Malta’s Grand Harbour & Three Cities

Three Cities is used to describe Malta’s three historical, fortified cities of Birgu (Virtiosia), Senglea and Cospicua. Birgu has existed since the Middle Ages. A friendly boat man aboard a sleek, traditional Maltese water taxi, called a “dghajsa”, was always quick to offer me a ride across the harbor. During these rides to and from the Three Cities across one of Europe’s grandest harbors, I often felt like I was traversing the Grand Canal in Venice on a gondola (see photo of the dghajsa) for the mere price of 5 Euros.

Fort St. Angelo, in Birgu, with its commanding position at the entrance to Grand Harbour, has a fascinating air raid shelter which was used during WWII to house and protect hundreds of people. Strategically placed directional arrows kept me from getting lost in the underground labyrinth. I passed through long tunnels of stone walls. Accommodations for people on bunks with ten to a room made the international hostels I stay in when traveling look like palaces.

Among the narrow, winding streets of Birgu stood the impressive, stone Inquisitor’s Palace, now a museum. It was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 to 1798 with the center of power accountable directly to the Pope. Its purpose was to quell the dissidents of modern ‘heretical’ teachings.

Malta has had Jews on its shores since 9th century B.C. Jewish families arrived from Spain in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition. Eventually many were forced to convert to Christianity during the Maltese Inquisition.

The numerous interior passageways I explored were the result of centuries of renovations and additions. The opulent residence of the inquisitor and the tribunal court upstairs were in stark contrast to the tiny, cold basement cells where subjects under investigation were imprisoned. The Inquisitor’s Palace left me with a shiver and a heavy heart as I imagined what went on behind those walls over the centuries.

I finished the day with a visit to an outdoor cafe for some people watching in the charming Birgu Square near the Inquisitor’s Palace. The square was surrounded by an eclectic mix of lovely historic buildings. The city of Birgu was indeed fascinating, I thought.

 

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Introducing Malta, Valletta

To followers of this blog:

Following my adventures in Poland during the winter of 2018, I visited the Maltese Islands for two weeks. The following posts are about my travels around Malta during that time.

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The Maltese Islands are located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily, Italy, and the North African coast. The island nation is a *Commonwealth nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers over the centuries. It has numerous fortresses, megalithic temples, and ancient burial chambers. The Maltese language is a dialect of Arabic and includes a significant percentage of Italian and English vocabulary. All this, along with the use of Euro currency and the ubiquitous presence of water, were a continual reminder to me during my travels around the country that the Maltese Islands are strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Africa.  

The teeming, picturesque port town of Sliema on Malta island, the main island of the Malta archipelago, was my jumping off point to explore the Capital city of Valletta, and the neighboring historic Three Cities in Grand Harbour (my next posting).

I made myself at home in a charming little hostel in Sliema located up a narrow street from the town’s lively waterfront where I ate out nightly.  At times I felt like I was in “Little Italy” (as in Boston and Providence) because of the ubiquitous presence of Sicilian bakeries and restaurants with a decided Italian flair.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning as I made my way to the deck of a small ferry for a short ride across Marsamxett Harbour to the historic city of Valletta. As Sliema’s wide waterfront boardwalk disappeared in the distance, the commanding bastion walls of Valletta came nearer, enticing me to explore the cultural treasurers within.  The walled city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed almost five centuries ago by the **Order of St. John.  The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights stature as aristocrats from noble European families. 

Upon disembarking the ferry, I fell into step with other passengers onto a steep, wide street and through an opening in the stone walls.  A grid-like plan of narrow streets where 16th century and *modernist architecture lined the streets, eventually opening to the heart of the old city at the ruins of the Royal Opera House with its monumental pillars. Left in ruins following WWII, it is now a popular open air theatre.

Nearby, just inside Valletta’s landmark City Gate, was the meeting point for a free walking tour. Our guide, Oliver, was a knowledgeable, young, Maltese man who works for tips.  He told us stories behind some of the old stone buildings with their traditional timber balconies, and related history of palaces and grand churches within the city walls.  Later I returned to a cozy seafood restaurant which Oliver had pointed out as a local favorite, and dined on savory local seafood at a bargain price. .

Fort Saint Elmo, built in the 16th century, is integrated into Valletta’s city wall. The fortress ramparts offered dramatic views of Three Cities, with their fortresses and miles of fortification walls and Grand Harbour.

