Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sea Days & The Island of Malta - Traveler Al's "Almost a Last Hurrah" Voyages

Knights of Malta figures in Mdina souvenir shop window

Sea Days – November 16 and 17, 2011

Our itinerary called for two full days at sea before we arrived at the island of Malta, the next stop in this voyage of the Celebrity Constellation.

Sea days are lazy days.  These are the days when you use the ship’s recreational facilities to the maximum – swimming, sunbathing, basketball, ping-pong, eating, attending lectures, visiting the spa, or the salon.  Many people just read or rest in the sun.  The ship’s casino is open while at sea. You can browse the art gallery where various paintings and artwork are on sale – or perhaps go to the shops to buy some jewelry or nice logo imprinted clothing.  You might attend the on-board cinema or watch closed circuit TV in your cabin. There are card rooms to play your favorite card game with your shipmates.  You can attend meetings of several international self help groups – “Friends of Bill W” and so on.

Sea days just seem to slip dreamily by.  I will publish photos of the interior of the ship when during my blog postings of the next voyage of the Constellation – the Trans-Atlantic crossing.

I mentioned that all the embarking passengers had to wait an extra long time to board Constellation back in Istanbul the week before.   The reason was the extra sanitation and cleaning measures that were being taken by the staff to combat outbreaks of both the flu and noro virus that had caused problems on the two previous voyages of the ship.  

Noroviruses cause acute gastroenteritis. The most common symptoms of acute gastroenteritis are diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Norovirus is the official genus name for the group of viruses previously described as “Norwalk-like viruses” (NLV). 

“Noroviruses spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, and by touching contaminated surfaces. Norovirus is recognized as the leading cause of food borne-disease outbreaks in the United States. Outbreaks can happen to people of all ages and in a variety of settings.  Of 660 outbreaks confirmed by CDC between 1994 and 2006,
    • 36% were from long-term care facilities (e.g., nursing homes),
    • 31% were from restaurants, parties, and events,
    • 20% were from vacation settings (including cruise ships), and
    • 13% were from schools and community settings.”
Facts about the Norovirus by the Center for Disease Control.

The ship’s Medical and Hotel Department staff were working very hard to control and eliminate the outbreaks of the viruses by:
o       Constant cleaning of the public areas including disinfecting all handrails, hard surface flooring, stair banisters, elevator buttons, dining room furnishings – tables, chairs, menus, booth seating. 
o       Staff stationed at the entry to all areas where food was served to dispense alcohol base hand sanitizer.  Hand sanitizer stations were located near each elevator bank, inside the Internet Café as well as disinfecting wipes for computer keyboards available at each computer keyboard.
o       The ships library was closed to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus via the handling of books.
o       The elimination of self service at all buffet line food services. Staff wearing disposable gloves was available to serve up desired food items so that serving ware was not touched by passengers.
o       The elimination of self service for all beverages – coffee, tea, water, juices, were all served by ship’s staff wearing disposable gloves.

One day during a lot of sea waves activity, I did see staff cleaning up a place where someone had lost their cookies (vomited).

A few days after the stop at the Island of Rhodes, I heard a rumor that one couple who were ill and had been quarantined in their cabin - refused to honor the quarantine with the result that they were put off the ship at Rhodes.  I cannot verify this rumor.

I was on the Constellation for 28 days.  I have never been in such a clean environment for so long!  I am sure major surgery could have been done in any area of the ship with no problems.  

In fact, when I leave cruise ships, I get the willies for a few days after when I go into shops and stores knowing that the door openers, the door knobs, the handles on the refrigeration and all the other surfaces have not been disinfected prior to my touching them!

The Island of Malta

We arrived at Valletta, Malta about 9 AM on November 18th, 2011.  The name for Malta is probably derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “honey”.  In antiquity the island was often called “Melite” which is a derivation of the word "honey" in several Greek & Latin based languages.

The official languages of Malta are Maltese – a language based on Sicilian and Arabic – and English.

