Exploring Malta

Valletta Malta Skyline – orangeviaggi

Malta is an extraordinary country with many hidden treasures! Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese Archipelago is a world of its own – south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, east of the Strait of Gibraltar, and north of Alexandria Egypt! The three main islands are Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They’re rich in culture and nature with Neolithic archeological sites, Baroque architecture, historical museums, art galleries, ancient forts, forests, water sports, lighthouses, windmills, and beaches.

Xarolla Windmill – mymalata.com

Wednesday I took a ferry to Valletta. The weather was warm, hazy, and windy with piercing sun. After a long trip my photography skills are waning and processing photos with slow local WiFi is painful. To help communicate Malta’s beauty, I’ve used some media shots in this post.

Mediterranean Sea

Overlooking Malta Grand Harbor

Catamaran Ferry

Getting to Malta was more complicated than I imagined. Weather permitting, there are daily ferries from Pozzallo to Valletta and back. The huge catamaran has gambling – slot machines – shops, food, and is clean and comfortable. I booked my ticket online – the date changed several times due to heavy wind and stormy seas.

Garden Grand Master’s Palace

It’s amazing that it can be clear when boarding the ferry and 30 minutes into the 1.5-hour trip to Malta you run into Mediterranean squalls. Many passengers got sea-sick and no matter how sure-footed you were, walking around the boat was difficult – bumping off walls and seats. The captain asked everyone to remain seated.

Triton Fountain Valletta – Images George Rex

A few days before departure, I received notification that the return trip was departing Valletta two hours later. That was fine with me and would allow more time to explore. I asked if the Pozzallo departure was also changed and the reply was it would leave as scheduled – ha

Nativity of Our Lady Chapel Birkirkara – Trip-Suggest

I gave myself time to walk to the ferry – about 30 minutes along the coast. I could see the ferry approaching as I got near the port and quickened my pace thinking I might miss it – ha, ha, ha. The ferry departed almost two hours late!

Yacht Blue Lagoon Comino Island – Photo Malta Tourism

Auberge de Castille Valletta

The security check was quick but the boarding area packed. Upon arrival, trucks and autos exit the ferry first – before passengers are allowed to disembark. This doesn’t make sense but there must be logic behind it? The tedious process made everyone antsy and seemed to take forever.

I ran into familiar faces from Pozzallo and chatted with passengers. Easter is a major Italian holiday followed by Independence Day on April 25, when many families visit. Malta’s ferry was more chaotic than those for other archipelagos and isolated islands experienced – Azores, Seychelles, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Greek and Turkish Islands.

St John Cathedral Clock Tower

History and Geography

The History of the Maltese Islands dates back 7,000 years to 5200 B.C., when Stone Age farmers settled along the shores. Normans, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Phoenicians, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Castilians invaded the archipelago.

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – cagliariturismo

Malta gained independence in 1964, changed from a Commonwealth to a Republic in 1974, and joined the European Union in 2004. It’s the smallest country in the EU by area and population, but the most densely populated. The Maltese archipelago has seven Mediterranean islands – only three are inhabited.

Mosaic Domus Romana Ruin Gozo Island – heritagemalta.org

Valletta City Gate

Malta is the largest island. The capital is Valletta with Birkirkara the most populated city. Malta has a series of small towns forming one Larger Urban Zone (LUZ) with a total population of around 450,000. Maltese is the national language, but there are two official languages – Maltese and English.

Valletta Malta – LandLopers

Locals appear to think of their towns almost as separate countries. During the day I got disorientated when my offline maps didn’t work and no one could help me find the ferry departure point in Valletta. I had strayed into another town where they disavowed all knowledge of Valletta.

Ft. St. Angelo

It’s easy to see why the Maltese Archipelago is an important Mediterranean maritime hub. It has three large natural harbors – Marsamxett, Marsaxlokk, and Grand. The fourth harbor – Ċirkewwa – is manmade.

Church Our Lady of Mount Carmel – commons.wikimedia.org

Locals often assume you’re a cruise ship passenger – there were several massive ships in Grand Harbor… After circling the waterfront a few times, I finally found the right departure point. The stress of finding the ferry location on time was unnecessary since there was another departure delay.

Unknown Buildings Near Valletta Port

Accommodation, Transportation, and Tours

Malta accommodation is expensive. I wanted to stay there but opted for day trips from Pozzallo – before realizing the hassle of getting back and forth via ferry. I planned to book a tour in advance, but am glad I didn’t. With the delay in ferry departure it would have been impossible to join a tour group on time.