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*Commonwealth – an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire

**Order of St. John – became known as the Knights of Malta

***Modernist architecture has little or no ornamentation, with clean lines and functionality

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Wroclaw, Poland: Exploring this Diverse City

Wroclaw’s (Breslau, Germany, before 1945) stunning medieval Market Square dates from the 13th century and is one of the largest in Europe. The commanding Gothic City Hall, which took over 200 years to build, is surrounded by exquisite period houses. By the end of World War II half the city was in ruins. Major reconstruction brought much of Old Town back to its glory days. I always made sure a daily stroll through the lively plaza was on my agenda.

Recent history of the Polish people in Wroclaw began in 1945.  As a result of the *Potsdam Conference, under pressure from Russia, it was agreed that the southern Polish-German boundary be moved west, putting Breslau within the borders of Poland instead of Germany.  The German population was subsequently evacuated.  Hundreds of thousands of Poles were evacuated from western Ukraine at the same time due to a similar border change.  A large portion settled in Wroclaw. This forced migration of both Germans and Poles happened during a brutal winter, resulting in misery and death to tens of thousands.

One afternoon my **Servas Host Joanna invited me to lunch at the home of her Mother Bogusia. With Joanna acting as interpreter, Bogusia related the heartbreaking story of her family being evacuated in a cattle car from the old Capital city of Lviv, Ukraine, following the war. New Polish arrivals in Warsaw occupied deserted flats furnished with items left behind by evacuated Germans. Her family was one of them.

The Legacy of the Communist Era

The legacy of the communist-era government is apparent around Wroclaw in different forms – especially in the form of bronze statues and architecture.

A Polish anti-communist group in the 80’s started what has become a trendy placement of bronze dwarfs around town. I often passed delighted children posing beside them while families took photos.

The rather austere New Market Square encircled with communist era block buildings at first appeared to me like an empty shell waiting to be filled in. I came to realize the current state of New Market Square was an excellent example of communist era architecture. One of my **Servas Host Tomasz told me the government is talking about making the square a historical site, to protect it as such. Near the end of World War II the square was a scene of heavy Russian bombardment because the Nazi’s had ammunition there which they used against the Russians. As a result the historic plaza and surrounding period buildings were totally destroyed.

The Monument Passage, an eye-catching piece of street art in Wroclaw, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the declaration of martial law during the Soviet era. Seven bronze life-size pedestrians appear to be swallowed into the pavement only to reemerge on the other side of the street. The artist’s work left me spellbound momentarily, as I felt the resilience and determination of the people who lived through this time.

It’s Market Time!

A popular Sunday flea market in Wroclaw surrounded the old train station among rusty hulks of derelict trains and along what appear to be unused train tracks. The second-hand items for sale in this setting created an atmosphere of old world, former East Bloc, activity.

In contrast, the lively indoor old Market Hall (Hala Targowa) which I visited regularly, seldom failed to entice me to buy something. While there I ate traditional food at a milk bar, bought fresh fruit, and sampled fresh baked goods at a bakery.

Whenever I wandered through an outdoor flea market, or through a colorful indoor market hall, I always found it to be an adventure and entertaining at the same time.

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*Potsdam Conference – Stalin, Churchill and Truman gathered in Potsdam, occupied Germany, in 1945, with the main goal of how to administer the defeated Nazi Germany .(as per Wikipedia)

**Servas is an International non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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Wroclaw & the District of Mutual Respect

Wroclaw, (formerly Breslau, Germany) sits at the crossroads of Europe in western Poland. Its diverse religions, cultural and architectural makeup over the centuries has been formed by Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Austrians, and Jews.

While in Wroclaw when not staying at the home of a *Servas Host, I stayed in a guesthouse in a historic building in the area called the “District of Mutual Respect.”  This area was so named because of the fact that churches of three denominations, Lutheran, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, and a Jewish synagogue, are all in close proximity to each other in this neighborhood.  It is also known as the Old Jewish Quarter.  It is along former defensive fortifications of the city which were demolished by Napoleon.

The beautifully-restored White Stork Synagogue lined one side of the courtyard of the building where I was staying. It was the second largest in Germany before WWII. What stopped the German Nazis from torching the White Stork Synagogue on Krystallnacht in 1938, as they did the New Synagogue, the largest in Breslau (built 1865-1872), was because of its close proximity to other buildings and the fire hazard that might create.

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A brief synopsis of Wroclaw’s German past, which spanned centuries:

Breslau (now Wroclaw) was part of the Kingdom of Prussia (German) starting in 1742.  It became part of the German Empire in 1871, then the Weimar Republic (German inter-war period), and then Nazi Germany in 1933. When Breslau, Germany, became part of Poland in 1945 as a result of border changes following World War II, the name of the city was changed to Wroclaw, Poland.

