Friday, October 26, 2012

Grand Tour, Part 11—A Detour on the Road Home: Malta

Alas! We had planned to visit Athens as our last stop, but war has broken out there! British travelers fleeing the conflagration meet us at the docks in Sicily and warn us not to continue in that direction. The Ottoman Pasha has besieged Athens, his war engines pounding the fair city into ruins far less charming than the ones left by the ancients. With a heavy heart, we decide to book passage to Malta instead and begin our journey home.

Malta is a tiny island just to the south of Sicily, but its strategic location, between Italy and Africa, has made it a contested place for centuries. Nearly 300 years before we set foot on it, King Charles of Spain ceded it to the Knights of St. John (and the portion of them on the island became known as the Knights of Malta). This Order protected pilgrims traveling back and forth between Europe and the Holy Land, and rescued those who had been attacked at sea. Many of the beautiful churches, palaces, and gardens in Malta stem from their time on the island. Their rule only ended with the arrival of Bonaparte.

In 1798, when the knights refused to supply Napoleon’s fleet with water on its way to Egypt, the French conquered the island and initiated radical reforms. The Maltese people revolted and asked the British government for help. The British defeated the French, so now there has been a garrison on the island for many years, and indeed, the harbors provide homes for many British ships.

So, sweeping churches, majestic palaces, peaceful gardens, stunning artwork, and . . . men in uniform! What more could a girl want?
Our two days in sunny Malta are spent touring and socializing. A handsome lieutenant assigned to us by the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet himself escorts us through the fort-like Church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, where we find not only stirring architecture but the tombs of the valiant knights of old. We take tea with the Commander in his gorgeous residence, which the lieutenant confides was once the home of the Grand Master of the Order. He also reminds us that none other than Byron once visited these very shores, penning some of his poems here.

In the evening, we attend a ball with the regimental and the naval officers in attendance. The gentlemen outnumber the ladies by a delightful three to one, ensuring that everyone who wishes to dance can do so with a variety of partners. And a quartet of gentlemen are more than happy to sit out the dancing to play cards, promenade, and discuss the latest literary compositions of our fine empire. Quite a few can quote Byron.

On the way back to our hotel, we are verses a little more authentic: by singers playing Maltese songs, as sweet and spicy as the culture from which they sprung. We soak it all up, drink it all in, knowing that shortly, our travels must end. The next stop is Gibraltar, and then home!

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