June 20th, 2008


Orderly Knights--6/16

The Knights of Malta were rich. Rich, rich, rich. After the fighting died down, and they didn't have to be defending themselves from those pesky Turks and Saracens all the time, they settled down to spending their money on decorating things. Mostly what they decorated was their armor and their churches, and it all made work for the working man to do, so it was all very holy and worthy. But still.

We landed in Valletta, waking in time to watch the golden stone forts and walls slide by, famous in song, story, and Dorothy Dunnett's Disorderly Knights. We passed Gozo, where Lymond visited Oonagh O'Dwyer, and the fort at Birgu, where he fought during the great Siege of 1635. Even I, who cannot remember dates to save my life, got that one dunned in my head by dint of seeing it everywhere. Artistically speaking, the Siege of 1635 bulks large in Valleta.

Now that we're one day away from going home, we have this shore visit thing surrounded. Hit port, get on a bus, go to some other interesting town nearby, see that, have lunch, come back to port, do that, indulge in a little gentle shopping, get back on the ship at the last possible moment, collapse, join Ellen's folks for dinner and debriefing, work, sleep. It certainly worked like a charm in Malta. We got off the local bus from the port, caught another, and wound our way through the urban sprawl across the coastal plain and up into the heights to the walled city of Mdina.

Mdina is beautiful. It's all golden stone and narrow streets and sun and silence. It is, after all, the Silent City--except for the tourists, of course. There must be actual people living there--we did see houses and doors with mailboxes--but the only shops I saw sold thread-lace and blown glass and shot glasses with Maltese crosses on them, which aren't all that useful in daily life. But then, I wasn't in every street in the place. The carriage wouldn't fit down most of them.

Yes, we did Mdina by carriage. There were a bunch of them parked outside the city gates, shiny little surreys with fringe on top and plaid curtains and little ships painted on the back to commemorate St. Paul's shipwreck here in AD 70. Ellen loves carriages, and it was hot and bright and we were both feeling a little sun-stunned already. So, the long and the short of it was, we climbed into the nearest carriage, drawn by a well-cared-for black with a pheasant plume on his head, and rattled off over the cobbles (punishing road, my dear--I was jolted unmercifully) through the actual town of Rabat to the Church of St. Paul, where I had my first taste of the Maltese taste in ecclesiastical decor: plain on the outside, decorated within an inch of its life on the inside.

You enter a chapel--marble, paint, large religious canvases, check. And then you walk into the church proper, which is entirely upholstered and draped in scarlet brocade. With gilt trim around the usual marble altars and bronze and marble funerary monuments and religious paintings. The effect is very lively, to say the least. The actual grotto where Paul lived and preached and converted the Maltese is a lot simpler--except for the silver-gilt lamp shaped like the boat he sailed in on, donated by a Grand Master in the 18th Century.

Then we got back in the carriage, and were taken around to admire the views of the plain and the harbor, then through the city gates and around the streets, scattering tour groups before us. We walked back later to poke our noses in a side alley or two and have lunch in a cafe with a spectacular view of Valleta, but that carriage-high view of the city remains my favorite.

After lunch, we returned to Valleta, to the Palace of the Grand Masters and the Armory of Malta. More brocaded walls (blue and gold) and painted, gilded, coffered ceilings. Tapestries depicting savage lands (my favorite was a fight between tapirs and leopards. The tapirs were losing.) and paintings depicting Grand Masters of the late 16th through the end of the order. Late 18th C? Early 19th C? I don't know. Nothing was labeled, and we didn't have a guidebook. The 17th C. guys wore hats that reminded me of the Mad Hatter's flaring top hat (sans price tag), and were inevitably attended by a couple of pretty adolescent pages in court dress and sulky expressions. One Grand Master was portrayed reaching for a map of the Middle East. From his point of view, of course, he would have been saving it. But it looked pretty predatory to me.

The Armory was extensive. Case after case of small swords, epees, two-handed swords, hangers, rifles, cannon, pistols, arbalests, pikes, helmets (open and closed, peaked and round, with and without buffos and gorgets), breastplates, cuirasses, etc, etc. These were labeled and described at loving length, and indeed were pretty fascinating, although we were disappointed not to see Suleiman's sword, which we thought they had. We hung out among the armor for a while, cooling off, and then we sat down and had some coffee and a piece of pie before tackling the Co-Cathedral of St. John.

We'd thought the little church of St. Paul was over the top Baroque. We were wrong. The Co-Cathedral was in a different class of Baroqueness altogether. The walls are carved. Every inch of them. With cherubs and acanthus leaves and swords and armor and symbols meaningful to each of the eight Langues that made up the order of the Knights Of St. John. The carving was occasionally interrupted with Italian Baroque paintings over the altars and frescoes over the arched doors between the chapels (four to a side) and monuments to dead Grand Masters. The floor was paved with the inlaid marble tombstones of particularly honored knights, with descriptions of their deeds in Latin, plus skeletons, angels, piles of armor, standards, and anything else that would fit on a 6 X 3 marble slab. Many of these were covered with carpet, so they wouldn't be loved to death by tourists, but there were plenty left to admire.