The long, history of the battles fought by many armies and navies to seize Malta is amply illustrated by the massive fortifications in plain view everywhere. Valletta and the entire harbor area are built in and around the massive fortifications that were built to defend against invaders down through history.  

Entry to Valletta harbor - looking towards the sea.

Harbor fortifications - Valletta, Malta

Harbor fortifications - Valletta, Malta

Another view of Valletta harbor

A view from on top of the fortifications at Valletta, Malta
View of the harbor fortifications from the city level

The island is in a very strategic location in the Mediterranean Ocean – close to Sicily to the north and to Libya and Tunisia to the south forming a natural “pinch point” in the Mediterranean.

Malta has been ruled by:  Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans,  Aragonese, Knights of St. John Hospitallers, French and the British. Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. Malta is part of the Eurozone (uses Euros and is part of the European Common Market trading), yet remains a part of the British Commonwealth.

Map of the islands of Malta

Once again we encounter the Knights Hospitaller of St. John who were given control of Malta by the Emperor Charles V in 1530 after the Knights of St. John were pushed out of Rhodes by Ottoman armies.  In fact the city of Valletta is named after the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Vallette who successfully defended the island from a siege laid by the Ottomans in 1552. The Knights built new fortifications and the new fortified harbor city of Valletta. 

More fortifications near Valletta harbor

More fortifications within Valletta

Eventually the Knights became known as “The Knights of Malta or the “Military Order of Malta” (M.O.M.) as they are known today.  The M.O.M. maintains a small location in Rome, about the size of two tennis courts, which is diplomatically, considered to be a sovereign country.

Click here to learn more about the wanderings of the Knights of St. John Hospitaller

We are also following in the footsteps of Napoleon, who successfully invaded  Malta in 1798.  Napoleon instituted many major reforms and new laws governing Maltese life in areas as varied as the school systems, founding a university, established a system of primary schools, created an administrative commission and 12 administrative districts for the island and a judiciary. Napoleon also abolished slavery and the feudal system.  Napoleon then left Malta for Egypt.  

Napoleon accomplished all of the above during the 6 days he was on Malta!  What a wild and crazy guy, yes?!!

No writings about Malta should fail to mention Maltese and British valor during the Siege of Malta in the early part of World War II.  The British forces and the Maltese on the island withstood over 3,000 bombing raids by the Italian and German air forces during that siege.  They were blockaded by the Italian and German naval forces to starve them into submission.  Over 30,000 buildings were destroyed on the small island which measures only 14 by 7 miles. 

Malta was called “HMS Malta” by some during the war – “His Majesty’s Ship Malta”.  The island and the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross in 1942 for their valor during the siege.  The George Cross is proudly displayed on the upper left corner of their flag. 

The Maltese flag with the George Cross awarded during WWII

Netflix has a movie for instant play about the Siege of Malta called “Malta Story.”  The black and white movie is a bit dated, but there are many scenes of the island including newsreels views that were taken during the siege.
1953 NR 103 minutes
"When he must detour while en route to Egypt, Royal Air Force pilot and reconnaissance photographer Peter Ross (Alec Guinness) finds himself at the center of the Axis' infamous Siege of Malta in the Mediterranean theater of World War II. Aided by the beautiful Maltese volunteer Maria (Muriel Pavlow), Ross battles against the odds to obtain recon on the Nazi squadrons in the area and help defend the people of the small but critical island nation.”  
From Netflix webpage.

Our tour guide and the bus driver in the mirror's reflection

The tour bus went through the city to the “Rotunda” a cathedral based on the Pantheon in Rome.  The cathedral is round and roofed with a beautiful dome that has an open ocullis or opening in the center of the dome. 
La Rotunda Cathedral

La Rotunda Cathedral - note the round building shape behind the portico

Under the dome of La Rotunda Cathedral

Inside the cathedral

There is a small plaza in front of the cathedral with some impressive British Cannons and several well done religious statues.

