topics: fenek (food), Valletta, Knights of the Order of Saint John, Crusades, HISTORY, architecture, megalithic temples, Phoenicians, daily life; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 14–15, 1997

Breakfast: While we were waiting for the ticketing counter at the Catania International Airport to open, Corinne and andrEa disappeared into one of the airport stores and emerged with sweet, sugar-coated pastries full of jelly and cream.

Lunch: Located on a back street in Valletta, the little Agius Confectionery Pastizzeria has an assortment of typical Maltese pastizzi (pastries) that almost seems too varied for such a small space. The sweet and savory spread was more than ample to satisfy our hungry needs. First some fish or cheese pies, or a mini calzone (with cheese, tomato, mushroom, and olives), followed by any number of fruit-filled phyllo dough fantasies. To wash it all down, Padraic, Ethan, and Anthony tried an oddly bitter orange-flavored Maltese soda.

Dinner: As darkness approached and the hour of departure back to the airport drew nigh, the fearless fivesome found a little restaurant boasting authentic Maltese cuisine. Encouraged by the jovial owner to try Maltese "specialties," most of us indulged in kusksu (a tomato- and vegetable-base soup full of little bits of pasta) and then salad or rabbit (known locally as fenek) served in the Maltese style (see our Food of the Day), washed down with a light local wine.

Food of the Day: Fenek (rabbit) in the Maltese style

While andrEa and Corinne resorted to excellent salad alternatives, Anthony, Padraic, and Ethan enjoyed a typical Maltese specialty: fenek, known in English as rabbit. Fenek is usually served first in a sauce over spaghetti, and then followed by rabbit with sauce, served with vegetables. None of us was hungry enough for the full two-dish meal, so we tried only the latter: a shank of rabbit meat covered in a light, well-seasoned gravy, garnished with potatoes and carrots. Quite nice.

Person of the Day: Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette

Part 1: Background Information

The city of Valletta (see our Place of the Day) was named after Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette of the Knights of the Order of Saint John. It was Monsieur de la Valette who, in 1565, commanded the armies that successfully defended Malta against the invading Ottomans (see more below). Why is this battle significant, you ask? Well, because America might not be where it is today without this victory, not to forget the more general role of all the Knights in the Mediterranean who participated in the Crusades.

So, what about the Crusades? We will be revisiting this subject again and again as we cycle across the Middle East and Asia Minor, so now is a good time for an introduction to some of the exciting historical context, full of knights and chivalry, but also a sad and misplaced zeal.

Here's how it started:

Jerusalem has always been a sacred city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. During the first millennium of European history, many Christian Europeans traveled to Jerusalem to see and pray at important Christian sites. Then, in 1071, after more than 300 years of relative peace and tolerance, a powerful Turkish army captured Jerusalem and began persecuting Christians as they traveled to the Holy Land. In 1096, Pope Urban II, prompted by several European leaders, urged his followers to undertake a crusade to "rescue" the Holy Land. Thus, from 1096 to 1270 there were eight major crusades, of which only the first and third were successful. In the long history of the Crusades, thousands of knights, soldiers, merchants, and peasants lost their lives on the march or in battle.

The Knights of the Order of Saint John, often called the Knights Hospitaliers or Knights Hospitallers, came together during the Crusades to protect Christian travelers, as well as to care for the sick. They established castles, garrisons, and hospitals in the region of Palestine, and formed branches in their home countries. The Order was made up of nationals from eight territories: Italy, Germany, France, Provence, Castile, Aragón, Auvergne, and Bavaria. (These, incidentally, correspond to the eight points of the Maltese Cross, and symbolize the eight-year wait the knights experienced before they built their fortresses on Malta.) It was a religious as well as chivalric order, so the knights took vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. In other words, they were like knights and priests, or warrior-monks similar to the mourabitines of Sousse, Tunisia. Incidentally, the Order of Saint John still exist today, better known now as the Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta (or simply the Order of Malta), with its headquarters at the center of a ceremonial sovereign extra-territorial estate on the top of one of the seven hills of Rome. The Order's activities is still largely charitable, with medical and social service fields missions throughout the world.