There are two Caravaggios in the Oratory, which is a measure less exuberant than the main church and much less distracting. One is wonderful, scholarly St. Jerome working on his translation of the Bible into Latin, and a realistic, messy, remarkably sad (and very, very large) Beheading of John the Baptist. What a strange, troubled, interesting man Caravaggio was. After hearing all those tidbits about him from two audio guides, I want to learn more about him.

There was a museum too, full of tapestries, vestments, and other ecclesiastical embroidery, much of it donated by Grand Masters. By this time, I'd kind of run out of visual concentration, so my general feeling was that it was all very beautiful and could we see something else now. Which we did, wandering around golden stone streets, looking at the Palace of the Italians (large, square, gold, with bright green shutters) and the Small Park, from which you can see the whole harbor and city laid out in glory, with the fort at Birgu curled in the foreground like an angular, tawny lion.

Then a very little gentle shopping. Maltese blown glass is pretty, but not really my taste, the lace parasols were all too big to go into our suitcases, more's the pity, and all the silver filigree is Maltese crosses. I did find a tiny rose to give my goddaughter, though.

We walked back to the ship in the lengthening shadows, ran up to the Observation Deck, and watched Valletta slip away around us, then went down to dinner to hear what Enid and Irv had been up to. Pretty much the same as we had, without Mdina or the ecclesiastical embroidery. Irv was blown away by the Caraveggios. Enid wished the frescos in the Master's Palace had been labeled.

I'm up to Chapter 15 now, with six left to go and starting to lose momentum. We've got a short sightseeing day on Tuesday. Maybe I'll make more progress.

Clocks and Churches--6/17

If this is Tuesday, it must be--wait, I know this. Sicily. Messina. A real city, finally, with barely a nod in the direction of tourism, and only four hours to do it in.

We didn't see a whole lot. Even with relaxing in between, sightseeing like that day after day gets to you after a while. It certainly got to us. We both felt a little sun-stunned and disinclined to walk far or ride for an hour to get somewhere more charming. Pretty much all we saw was the Duomo and its tower.

The Duomo is a patchwork sort of building, having been rebuilt twice--once after a huge earthquake in 1908, and once after having been bombed in WWII. It has the air of having risen from its own rubble. Some of the stone is new, some of it old, with 16th c. carvings set into bands across the modern marble facade. Inside, it's all inlaid marble and clean lines and open spaces--a kind of Arts & Crafts effect. Medieval tombs have been rebuilt with scraps of the original completed in brick or concrete. The choir is very modern-looking marble seats. The high altar is an extravaganza of inlaid marble flowers. Given the heterogeneity of its parts, the effect of the whole is oddly serene and simple. Maybe it's just in contrast with the Co-Cathedral at Malta.

The big thing in Messina is to hear the cathedral clock strike noon. So met the folks and found a seat under a tree beside the clock tower and did that thing.

The clock is Austrian (I think), built in the early 1900's. It's one of those with multiple mechanical allegorical figures doing allgorical things to the greater glory of God. From top to bottom, these were: a golden Lion, rampant, holding the banner of Sicily; A golden Cock, very nearly as large as the lion, facing outwards; two large bronze bells, flanked by golden angels with hammers; an enthroned Virgin and Child (golden), flanked by angels (ditto) in prayerful poses; a heavenly choir (ditto, ditto), in two rows; an old man and a youth (golden, both of them) on a track; an arch with nothing in it but some rough-hewn rock and a track visible on its upper curve; some very decorated open (golden) carriages drawn by griffins and driven by devils.

At noon, the angels with the hammers hit the bells while the golden youth chased the old man. A pause, during which the Lion lifted his head and opened his jaws and roared. It was a taped roar, quite ferocious-sounding, and might have been a little scary, if he hadn't been waving his tufted tail and the banner of Sicily at the same time. He did this three times and stopped. Slowly, almost experimentally the Cock below him pulsed his wings open and closed a couple of times. He lifted his head, opened his beak and emitted what sounded a little like the trumpet of a maddened bull elephant. He paused to admire the effect, then did it again. Twice. After which we all rested and recovered for a minute.

Then, a recorded orchestra began to play Ave Maria at an almost painful level, while a golden church (a copy of the original Cathedral, I'm thinking) rose slowly above the rock and the prayerful angels processed before the Virgin, followed by six biblical-looking gentlemen. I'm not sure who they were, since it was too many for the Evangelists and too few for the Apostles. I could have miscounted them--I was distracted by the rising church, and keeping a sharp eye on the carriages and griffins, in case they might have a procession of their own. Let's say they were the Evangelists, then. They bowed to Mary as they passed her, and she waved her hand in blessing.

And that was it. The massed tourists dispersed, the sellers of towels printed with scenes of Messina and leather brimmed hats retreated, and we went in search of a shop selling ceramics. There's a lot of tourist tat in Messina, but among it are some very lovely painted china. I found a pitcher with lemons on it that looks like it was made to go into our kitchen. And then we bought some Sicilian wine to bring home, and then we came back to the ship, before the final call for once, but tired and footsore nonetheless.

And that's it, really. I tried to work in the afternoon, but all occasions informed against me, and I couldn't concentrate. We had a rather hurried farewell dinner, seated at a table that must have been right above the engine, because we could hardly hear each other speak and Irv spent the whole meal watching his silverware dance across the table. And then we packed and put our suitcases out in the hall to be collected and went to bed in anticipation of a long day of travel.