Swatar Birkirkara – Wikipedia

I did research to find points of interest and guide myself. It was slightly overwhelming. It’s impossible to explore Malta in one day – you need more time to see and understand even basic cultural and historic attractions. Captivated by Malta’s beauty and mystery, I plan a return visit and extended stay.

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Known as Europe’s “culture capital,” Malta is one of the most beautiful places in the world! A new art gallery – Muża – opened in 2018. The name stands for Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti. In Maltese it means “muse or inspiration”. Renovated 15th-century Auberge d’Italie combines the art collection of Malta’s former National Museum of Fine Arts and recent Muża acquisitions.

Grandmaster’s Palace Valletta

Automobiles and motorcycles run the perimeter of the island. In central Valletta old town, you can walk, take a horse-drawn carriage, or ride a small motorized vehicle for children and those less mobile. Exploring the island on foot is by far the best.

MUZA – Valletta 2018

Valletta Piazzas

Valletta has several main squares:

  • Republic Square – known for cafés
  • St. George’s Square – home of the Grandmaster
  • St. John’s Square – home of St. Johns Cathedral
  • Triton Square – near Valletta City Gate
  • Freedom Square – reminiscent of the 1970s Communist period
  • Castille Square – overlooking the Grand Harbour and Auberge de Castille
  • Independence Square – beautiful terraces and traditional Maltese houses

Malta has an extensive local bus system. Knowing I had limited time, I waited in line to learn about buses and buy a pass. The lines were long and included migrant refugees – mostly from Africa. I waited behind a young man who was very calm and patient. When he got to the front of the line, he was told that he had to provide a paper copy of his travel permit. After obtaining the copy, he had to come back and wait all over again. I felt sorry for him. He handled it gracefully.

Grand Harbor View from Upper Barrakka Gardens

The best advice was from a concierge at the Phoenician Hotel who recommended touring on foot and pointed out the most accessible attractions in Central Valletta. Every street was fascinating! Many look down on the harbor, and like in San Francisco, sea and Bay vistas from the hills are breathtaking. I stopped for lunch at an outdoor café and then continued to St. Johns Co-Cathedral.

Valletta Malta Festa Facade – Photo Juliet Rix

St. Johns Co-Cathedral

St. Johns Co-Cathedral is a “shrine and sacred place of worship” and “gem of Baroque art and architecture”. It was the church of the Knights of St. John who ruled Malta for over 250 years from 1530 to 1798. The Grand Masters and knights donated art and made contributions to embellish the church”.

Sacra Infermeria – Hektoen International

The noble Knights protected Malta. Their origins were of peace and caring for the sick. A tour of Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary) reveals their past.

Archaeological Sites

Malta has ten magnificent archaeological sites – three listed with UNESCO. Megalithic temples on Malta and Gozo are the oldest freestanding structures in the world.

Malta Map – CIMBA Italy

Archaeological areas include burial sites, temples, and catacombs:

The Sleeping Lady Neolithic Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum Temple – Jimdo

National Museum of Archaeology

Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology is an introduction to the pre and early history of the Maltese Islands. Upon entry a “figure of the Sleeping Lady flashes before you on a limestone screen”. The mysterious Sleeping Lady is 5,000 years old!

Malta – Daily Express

Her famous image from the Neolithic Period “honors one of the first cultures to leave a mark on Malta”. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum Temple, a “sanctuary and necropolis,” is one of the best-preserved examples of Maltese temple building culture. Archeologists have documented the remains of over 7,000 individuals.

Interior St Johns Cathedral Valletta – Photo Juliet Rix

Artefacts date back to the Neolithic Period (5000 BC) up to the Phoenician Period (400 BC). Highlights include medieval palazzo doorways and bronze daggers from the Tarxien Temples.

Birkirkara St. Helena Basilica – maltaphotos

Grand Master’s Palace and Armoury

The Grand Master’s Palace and Armoury is the most “grandiose” palace in Malta. Today it’s the office of Malta’s President, George Vella. Some say the palace is haunted!

Sliema Malta – bayviewmaltacom

The armoury has the “world’s largest collections of knightly arms and armor”. Façade improvements were the efforts of Grand Master Pinto de Fonseca.

Hotels Birkirkara – Reserving.com

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Roman Catholic Parish Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is a neo-gothic church in Balluta Bay, the town of St Julian’s Malta. The church is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site including Valletta. It’s a small but special church.

Triton Fountain

Built in 1580 and damaged during WWII, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was rebuilt in the 1950s in Pisan Romanesque style. The church has spectacular mosaics representing Carmel’s story.

Museum of Archaeology Grandmaster’s Palace – corinthia.com

The marble altar is magnificent as is the bell tower “surmounted by a bronze statue of the Madonna”. The central chapel dates back to the eleventh century and has a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. I took a break and sat inside admiring the art and dome.