Life sized statue on the cathedral's portico

Street in front of La Rotunda Cathedral

Street in front of the cathedral's plaza

British cannon in the cathedral's plaza

Cannon's markings

After visiting the cathedral, our next stop was to Mdina (Mmm-DEEN-ahh) as it is now called or Medina as it was called when the Arabs established the city.  

Agricultural field near town


Small garden plots for growing produce

We passed through small villages going by numerous very small garden plots mixed in with houses in each of the villages.  The garden plots were walled with limestone rocks.  Near Mdina the density of the villages dropped off and the size of the agricultural plots increased.

The British introduced the growing of potatoes to Malta.  The island is self sufficient in produce and exports potatoes. Other products of Malta are glass work, filigree work and lace for the many tourist shops.

View of Mdina - "The quiet, childless medieval walled city"

Mdina is an excellent example of a walled city in a great state of preservation. Mdina is known as “The Quiet City” – there are only 300 elderly inhabitants living there and there are no children living in the city.
In the daytime, the city is thronged with wandering groups of visitors and horse carriages.  At night, quiet returns to this beautiful place. 

It takes a special permit to drive an auto into Mdina, so there is no traffic. Some of Mdina’s alleyways and streets are barely wide enough to walk through. There is a bustling modern town of Rabat that is next to M’dina.  Rabat is the Arab word for “suburb”.

We entered Mdina’s fortified walls by the main gate into another world of quiet, narrow streets, ornate entry doors, polished stone paving and quiet sunny views. 

Crossing the bridge over the "killing fields" to the gate of Mdina

Main visitor gate

Detail of an old, eroded limestone block
Just inside the gate of Mdina

Inside Mdina

Souvenir shop and visitors

The tour guide was leading us to the Cathedral of St. Paul – established by and for the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. 

Once again we encounter the story of Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, whose path we first encountered at the amphitheater in Ephusus (Kusadasi) Turkey.  Paul, under arrest and in custody of a Roman Centurion, was shipwrecked in late fall of 60 AD on Malta and spent two months on the island.  

Inside St. Paul's Cathedral, Malta

Ceiling artworks

Artwork under the dome at St. Paul's

Wide angle view of inside of the dome

Stained Glass Window - St. Paul's Cathedral, Mdina, Malta

Bishop's seal (?)

 When one walks around these ancient churches, you soon realize you are walking in vast cemeteries filled with the graves of past priests, nobles and notables.

Several burial crypts - One in the wall to the right

Beautiful inlaid marble, floor grave marker

Floor grave marker

Part of a floor grave marker made of inlaid marble

I took photos of the quiet streets and beautifully ornamented doorways of Mdina after visiting the church.  Soon it was time to leave.

Quiet street in Mdina, Malta

A narrow walkway or alley in Mdina

Cathedral of St. Paul's front courtyard - offices to the left, cathedral to the right

Another quiet street in Mdina, Malta

Horse carriage rides for visitors are common

Probably the widest street in the city

An ornate door knocker

An impressive building entrance, Mdina, Malta

Ornate door knocker

On the way back to Constellation, we stopped at a WW2 vintage airstrip that had been converted into a series of small shops catering to visitors to Malta.  There were glass works, fabric shops and so forth.  Our tour stopped at a shop that featured handmade glass work.

Shaping the glass - glass works, Mdina, Malta

After arriving back to the cruise port in Valletta, I tried to check my e-mail at an internet café built in the loft of a toy store that faced the waterfront.  I had no luck getting connected. I was not able to check my e-mail.  I boarded the ship, had a late lunch and then went back out on deck to take photos as the ship left the harbor.

Shops and offices at the cruise port, Valletta, Malta harbor
Shops at Valletta's waterfront cruise port
Valletta harbor at night

Next – Barcelona, Spain

Please click the colored link to view my other blog about living in Hawaii "Life in the 50th State"
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  1. Bravo Skeet for your narrative of your stay. We travelled a little with you abeam of your comments and photos. So continue

    Katy, and Daniel