Part 2: Grand Master de la Valette

Here's how Valette and other Knights in the Crusades helped shape the world as we know it. First, one of the results of Europe's failure to maintain control of the eastern Mediterranean — attempted during the Crusades — was that it turned its attention west and across the Atlantic to the eventual discovery of America. Second, if Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette of the Knights of the Order of Saint John had not succeeded in defending Malta against the attacking Ottomans, the westward expansion of the Ottomans might never have been stopped and Europe might have become a very, very different place.

So, because history is like a complicated chess or checkers game of strategies and tactics, where events that occur on opposite sides of the earth may somehow be related, we have chosen Jean de la Valette as our Person of the Day.

Place of the Day: Valletta visit the World Heritage Site page click to view a map

The city of Valletta visit the World Heritage Site page, which figures on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites, is the capital of the Republic of Malta. Described as "irrevocably linked" to the history of the Knights of the Order of St. John, Valletta basically appears almost unchanged from the 16th century, when it was first built. Mostly planned according to Renaissance ideas by the Maltese architect Girolomo Cassar, it was hastily but meticulously created as a completely new town, and remains superb today.

Having been conquered and used over the centuries by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Arabs, and the Order of the Knights of St John, Valletta contains 320 monuments in its area of 55 hectares (22 acres). This makes it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. Some of the more famous landmarks are: St. John's Co-Cathedral (with 400 beautiful marble-inlaid memorial slabs covering its floor), Fort Saint Elmo (which has played an important role in the Mediterranean since the 16th century), and the many Auberges (or palaces) that formerly housed the Knights but are now administrative offices.

History aside, Valletta had a distinctly odd feel to it. Unlike older cities which boast truly ancient or more internationally renowned monuments, or newer cities flaunting the latest and brightest, Valletta seems to have a mixed and even confused identity. click to view a photograph From one street to the next, despite the pleasant uniformity of the architecture, there were old-fashioned shops giving way to very modern stores, and old, run-down buildings being used as modern offices. This was also the case across North Africa, but less strikingly so in Tangier or Tunis, for example. In contrast, Valletta is a modern European city where the old clashed with the new in a way that seemed abrupt and uneven. It's difficult to explain, but didn't make the short day there any less enjoyable.

Group Dispatch, November 14–15

picture of Ethan

Sometimes in history or in life, little things make a big difference. More of a difference than big things. This is what Ethan has never stopped telling Anthony, who insists that bigger is better. But Ethan, the littler of the two, will now have the last word!

For instance, the Maltese Islands have played a VERY significant role in world history, but are quite small. Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean (see the Tech Fact of the Day), only 100 km (62 mi) from Sicily and 290 km (180 mi) from North Africa, the collection of five tiny islands — Malta (only 390 square km / 150 sq mi), Gozo (65 sq km / 25 sq mi), Camoni (2.5 sq km / 1 sq mi), and the uninhabited Cominotto and Filfla — are a territory that epitomizes the history of the Mediterranean. Remember, lack of territorial mass does not always imply cultural, political, or strategic insignificance. The Maltese islands have always overlooked the north-south trading routes between Sicily, Italy, and North Africa, as well as many of the east-west routes. Thus, since early times and throughout Mediterranean history, they have exercised power out of proportion to their size. So THERE, Anthony!

And now for our day in Malta (which is small but wonderful, thank you very much):

The BikeAbout team, still in Sicily but having finally decided to fly to Cairo via Malta, had been warned that the ride from downtown Catania to the airport would not be easy. People told us that the route was long, or confusing, or dangerous. We were even told that if it rained (which it had the whole day before), we would need boats to get where we wanted to go. So, since we had an early 9 a.m. flight to Malta (as a stop on our way to Cairo), we got up early. Really early. 5 a.m. early! We were cranky but on the road by 6 a.m. — our earliest departure yet.