Armor Grand Master’s Palace – Heritage Malta

I thoroughly enjoyed my limited time in Malta but hope to return and explore other islands, archaeological sites, and natural wonders like the blue grotto. “Malta” comes from a Greek word meaning “honey” – it’s an appropriate name.

Valletta City Gate

Arriverderci!

Valletta Waterfront at Dawn – Photograph Alamy

Modica Sicily – Baroque Architecture, Earthquakes, and Chocolate

Saint George Cathedral Modica

I’ve been relaxing in Pozzallo, content with long walks on the beach and uninspired to post on my travel blog or chase Sicilian attractions. Daylight hours are long (6:30 am – 8:30 pm) and April weather is mild. Like most coastal areas, Pozzallo’s wind can be fierce and unpredictable with temperatures changing quickly. We’ve had a few sudden Mediterranean squalls – ominous skies followed by rain, thunder, and lightning – almost as exciting as African storms.

Sicilian Poppy – chainimage.com

Transportation

I’ve considered the best way to navigate Sicily and explore places of interest. You don’t need a car in Pozzallo. For other parts of the island, depending on where you want to go, you can rent a car or bike or take a ferry, bus, or train. There are multiple daily departures. Ferries are costly but buses inexpensive and reliable. Figuring out the schedule and pickup and drop off points is the hard part.

Sicilian Wildflowers

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Buildings in Modica Alta “almost climb the rocks of the mountain”.

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Modica Architecture – Scopri Modica

Bus stops aren’t marked and the website and learning where to catch buses is confusing. Contacting the bus company directly helps but don’t expect English.

Hyblaean Mountain (Monti Iblei) Gorge Sicily – footage.framepool.com

Once you find the pickup point, if you have the exact fare bus drivers may sell you a ticket when boarding the bus. If you’re friends with the driver, a new pickup point might even be created in your honor… If not, you’ll have to figure out where to buy your ticket – sometimes it’s a nearby gelateria or café. You can miss a bus trying to buy your ticket – not fun but it happens in Sicily.

Sicilian Modicana Cattle – sicilianroots

Spring Scenery

Tuesday, I took a day trip to Modica. It’s close to Pozzallo in the southeastern part of Sicily, about an hour away. The drive was beautiful with glorious scenery reminiscent of favorite coastal areas in Greece and Turkey. We passed stone villas and ruins, olive groves, vineyards, grazing cattle, and open fields of purple, white, and yellow wildflowers with patches of bright red poppies. The other passengers were Sicilian men of all ages – most fell asleep during the gentle ride.

Temple in a Field of Sicilian Wildflowers – pixabay

The Mediterranean climate encourages flowers year-round, but in spring Sicilian wildflowers are spectacular! They thrive in the rich volcanic soil “fed by ash and lava from the volatile tantrums of Mt. Etna and other volcanoes”.

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In April and May Sicily is “awash with a ribald rush of color”.

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Santa Maria di Betlem – Scopri Modica

Baroque Architecture, Earthquake, Economy

Modica is an elegant Baroque town – population about 60,000. In 2002, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Pozzallo it’s in Ragusa Province near the southern Iblei Mountains.

Easter Sunday Festa della Madonna Vasa-Vasa – Le Case dello Zodiaco

In 1693, a devastating earthquake reshaped southeast Sicily drastically changing  Modica and destroying its charisma and political importance. Reconstruction helped the city regain its current popularity and Baroque appearance.

Modica – italythisway.com

I explored Modica by foot covering as much territory as possible in four hours. I couldn’t find a guide and didn’t see any other tourists. It’s off-season, so you do your own research. Later I heard about Hermes-Sicily – guides who organize visits in southeastern Sicily. I’ll contact them before visiting Syracuse and Noto.

Stray Cats Modica Old Town

I got sidetracked following networks of winding side streets with houses, buildings, stray cats, and cafés. I entered Santuario Madonna delle Grazie and spent time inside with about ten faithful Catholics. Some backstreet houses seem to be built into the hillside. The quiet cobbled streets were mostly empty with abandoned houses in  disrepair.

Santuario Madonna Delle Grazie

Modica has Greek, Roman, Arab, and Phoenician ties. From the seventeenth until the early nineteenth century it was known as the “City of Hercules“. The 1693 earthquake destroyed Modica and other cities in the Valley of the Sicilian Baroque.

Il Duomo di San Giorgio at Night – typicalsicily.it.

The Noto Valley has eight Medieval late-Baroque cities – Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa, and Scicli. These cities “were rebuilt (in part or entirely) after the 1693 earthquake”. Their exceptional architecture marks the end of one of Europe’s last Baroque Periods.

