Sunday, May 27, 2007
May 26, 2007
I believe it's Memorial Day weekend in the US. I hope you are all having a nice three-day weekend.
One can really begin to get a sense, in Malta, for how much time you can eat up on public transportation. You may be going only 4 or 5 miles, but it can take 20 or 30 minutes, both because of the stops along the way and because of the pace at which traffic has to move on narrow winding streets. Sometimes I gape out the windows and look at the towns and neighborhoods I'm passing through; sometimes I read; sometimes I visit with other passengers. So it's not a bad thing, but it is a time-consuming thing. If one was working, and having to go back and forth to work this way, I think reading would be a good way to make use of the time.
Today I went to Vittoriosa, the "victorious" city. It's one of what are called here the "Three Cities" which are right together on two small peninsulas and the base where they come together. In Sliema, I am sort of northwest of Valletta, the capital; the Three Cities are sort of southeast. Man, this place can get you as mixed up as Las Cruces, New Mexico. I don't know if the whole island is hard to get a handle on, or if it's just in these cities that are all clustered together within a few miles of Valletta and the Grand Harbor. Going to Vittoriosa today we passed through Paola which is where I went to see the Hypogeum on Thursday. We were driving along to Vittoriosa, and I looked out the window, and there was the Addolorata Cemetery! I had certainly not pieced these cities together in that way. Riding on buses, I suppose, is not the way to get a handle on how an area is laid out, especially if much of the area is built along a sequence of small peninsulas and harbors.
We passed through enormous fortification walls on the way to the small bus terminus just outside the entrance to Vittoriosa. It gives one a pretty clear idea of how threatened the Knights felt on this small island between Sicily and Africa. The Great Siege of 1565 pitted the Knights against a fleet sent from the Ottoman Empire. Though the Knights were woefully outnumbered, reinforcements arrived in time to help them defeat the Ottoman fleet. The Ottoman Empire was still on the march at this time, if I remember correctly, aiming to conquer deeply into Europe. The big battle outside Vienna didn't occur until the 1700s, I think. So the Knights of St. John occupied an important strategic post here.
Other than the fortifications, the Inquisitor's Palace probably fascinates tourists more than anything else in the city. It's now a museum illuminating those times when the Inquisition was a major tool of the Roman Catholic Church in combating what it considered heresy. This plaque, on the wall outside the entrance, also points out how important inquisitors (even Maltese inquisitors) were in the hierarchy of the Church in those centuries:
The building itself is, like much of "old" Malta, made of beautiful soft limestone, which also perhaps softens one against the idea of the building's purpose. It is not a monument to torture. It was a residence, for one thing, for the Inquisitor, the prison warden and I don't know who else, as well as a court for hearing testimony and passing sentence. According to the various explanatory plaques, most of the accused were not tortured, and most of those sentenced were not sentenced to torture. Some of the plaques quote from various of the condemned, and include their recollection of their offenses (witchcraft or spells, for example), the length of their sentences, and so on. One man even notes that he was sent to the infirmary when he became sick and that, after he recovered, he was not returned to his cell. One or two plaques note that prisoners sometimes escaped relatively easily, since some of the cells were in rooms not originally been designed for security. Some prisoners received early release, as well. This photo shows one of the cells, if you can make things out in the darkness: flash wasn't allowed!
Torture did take place, however. One method was the stretching method, and another--which sounded incredibly painful to me--involved tying the prisoner's hands behind his back, then lifting him by his bound hands on a rope slung over a beam. A plaque noted that the rules limited torture to 30 minutes. 30 minutes is a long time, I'm thinking! Most of the cells, surprisingly, had "sanitary arrangements", which fed into ducts or tubes for whisking the "refuse" away.
This passageway once had 7 cells located off of it, 3 "public" cells on one side, 4 private cells on the other. The public cells could be looked into from the outside, if I remember correctly. They would be on the left in this photo; the others were on the right. The reason you can see so much light coming from those openings is that the British, after taking over the island, removed those cells to make space in the courtyard for sports activities!
This photo shows a sundial made on the wall right outside the window near the Prison Warden's room. One of the Wardens, apparently a very conscientious man, made the dial so that he could check on the prisoners at specific times.
I took this photo on the ground floor, just past the main entrance to the Palace and right next to a courtyard. It simply shows the vaulted arches on the ceiling there, which I found cool.
The Palace itself is quite a labyrinth, or at least it felt that way to me, wandering up and down from one level to another, using one staircase or another. Malta is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio's time on Malta (1607-1608), and one room displayed salt paintings which duplicated various Caravaggio works. Apparently this making of salt paintings is a Maltese tradition for the Easter season.
