to sheltering underground in the existing natural caves during the air raids.
A little way from the ramparts, we browsed some fenced areas where hillocks of ancient limestone rock appeared to have tumbled into piles of rubble. There was restoration and excavation in process. These are actually the oldest parts of the Citadel dating back to when the Romans started fortifications. I wondered at the disintegrating piles of rocks. Where they touched by Romans? By Knights of St. John? By a bomb or bullet from a WWII plane? The entire area was scenic, peaceful, and sunny. Weeds, not normally found attractive in my garden, were sprouting with elegance and panache from the sandy gravel of honey gold rock crevices and walls. Then the bells of the cathedral burst into a forceful cacophony. The ringing concert did not have a resonant mellow tone as in a song but a peeling sound like they were announcing or calling to the populace. It was a long gratifying interlude up there under the blue sky, standing stock still listening to the voice of the old bells.
After the concert, we went searching for lunch. I was surprised that there were some little restaurants inside this historical museum-like enclave. Climbing out of an alley, we found a wide paved terrace nestled against another side of the rampart where there was a restaurant called the San Marino. The bi-fold billboard outside the restaurant advertised Vermont’s Ben and Jerry’s ice cream complete with the logo of bright black and white heifers under their flashy blue New England sky. Some tables were set right over the views of the city. Sitting down here was an easy choice. The owner pleasantly fussed over us. Lunch was generously offered as tapas. Greg ordered the fresh lemon and orange juice mix and raved about it. I just kept raving about the view even after it started to rain. We moved to a place under an umbrella and continued our reverie.
We found the old villa that houses the Archeological Museum with an intricate gorgeous stone balcony cleaving to it. To the left of the museum entrance, I noticed an enticing dead end street. It had a weird dim aura, so I meandered down to the end and found, on the right wall, behind a massive iron grate, three very large bells on display. They were the old bells of the cathedral cast by the Knights of St. John’s in a Valletta foundry between 1639 and 1791. The bells were haunting – or haunted. They hung there in a dead-end passageway: old, beautiful, abandoned, imprisoned and lonely.
We ended our meandering day in the Archeology Museum*** talking to Stephen, a curator who loved to chat and share his comprehensive knowledge of local history. On the following day, we planned to visit the Ġgantija Temples in Xagħra. Many of the artifacts from the site had recently been in this museum. Stephen generously prepped us with some background. I wanted to buy a souvenir and pointed to a white seated female figure and asked for ‘the fat lady goddess’. I think Stephen did one of those head snaps and corrected that this was not a “fat lady” but a “goddess of fertility”. My face went pink. I had picked up this reference from my guide book. The goddess figurines found in the Neolithic temples were casually referred to as the “Fat Lady figurines of Ġgantija”. I had used the term endearingly but I stood corrected as Stephen explained the culture of the goddess of fertility. The Ġgantija Temples would reveal more about the culture of the ‘hefty goddesses’ of Gozo on the next day.
As we rode the bus back to our hotel, I was forming mottos for visiting Malta: roam, wonder and relax. Take it easy and enjoy the journey. This day ended for the pilgrim with a gratifying sigh.
*Rabat is also known as Victoria. It was named to honor Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee.
**Bradt travel guides Malta and Gozo by Juliet Rix, is highly recommended as background and tips for exploring Malta.