Hillside Old Town Modica

Modica’s economy is mostly agricultural, “characterized by olive, bean, wheat, and cereal production”. The area is known for prized Modicana cattle that flourish in the Mediterranean climate and produce “quality meat and milk”.

Church of the Carmine Modica

Modica – Bassa and Alta

As we approached central Modica, the bus veered sharply down a steep rocky ridge with stone houses sprawled along the hillside.

Bell Tower

Modica Bassa is in a valley where two rivers – Ianni Mauro and Pozzo – meet. Because of destructive flooding locals “covered” the rivers. Today, the area – Corso Umberto – is a historical center with spectacular churches and monuments. The third part of Modica – Sorda – is a new residential, commercial area.

Church of St Mary of Bethlehem

I divided my time between Modica Bassa and Alta. Bassa buildings guaranteed to blow you away include:

Antique Horse-Drawn Cart

Notable Corso Umberto attractions include Palazzo Grimaldi – the “finest example of neo-Renaissance style buildings in Modica”. The Palazzo’s art gallery displays paintings by famous nineteenth century artists from the karst plains of the Iblean area. Palazzo Polara has exquisite Baroque architecture and Palazzo de Mercedari – attached to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace – which was previously a convent and hospital during the 1709 plague”.

Fountain Palazzo Grimaldi Modica Bassa

History

Modica’s history dates back to 1000 BC when the Sicels (ancient Sicilians) became part of a Greek colony from Siracusa. Following the Punic Wars, the Romans took over the colony and later passed it to the Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans.

Modica Hillside

The first settlements began during the Bronze Age. After Arab conquest, Modica became an important commercial, agricultural center.

Palazzo della Cultura

Churches, Palaces, Monuments

Modica is a powerhouse of history, culture, and architecture. A day trip is a tiny intro to exploring and understanding its treasures. Known as “the city of a hundred churches” Modica is rich in Baroque Period cathedrals, convents, and monasteries. Most of these religious structures were built with “local golden stone”. There are brief descriptions of some in this post.

Reliefs Church of San Domenico

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A special feature of Modica Baroque churches is that instead of overlooking squares, they face “imposing and spectacular flights of steps modeled on the slopes of the city’s hills”.

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Teatro Garibaldi Modica – Nuovo Sud

A “fanciful rococo church”, the Cathedral of St. George looks like a “wedding cake topper”. Perched above 164 steps San Giorgio is the Modica’s mother church and on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Modica Street – typicalsicily.it

The Cathedral of St. George is a monumental symbol of Sicilian Baroque art. Italian architect Rosario Gagliardi helped reconstruct the church after the 1693 earthquake. It reopened in 1738.

The Church of San Pietro is at the top of a staircase lined with statues of “saints resembling a statuary welcoming committee”. San Pietro is the Patron Saint of Modica Bassa and a typical example of eighteenth-century Sicilian Baroque.

Modica Panorama – typicalsicily.it

San Pietro’s original foundation dates back to the 1300s but the current structure is from the seventeenth century. Destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, it was rebuilt on masonry structures that survived the earthquake. Statues of San Cataldo, Santa Rosalia, San Pietro, and the Madonna embellish the residence of the second order of mendicant nuns. The church façade has a sculpture of Jesus.

Interior Santuario Madonna Delle Grazie – Scopri Modica

The Santuario Madonna Delle Grazie was built in 1615 after discovery of a slate tablet depicting the Madonna with the Child in her arms. The tablet burned incessantly for three days in a bramble bush without being consumed. The tablet is preserved in the central altar of the church. In 1627, Madonna delle Grazie was proclaimed the main Patron Saint of Modica.

Frescoes Rock Church of San Nicolò Inferiore – izi.TRAVEL

The Rock Church of San Nicolò Inferiore is the oldest church in Modica. It’s a rare example of the Byzantine rock architecture of Ragusa’s Iblea area. Discovered in 1987, it reflects original architecture created by rock excavation. The interior has paintings of icons “articulated around a rectangular hall and an apse”.

Enzo Assenza – Colasanti Aste

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Known as “the city of a hundred churches” Modica is rich in Baroque Period cathedrals, convents, and monasteries.

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Chiesa di S. Maria del Soccorso – lasiciliainrete.it

Jesuits built the Rock Church in 1629. It’s near the Jesuit College. Architect Rosario Gagliardi designed and helped rebuild it after the 1693 earthquake.