Needless to say, all our precautions were unnecessary. The route was short, easy, and safe, and we hardly got splashed by even a poodle in a puddle! So we were actually at the airport by 6:30 a.m. and had to wait for everything to open. We took advantage of the time to prepare our bags and bikes — always take the pedals off your bike, let the air out of the tires, and turn the handlebars when you travel with a bike on a plane — and rest. click to view a photograph We knew that we had a LOOOONG day ahead that would not finish until 24 hours later, when we would complete a spooky early-morning ride into the center of Egypt's capital city.

After a short, short flight click to view a photograph over the barely 100 km (62 mi) from Sicily, we arrived on the island of Malta click to view a photograph, stashed our bags, and prepared for the day. andrEa immediately went to Valletta (see the Place of the Day) to do some work while the other four grabbed a taxi heading south towards two of Malta's World Heritage sites click to view a photograph, the megalithic temples of Hagar Qin and Mnajdra. visit the World Heritage Site page

The first thing we noticed was that the Maltese drive on the left side of the road. Not because they are crazy, but because they spent so many years as part of the British Empire and, unlike other former British territories that have splintered off (Canada, for instance), the Maltese have continued the English tradition of shifting with the left hand. However, when we were not panicking or afraid that a car would come careening around a corner and smash into us, we couldn't help remarking on how barren and rocky the landscape was. Apparently, once long ago, there were trees covering the island, but no longer. Now there's little more than a special kind of limestone rock . . . and an important one at that.

Here's why. During the Copper Age (3,000-2,000 BC), great temples were built out of the island's native limestone. Seven "megalithic" temples still exist on the islands of Malta and Gozo, of which Hagar Qin click to view a photograph and Mnajdra click to view a photograph are uniquely spectacular architectural examples. These temples have been called "the earliest free-standing stone monuments in the world."

Corinne, Anthony, Padraic, and Ethan romped through the temples — well stacked piles of huge shaped boulders click to view a photograph click to view a photograph it is hard to think anyone could lift without cranes, especially people from 4,000 years ago — imagining what life might have been like. Anthony paused in one of the great chairs and dispensed wisdom as if he were an oracle. click to view a photograph He predicted no foreseeable increase in Ethan's height. Ethan chuckled to himself, knowing that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. As so many great civilizations have learned. The three guys, sitting over what was probably an altar click to view a photograph, pondered where lunch was taken (they were getting hungry). Corinne, meanwhile, was appreciating the stunning location, complete with a stiff wind and lots of southern sea exposure. click to view a photograph

Of particular interest were the complicated decorations carved on some of the stones click to view a photograph, the rooms used as oracular chambers click to view a photograph, and altars. click to view a photograph

As the sun rose higher and our appetites grew, just like the people who built these temples and then vanished rather suddenly shortly before 1800 BC, the BikeAbout crew set off toward Valletta. A short stroll to the nearby village of Qrendi drove home the truth of yet another observation about Malta: It is deeply Catholic.

This can be traced back to 58 AD, when Saints Paul and Luke, prisoners on their way to Rome, were shipwrecked on the shores of Malta. During their three months on the island, Paul "cured" a long-ill leading citizen of the island, who then converted to Christianity and became the first Bishop of Malta. The Maltese Islands thus became one of the first centers of Christianity in the Roman Mediterranean, and have remained a particularly strong bastion of Roman Catholicism ever since.

Even if we hadn't learned this, during our brief stay, we were certainly struck by how prevalent religion was. Beyond the obvious abundance and primary placement of churches click to view a photograph (including one in which it is claimed a bone from Saint Paul's right arm resides) and clerical people, even every bus and taxi had some expression of the driver's faith on its glove compartment or dashboard. Looking at a local newspaper, we also found an interview with a local bishop on international news, and learned that both divorce and abortion are illegal on Malta.

Finally arriving in Valletta, we threw ourselves into the back streets for a cheap lunch, and then enjoyed the afternoon in a variety of ways. Ethan, while he was off searching for the parcel post office, could not help pondering the historic role of Malta, such a small island in the midst of a region swept by the winds and tides of a tumultuous past. A little research revealed a great abundance of material.