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Often I looked out my window late at night at the floodlit courtyard and pondered the types of activity that must have taken place there over the centuries starting with the construction of the huge synagogue in 1829. I visualized the crowds of Jews gathered before and after a service up until it’s destruction during Krystallnacht. Soon thereafter Jews who had been rounded up in the neighborhood were brought here before being taken to a concentration camp. Then some years after the war, renovation of the courtyard took place by a sheik who purchased some of the buildings in it.And now, even during cold winter evenings, life hums under my window with a few customers in the outdoor cafes.

Somehow I always felt secure knowing I was staying in such close proximity to this synagogue, which I noticed had good security. I realized at the time that this may have been a false notion, given the history of the Jews in Poland and Europe, in general.

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Architectural diversity, centuries apart, exists side-by-side in Old Town

*Servas is an International non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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Impressions of Gdansk – Part II

The historic Market Hall (Hala Targowa) in a lovely 19th century building, was where I stopped daily for oranges. I felt I was entering a colorful old railway station each time. The Polish bakeries there were hard to pass up.

The dramatic Monument to Shipyard Workers Fallen in 1970 is located in front of the Solidarity Museum at the shipyard where it all happened. A 45-minute walk along the waterfront took me from the pristine, reconstructed Main Town to the industrialized area of the old Gdansk Shipyard. Solidarity became the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country in the 1980’s, and led to the peaceful fall of communism in Poland in 1989. The views of the current and former shipyard (now a wasteland) from the top of the museum, helped me grasp how extensive the shipyard had been in the past when the Lech Walesa led thousands of workers on strike in 1980.

The Gdansk Opera House, where I attended an opera with *Servas Host Wojtek one evening, was elegant. Our trolley stop was announced over a loud speaker by the melodic voice of a tenor. I felt under-dressed that night wearing my finest tourist attire among the “gentry.” The performance was superb.

The New Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in Gdansk, dates from 1929. A man wearing a kippah (skull cap) who greeted me when I rang the doorbell directed me to a display which told, in part, the moving story of the Jews in Gdansk over the centuries. Because of the Nazi influence early in the 1930’s, most of Gdansk’s pre-war Jewish population had time to escape to avoid the Holocaust.

Later I found the former location of the Old Synagogue which had been demolished by the Nazi-dominated government in 1939. It was the largest synagogue in the city dating from 1885. In its place was a dramatic, windowless Shakespeare Theater. The severity of this building seemed appropriate, given the history of its location.

The World War II Museum which traces the fate of Poland during the war, rises majestically out of what used to be wasteland on the outskirts of town. The design of the modern building with its leaning tower and glass facade and ceiling is full of symbolism of the past, present, and future. The impressive presentations raised many questions for me. This prompted me to do some online research about the war at my guesthouse that evening, followed by sending several emails to a friend in the USA to help me with answers.

The lovely new Philharmonic Hall was my destination one evening with Ellen, a Norwegian woman from my guesthouse. We walked over the river a beautifully-lit ultra-modern footbridge to get there. The concert goers were dressed to-the-nines, making people-watching that night superb. The acoustics in the theatre were exceptional.

Ellen is enjoying being a tourist in between her dental appointments in Gdansk. She said that the dentists that specialize in “dental tourism” for foreigners in Gdansk charge half the price for the same procedures in Norway and are equally qualified. I found this particularly interesting given I will be experiencing a similar situation in Costa Rica in a couple of months when I plan to get some dental work done there. Both of us got a good chuckle about this coincidence. Dental tourism on a world-wide scale is here to stay, I thought.

Children frolicking and playing with swans along the Baltic coast warmed my heart on a cold, clear day. * Servas Host Wojtek and I took a half hour bus ride one Sunday from Gdansk to the Baltic coast. The sand was fine; the cold wind coming in from the sea was brutal; snow was on the ground. Joggers and families with baby carriages jostled for space along the icy boardwalk. Everyone we encountered that day seemed oblivious to the frigid weather; we were not.

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*Servas is an International non-profit organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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Impressions of Poland’s Port City of Gdansk – Part I

Often when I sat at the desk in my charming guesthouse in Gdansk while enjoying my room-with-a-view overlooking a small river, impressions of Gdansk flooded my mind. So I wrote them down.

Poland’s historic port city of Gdansk straddles the Motlawa River, which eventually empties into the Baltic Sea.

Impressions of Gdansk….