There was also quite an interesting special exhibit on Father Emmanuel Magri, a Maltese Jesuit priest who was also one of the instrumental figures in early Maltese archaeology. He was one of the men, for example, who led work on the Hypogeum after it was first discovered, and it's an unfortunate aspect of the documentation that his journals/ledgers about the work he did there were lost after his sudden death in Tunisia just a few years later. The exhibit includes letters he wrote to various people (including noted English archaeologist E. Wallis Budge, some of whose books are still in print), documentary artwork from the early excavations, and so forth.
The Palace also features, of course, various paintings and other types of artwork, though most of us, to be sure, focus on the building and its former uses. Quite a fascinating place to explore.
I also visited the Maritime Museum there in Vittoriosa. It's in an old bakery (and what a bakery it must have been! It is a gorgeous building) on the waterfront, where there were also some very impressive yachts docked. Looking at some of them I was amazed to think that these boats are basically toys for their owners; somewhere all of them must have enormously expensive houses from which these enormously expensive boats are simply a diversion. I marvel.
The Maritime Museum celebrates sea-going, of course. It's a large collection of paintings of ships and portraits of important people related to naval history; ship cannons and other tools; books (some printed, some hand-written) of flag-signals and other subjects important to navies; and, perhaps most delightfully, a large collection of models of ships! Some of these models are amazingly detailed, with huge amounts of rigging and so forth. Others were made, apparently, for commercial purposes, to demonstrate what a particular boat or ship could offer, or educational purposes. Part of the exhibit includes information on a technical college that operated in Malta from the 1850s to 1970, preparing teenaged Maltese boys for careers in the navy or with ships in some other fashion. I even found myself enjoying the paintings, many of them watercolors, of the ships sailing across the blue. One section featured beautiful art demonstrating what Phoenician, Greek and Roman ships would have looked like, and there are even examples of Roman anchors on display.
One of the things which was interesting to me, both at the Maritime Museum and in the Magri exhibit at the Inquisitor's Palace, was the handwriting--whether in Magri's letters or in the hand-written ship books--of these times gone by. Some of it was difficult to read, but it was quite beautiful to look at.
Both museums have a lot to offer, though I think two museums in one day--or certainly in one afternoon--are a bit too much for this one traveler.
I may have seen Americans this morning. Up till now, I think the only definite evidence I have seen that I am not the only American on the island is a dollar bill dropped into the "extra donations" box at the art museum. This couple was sitting on a park bench while I waited at the bus stop in Sliema, and they got up and came to the stop as I waved the bus down. The man made a crack about my waving at the bus as it approached, and I told him you have to wave at them or the drivers don't stop. Then he made a crack about how "of course they'll stop," as if he thought I was some kind of yahoo. Hearing him talk then, and then on the bus a few seats away, I thought, "Those are Americans." They didn't sound English or Scottish or Canadian or Australian or Irish, and he certainly had that "I'm at home everywhere" kind of attitude that some Americans have. I thought about telling them, when we got off the bus at Valletta, that you really do have to wave the buses down. But by the time we arrived, I wanted to find my bus to Vittoriosa, and I figured he could learn about bus procedures in Malta on his own. Bus drivers here do not automatically stop at every bus stop. They stop if someone inside the bus has beeped that he or she wants off, and they stop if someone at a bus stop waves. Even on my ride to Vittoriosa today, I saw people get left behind because they waited too late to signal to the driver and he was already speeding on.
And, by the way, there are some nice new buses here--the ones called King Long--which even have TV screens in them, but far more numerous are the OLD buses, dating back to the '50s, I'm guessing, or the '60s at the latest. They are something.
I think I may be seeing some weird variation on the Picture of Dorian Gray here at the hotel. For the past couple of mornings, when I was eating breakfast, there were two high school or college boys, speaking German but looking very much like American kids with hip or preppy clothes and dark hair with bleached-out highlights. One of them had a very annoying giggle. Then this morning, I didn't see those boys, but instead a couple of forty-something men, also speaking German and looking like the adult version of those boys, even to the point of having highlighted hair. Strange. And there is a young woman here, whom I've seen maybe since my very first day, almost always eating alone and very reticent to say hi or good morning, which I normally do once I see people a few times. Mostly it seems people are here for a few days, or a week, but she has definitely been here longer. Maybe she is a ghost.
One more note on cars: my writer friend Alek Lindus from Samos says she has a Seat. They are from Spain. So I'm figuring the name is pronounced, seh-AHT.
By the way, it was four weeks ago that I got on the Grand Princess in Galveston harbor. A little bit amazing to think I've been gone that long.