J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY Once a knight
Malta is a treasure store of antiquities, writes
RA John Cretien is not everyone’s idea of a knight although he is custodian of a castle. The chain-smoking, suave, ex-English teacher from Pisa — impeccable shoes and jumper slung casually around the shoulders, Italian-style — is a professed knight of the Crusader hospitaller Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem. As the custodian of Fort St Angelo in Valletta, Malta, Cretien has the formidable task of preserving and restoring one of the world’s great heritage sites.
The fort, in a commanding position at the harbour’s entrance overlooking the magnificent panorama of the fortified city, is still owned by the knights of Malta and has embassy status. Cretien plans on giving it a 21stcentury function.
Grinding out yet another cigarette on the ancient battlements, he casually remarks he is considering a plan to convert part of it into retirement units for old knights or perhaps a spa for the Euro-rich who moor their yachts in the walled seclusion of Valletta harbour.
Anyway, whatever we do with St Angelo, it must be in keeping with the charitable spirit of the order, which has morphed into a huge international aid organisation, and hopefully make a bit of money for our present-day work,’’ he says.
Some of the Australian lay knights who have accompanied me on the climb to the bastion look faintly appalled. The knights built Valletta in 1530 after their expulsion from Rhodes and it was from the battlements of St Angelo that they famously repelled the Turkish invasion fleet. In fact, originally they were reluctant to administer Malta, describing it as a barren rocky place, with a bad water supply and people who spoke a form of Arabic.
The city is permeated with the knights’ presence. The massive fortifications surround the harbour and even overhang the swimming pool at the marvellously genteel Phoenicia Hotel. Built in 1939 to house visiting dignitaries and reopened as a hotel after World War II, the Phoenicia, with its wrought-iron balconies and terraced gardens, is that rare thing these days: a hotel with a feel of place.
In the baroque palaces of Valletta, the dour faces of knightly grand masters, topped with their incongruously silly mad-hatter black hats, stare down from their portraits. Then there is the fabulously dark, golden rococo basilica honouring St John, the knights’ patron. This St John’s cathedral even boasts an important Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John the Baptist . The painter was himself a knight until he was kicked out for his brazenly non-knightly habits of seducing, brawling and murdering.
It is hard not to be impressed by the legacy of the knights of Malta and easy to understand why medical professionals form a large part of their modern ranks. The infirmary where the crusader wounded were cared for before being shipped back to the fight would be the envy of many modern health administrators. The vast main ward boasts the longest vaulted hall in Europe with the walls punctuated by supply cupboards where the hospitaller knights kept solid silver services from which they fed the sick and niches where the patients were kept, most eccentrically for their day, one to a bed.
One can be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happened in Malta before the advent of Jean de Vallette. But during my nine days in Malta it becomes obvious that there is a lot more: almost 7000 years more. As well as the city of Valletta, Malta’s archeological sites are unique and World Heritage listed. I am in a part of the Mediterranean that has contained possibly every one of these civilisations in one small area: Neolithic, Megalithic, Greek, Roman, Phoenician, Byzantine and Arabic.
After the knights came the French and then English, from whom the Maltese get a fondness for stodge and their second official language, spoken with a precision and correctness rarely managed by its native speakers. Malta provided the locations for films such as Troy and Gladiator . You can even see the bar where Oliver Reed died, just off Merchant Street. Outside there is a notice board with a newspaper cutting and a series of messages from bereaved Pommie fans. The Malta Experience, a multilingual IMAX-style film screened in a theatre in the bastions of Fort St Elmo, outlines Malta’s history and culture. It is an excellent way to get my head around the islands’ history and prehistory.
From there I go by public bus to the great megalith of Hagar Qim, perched on a clifftop overlooking the sea. As I approach with the late afternoon sun burnishing the stones of the main temple’s massive entrance gate, two jarringly irreverent thoughts mar my approach: the first is of The Flintstones (Haga Qim’s entrance gate is so cleanly built) and the second is of Stonehenge (which has nothing on this).
Malta’s megaliths are more interesting and older. (On Malta’s twin island, Gozo, they are older than the pyramids.) Inside Hagar Qim there are the remains of altars and niches, and even parts of the concentrically constructed roof, as well as carved decoration, particularly the huge stone legs of fertility goddesses much admired in Malta.
The antiquity of civilised memory is made concrete by these structures and I contemplate this as I meander downhill when I am abruptly reminded of a longforgotten hazard of travelling as a lone female in the Mediterranean: the pesky ancient Lothario. He doesn’t seem to care if my legs are fat or thin, so I speed up, sliding down the road, and spend 10 minutes hiding in the bus shelter before getting a taxi to my hotel.
The head knight in my group has tickets for the greatest of Malta’s archeological sites, the unique underground Hypogeum, which is booked for months in advance because only 10 people at one time are allowed. A quick survey establishes that the knightly personnel are too tired, too hypertensive, claustrophic or, oddly, uninterested in something 7000 years old. So I set off by taxi to a suburb of Valletta with a group of more curious women. We are left, confusingly, on the footpath outside what looks like someone’s front door.
The Hypogeum was discovered under a series of houses. I can’t help thinking that this approach isn’t exactly rivalling the Pyramids, when a man pops out of