Chiesa del Carmine Franciscan Rose Window – Scopri Modica

A fourteenth century Gothic-Chiaramonte style monument, the Church of Santa Maria del Carmelo (Carmine) accommodated Carmelite friars. A beautiful Franciscan rose window adorns the church portal. Carmine is one of few churches still showing “architectural traces from before the violent, destructive 1693 earthquake”.

Church of San Domenico

The seventeenth-century Baroque Church of San Domenico is in Piazza Principe di Napoli. The Dominicans built it in the fourteenth century. It was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt.

Church of San Domenico – Discover Modica

The Church of St. Mary of Bethlehem also dates back to the fourteenth century. Traces of its past are visible in “bas-reliefs depicting adoration of the shepherds”. Inside there’s a late Gothic style Palatine Chapel. The arch has Arabic, Catalan, and Norman elements and houses tombs of the family of the counts Cabrera.

Church of Santa Maria di Betlem

Restored after the earthquake Duomo di San Pietro is one of the most beautiful churches in Modica. The façade has four statues representing San Cataldo, Santa Rosalia, San Pietro, and the Madonna. The church includes a sculpture of Jesus and statues of the twelve apostles.

Nativity of St. John the Baptist – Gian Battista Ragazzi

Modica Chocolate

Modica has a history of chocolate making detailed in its Chocolate Museum. The ancient chocolate recipe came from Spanish conquistadors during their domination of Sicily. They got it from the Aztecs. Modica produces chocolate in many flavours like orange, cinnamon, and chili pepper.

Palazzo della Cultura

Palazzo della Cultura is Modica’s Civic Museum. In the seventeenth century it was San Placido’s Benedictine Monastery and during the fifteenth century a palace for the Platamone Family of olive oil fame.

Eracle by Cafeo – ragusanews.com

The most valuable piece in the museum is the Eracle by Cafeo, a bronze statuette “depicting Hercules naked in a standing position dating from the end of the 5th to the beginning of the 4th century BC”. Found in 1967 along the Irmino River, the statuette is one of the most important Hellenistic finds in Sicily.

Teatro Garibaldi Modica Interior – commons.wikimedia.org

Garibaldi Theater

Described as “a jewelry box of velvet seats surrounding an opera stage.” Garibaldi Theater’s first foundation dates back to the 1820s. Expanded and embellished the theater reopened in 1857 with Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

After the unification of Italy, the theater was named for renowned independent thinker Giuseppe Garibaldi, a leader of freedom and independence. Garibaldi theater became an important center of cultural life in Modica with opera, music, art exhibitions, and prose and theatrical performances.

Church of St. Mary of Bethlehem Palatine Chapel – Cosmo Ibleo

Famous Modica Residents

Twentieth century poet Natale Salvatore Quasimodo was born in Modica in 1901. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. The house where he was born is now a museum displaying his books and furniture.

Poet Salvatore Quasimodo – Sicily Widespread Hospitality

Quasimodo’s archives appear at Museo Civico F.L. Belgiorno in the Palazzo della Cultura. The museum also has archaeological and historical collections and the modern art of Enzo Assenza.

Enzo Assenza – Antonio Randazzo

Tommaso Campailla Philosopher and Poet – RagusaNews

Tommaso Campailla was an Italian philosopher, doctor, politician, poet, and teacher. Born in Modica in 1668 to the aristocratic family of Antonio and Adriana Giardina, he studied law in Catania at the young age of sixteen.

The Castle of the Counts of Modica – typicalsicily.it

Castello Dei Conti Di Modica and Clock Tower

Castello Dei Conti Di Modica and the Clock Tower are two iconographic symbols of Modica. They dominate the historical center of town and the Counts of Modica and County Governor lived there. Built for military purposes, the castle was the seat of Modica’s political and administrative power. It also served as a prison and courthouse.

St. Peter’s Church Modica

Easter in Modica

Easter in Modica includes a special celebration. “On Easter Sunday two processions, one with the Madonna and one with the risen Jesus, start from two different paths and meet where the two hug and kiss each other. In the dialect the kiss and the hug are called ‘vasata’ – that’s why it’s called Vasa Vasa.” This popular celebration is held in cities throughout Sicily.

The “moving and engaging meeting of Madonna and Jesus” includes the release of white doves. It’s Modica Easter tradition to continue Easter celebrations on the Tuesday after Easter Sunday – Idria Tuesdayin the homonymous sanctuary on the hill of the Idria overlooking the city.

Farm Ristorante Al Monaco – almonaco.it

There is so much in Modica! This blog post doesn’t touch many cultural and architectural attractions or local restaurants and cuisine. Farm restaurants are popular and Modica has a renowned cookery school.

Modica Sezione – ragusa-shire.it

Buona giornata, più tarde…