In the year 1530, driven by Saracens from their home on the island of Rhodes, the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem settled on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The King of Spain, Charles V (who also happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor) allowed them use of the island as a base. In exchange, they paid a token tribute of two falcons per year – one for the King, the other for the viceroy of Sicily.
The tides of power have ruffled Malta. Settled by Phoenician ivory traders, wrested by Romans from a Carthaginian general, sieged by Turks, looted by Napoleon Bonaparte, colonized by the British, and bombed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, the islanders have spent centuries learning the vagaries of power.
For islanders, falcons symbolize the freedom from difficulties they have learned to navigate.
Last week in Malta, over a glass of wine, a local man revealed how he was following the route of his passion.
After wandering the ancient walled city of Mdina (pronounced EM-deena), I sit inside the walled courtyard of Ciappetti Restaurant. Couples, families and friends speak in a soup of accents (Parisian? Geordie? Barcelonan?) while eating lunch at tables covered by green cloth sun shades. An orange tree grows between tables and a ceramic sundial painted with porpoises shows that it is mid-afternoon.
I order homemade goat’s cheese ravioli tossed in salted butter with fresh herbs, and drink a half bottle of Medina Chardonnay Girgentina 2009 (the Girgentina grape is indigenous to Malta – think lemon and minerals). The legal assurance of wine quality on the island is similar to that of Italy, but instead of using the initials DOC, the Maltese use DOK (Demonizzjoni Ta’ Origini Kontrollata).
I next order mixed Maltese food including bigilla (pate made from beans), peppered goat’s cheese, olives, dun-dried tomatoes, butter beans, Maltese sausage, and home-made ftira (bread). With this I drink a glass of Pjazza Regina white wine – a blend of Girgentina, Chardonnay, Viognier and Vermentino. The Vermentino grape is a resident not only of Malta, but Italy and France. It grows in Sardinia, Corsica, Liguria, and the Piedmont.
Maltese locals serve this food and drink. Grace Tanti shares a benefit of living in Malta. “In 45 minutes you can reach everywhere on the island. Easy.”
“Roman Catholic is the local religion,” another local explained. “We have 63 villages on the island, and each has a church in the center.” After lunch he insists on driving me to a bus stop in the local village of Zebbug. The reason?
“Today is special. The Italian island of Sicily is loaning the 400 year old relics of St. Phillip to Zebbug for a week.”
For months, the archbishops have been writing letters to each other. The Italian carabinieri police are involved with the security of the relics being transferred by boat in an ornate silver chest.
“I will show you the village. It is a special week. Fireworks and decorations are all prepared.”
We get in his red car and belt along tweeny alleys between rocky fields and farmer’s sheds and enter Zebbug – a city with 13 chapels, with lamp posts festooned in green wreaths and metal towers and wheels coated in fireworks ready to light. We then visit the mayor, who – hunkered over his desktop computer – has learned via Facebook that the relics have just departed from Sicily and will arrive in four hours. “It’s a national treasure of Sicily,” he says. “This trip took months to organize.”
I pace through town before catching a taxi to the east. The day had not been as expected. They rarely are during life’s more memorable travels.