The people of this small land have lived the life of the Mediterranean. And their modern culture shows it. The population is of mixed Italian, Arab, Turkish, Greek, and British ethnic origin. More than 95 percent of the people follow Roman Catholicism, the state religion, despite 168 years under British (Protestant) governance. The Maltese language is said to be a Semitic offshoot of Phoenician, mixed with Arabic and Latinate (Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, French, and English) words using the Latin alphabet. And the everyday lives of the Maltese? Smack dab in the middle of the sea, between the countries of the North and the South, they benefit from both the unavoidable relaxed southern Mediterranean ease and the northern penchant for efficiency.

Phoenician/Greek/Roman History

Long after the people who built the megalithic temples disappeared, Malta reappears in history with the arrival of the Phoenicians about 1000 BC (almost 500 years after the founding of Utique!), who used its excellent harbor as a boat station and trading post. It grew in importance with the founding of Carthage in 814 BC. In fact, the name Malta may have its origins from the Phoenician word malat, a harbor, haven, or place of refuge.

Soon after the Phoenicians, in the seventh century, the Greeks arrived. Phoenicians and Greeks seem to have coexisted peacefully in Malta. In fact, two pillars in a southern port on Malta bear dedications to a Phoenician god in both Phoenician and Greek. Their discovery in the 17th century made the decryption of Phoenician, the parent of all European alphabets, possible!

But the peace shared by the Phoenicians and Greeks was not adopted by the Romans, especially during the Punic Wars. Malta, a Carthaginian base during the First Punic War, was captured by the Romans in the Second, who used it to launch the final destruction of Carthage. Despite this and the subsequent 700 years under the Romans, the language and culture of the people remained mostly Carthaginian.

The Siege of Malta After the Crusades (for more about the Crusades, see the Person of the Day)

The year 1523 saw the last of the European Crusader presence in the eastern Mediterranean when the Order of the Knights of St John was chased from Rhodes by the Ottomans. With nowhere to go, the Order wandered all over Europe for eight years until Charles V, then Holy Roman Emperor, gave them Malta.

All the Knights' money and military abilities were then devoted to making Malta as strong and secure as possible. However, the Knights had made both friends and enemies during the Crusades. The siege of Malta took place in 1565 with some 40,000 Ottoman soldiers carried across the sea in over 200 ships aligned against 700 knights and 8,000 Maltese troops. The city's Fort Elmo fell, but the rest of the island's defenses, ably managed by Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette (see our Person of the Day), valiantly held. After quite a few months, made worse for the Ottomans by the hostility of the terrain, sickness in their ranks, and the unexpected valor of the Maltese forces, the Ottomans were repelled, thus stopping once and for all the seemingly irresistible western expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

The image of the Knights of the Order of Saint John was understandably much improved — they were celebrated as the saviors of Europe — and money was given to them from all quarters. At this time, they became known as the Knights of Malta, and the new fortified city (see the Place of the Day) that today carries the name of de la Valette began to rise on the headland that terminates in Fort Saint Elmo click to view a photograph and dominates the island's two main harbors. click to view a photograph

Malta in Modern Times

Malta continued to play an important role in the nationalist and territorial battles of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In 1798, Napoleon took Malta, but in 1800 relinquished it to the British-backed Maltese. The English then held and developed Malta as a crucial Allied Forces shipping, supply, and launching base whose role in World War II can never be lauded enough.

Malta attained independence within the Commonwealth in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. Parliament consists of an elected House of Representatives, a president who is elected for a five-year term as the constitutional head of state, and an appointed prime minister who runs the government.

But back to the BikeAbout team

After tackling so much history and initial preparation for some of the many events that we will face later, we settled down to a healthy Maltese dinner.

With raindrops falling on our heads, we tromped back through the streets of Valletta to the bus depot and caught the last bus to the airport, where we patiently waited for our flight. We watched a bit of CNN click to view a photograph and learned of the face-off between the US and Iraq, but we hope not to be troubled by it as we move closer to the Middle East.

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