A monument depicting children with suitcases in front of the train station was my first thought-provoking image of Gdansk as I departed from the train station on arrival from Warsaw. The Monument to the Evacuated Children is in memory of the Jewish children of Gdansk who were evacuated from Gdansk to Britian (1938-1939) in what became known as “kindertransport” The man responsible for this monument, sculptor Frank Meisler, was one of those children.

Neptune Fountain on the promenade of the old Royal Way in the Main Town demanded my attention every time I passed it. This road with its centuries-old architecture, was resurrected from the ruins of World War II. The Royal Way stretched for 500 meters from the commanding Green Gate on the waterfront to the equally grand Upland Gate at the other end. I tried never to miss a daily stroll here. Old Town, without defenses, was the poorer part of town over the centuries and was occupied mainly by the Polish people. The richer part of town was the Main Town with its defenses and was more “German”

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The history of Gdansk diverted from the path of the rest of Poland periodically. Gdansk has been an international trading center for centuries with a local German-Polish population. 1920-1939 (Inter-war period) the city was a semi-independent state known as the Free City of Danzig with a German majority. In 1945 Gdansk was a battle ground between Germany and Russia, leaving much of the city in ruin. After the war Gdansk became part of Poland again. German civilians fled and the city was then occupied by Poles mostly coming from territories eastward that had been lost to the Soviet Union.

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The Gdansk Crane (Zuraw), a massive medieval structure looms high over a section of the Moltawa River in the Main Town. The views of the riverfront and beyond were captivating from the top (no elevator!). Built in 1442, it was used to transfer cargo, hoist up masts on ships, and also served as a fortified gate to the city.

Whenever I found myself disoriented in the waterfront area, the sight of the Zuraw helped orient me. Invariably I would then make a detour down a narrow, picturesque street nearby with its rows of porches and assorted display cases of amber jewelry and shops.

The waterfront promenade along the Motlawa River was usually full of local families and tourists enjoying the cafes, restaurants, and shops. Sailing and ocean-going vessels, old and new straddled the river. I visited the National Maritime Museum on the promenade then took the small, historic Motlawa ferry to the rest of the museum (one minute ride to an island). It is believed that since 1687 there has been a ferry plying the waters between the city and the island. The ride on this unique boat alone was worth the ticket of admission to the museum.

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Warsaw: The Former Jewish District and the Right Bank

   I had the privilege of exploring the expansive former Jewish district of Warsaw with a local *Servas host who had an intimate knowledge of the area, having lived there most of his life. Most of the territory we visited, which had been turned into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and then destroyed during the war, was now rebuilt, much of it with communist era block buildings.

I met Mirek one afternoon at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 was a final act of defiance in the Warsaw Ghetto of the Jewish resistance against German-occupied Poland. The monument was located in the former Warsaw Ghetto just outside the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a dramatic postmodern structure of glass and concrete.

After a short trolly ride we arrived in a lively area. Cast iron plates set in the pavement which marked the boundaries of the ghetto seemed to appear out of nowhere. We passed monuments and plaques commemorating events that happened in the vicinity, some of which were gruesome reminders of WWII, others that were simply intriguing. Cartoons painted on a couple of walls depicted Jewish entertainment when the area was in its prime just before WWII. It made me want to experience the vitality of the era.

We paused in front of a communist era building where Mirek raised his family in a small flat. Eventually he managed to buy a larger one in another part of town where he lives today.

Following the evacuation of Warsaw in 1945 Mirek’s family lived in a three room apartment with three other families in Praga, a district of Warsaw just over the river (the right bank) from the Old Town. Praga managed to escape the major destruction inflicted on other parts of Warsaw at the end of WWII because of its location. Many families that had been evacuated from destroyed Warsaw ended up moving into flats in Praga after the war, at least temporarily. Gradually two of the families moved out of the apartment where Mirek was living. He lived there for years.

As we parted, Mirek directed me to a historic food hall in the old Jewish district. The colorful flower market in the 19th century marketplace was bursting with activity. I changed some money at a good rate there.

Praga is a rather bohemian part of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula River and is gradually becoming gentrified. I could feel the energy when I alighted from the new underground subway station at a bustling corner which was at the entrance to a gleaming new mall. A beautiful multi-domed Russian Orthodox Church across the street demonstrated Soviet presence from the past. Pre World War II buildings pock-marked with bullet holes were nearby. Graffiti with a message adorned various old exposed walls. It was an area filled with contrasts, which is what made Praga so interesting.

 

 

 

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* Servas is an international non profit peace organization of hosts and travelers http://www.USServas.org

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